Memes have been a staple of popular culture since the rise of the global internet during the early 2000s, and the role the music meme has played in both the growth and evolution of the form cannot be understated.
The music meme in particular, are extremely malleable in their content, scope, and flexibility. Anything from an audio snippet of a song, an image or movement in a music video or recorded live performance, and lyrics (as well as misheard lyrics) can be used (and in some cases, abused) to create memes that can range from being self-referential, to making no sense whatsoever.
Here, Babylon looks at some of the various forms in which music has helped in the evolution the meme, from its beginnings as an image-driven form centred on the 4chan platform to its omnipresence in our lives via platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and Reddit, among others.
How music tied into the origins of memes
The word “meme” originated from Richard Dawkins’ 1974 novel The Selfish Gene, with the word being reinterpreted when the internet meme became a concept in the mid-1990s. However, it was not until the mid-2000s that internet memes would start reaching mainstream audiences.
Image based memes (mainly image macros) were posted on the imageboard site 4chan (where the music related /mu/ subscription often regarded as the highest quality subsection), while video memes started to gain traction on YouTube.
Some videos (and music videos) in and of themselves became popular memes, such as Toto’s “Africa” or Smash Mouth’s “All Star”, with these particular subset of songs standing as some of the most enduring memes today. A more comprehensive compilation of such (with context) can be found here.
An example of an image macro, with text often being superimposed onto an image. This was the most popular form memes took on the 4chan platform.
While it is important to acknowledge the general time and space where music memes originated, it is necessary to note that the form does not follow a fixed evolution. However, this does not apply to the music itself, as the release date of older music already places it into a scene and period, which makes it easily identifiable.
However, since social media started to play an increasingly dominant role in our lives (circa 2010), it is easier to chart where newly released popular songs line up in terms of becoming internet memes. These songs, compared to the older “meme songs”, do not have as long of a shelf life, and thus often fade out of popularity with time.
Social media, the GIF, and the short-form meme video
With the popularity and usage of social media, it became exponentially easier to not only create GIFs and image macros, but also to share them with a larger audience, with Facebook, Twitter (and later Instagram and Reddit) becoming some of the largest platforms on which memes would be shared.
Meme generator sites enabled users to create their own memes out of existing templates, (and later out of an own individual’s source material), which would give anyone the chance to turn anything they saw fit into a potential meme overnight.
Where music fits in with this evolution of memes would be to often cut a moment from a performance and/or music video and turn them into GIF’s, which were especially prominent in the early 2010’s, with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke erratically dancing in the “Lotus Flower” music video proving popular at the time.
This meme, in particular, predates the rise of TikTok, which would become prominent in early 2019, with short-form videos, memes, dancing-related or otherwise, being a factor in its success.
The now defunct Vine, which is seen as being a precursor to TikTok, also played a huge role in popularising the short-form video meme, with a homemade recording often put to a snippet of a song which dictate how the meme would be interpreted. Even today, most music memes are presented in short-form videos.
Popular on Vine included the “To Be Continued…” meme, which featured the acoustic intro from the song “Roundabout” by British prog rock band, Yes. While “Roundabout” was originally released in 1971, the meme only gained popularity in 2016.
Built in platforms, sustained by fans
While social media platforms may place the foundations in which many music memes are created, it is often everyday music fans who sustain the outflow of memes. Many of these memes are often specific to an individual song, or the artists themselves, with either or ending up being the butt of a joke, depending on the context applied to the meme.
This is most often seen within the fanbases of musicians themselves, with memes often becoming an in-joke within said fanbase, or in the wider scene the act is a part of if it reaches viral status.
One such meme which grew among an entire subgenre was born from the Lou Reed and Metallica track “The View”, off their 2011 collaborative album Lulu in which Metallica frontman James Hetfield sings the lyric “I am the table” several times.
It proved so popular that “table memes” eventually became synonymous with the Armenian-American alternative metal group System of a Down, due to their 2005 track “B.Y.O.B.” featuring the word “tablecloth” in its lyrics, in a rare case of another act becoming the centre of a meme that did not originate with them. Many of such memes can be found on YouTube.
The role of the mashup, the remix and the edit
One of the most recent trends in music meme communities came in the form of mashups, remixes, and edits, which evolved, and in some ways overtook the gif as the main medium in which music memes were presented. A major role in its popularity came about in 2017-2018 with the release of Clone Hero, a PC clone of the Guitar Hero franchise, which helped to keep the music and rhythm video game genre alive long after Guitar Hero fell out of favour with the public.
The indie game was central to the role that mashups and edited tracks played in evolving the music meme, with the game offering the option to upload custom songs to its system.
Many of these edited tracks often end up being a combination of memes often taken from songs in the rock, metal, and pop genres, mixed with other references from popular culture. These tracks would often have no limit to their scope, creativity, and , in some cases, ridiculousness.
One of the most popular of these mashups, “Through the Tables and Memes”, which is primarily built on the DragonForce track “Through the Fire and Flames”, achieved meta-meme status when DragonForce guitarist Herman Li played along with the mashup during a YouTube livestream in March 2020.
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Indie creators who uploaded many of them to YouTube achieved a cult following, while the medium gained a sizable following on both YouTube and Twitch throughout the late-2010s.
In the music industry however, mashup and remix meme tracks are not as commonplace, with the form perhaps best being known through the work of American musician Neil Cicierega, who has released a quartet of mashup albums which have received a cult following and critical praise.
Neil Cicierega speaking at the XOXO Conference in 2016.
Cicierega’s formula pairs disparate songs together to create remixes which sound ridiculous in theory, but often fits very well, with some tracks being such good remixes, that you could listen to them unironically.
“Daft Mouth” from Cicierega’s debut effort Mouth Sounds (2014), is an excellent example, which fuses Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, with Kanye West’s “Stronger”, and Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” and “All Star” into a track which is unholily glorious to listen to.
Cicierega is also not afraid to remix a track with itself to make something new. On his third album Mouth Moods (2017), Cicierega transforms the theme to the 1984 film Ghostbusters into a sexually-charged meme song titled “Bustin”.
In the grand scheme of things, music is often placed into its own subsection of memes, without too much consideration given to how important music has become in determining the quality of a meme.
This extends only into the choices of sounds and music used to help convey the intended message of a meme, and not the audio fidelity,as many memes are not created with such things in mind. Carefully constructed mashups and edits are probably the one exception to this, as the fidelity is expected to be high in such cases.
In general, however, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that music itself has played a much more vital role in the evolution and success of the meme than it has perhaps been given credit for.