Tay Zonday, aka "Chocolate Rain" guy, has a lot to say. Unfortunately, not all of it makes sense.
The 34-year-old became internationally famous when the music video he uploaded for self-penned track, "Chocolate Rain," went viral in the summer of 2007. As of today, the video—which Zonday shot in his apartment—has well over 109 million views.
"Chocolate Rain" features Zonday singing about bell curves and neighborhood insurance rates in a distinctive bass voice. A combination of Zonday's facial mannerisms and lyrics that sound like every late-night conversation you've ever had on acid endeared him to the world; Zonday was your goofy kid cousin with an unexpectedly adult singing voice and some surprisingly deep views on social justice (sample lyric: The same crime has a higher price to pay/Chocolate Rain/The judge and jury swear it's not in the face).
The song was played on The Daily Show; Zonday later appeared on Jimmy Kimmel. Aficionados printed t-shirts parodying the caption "**I move away from the mic to breathe in," which appears early in the video (and explains why Zonday continually ducks out of shot like he's apple-bobbing on Halloween).
Then came the parody videos: the Darth Vader homage; Cookie Monster got involved. South Park fans continually flock to the video. At one point, rumors circulated that Zonday was dead, the ultimate honor for any celebrity. But despite the popularity of "Chocolate Rain," Zonday's decision to give the track away for free means that he's still working as a singer and voice-over artist today, over a decade on.
What's interesting about Zonday's success is how beloved he remains. Trawl the comments under "Chocolate Rain" and you'll struggle to find a word of venom or spite. "I miss old YouTube," writes one commenter. "Holy fuck the OG youtube song," says another. "RIP TAYZONDAY GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTON ;((" chimes a third.
In a world of doxxing and Twitter hate mobs, our love for "Chocolate Rain" is a pure thing. Sure, we poke fun at the track's lo-fi production values and bombastic sincerity. But never are we horrible about Zonday himself, YouTube's very own prodigy: Viral Dweeb 1.0.
That said, Zonday is a difficult interviewee. Over the phone, Zonday and I spoke for just over 35 minutes. The transcript of our conversation ran to nearly four and a half thousand words. He often diverts questions onto random or tangentially relevant topics, and it's hard to get a succinct answer to a straight question. At one point I'm treated to a detailed analysis of the casting of the new Star Trek film in a manner reminiscent of later sections of Brett Easton Ellis classic American Psycho. When I ask a question he doesn't like (such as how much money he made from "Chocolate Rain") I'm told off for asking unoriginal questions.
That said, Zonday did have some remarkable insights about what it's like to become unexpectedly famous. Below is the transcript of our interview, which has been edited for flow and clarity.
BROADLY: Hi Tay, thanks for talking to me. Tell me about the origin of "Chocolate Rain."
Tay Zonday: I'd been performing at open mic nights in Minneapolis to very small audiences, and around late 2006 I realized: Why not post these videos online? My motive was strictly experimental. I thought maybe I'd get honest feedback from people.
Back in 2007, editors manually curated YouTube's front page. They emailed me to give me a heads-up that another of my songs was going to be featured on the home page. I kind of rushed to get "Chocolate Rain" completed because I knew I could kind of double-dip: More people would be viewing my channel. I'd had the riff in my head for a while, but I probably wrote the lyrics over a period of about six weeks.
How did the video go viral?
It didn't instantly go viral. About three months after it was uploaded, someone posted it on the front page of Digg.com, which is kind of what Reddit was back then. And then someone saw it on Digg and posted it on 4chan. After that, it started to go viral and become a national news story.
How did suddenly achieving that level of fame feel?
When you're "hot," the whole world tries to get in on your coattails and get a piece of that. Three of the four major music labels asked me to sign with them. Just dealing with all of that, with all of the people contacting me, was daunting. I didn't have anyone's example to emulate. I couldn't look at Rebecca Black and be like, Ok what did she do? What did Antoine Dodson do when this happened to him? There were really no breadcrumbs to follow because it was pretty much the first time anyone had gone from that level of obscurity to that level of attention through the means of online content.
And for YouTube, it was a historic threshold moment, because at the time YouTube wasn't as dominant. It was actually MySpace that was the dominant social network.
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What does "Chocolate Rain" actually mean?
I always say, the question is more important than the answer. I sing about what I can't talk about. I sing because there are things I cannot speak. I think it takes away from what I sing and the musicality and the moment of the music to be verbally polemic, and to give verbal footnotes, as in "This should mean this, and this."
We live in a society with an epidemic of declaratives and a poverty of interrogatives, and I think that part of the lasting appeal of "Chocolate Rain" is that question perhaps being allowed to be an interrogative. What is the meaning of "Chocolate Rain?" Some people deduce that it might have a political message or a message about social justice or power, and what I would say is that there are people who would not want to receive a polemic message on those topics, but if they can be brought from not having an interrogative to being in a state of interrogative, questioning, "What is the meaning of Chocolate Rain," I think that's a fantastic outcome.
How much money have you made from Chocolate Rain?
That's what you journalists always like: those threshold questions. You ask those questions because the public is extremely voyeuristic and you're trying to make headlines in that regard. I'd say I've certainly kept my head above water, but I probably wasn't as smart as I could have been from a business standpoint. I was pretty dedicated to giving it away for free. I didn't even list it on iTunes until 2010, which was a mistake.
Honestly, if people want to give you money you should at least give them the opportunity. Hindsight being 20/20, I was a business neophyte when the song came out, and a celebrity neophyte. I was new to public life.
What it's like being recognized all the time?
I get recognized a lot. I'm like Big Bird. It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes it creates opportunities; sometimes it limits you. Oftentimes when they're casting actors, they like having relatively unknown people. If you're a known face, you get typecast. I can't hide. I don't. It's weird because I never felt like I belonged as a kid. I always felt like an outsider even before worldwide attention. It's kind of the same when you have some level of recognition and people knowing who you are when you walk down the street. The challenge for me was to move in the other direction to feel like an everyday person, like the everyman. To feel like a…
A regular guy?
A regular guy. But what's interesting is that Hollywood has moved very heavily to favor the regular guy. Casting calls for movies, they want everyday people. I just watched Star Trek: Beyond and what's interesting is that all of the original cast were theatrically trained actors: William Shatner, Forrest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, fantastic theater actors because that's what television actually was at that time. Now you look at movies today, and it's almost as if the actors have become props. You put them on a soundstage and a lot of the storytelling is the special effects and the post-production.
So they cast actors that are much less what I would call "types," and so, you know, it's been interesting because as an entertainer, another way of saying that I am an outsider is to say that I am a type actor. So if you look at someone else who is a type actor—Arnold Schwarzenegger is a type actor. He is a type. He is himself and he does himself and 50 different selves. Morgan Freeman is a type actor. He is pretty much the same guy in every project in his acting career. This is opposed to people who are range actors—say, Christian Bale or Tom Hanks who they do truly different, richly different characters, you don't know what you're going to get in each film. So I would say that Hollywood has moved more towards subdued range actors and further away from type actors.
"Chocolate Rain" and me are that brand, I am a type.
How do you think our relationship with social media and our online selves has changed?
I think we're in an era of confessional media with Internet content. It's all about Snapchat, about vlogging. You've got to have this personal, everyday relationship with your fans. "Chocolate Rain" was something that blew up for being larger than life. It was like, What is that guy doing? There's a mythos to the brand and character. In many ways, the Internet has moved away from that in favor of very confessional, very conversational types of discourse.
Would you undo "Chocolate Rain" and be a normal guy if you could?
No, not at all. It's a calling card and very few people get calling cards like that. It's like whenever you walk into a room, everyone has your business card in your pocket.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen in the comments under the video?
That's another question you journalists love. You love the absolutes: the most, the greatest, the best. I don't get excited about comments. The best comments are when people share stories of how "Chocolate Rain" has positively impacted their lives. Like a mom saying their child can't stop singing it at bedtime. Those are my favorite stories to read.