Photo: Bryan Allen/Getty Images
The culture of the internet is largely unstable and ever-changing, but one mostly unchanging aspect of the web is that audio doesn’t go viral. Images, copypasta, and videos with sound go viral, but audio, on its own, does not. This fact is obvious because most internet users navigate that space by sight, not sound. With a majority of web surfing happening on mobile devices often set to silent, sound has become supplementary in many respects. A prominent genre of Facebook video resembles animated PowerPoint slides, capable of being fully comprehensible on mute. Instagram Stories have a special “SOUND ON” sticker to let viewers know that they’re missing out on a crucial aspect.
So if you want audio to go viral, you need to come up with a compelling visual to go with it. This partially explains a recent TikTok trend of people dancing to distraught voicemails from ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, or really any type of ex-friend. The viewer hears a blabbering, frustrated person, and sees something entirely different.
On one level, this superimposition is defiant. “It was almost empowering to create because it gave him a little stab in the back,” one TikTok user told Mel Magazine. Another said, “I had a lot of girls reach out to me and say they were in the same situation and I gave them hope to get out of it.” On another level, the presentation of these voicemails is practical. You can’t post a sound clip on TikTok and expect people to see it without a compelling visual to go with it. The audio can’t survive on its own, and the video provides context. Viewers empathize, and feel bad, but the video blunts the bite: They don’t have to feel too bad.
The voicemail posts feel like a successor of a popular clip posted by @reesehardy_, in which she dances to Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” while sobbing. It’s become a reaction meme in its own right, in part because you can watch it without audio and spot the incompatibility immediately. The voicemail meme delays that punch line just a bit longer, until the viewer realizes what exactly they are hearing.
It’s tough to nail down the role different forms of media play on TikTok, the lip-sync app where users can reuse and remix audio posted by others, because the roles are continually shifting. Audio provides the through line and the foundation, but it’s the video that makes each piece unique. The same piece of audio can be given diametrically opposed contexts based on the video, and users play around in that uncanny valley between authentic and ironic. Cheesy posts can quickly become cruel jokes. TikTok, for all the adoring coverage about its positivity, can often be a cruel place in the same way other online platforms, and young high schoolers, often are.
Domestic melodrama is a consistent theme on TikTok, whose user base is largely adolescent. One heavily recycled audio clip comes from the forgettable 2006 film The Last Kiss, in which Zach Braff and Jacinda Barrett’s characters get into a prolonged, bitter shouting match after he cheats on her. On TikTok, the raw audio has been supplemented with fraught music. The original post is gone (it was created by an account originally using the handle @unhappyaudios, which I’m guessing was intended to serve as a clearinghouse for audio snippets others could work with), but the remaining most popular clips are all ironic reenactments, often in the “Duet” format that lets one user act against a preexisting post.
You can see precursors to the voicemail meme in the very first clip of this compilation, as the users perform viral dance moves emphatically, in sync with the dialogue. The “I Kissed Her” examples require two separate parties. There’s a gap in sentiment between the audio clip and the people acting it out ironically. There might also be a further gap between one person who remixes it, and a second person who remixes that even further. It’s a never-ending chain of irony and earnestness with infinite layers.
What the voicemail meme does is cut out the middleman. A single user is turning their unironic frustration with their ex into a joke with one step, condensing the viral food chain (earnest post, ironic remix, further meta remixes) down to a single instance.
TikTok users know that what they post can be repurposed and recontextualized. Reusing other people’s content is the central engine of the platform. The voicemail meme is interesting in the standard sense that people who were once in abusive relationships are regaining power and autonomy, and helping viewers in similar situations work through them as well. But the trend is also interesting in that it feels preemptive. If audio needs video accompaniment on TikTok, and people are going to automatically turn anything earnest or heartfelt into an ironic demonstration, it makes sense that users are now doing it to themselves. On one level, they’re claiming dominance over their exes, on another level, they’re also claiming dominance over their audience and critics on TikTok by beating detractors to the punch.