Fake Noise

Published on Covidian Aesthetics (Substack)

Evening everyone. Homage paid where homage is due. The champions of 2018 to 2019 have to doff their caps to their successors this season, a show of respect which is to their credit. But is certainly against their competitive nature.

Liverpool—the then holders of the Champions League—had just won the Premier League and, emerging from the Manchester City tunnel, were greeted with a “guard of honour” (the Man City players standing in two rows at either side of the tunnel, applauding).

Sportsmanship, grace, absurd chivalric pageantry. Also: humiliation for the Manchester City players; something the commentator, Martin Tyler, acknowledged:

And behind the Manchester City smiles I suspect that teeth will be gritted.

But something the crowd didn’t. Instead, there were cheers.

There was no one in the stadium, but there were cheers. Of course, the enthusiasm setting on the noise was somewhat low, this being the Etihad; but the sound did not nearly replicate what would have been the real-life case: boos, jeers, swearing, whistles, some muted applause, the Man City supporters singing some piss take of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Here they come, the Premier League winners of 2020.

It was—almost—right.

ii

Augmented crowd noise has saturated the empty stadiums of the English Premier League, the Spanish, French and German leagues, as well as the NFL this past year. Real humans are beginning to occupy the stands of some stadiums again, but the hand-made crowd noise still prevails.

And Firmino takes the ball down beautifully there.

In some cases, noise has been pumped directly into the stadiums; sometimes the channel adds noise to their broadcast. Click over to another stream of the same game, and you’ll hear the stadium as it is: two dozen people shouting, swearing, (echoing), in a park.

The positives: the crowd noise is well constructed; it makes the games easier to watch; they can reproduce something of the atmosphere of each individual stadium.

The negatives: the crowd noise is clumsily deployed; it’s not nuanced; it jars with the visual stream.

A lovely little clip to Salah.

When I say well constructed, I mean that audio samples from each stadium and team have been taken from earlier games, organised and arranged, so that when used, the samples retain something of that team’s atmosphere: Old Trafford is filled with Man Utd supporters’ songs and voices, Allianz Arena has a constant German roar, and so on.

When I say clumsily deployed, I mean the crowd cheers a second too-late or too-early or when they shouldn’t (a clear no-goal).

It makes the games easier to watch. It also makes it easier to maintain journalistic cliches about each location: Anfield as a “cauldron of noise,” the Olympic Stadium with its “flat” textures (what a mistake West Ham made by moving etc.), the King Power stadium never quite recovering the “magic of that most unlikely 2016 championship winning season.”

And Salah goes past one, he looks like he’s about to—yes. And he hits the post.

According to these descriptions, the noise helps form a projection of what each stadium should be like. But the stadiums are not really like that when they’re full.

iii

Without supporters (large numbers of them), not only does the actual atmosphere of the game disappear, context does too. The tap-in to make it 3-0 before half-time is met with the same intensity as the stoppage time screamer. The manager is not booed for a poor run of games. There’s no ironic “wheeey”, no schadenfreude when the millionaire striker misses a sitter, or the millionaire goalkeeper slips during the goal kick. Derbies between rivals sound like any other game, and every game ends in a kind of listless silence.

“Local” context disappears too. Matches are normally given shape, weight, meaning, narrative structure, by the supporters and their noise; games tend to be given coherence by what the fans are doing in the stadium. Although the augmented noise can respond to individual events, it can’t respond to what a number of individual events add up to: what they mean.

Augmented noise doesn’t chant louder because the goal-scoring opportunity was the first in a while; it doesn’t boo because the defender is clearly wasting time rolling about on the floor after being kicked; there’s nothing happening for the moment, so augmented noise doesn’t decide to do a “let’s pretend we’ve scored a goal” outburst.

When humans do it, chanting, natural noise, bestow each event with a sense of proportion. Even the low, sudden rumble of foldable seats hitting the backs of chairs as fans rise to watch a potential opportunity on goal gives the game the slim outline of a narrative. Not “beginning, middle, end” exactly; but “we were losing, now we’re winning, then we kept control, then we drew.” Without natural noise, the game can feel blundering and chaotic: just one thing after the other.

Commentators, replays, in-studio discussions (“that’s not good enough for me,” “he should really be cutting in there,” “they’ve wasted every opportunity they’ve had”) have to build and maintain the narrative themselves. Social media, live-streamed reactions, message boards, newspapers: they all do too.

Slavoj Žižek likes to point out that watching Friends, with its live or canned in-studio noise, can make the viewer feel like they’ve laughed and had a good time, even if they didn’t. Watching football with augmented noise can make it feel like you’re watching a game with excitement, tension, resolution, meaning, even if none of that really comes through at all. The viewer follows the narrative, as they should, even if there’s no narrative to follow.

iv

And Sterling.

There’s no racist chants. No monkey noises. No heckling players when they take the knee for Black Lives Matter.

Still Sterling.

There’s no calling players wankers, telling female lineswomen to get back in the kitchen.

And Raheem Sterling is brought down.

This is how supporters should be. An ideal atmosphere, in an ideal stadium.

There’s no danger of sponsors pulling out. It’s safe TV (if the augmented noise is played over the swears of managers and players).

That’s a clear penalty.

The crowd doesn’t tell Sterling to go back where he came from.

v

What is this noise doing? What does it mean? Should we manufacture crowd noise? What’s next, fake news manufacturing crowd-chanting for Trump, WWE style?

Are these the questions? Really? I think the real question is: why didn’t we notice what it was like to watch a game on TV prior to COVID?

Both before and during COVID, we were elsewhere; not in the stadium.

We were in pubs, or in flats, or in friend’s flats, or in airport pubs. Watching TV was embedded in a routine, an everyday-kind-of-life. We saw other people, we spoke, hugged, did jobs at desks, sank pints, and watched TV. Meanwhile, the wider-world went on unfolding. Its events sometimes intersected with our lives through a screen: sometimes, this intersection was a football game. And the naturalness of human voices, the natural voice of the supporters, made the viewing feel natural, as though we were in contact with other, real human beings. We were somewhere, watching something.

Now, the routine’s dissolved, the seeing-other-people highly mannered and controlled, and we’re watching a game on a screen. We notice it because, like everything else that we do, it’s on a screen. It’s not embedded in a routine or a normal-kind-of-life. It’s something we do: screens are maybe now the only thing we really do. And there are no events unfolding in the wider world, or so it feels. It doesn’t matter who’s top of the table, or which manager said what: nothing’s really happening in the world anyway. With the fake crowd noise, we know we’re not hearing real humans. It can feel like we’re nowhere, watching nothing.

vi

With 4 goals, Manchester City have demonstrated why they’re still a threat to Liverpool next season.

Ultimately, trying to replicate crowd noise is for fans at home. It makes life a little more bearable. It can undermine faith in media. Maybe.

But maybe there’s no point in trying to recreate some dated atmosphere. Why don’t they try something different? Why not play Les Misérables when the home team is losing? Why not vintage chants from old games, like the 1998 World Cup final? Why don’t they play sounds from other sports; the hard rubber screeches of Air Jordans on a basketball court?

But maybe the real fake noise was the fake noise of routine before: going to the pub and watching football on a TV. Maybe we didn’t realise just how constructed all of that was. We felt like we were somewhere watching something, but we were just inhabiting a manufactured condition.

We were watching context.

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