shannon noll
Image via Shannon Noll / Facebook
Music

How Meme Culture Brought Shannon Noll's Career Back From the Dead

In 2016 Nollsy posted this photo and something magical happened.
15 May 2020, 2:28am

In January of 2016, Shannon Noll uploaded an innocuous photo of himself to Facebook, posing with a homemade fish taco. “First crack at fish tacos tonight,” the caption read. “Not bad!”

It was a delightfully irrelevant piece of content. A window into the Australian singer-songwriter’s erratic but very Australian life. When it was first posted, the joke veered along two paths. First, it resembled Shannon's other cursed updates, like when he posted a photo of himself grinning maniacally while holding a carving knife, or when he decided to show off the thawb he bought as a souvenir. The second layer, of course, was an implied correlation between tacos and vaginas.

“Bet you've [sic] plowed through a few fish tacos aye nollsy,” wrote one Facebook user named Daniel Haup, to the applause of 6,100 users.

“Nollsy trying to throw us off the scent. He'd have had more fish tacos than he could handle back in '03 I bet,” wrote another user by the name of Michael Johnson.

Shannon performing in 2016. Photo by Julian Morgans

This wasn’t the first time Shannon Noll had been memeafied, but rather it was the culmination of something that was building for a while. In May 2015 a Tumblr post claiming the pop-country singer had forced school children to watch him perform went semi-viral. Then in January 2016, a Change.org petition for Shannon to perform at 2016’s Groovin’ The Moo drew over 6500 signatures in two months.

The collective joke that bundled this together was Shannon Noll’s lack of status. In 2015, he was a fading star more than 10 years past his zenith. His former achievements were eclipsed by open mockeries of his live performances, and criticism of his status as a has-been. This, plus the absurdity of his actions, were what ultimately transmuted him into a niche meme. It was funny to sign petitions, or follow his Facebook updates, or laugh about his “first crack at fish tacos” because it was Shannon Noll.

Within two weeks of the fish taco post, youth media outlets such as Complex and Buzzfeed began paying attention, publishing headlines that read “How Shannon Noll Became a Meme” or “How Becoming A Meme Gave Shannon Noll An Unlikely Career Boost”. A year later, Noll was still in the headlines: this time for the ongoing trend of commenters flooding every one of his posts with hyper-Australian neologisms. And how Nollsy had become the unwitting participant of a joke he didn't know existed.

Throughout all of this, Shannon Noll’s Facebook page became the joke’s epicentre. Soon, every one of his Facebook updates was greeted with comments that followed this same formula: Bet that’s not the first time you’ve [insert sexual innuendo here] is it Nollsy?

To this day you can visit his page and find brand new comments that all follow the same structure. It’s a gag that’s been running for four years and there’s now literally tens of thousands of them.

Nowadays, it's impossible to not associate Shannon Noll with these kinds of comments. It’s a phenomenon that’s still referenced in interviews. It's a meme that’s not even really a meme. It’s more a game, where the irony has been replaced by excessiveness.

“The comments are irrelevant to his musical talent” says Shane Slegers, a 26-year-old living in Queensland who occasionally comments on Shannon’s Facebook (such as in the example above). “It became an independent cult following, of sorts.”

For Shane, commenting isn’t about mockery, but an attempt to recreate the shock humour and overall creativity he admired when he was first shown the comments by his brother. “I tried to make one myself, and it was well-received,” Shane explains on what went into his first comment. “So whenever I noticed a new post, I'd try and creatively make a new comment in the template I'd seen.”

This changing type of fame also mirrors Shannon Noll’s transition from an ironic meme to a beloved cult figure—both a youth media darling and a rotating feature on major networks. Where any digital platform he’s attached to now draws attention and engagement to the tune of thousands of likes and comments.

Shannon Noll now regularly performs at pubs, hotels, and live music venues, and a large variety of events from Splendour in the Grass to AFL Grand Final after-parties to the annual car festival, Summernats. Of the 112 events listed on Shannon Noll’s Facebook since 2011, only two were dated between January 2015 and November 2017. Since then, there’s been 55. Some 15 years past his prime, Nollsy is enjoying a restored celebrity status and a fanbase not just undeterred by moments of absurdity and condemnations of bad behaviour, but encouraged by them.

Celebrity status has always rested on an intricate balance between the media, the public, and the celebrity themselves. But since the arrival of the internet, this equation has intensified: amplifying and accelerating both access to and access of a celebrity. As Sharon Marcus wrote in her 2019 book The Drama of the Celebrity, “Digital media have sped up communication between celebrities and fans, and made their exchanges more public. They have increased celebrity culture’s reach and scale, and made it easier to quantify celebrity.”

And as we know from the second law of motion, greater acceleration equals greater force. When Taylor Swift criticised how Apple Music treated their artists in a 2015 Tumblr post, Apple changed its policy. When Kylie Jenner criticised Snapchat over a tweet in February 2018, Snapchat lost $1.3 billion from the drop in shares that day.

But the internet has made fame more volatile, particularly considered how status is so intrinsically linked in the ways a celebrity is consumed online. In September 2018, Nicolas Cage expressed frustration to IndieWire that his memedom was disrupting the credibility of his films. In a 2019 essay, Vox’s Staff Culture Writer Aja Romano argued that Keanu Reeves’ cult status as a wholesome meme is largely the explanation for his current career peak.

The reason for Nollsy’s second rise to fame, though, varies depending on who you talk to. Shannon’s manager, David Woodward, tells VICE that the resurgence is due to people suddenly remembering Shannon’s talents. Elaine Mullins, the moderator of Shanon Noll’s Official Facebook Fan Club, thinks it’s due to a new generation of fans having discovered Shannon. But then there’s this idea that maybe the popularity is vested in this ironic element of Shannon’s meme status. Similar to seeing Darude perform Sandstorm live, or how in 2012, people began eating Guy Fieri’s Time Square restaurant after its scathing New York Times review went viral.

If you ask those who’ve booked him, though—Alex Mavroidakis, the executive producer of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, for example, or Andy Lopez, the owner of Summernats—they’ll tell you that Shannon wasn’t booked in the capitalisation of a meme, but rather for his charisma.

“He was one of the first people we booked,” Alex explains, regarding Shannon’s casting on the show in 2018. “And he just had me in stitches for the hour we sat together. And so, it was just a no-brainer.”

“There’s heaps of science you can put behind booking bands at a festival, but often, something just comes to you and you go ‘you know what? That guy would be perfect for us’,” says Andy Lopez, the owner of Summernats. “I’ve met lots of really great guys and bands and artists, and [Shannon’s] one of the top ones.”

And in Nollsy’s defence, he is successful, with multiple platinum and gold accreditations, as well as 10 consecutive top-10 singles. He boasts a huge fan base of genuine devotees. And even his reaction to the memes play into his reputation of being a down-to-earth, relatable figure, Nollsy baiting commenters on his Facebook and telling VICE that he doesn’t think they’re trolling, but rather just dishing out some “good old Aussie humour”.

Some might view him as an ironic farce; others as a true blue Australian icon. Whatever the case, Nollsy’s own mantra has remained the same ever since the early days of 2003: to seize each and every chance he gets to perform, and to perform well.

In a phone interview with VICE he told us he’s just happy for the second-break. “I take whatever opportunity I’ve got to win people over one by one if I have to with what I believe is enough ability to earn and achieve the things that I’ve earned and achieved.”

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