Lifting the natural reaction of an audience and applying it to a different situation is often a harmless production technique used to liven up a song.
But in some cases, canned applause and laughter can manipulate reality in a way that encourages reflection. Outside strictly commercial numbers, the practice takes a more cynical approach to analyzing what responses are and are not accurate in reality.
The best place to start talking about this technique is with the artistry of Marvin Gaye, perhaps the biggest purveyor of this technique, who used it in both an earnest and ironic way.
Dating back to the early ’70s, Gaye created party atmospheres in songs like the disco-tinged classic “Got to Give It Up,” and on songs of more serious subject matter, like the Vietnam-era “What’s Going On.” In both, friendly chatter gives the tunes a sense of communal unity, despite the latter being set in a time of great underlying tragedy. While “Got to Give It Up” uses voices in celebration, “What’s Going On” uses the same technique to mask a sort of collective melancholy.
Four years before “What’s Going On,” The Beatles incorporated a canned audience, much like the sitcoms of the time, into the group’s 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The actual audience had been lifted from a recording of a British stage show called “Beyond the Fringe.” Will we ever know exactly what the audience had been laughing at?
Using a canned audience on the polished sheen of a studio-recorded track, aside from possible cynicism, adds a certain aura of unscripted excitement, and The Beatles were amongst the first to arrive at this realization. The laughter and chatter on the album’s opening track are now just as important to the song’s sound as the lyrics and chords.
In the ’90s, Sublime included voices on the intro to “Badfish,” and Weezer famously included an obvious party talk on “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Although, like “What’s Going On,” “Undone” takes an ironic tone contrasting a fun party against the search for personal stability in the face of unraveling.
The inclusion of sound effects for criticism has continued in different forms since its development. Father John Misty, who will release his third albumin March, used canned laughter to highlight the not-so-funny problems he sees in modern America on his track 2015 “Bored In The USA.”
A month after Misty’s song, the most recent widespread use of this practice emerged on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly. The album version of the song “i” differs from its clean-cut single release and features a live performance followed by a socially-charged sketch cutting short its runtime original. The concept of giving a theatrical performance to the song and then following it with a speech diverges from the traditional use of an audience on a non-live album, which offers yet another bit of innovation from a deeply layered record.
Controlling an audience’s reactions in the studio is a tool that artists can employ in both earnestness and irony. Musicians like Gaye used it in both contexts, making it an undeniably versatile technique honed by those who understand the wills and wants of the masses. Its subtlety makes canned applause and laughter almost subliminal because of the culture’s exposure and receptivity to being told how to react to certain things — as if we cannot decide for ourselves.
With this assumption, the technique sometimes traps us in conformity but also delivers us into potential realization. It presents a reality we perceive to be accurate, but one of which we can never be sure is really there.