Music, Community, and the Meme.
In 2011, a group called “The Lick” popped up on Facebook, whose primary purpose was to discuss various instances of a particular musical phrase. According to multiple sources, this phrase, which would go on to become one of the most widely known jazz memes on the internet, began in a place as unlikely as classical music. The first known use of this infamous phrase was in the year 1910, when it appeared in the oboe section of Stravinsky’s Firebird. After this “first” recorded instance, it kept turning up across genres, and eventually, primarily in jazz music as the decades rolled by. In 2011, the aforementioned Facebook group strung together notable and/or available instances of this phrase in a video and declared that it was “The Lick”, and thus, an internet phenomenon was born. But what’s more curious is whether the Lick was birthed as a meme by the Facebook group, or was it always a meme and the page merely brought it out from the shadows? If the meme predates the internet, what does it actually mean? We must, of course, first turn to the “most reliable” of sources, Google.
This is what Google says when you search for the word “meme”. Most of us are familiar with the second definition. Let us, however, consider the first definition and its implications. If we look at the “element of culture” aspect, it becomes evident that all ideas, in as much as they are passed on from individual to individual, are memes, and this most certainly includes art, and consequently, music, since the primary function of music is communal, in that it must be shared with an audience. An idea then, the moment it is communicated, is already a meme. If we lead this argument back to our more contemporary (internet culture) understanding of the meme, it becomes easy to understand how everything is potentially a meme (internet meme). This understanding of the meme, essentially as a synonym for “ideas”, is unnecessarily scandalous, however, it does serve a vital purpose in viewing internet memes differently, because it completely destroys the distinction between image-text memes, viral videos, and musical phrases that exist across media, like The Lick. As we move past this distinction, it becomes easy to look at the explosion of meme song trends on YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and forgive me for this indiscretion, TikTok, as memes, whether they are wholesome or ironic.
Nothing emerges out of vacuum, and neither did these trends.
Anything more complex than simple image-text memes is a result of the range of possibilities brought by Web 3.0, the newest iteration of the internet. The ironic meme song trends that populate our social media feeds, like the Dancing Pallbearers meme, or the Buttercup song which is played in the background of videos depicting unfortunate and painful occurrences, or even older ones like the Shooting star meme, all work on a fundamental comedic subversion. The primary purpose achieved by memes (if memes can be said to have a purpose at all) that have a recognisable and/or ironic soundtrack is that the soundtrack is in juxtaposition vis-à-vis the context of the video. This kind of comedic subversion on the internet can be traced back to 4chan (the fascist social media that everyone is skeptical about but somehow, it generates the best memes). In 2006, 4chan users encountered a random bait-and-switch prank where a moderator implemented a word filter that replaced the word “egg” with the word “duck”, such that, “eggroll” became “duckroll”. Thus emerged innocent (by 4chan standards) image-text memes portraying a duck on wheels with the text “duckrolling” on it - and you can probably guess where this is going.
In 2007, the first trailer for the game GTA IV was released on the Rockstar Games website. The traffic on the site led to it crashing, so users started posting mirrors of the video on various other sites and message boards. One user posted a mirror claiming it was the GTA IV trailer, but actually posted the link to Rick Astley’s 1987 song, “Never Gonna Give You Up”. The Rickroll thus began its journey into the many communities of the internet. The extreme success of the Rickroll isn’t limited to a bait-and-switch video link. Recently, someone on reddit, capitalising off of CD Project Red's notoriety for delaying the game Cyberpunk 2077, posted an "official statement", seemingly to announce another delay, but it actually turned out to be the lyrics to “Never Gonna Give You Up”. The subversive potential unlocked by the Rickroll has trickled down into several meme song trends, and it remains alive even after 13 years since it was first used.
Communities are central to both music and memes, since the primary function of both is transmission.
This is pretty evident when we look at how the Lick and the Rickroll emerged. If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of some online community, most likely music. In fact, in reading this article, you’re already a part of an online community, in that you share a commonality of interests with other people, which is the minimum threshold to be part of such a community. Like all communities on the internet, music communities are diverse. They exist in the form of Facebook and Instagram pages and groups, subreddits, Discord servers, blogs such as this, the list is inexhaustible. In communities, memes function not only as content that is disseminated, but also as a medium of discourse, like the “F in the comments” meme, or the several reaction images and GIFs, or even references to other memes. The Instagram page “bandmemes666” is a good example of a music community based around the dissemination of memes. It makes memes pertaining to, and often highlighting the unseemly predicaments in which bands/musicians find themselves.
It is this “relatability” that accounts for the success of bandmemes666 and builds a community around the page, since communities are identifiers through which individuals position themselves in society. By no means is bandmemes666 the only page contributing to a user’s identity; it is but one of several such pages and groups that situate a “user” on the internet, in this case, as a troubled musician.
Online communities often extend well beyond their particular domains (pages, groups, etc.) and impact user behaviour and identity across platforms. YouTube channels, for instance, can generate communities around themselves that reach beyond the channel’s comment section and into other platforms, and even offline life. Ideal candidates for looking at this with regard to music and memes, are the channels Two Set Violin and Adam Neely. Two Set Violin is a channel run by two classical violinists, who make sketches, reaction videos, and post songs to diss other YouTubers (most notably, Davie504). The followers of this channel find themselves interacting with each other in the comment sections of videos of other channels, on other social media, or even on actual Tinder dates. They have siphoned off YouTube to a dedicated subreddit - r/lingling40hours, where they share classical music memes, their own performances, as well as artworks. This subreddit, in turn, feeds into the content of the channel where the hosts react to memes and art/music posted on the subreddit. This feedback loop reinforces the community and results in fans engaging with each other through their music and through memes, often pushing themselves to practice on their instruments. The community functions around the myth of Ling Ling, a memefied, imaginary Asian prodigy who practices forty hours a day. The penultimate goal is to “be” Ling Ling and therefore to practice as hard as possible, which in turn improves the skills of the members of the community.
Engaging fans with memefied music theory is basically what Adam Neely does. He hosts a YouTube channel where he talks about music theory, the sociological aspects of music, and the life of a performing musician. In his videos, he employs memes in a rather interesting way. The lick is a staple meme in almost all of his videos; he uses it as transition music in his videos, and even did a live stream where he played the lick for five hours straight. He did this as an homage to Erik Satie’s “Vexations”, an absurd piece (which has become a meme itself) that is about only a half-page notation, but played eight hundred and forty times. It is important to see how Neely uses memes to communicate complex musical ideas, and promote community building exercises. He did an interesting video on polyrhythms where he demonstrated how to count a 7:11 polyrhythm and he did it outside a 7-eleven convenience store. At the end of the video, he issued a challenge where he asked his viewers to do the same. This challenge turned out to be a great community building exercise that made people push themselves into getting a hang of the complex polyrhythm and share their performance with others. It also sparked conversation threads on reddit where people were turning to different communities looking for help. Adam Neely called it a high effort meme in the video, and said there were two primary reasons for issuing the challenge: the first was because he found it “kinda funny” but second and more important reason was, because he knew that unlike “the lick”, which is a low effort meme, people would actually need to practice in order to pull off the 7:11 meme.
Music is diverse and perhaps the best way to define music that covers all the different musical traditions of the world is, as Adam Neely puts it, “wiggly air” around your ears. One thing is true for all music though, and that is the fact that it is an integral part of societies around the world. It is pervasive in communities, both physical and digital. Similarly, it is fascinating how pervasive memes have become in our lives, and how deeply they impact community life on the internet, even bleeding out into our offline lives. You may choose to look at memes as the art forms of the internet, or a new system of communication, or even the vectors of personal and communal growth. Like music, there may never be an adequate way to define memes, which can be as diverse as the people who make them. Anything and everything on the internet can potentially be a meme; a video, a song, or perhaps, even an article.