If you watched television in 2005, then it’s inevitable the Crazy Frog has been permanently etched into your consciousness. Commercials for polyphonic ringtones dominated advert breaks at the time, and as the mascot for the ringtone service Jamster, the amphibian’s presence on television became a ubiquitous phenomenon. Even my nan knew who “that bloody frog” was.
The Crazy Frog would appear on television three times every fifteen minutes, peddling a ringtone that sounded like a hyperactive child mimicking a Formula One car, and he was infuriating. As one blogger put it, “the world would be better off if [Crazy Frog] wasn’t constantly played on its TV screens”. Yet his influence was pervasive. Jamster would later release the reptile’s debut single – a remix of the Beverly Hills Cop theme – to massive success. In May 2005, “Axel F” beat Coldplay to the UK Number One, outselling them by four copies to one. It entered the top spot in seven more countries and ended up being one of the highest grossing singles in the UK that year, selling more than Madonna, the Arctic Monkeys, and that Tupac song with Elton John.
It didn’t matter if you liked the Crazy Frog or if he challenged your sanity – the important thing is that you were aware he existed. By utilising the Crazy Frog as a meme, Jamster achieved what all musicians want: a reaction. And in some ways, the Crazy Frog as a meme that morphed into a success story foreshadows the way we digest music today. Because from Drake and Fetty Wap to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, the most popular and well known artists in 2015 have a memetic quality that underlies and boosts their work to another level.
Although internet memes are a relatively young concept, the term dates back as far as 1976 when it was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins states that memes are “ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions” that spread from person to person – like the “belief in life after death” or the phrase “read my lips”. Over time, and with the advent of the internet, the concept of a meme has evolved from urban legends and phrases like “WHAAZAAAP” to include image macro memes – like Scumbag Steve or Bad Luck Brian – and internet videos and songs.
The earliest example of a meme with a tangential connection to music dates back to around 2007, with the now infamous “Rick Roll” - a bait-and-switch technique where, after clicking a seemingly relevant link to the topic in hand, an internet user would instead unexpectedly land on a short clip of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. In his book, Dawkins states that “when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasite my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in the just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell” – which suggests the “Rick Roll” meme became so embedded in our brain that it spread like wildfire throughout society; explaining how it moved from relatively unread posts on forums, to the widely known meme it is today - where it’s been used by YouTube as an April Fools marketing stunt in 2008 and as recently as 2015 by Apple, during their World Wide Developer’s Conference. Years since the advent of the bait-and-switch meme, the phrase “rick-rolled” continues to be used in the same way the phrases “survival of the fittest” or “jump the shark” have been used for generations.
Since the “Rick Roll” achieved global recognition, other songs have played on the concept of the meme. Some tracks - like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” - are novelty and others - like Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake” or Yivis’ “What Does The Fox Say” - have broken the Billboard Chart. All the above songs have been viewed on YouTube in the hundreds of millions yet, like the Crazy Frog, they’re all objectively terrible. So what does the concept of the meme and its ability to increase an artist’s success have to do with some of today’s most popular, forward thinking, Grammy Award winning musicians? Let’s take a look at Canada’s greatest export beside maple syrup and Disney’s Mighty Ducks films: the sing-song rapper known as Drizzy Drake - who is perhaps the most pertinent example of an artist using the meme concept to strong advantage.
Drake’s third mixtape So Far Gone – which spawned the Billboard charting single “Best I Ever Had” – solidified him as one of the next greats in the hip hop hive mind. But his ability to construct memes is arguably the greatest component in his transition from a hip hop fan favorite to a globally renowned star. The catchphrases he’s spawned are ubiquitous – #YOLO, #NoNewFriends, 0-100, and #StartedFromTheBottom have all become cemented in society via Dawkins meme concept and continue to be hashtagged on Twitter and Instagram. In doing so, Drake’s not just a musician; he’s an agent for semantic evolution.
Drake isn’t the only artist with catchphrases that have become widespread on social media – terms like Rich Homie Quan’s “some type of way”, ILoveMakonnen’s “going up on a Tuesday”, and even Miley Cyrus’s “came in like a wrecking ball” are just a few terms that continue to be widely used by the public and media outlets long after those songs were released.
Though the success of songs like "Type of Way" or "Going Up On A Tuesday" has as much to do with the memefication of their lyrics as it does their replayability, Drake is one of the few artists to take the memefication of his art to a higher level. As Twitter ~celebrity~ Desus recounted to Noisey in 2013, “Drake didn’t just become meme-worthy; he took advantage of the fact that he was already basically a walking viral marketing campaign for the idea of softness”.
Last year, Drake famously sat courtside at a Toronto Raptors game, brushing his leg with a lint roller. At the time, Drake was being described across the internet as “so sensitive, he flushes the toilet after he farts in it” and by playing up to that stereotype, obsessively making sure no speck of lint remained on his clothes, Drake utilized his potential as a meme. As a result he recieved widespread coverage. Soon after – like the Crazy Frog if he rapped about “smoking weed under star projectors” - it became impossible to avoid sensitive Drake. He was everywhere. People who had never heard Drake’s music were aware he existed – and not only were they aware, they had an opinion, which raised Drake to a new height as one of the most globally recognized and discussed artists of the time.
Music as a meme used to encapsulate novelty songs like Rebecca Black’s “Friday”. Yet more than ever, serious musicians are using their potential as a meme-able product to increase traffic to their art. Drake isn’t alone in utilizing his image to an advantage: music videos from Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West can be seen as having a slight focus on their ability to generate shareable gifs – spreading the artist’s new release from person to person through social media until the release becomes difficult to avoid. Even cover shoots for magazines – which, in an era where print is dying out, are viewed more widely than ever before – seem geared toward being shared. Kim Kardashian’s Paper cover was intended to #breaktheinternet. Some artists – like Rihanna on February’s issue of i-D magazine – even neglect to do an interview for a cover; presumably because, as William Rice from Purple PR (who include Prince, Frank Ocean and Zayn Malik in their roster) told GQ last year – “if you’re [an artist] you think ‘why do I have to spend three weeks on the road with a journalist when I can tweet two pictures and do essentially the same thing?’”
Before the advent of Twitter the artists listed above – Kanye, Rihanna, Taylor, etc - were huge in their own right. Yet like Drake, their dominating power on the pop landscape feels like it has as much to do with the idea of them as a meme - as a twisted genius; a bad gyal; a BFF - as it does their music. And it’s not just megalithic artists who can achieve this status either. The meme concept has played a part in pushing some of last year’s biggest stars and tracks to more people – helping artists like Riff Raff, Spooky Black, Yung Lean, and Bobby Schmurda generate YouTube views in the millions. It’s clear then that in the past five years musical memes have moved beyond the novelty of tracks like “Friday” and into new turf, where new and experimental artists and big names are utilising the concept as an integral component to their music. Even Drake’s latest mixtape, released earlier this week, employs on an internet meme as its title - the phrase What A Time To Be Alive.
After the MTV Video Music Awards, a clip featuring Kanye West stood up in front of his seat dancing was posted across social media. There are several different versions – Kanye dancing to Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean”, Kanye dancing to “Why You Lying”, and the (since deleted) original which shows Kanye dancing to the song that was being played through the award ceremonies speakers at the time – The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”. All three songs have a memetic quality to them: “What Do You Mean” is a track that’s impossible to turn off; the “Why You Lying” vine or picture is like a modern day “Rick Roll”, used as a retort to dumb statements; the phrase “Can’t Feel My Face” is used in reference to drugs. By viewing all three through the lense of another meme - Kanye West - each track thrived further in the meme pool, given an extended lease of life. It’s through this multiplication process that artists like Drake and Kanye West are so widely successful. To paraphrase a lyric from Kanye West’s “Gotta Have It” - their existence is built upon “memes on memes on memes”.
Artists like Crazy Frog and Rebecca Black proved that, despite being annoying and talentless, it’s possible to enter the public consciousness through Richard Dawkins concept of the meme – spreading from person to person until the meme becomes unavoidable. Since then, artists have advanced on that concept by utilizing their image or creating a phrase that increases their capital as a meme-able, share-able concept. Sometimes, like the propagation of Fetty Wap’s phrase “hey what’s up hello” across social media, it’s unintentional. But in the more big-name cases like Drake – whose recent fall-out with Meek Mill culminated in Drake performing the already memetic tracks "Charged Up" and "Back to Back" in front of aggregated meme content – it feels like the opposite. These artists – small and large – don’t need publicists, because they know how to turn themselves into a shareable product. They’re practically doctors of sociology.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.