Here’s both a hellish scenario and a challenge: try to explain a recent meme to someone who’s rarely online. There is no proper way do it, whether you’re thinking about this year’s “well… well! Next question. See ya!” politician avoiding a tough press conference question, or that woman squinting into the distance with her hands on her knees. See? Even typing those two was a slog.
Considering how much this generation memes everything – “Never Gonna Give You Up”, a man sprinkling salt over meat, Drake courtside at a basketball game – it’s unsurprising that SpongeBob Squarepants has been given the same treatment. The cartoon’s mass of content, across 11 seasons and 246 episodes, provides a facial expression for just about every place along the spectrum of human emotion. You put a fitted sheet on a mattress – SpongeBob appears out of breath. You join in with night-out plans on the group chat knowing full well you’re not leaving your bed – savage Patrick.
But unlike, say, Larry David, the meme-ification of SpongeBob has also travelled beyond social networks and into music. From YouTube mixes of SpongeBob trap to Soundcloud rappers like Lil Pump and Ski Mask the Slump God, the cartoon’s squeaking anecdotes and catchphrases have seeped into samples and lyrical inspiration. Turns out SpongeBob is the perfect addition to so-called Gen Z’s post-irony, which is all about exploding caricatures and shoulder-shrugging nihilism. But why did this happen? Come, hold my hand, as I try to help you explain SpongeBob to yer da.
IRL Hood Boutiques and T-Shirts
Real heads will already know that Da Brat turned up to the 2002 BET Awards in a white SpongeBob shell suit and matching lunchbox. He's been out here. By 2011 his toothy smile also popped up on a T-shirt worn in the background of The Rej3ctz’s “Cat Daddy” video, as rapper Bounce delivered the song’s hook: “Call me SpongeBob / stackin Krabby Patties / Bitch I go to work / Do my Cat Daddy.”
Chuuwee, an LA hip-hop artist whose Cookin Soul-produced SpongeBob rap “Bikini Bottom” has more than 240,000 YouTube views, puts it to me this way: “Growing up, we all had Jordan Dub Zeros with SpongeBob on the side and SpongeBob backpacks. It came out of the hood boutiques or Chinese stores. They started printing SpongeBob on shirts and sweaters hoping it would bring people in. Once Bay Area rappers and tastemakers started wearing them in music videos, it set up the show as an acceptable staple in the culture. It’s the same as how everyone wears dad pants and trainers now.”
You’ll probably know exactly what Chuuwee means if you’ve ever seen SpongeBob crop up in what seems like an incongruous place. These t-shirts – SpongeBob re-imagined as an archetypal hip-hop superstar in diamond encrusted grills, a bandana and Timberlands; Patrick with bloodshot eyes, a gold chain and baggy jeans – demonstrated early on how the show’s pop culture impact could extend beyond Nickelodeon and a way to pass the time after-school. I mean, back in the PlayStation 2 era, you could even download a SpongeBob outfit for your GTA San Andreas avatar. But still: these were mostly images. Bob had yet to fully make his way into the music game.
There Was This App Called Vine…
Riding off the back of those T-shirt sales, SpongeBob’s entry into music blossomed with Vine (RIP forever). Many of those cartoon trap remixes, used to background videos, have disappeared down the app’s vortex, but some can be found on YouTube. See: SpongeBob ‘rapping’ over Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself” beat, dialogue cut and pasted over Desiigner’s “Panda” or the once-iconic Vines that came from season two episode ‘Frankendoodle.’ In it. SpongeBob is given a magic pencil which can bring anything to life, draws himself and accidentally incarnates an evil alter-ego named ‘Doodlebob’. Perpetually tongue-tied, Doodlebob speaks in incoherent gibberish, expressing everything as “me hoy minoy.” Obviously, three months ago a YouTube commenter dubbed this Doodlebob remix of Young Thug’s “Lifestyle” as “better than Lil Pump.”
It was only a matter of time before dedicated, higher quality trap remixes made it to YouTube. A Vine by video creator Jerry Purpdrank was remixed into an actual two-minute trap song (above). Those Krusty Krab nautical flute sounds, layered under 808 kick drums while a pirate intermittently shouts “HOOOOOO”, have been viewed more than 44 million times. This hard-soft blend, between SpongeBob’s childlike innocence and a beat that knocks you sideways, is all part of the character’s meme and music appeal. Chuuwee’s “Bikini Bottom” track, for example, follows SpongeBob as he carries out an armed robbery. “I've always been that guy to make random songs on the spot with vulgar shit in place of the original story,” he says. “I was like, ‘let me try to make this as street as possible just because lol.’ Ironically people always walk up to me and say, ‘My kids love the SpongeBob song,’ and I’m thinking, do they know what it’s about?”
The Jump from Social Media to the Studio
So look, this is a lot of information to soak in but the main gist is this: the ‘i’m sad lol’ nature of Soundcloud rap then created a perfect environment for SpongeBob – half-joke, half-nostalgic totem, full icon – to flourish in music. Ski Mask the Slump God’s “Shit Talk” and “Duragflowz”, Lil Gnar’s “Ride Wit Da Fye” and YBN Nahmir’s "Rubbin Off the Paint" have all included nods to SpongeBob. His cultural position as a meme is perfectly suited to a scene that places ironic detachment beside hard-hitting themes of addiction or sadness, prioritises pop-mindedness over respect for ‘the canon’ and emphasises comedic self-awareness over self-promoting machismo.
This light-hearted feeling is typified by Lil Pump, a human ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ whose self-referential phrase “I’m just ignorant” conveys an eye-rolling don’t care attitude of knowing superficiality. We see this in the mocking insincerity of Pump’s track, “On Larry.” There, he raps over a hard piano beat about SpongeBob character Larry, a weight-lifting lobster who wears teeny-tiny swimming trunks – “Walking to the strip, bitch I’m feeling like I’m Larry” – and Gary, SpongeBob’s adorable meowing pet snail, who Pump refers to in a similar fashion: “40 on my back, bitch I’m feeling like I’m Gary”.
On Pump’s “Ignorant,” featuring friend and collaborator Smokepurrp, producer J Price samples SpongeBob’s cutesy, slapstick theme tune. For Price, humour is what makes the song work: “I thought it would be hilarious to sample SpongeBob. Creating music is based off emotion and having fun. Lil Pump and SpongeBob’s ignorant and silly attitudes entertain and make people laugh.” J Price also added in a series of sound bites from the cartoon. “I added in famous character quotes like ‘Loser, Loser”, ‘Hoopla,’ and ‘Is mayonnaise an instrument?’ These phrases are memorable; they stick in your head so it helps artists promote their brand and market themselves.”
PJ Beats, works with Bronx rapper Joey Trap, whose songs revolve around nostalgia-soaked references to 2000s TV and tech – from Sesame Street samples to a rap about playing on the Wii. Joey’s SpongeBob track, “I Got Top in Bikini Bottom” takes the classic narrative of stealing somebody else’s girl but with added fish references: “She wanna suck on me she wanna fuck on me / like Squidward blowing on his clarinet”. For PJ Beats, who produced the song, its appeal comes from the corruption of an innocent childhood memory: “I grew up watching SpongeBob on the TV, but if you listen to what I did to that theme song it’s, like, ‘Oh wow, these trap drums sound dirty.' We are taking something that we couldn’t relate to growing up and making it about us”.
Fine, But What Does it All Mean?
This wave of rappers, who grew up online, are now acutely aware of what it takes to go viral. We see this in how they navigate Instagram and SoundCloud to find an audience. And so characters like Lil Pump, Smokepurrp and Joey Trap have become memes themselves: their rainbow-candy punk aesthetic; their sleepy, bored mood; their slurred vocals – all are inflated to the level of parody. Raps about SpongeBob might not be serious, but seriousness is maybe less shareable than a smiling goofy yellow face who fucks and gets money and lives in a pineapple under the sea.
Using the viral attention SpongeBob courts, producers and rappers can draw listeners to their other work. “My SpongeBob song came out when I dropped ‘The Date Tape,’ and that did better because of it,” Chuuwee tells me. “I wasn’t sure at first, when one of the Cookin Soul producers randomly sent the SpongeBob beat over. I hated it. I thought it was the corniest shit ever but he kept saying ‘This is going to be huge man I swear it.’” He was right. “It’s about making something that’s relatable, you know? People think ‘Oh shit, this guy's rapping about SpongeBob’ – that's almost an instant click.” So, to your parents, the message ends up being fairly simple: it's not that deep. Insert an 'under the sea' joke about that at your peril.
You can find Annie on Twitter.