From Soulja Boy to Kiki: Finding Deeper Meaning in Memes
How memes and viral internet challenges are fostering a deeper connection with music in the Digital Age
By Shirley Cahyadi
It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that the Mannequin Challenge happened only three years ago: It feels like it’s been decades since we saw video after video of people pretending to be frozen in-action. And if it feels like it’s been decades since the Mannequin Challenge, then that must mean it’s been centuries since planking was a thing, and millenniums since the Soulja Boy dance. With the internet, culture moves at an impossibly fast pace.
The Mannequin Challenge was a viral video trend in which people pretended to be frozen mid-action, as though they were mannequins. And in 2016, everyone and their mothers were making Mannequin Challenge videos. We’d have videos featuring high school kids sitting in their cafeteria, gymnasts balancing on their hands (showing off core strength ninety percent of us will never have), NFL players in their locker rooms, Paul McCartney alone in front of a grand piano. Somewhere down the line we’d find ourselves watching Kris Jenner, Blac Chyna, and Rob Kardashian pretending to be mid-birth for the sake of the Mannequin Challenge. It safe to say that it was a really odd period of time.
And each time we watch, we’d hear a familiar opener “Black Beatles in the City, be back immediately to confiscate the money...” followed by producer tags “EarDrummers...MikeWillMadeIt…”
In 2015, songs like “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap (which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100), and “Panda” by Desiigner set the foundation for the mainstream consumption of trap music. Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane were rap stars in their own right with thriving fan-bases, but they only had their first number one single with “Black Beatles.” After a high school student used “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd in their Mannequin Challenge video, it took off and became the soundtrack to the challenge. While the song itself had been slowly rising in popularity, there is no doubt that the Mannequin Challenge was responsible for cementing “Black Beatles”’s position as a number one song.
In recent years, there’s been a stark increase in how music has inspired memes, and how those memes have led to songs skyrocketing in popularity. Drake’s “In My Feelings” spent twenty-nine weeks at No. 1 and while Drake is no stranger to a number one record, the Shiggy-pioneered challenge was being done everywhere, with Will Smith even dancing after scaling the top of a bridge in Budapest. Recently, the Microwave Challenge has gained popularity, where fans rotate slowly as if they’re in a microwave to the tune of “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” by Joji. “Black Beatles” was not the first, and it certainly will not be the last to experience this effect.
Memes and music share a number of common characteristics that facilitate such virality. They’re short, relatable, incite an immediate reaction, and most of all, they are easy to share. It’s not like books or movies which by nature take an investment of time, effort, and money to share and consume. The commonalities of songs and memes are what enable viral media in the digital age, and apps created for the purpose of sharing short, user-generated content like Vine, TikTok and Musical.ly have enabled that culture of virality.
The relationship between memes and music is really a result of the deep desire for fans to have a higher level of engagement with the music that they love. Joseph Day, a former student at Colony High School in Ontario California, was the first to use “Black Beatles” in a Mannequin Challenge. He explained to the New York Times that he wanted to use it because, “It’s my favorite song and I wanted my friends and the internet to all hear it and enjoy it as well.” And when Shiggy, the social media influencer who created the In My Feelings challenge, explained his inspiration behind the dance, he recalled “immediately the beat when it came on like ‘trapmoneybenny’...like it came on nice and smooth and made me wanna move.” These memes are born out of a strong fanbase who want to share their love for the music that they feel connected to.
Music has always been a means for self-expression. Even if you can’t sing or play instruments, you can still feel power in listening to Rihanna, angst in listening to Green Day, say “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22” despite not being 22. When you’re feeling down, “Honey” can even make you feel like you’re being given a warm hug by Kehlani herself. Everyone interprets and attaches their own meaning to music when they listen to a song alone, and it can be an incredibly personal experience. But in consuming song-memes, they’re both being consumed and shared in a social context. So what happens to the way we interpret music when they’ve reached popularity in such a viral fashion?
From what I’ve observed, these “challenges” not only popularize the song that is used, but the song becomes tightly bound to the meme. Even if fans have listened to the song on their own time, these song-memes have created an intricate effect where it’s not impossible, but very difficult for people to dissociate meme from song and vice versa. This is because more often than not, a dance is created to accompany the meme. The quality of having a physical experience to engage with acts not only as an entry way for fans to participate, they are also an education in consumption even if we don’t realize it. They act as a means for people to learn how to move to the song, and thus how to consume and engage with it.
The mass-consumption of viral media is something marketing strategists have attempted to mimic but it’s impossible to predict whether something will become viral. While this is not a music related example, I remember seeing an attempt at a marketing campaign by the people behind Nerve, a movie starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco. #FindYourNerve was a challenge created to publicize the movie by daring people to sing in public. If you haven’t heard of the campaign, I don’t blame you because it didn’t really take off beyond Dave Franco and Emma Roberts’ social circles, where their friends were clearly taking part because they were obligated by friendship. The idea of the challenge itself is fun because you’re daring people to be unafraid to let loose. But it goes to show that it’s not easy to foresee how consumers will react.
It’s crazy to think that challenges and song-memes have the potential to subconsciously influence how we interpret and associate music. It has become ingrained in our systems to pretend to be driving a car when you hear “Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding?” when “In My Feelings” begins to play. At the same time, I don’t think that it takes away from the joy you experience in listening to the song. The memes that are able to influence at such intensity are the ones born out of an earnest desire to connect with music. To engage with the meme is to engage with that desire and that passion for the music.