Last Wednesday night, on the second-floor landing of the Koreatown event space Second Floor, a pair of electric-green headphones nestled amongst an assortment of limes floated atop a slender, rectangular pillar. The centerpiece was symbolic—Bebe Rexha, the Brooklyn singer and songwriter, had written an original song (and two remixes) inspired by three new potato chip flavors, with lyrics like “Oh baby/ It’s the freakin’ weekend, let’s get crazy.” I thought maybe the headphones would play the music, but they weren’t plugged into anything.
Down the hall and further into the depths of Second Floor, another pillar held up a block of cheese, which made a nearby electric guitar look distinctly cheddar-colored; across from that, a table with a record player, a fuschia-colored boombox, and a bowl of chilies.
What became clear over the course of Turn Up the Flavor, a promotional event hosted by Lay’s with the promise of a personal appearance by Rexha, is that these visual touchpoints were meant to convey an important message: that snack food and music are experiences, and combined they are conduits to feeling something (what that might be is not really the point). Marketing in 2019 means selling these “experiences” and other nebulous gestures, as with Lay’s positioning their new chip varieties as perfect compliments to specific genres of music, and inviting a room of journalists and influencers to “experience” them alongside a pop star who insisted in a promotional video that the potato chip music “would be a crazy sensory experience.”
The night’s combination of playlists and elaborate displays—including a literal cornucopia of mustards, chilies, limes, garlic, pickles, beer, and cheese at the front of the room—reinforced this scheme. Pink, green, and mustard light washed over exposed brick while a crowd of mostly women sampled cheese pretzels, pigs-in-a-blanket, fried cauliflower, and ceviche, all of which somehow incorporated in the new potato chip flavors. When I asked a man offering me a pig-in-a-blanket which chip I was about to enjoy, he said he wasn’t sure.
As I nursed a mezcal margarita and bit into a cheese pretzel, I started to regret eating two slices of pizzas before the event. People took selfies at the bar. A woman came out and invited us into the “Lay’s Listening Lounge,” which was just another room across the hall from the bar, where the promise of even more chips and Rexha awaited us.
This room was bathed in a dreamy, blue light (also perfect for selfies), with plush couches and clear chairs pulled up next to small tripods offering the new lime, beer-and-cheese, and spicy dill pickle flavor sensations. Rexha emerged wearing a belted blazer with an asymmetrical hem and black leggings with boots. She said she had composed three different versions of “Right Here, Right Now”—a pop version for the lime flavor; a rock remix for the beer-and-cheese; and a hip-hop remix with a guest verse from Saweetie for the spicy dill pickle. Like all of Bebe’s songs, each was meant to be anthemic in any context. “We were like, life is short, let’s just write a fun song, instead of always being so deep and insightful,” she said.
“Lay’s created these flavors to pair with different music genres, because music and flavor can both have such powerful effects on you,” said Andrew Hampp, a columnist at Variety who was interviewing her. “And they brought you in to bring this sensorial experience for fans.” Was Rexha sampling chips in the studio?
Yes, she said, but when Hampp asked her which chip was her favorite, she turned to the audience: “What do you think my favorite is?” Everyone yelled over each other and Rexha asked us to vote by cheering; the room was split. “We’re gonna save money on marketing dollars,” Rexha said, and then asked the crowd to vote/cheer for the two leading flavors. It sounded like 50-50; Hampp moved on. “Let’s talk about Lay’s Electric Lime and Sea Salt first,” he said.
Rexha is a good sport, I thought, as I watched her perform some of her own singles and end the night with “Right Here, Right Now.” Was I having a “sensorial experience”? I certainly ate some chips while listening to Rexha’s music—but if I was meant to marry the two in my mind, it did not last for long. “Right Here, Right Now” is catchy and gets stuck in your head, like all Rexha’s best songs do; over the next few days, I hummed it softly to myself, until I forgot where it came from.