Why music is memes and we make the hits


Dick Clark is often quoted as saying “music is the soundtrack of our lives.” True then, those words are even truer now that music is nearly omnipresent in our lives. We can turn it on and off like tap water. One of the places that this “water” pools is in short-form content trends. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on cataloging the impact of short-form content trends on the music industry, but far less attention has been given to how or why songs are having the impact they’re having. We recognize that there seem to be more and more songs that seemingly randomly go viral, but why?

Ideas and Exposure

The first thing to remember is that very few things “go viral” because there is something innately virulent in the content itself. Instead, things that gain traction tend to represent an idea of some kind and have some path to mass exposure. With video trends, the path to exposure is easy to recognize – it’s the algorithms that push videos to people believed to be receptive to the content. That leaves us with ideas.

Your first inclination may be to think about ideas in terms of what the song is about. In other words, identifying the theme from the lyrics of a song and assuming that those lyrics – the song in its entirety – are why the song has gained traction. Most of the time, that couldn’t be further from reality. The idea is not what the song says to you – it’s what the song says about you or for you. We are the means by which these songs get shared through trends, and it’s rarely that we are sharing a song – it’s that the song is a key element to something else that we’re sharing, and we rarely share songs in their entirety. Instead, we share snippets of audio that soundtrack a video.

Music & Lyrics… & Vibes

How do we use songs to convey a message? Well, before we get to that, let’s start with one supposition that I’ll come back to: the song itself doesn’t matter. We use the song for its parts, and those parts are music and lyrics.

With lyrics, we are looking for something as simple as a line or as lengthy as a chorus that communicates an idea that we would like to express.  Currently, a song that was only ever released on Tumblr, Frank Ocean’s “Wise Man” is experiencing a renaissance. Over a decade after Wise Man appeared on Tumblr, it is being shared in videos on TikTok on the strength of the “I bet our mother would be so proud of you” line, which can be used both sincerely or ironically.

With music, we are looking for something that conveys a mood, and sometimes mood, itself, can be a message. Oftentimes, this mood may be conveyed by the music as written, but the public is increasingly capable of altering music, which has led to the explosion of sped-up and slowed-and-reverbed remixes of songs. These various alterations, provide more entry points for people to be able to use a song to express themselves through trends.

An important thing to note is that since the song is less important than its parts, this leads to an interested effect of the genre and artist ceasing to matter, which is what allows for so many catalog (older) songs and songs by artists you’ve never heard of to become the basis of trends. It’s how Frank Ocean’s Wiseman, a song he only ever released on Tumblr back in 2012 re-emerged in 2023. The lyric, “bet our mother would be so proud of you” has been used by many as a way to indicate pride in an accomplishment.

Newsletter readers: You may click through the images to view the videos

Identity, Self-Care, and Social Connection

As in my last post on fandom, I will quote Susan Kresnicka again. As I noted last time, in Watching the Pandemic, we adapted Susan Kresnicka’s model illustrating the dynamics that power fandom. We believed that those same dynamics were driving trends. In this model, Identity, Self-Care, and Social Connection are the key drivers of fandom, and in my estimation, they are also core to the short-form trends experience and what motivates the use of songs in trends.

Identity – these are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. What’s our personal narrative right now?

Self-Care – this is the use of something to regulate our physical, emotional, or psychological state. Often, these things are deeply connected. How do we feel right now?

Social Connection – this is the sense of connection we feel to others. Do others feel the same way I do?

The trends we create and participate in are driven by all of the above.

IdentityThe stories we tell ourselves about ourselvesThe use of lyrics to express something about how you think or feel
Self-CareThe use of media to affect our physical, emotional, or psychological stateThe use of music, especially sped-up or slowed, to hype or relax
Social Connectionthis is the sense of connection we feel to othersThe repetition of the trend to express a shared experience or perspective

For as lofty as all of this sounds, the content itself doesn’t have to be profound. Take, for instance, last year’s Ceilings trend, in which people mouth the lyrics to the sped-up version of the song Ceilings while running alongside the camera as though they were in a melodrama. The underlying idea may simply have begun as “This is what I imagine it feels like to be swept up in the feeling of a storybook romance,” and for others, they recognize the opportunity to cosplay a climactic moment from a romance and replicate it. It’s a shared expression of a fantasy that is fun to play out, regardless of the effort required to create it.

Putting it all together

Short form trends are typically memes – they are ideas that are being transmitted through a video and replicated by others who are receptive to the memes. They tend to be not just expressive but self-expressive, relaying something about the person who is sharing the meme, whether they were the originator or one of the replicators. The means by which the ideas are expressed are typically rooted in parts of the song that have the greatest resonance for the sender – a specific lyric or musical passage. Music operating in this context has had an interesting impact on music ranging from the ability of older songs to experience a renewal (or even an initial burst) in popularity and the proliferation of alternate remixes of songs, which can, in some cases, become as popular as – if not more than – the original song.

For the music industry, this is why music feels chaotic and the ability for the label to generate a hit through traditional marketing means seems more challenging. It’s also what makes it difficult for the industry to use trends to generate hits. You can’t tell people how to feel or how best to express themselves. Given a catalog of every song ever written and the ability to manipulate songs to fit their moods, the result will be chaos, and perhaps the best the music industry can do is position itself to remain the beneficiary of this chaos. There are brights spots, though. Toward the end of the year, Zimmer90 offered people the recommendation that they use their song with a Capcut filter to recap their year, and nearly 100K people have done it. To bring it back to Dick Clark, what he actually said was “music is the soundtrack of our individual lives,” and Zimmer90 offered people a way to use the group’s music to soundtrack their individual lives.

What do you think? Does this resonate? Do you feel there’s something I’m missing? The mission of this blog is to present rough drafts of concepts that are floating around in my head. That means your responses will be vital to my improving on these ideas, so please leave comments with your thoughts.

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About the author


Earnest has been working in viral web content curation, creation, and trends research for more than 15 years. When not trying to figure out if it is still possible to become a professional wrestler, Earnest leads trends research for YouTube's Culture and Trends team.


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  • […] Today we released the final installment in Flowers, the documentary series I co-created that tells the stories of the impact of Black creativity on digital culture. This episode features Bianca Bonnie, formerly known as Young B, the rapper behind the first big social dance trend on Youtube, the Chicken Noodle Soup. The Chicken Noodle Soup i and Bonnie are important because in creating a song that elevated a local dance trend to the national scene through the internet, Bianca Bonnie created a blueprint for all the social dance challenges that would follow. It changed how music was promoted, and it was a harbinger of a future where we, the public, would popularize songs through our creativity. […]

By Earnest

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