Doja Cat performing in 2022, and an Arca shitposting meme from @worldofgarbage
Doja Cat performing in 2022, and an Arca shitposting meme from @worldofgarbage. Photo: UPI/Alamy Live News and courtesy of @worldofgarbage
Life

How Music Fell in Love With Shitposting

Arca, Doja Cat and even John Mayer all profess to love the extremely online meme art form.

What do Crazy Frog, Karl Marx, the dude from 90s band Eve 6, Peter Griffin, Arca, Kate Bush, Doja Cat and John Mayer have in common? Nothing. But then, that’s sort of the point of shitposting today – an anachronistic, anarchic, senseless and “extremely online” art form in which all of the above are recurring subjects.

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Shitposting tends to recycle the 4AM hysteria of a slumber party you had when you were younger, when you and your friends got so high on sleeplessness and one another’s company that you’d say something like “squash bottle” and laugh about it till sunrise. The less sense it made, and the more time you devoted to that senselessness, the funnier it became: a shitpost.

But let’s circle back to John Mayer for a second. In 2021, he released Sob Rock, an album he described as the sonic equivalent of a shitpost. “Artists sit in front of you and play you what they think is their garbage. And you go: ‘That’s the best thing I ever heard you play.’ It makes a mockery of their interpretation of the experience. Which is just enough to break out of the mould and make something unique,” he told Zane Lowe in an interview

For Mayer, and an increasing number of musicians, leaning into trash and aligning themselves with the ironic and anti-aesthetic credo of shitposting – where all meaning is exhausted and made hysterical – has become a new and exciting creative force. The unhinged, inside-joke energy of shitposting has liberated a growing number of musicians—everyone from the lead singer of Eve 6 to Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo—to present themselves from a place of absurdity rather than self-seriousness.

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Shitposting has also become the musical dialect of a new crop of musicians. Doja Cat, for instance, describes her music as “25 percent shitposting, 75 percent music”. Plenty of rappers, including Zack Fox and JPEGMAFIA, have reference shitposting memes in their songs. Hyperpop, too, a term popularised in 2020 to describe the glitched-out, pitched-up, erratic and hyperactive sound of artists like 100 gecs, Glaive, p4rkr, ericdoa and Fraxiom, is very much the musical equivalent of shitposting. 

“Shitposting has helped me tap into this unhinged energy because it's easier for me to talk about things that are hard if I throw in a little bit of a joke,” Fraxiom tells Vice. Their album, food house, charts the artist’s struggles with depression, addiction and gender identity – on one song they even bleep out their own deadname – never once taking these serious issues, well, seriously. 

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“I already know that people who don't go through these same things are less likely to take them seriously,” they explain. “Since memes are becoming a universal language, I figured I would get bilingual with the shit.”

Artists like Fraxiom are lovingly parodying the pre-established conventions of pop music by pushing them to their extremes, “much like how shitposting satirises mainstream internet culture”, says Anna Mariani, the co-owner of shitposting account @this.and.a.blunt (60,800 followers). She believes that the experimental DJ Arca has become the “unofficial queen of ironic shitposting”.  

“She follows virtually every big page and always shares the content they post,” says Anna. “Arca is intentionally blurring the line between high art and user-made memes. Her music video for ‘Mequetrefe’, for instance, contains various editing techniques that were previously only used in shitposts. This sort of amateur, low-effort, low quality, and distorted visual language is quickly being recognised as artistically interesting, and I think that’s definitely a positive thing.” 

Ms. Of Arca (how she’d like to be referred to here), the owner of @joan.of.arca (51,900 followers) says she’s received plenty of comments and direct messages from followers who hadn’t heard of Arca before they discovered her shitposting page. “Memes can give you a first ‘taste’ of a musical genre or artist without actually having to hear the music itself,” she says. “If these memes match your sense of humour, or if you admire the person posting these memes, you may wonder if the music will appeal to you as well.  It's really crazy how memes can influence a person's listening habits.”

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Kaitlin and Jamie, two of the admins behind @katebush.420, have also observed real-world effects that they attribute to music shitposting pages like theirs – a meme page with 11,600 followers, dedicated to the “Wuthering Heights” singer “who may or may not even have a full understanding of the way that she completely rocked the queer communities minds and changed the lives of every unhinged theatre gay ever,” says Jamie.

Spotify is notoriously tight-lipped about the inner workings of their algorithm, and they didn’t respond to a request for comment. But what else could explain, as Kaitlin has noticed, Kate Bush appearing on Hyperpop playlists, or ultimate shitposter Azealia Banks being recommended on an automatic Spotify radio station after you listen to “Hounds of Love”? 

“Obviously the algorithm is tracking what [Kate’s] fans are listening to in addition to her music… and somehow we’ve managed to cuck the algorithm so the stats have shifted to that point,” they say. “It’s fun to juxtapose relevant, mostly queer newer artists with older, more established musicians with a mostly queer fanbase and see the crossovers form.”

Music and memes, Fraxiom points out, have always influenced one another. “Even Katy Perry said ‘that was such an epic fail’ on ‘Last Friday Night’, and that hit the charts,” they say. But the deliberate internet ugliness of shitposting has escaped its dark 4chan past, and is now inching its way towards the cultural centre. Indeed, music and shitposting appear to have entered into a symbiotic relationship. 

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“Music definitely creatively informs shitposting,” says Mia Morongell, who runs @lifes.a.bender (166,000 followers). “My account wouldn’t have amassed followers if I hadn’t been posting so much about music. I notice this with a lot of other accounts too – @carti_xcx, @joan.of.arca, @this.and.a.blunt, @weirdassprettythey, for example.” 

Ike Webber, the co-owner of Instagram account @music.shitposting (126,000 followers) echoes this. “Music has an undeniable influence on shitposting culture now, more-so than any other form of art,” he says. “I personally don’t see many shitposts on film or authors, but music is referenced everywhere in meme culture. I think only time will tell just how much the two entities of shitposting and music will influence each other.”

In recent years, perhaps thanks to shitposting’s move to Instagram during the pandemic, the term has undergone a shift in meaning. The first recorded instance of “shitposting” – as far as we know – was submitted to the Something Awful Forums on April 10th, 2007, when member OhSNAP!Tray used the expression when referring to worthless threads on the site’s BYOB forum, a place for low-effort posting. 

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In this original definition, shitposting was forum-specific. It either referred to an intentional act of derailing a thread, or just a straight up unintentionally unfunny shit post. Shitposting was a somewhat niche and underground term, which didn’t inspire any reporting or commentary until 2016, when, according to Google Trends, interest in the term was rapidly sparked. 

It was at this point that shitposts got a wealthy backer during the US presidential election, when virtual reality entrepreneur Palmer Luckey funded a group whose purpose was to flood the web with anti-Hillary Clinton shitposts. Unfortunately, Trump supporters like Palmer were largely responsible for bringing shitposting to public consciousness

“Shitposts aren’t inherently political,” Kaitlin notes – but memes are also adept at forming cultural bulwarks, and are often powerfully satirical. Simply put: If you can laugh at a particular shitpost, then you’re part of that community; if you’re confused by a shitpost, you’re the one being laughed at.

How the Far-Right Weaponised Memes

It’s why musicians like Dorian Electra began using shitposting as a kind of counter-attack towards meme-y nerds like Palmer following the election, taking on an ironic embodiment of the “m’lady” archetype through their music. Following Palmer’s lead, the online right began touting the idea that “the left can’t meme” in 2016 – but they’ve since been proved wrong. 

Ms. Of Arca theorises that the rise of shitposting in left-leaning circles followed the rise of “finsta/spam-account culture among teenagers around the time of the 2016” election.” As 4chan memes, like the ones Luckey was producing, made their way onto more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, leftist teens began making reactionary memes in response, satirising the original material and turning it into an absurd and inconsequential joke. 

But it was during the pandemic, Ike believes, that the culture went through a “meme renaissance for the left”. As college students and many of the working class were stuck at home and using social media more frequently, “people started creating and sharing shitposts in rapid succession,” says Ike. 

The popularity of his own meme page grew exponentially – everyone else in this article experienced the same – and The New York Times even reported on the phenomenon, helping to shift the cultural understanding of shitposting away from an intentional act of trolling towards a more nebulous and depoliticised aesthetic. Its meaning has therefore broadened to a “you know it when you see it” type of deal, through deliberately low-quality images, esoteric references, a humourous overattachment to obsolescence (see: posting dead memes from five years ago or incongruously earnest Tumblr posts) are all common features of today’s shitpost. 

While shitposting’s meaning has broadened, it’s largely practiced today as something fundamentally and promisingly anti-capitalist in nature – they mock commercial mass culture at a rate too fast for outsiders to be able to monetise or even parse it. Corporations are desperate to gain insight into the minds of internet-warped teenagers, but shitposting is one art form able to shift and obscure itself from a commercialising gaze. 

No wonder it appeals to musicians at a time of mass departures from major labels and disillusionment with the music industry (Arca, as well as most of the hyperpop musicians listed above, are signed to independent imprints  or have started their own labels). Shitposters are turning Instagram to shit; it’s time for more musicians to fling some back at their industry, too.