Before the mainstream adopted the internet, it was nothing more than a tool to discover information, email colleagues, order items, and—if connection speeds allowed it—stream videos on RealPlayer in sub-standard quality. For a small number of people, it was also an escape from the real world, where shareable jokes known as memes flourished.
Fast-forward twenty years. Google is the biggest information database in the world, Amazon is a shopping behemoth, and YouTube, Twitch, and Netflix have replaced TVs for millions of users. These days it’s easier to stay hidden in real life than it is on the internet, and many people prefer to spend more time on social media than having real life interactions. It’s more common to see a 10-year-old wearing a t-shirt featuring an image macro than one displaying Mickey Mouse.
In these changing times, memes have become part of pop culture. They spring up on forums, social media platforms, and dark corners of the internet, go viral, and then they disappear as quickly as they emerged.
One of the most interesting moments on Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet comes early on in the first full song, “Crawl.” Gambino raps, “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” quoting a meme that spawned from an interview with Kimberly Wilkins during an Oklahoma news report. This may be a reference that will date itself quickly, leaving future listeners in the dark, but it’s also a clever nod to the internet itself. As the reference points in music become more fleeting and less universal, how does this affect the music itself? Will people in the future even know what our music is talking about?
As the reference points in music become more fleeting and less universal, how does this affect the music itself?
Almost everything on the internet has a date of expiration, as numerous e-celebrities and discontinued services can attest. When a creator relies heavily on current reference points, as so many do today, it can be incredibly hard to leave a lasting impression. When art becomes so specific to a time and place, it can add a brilliant nostalgia factor for listeners in the future, but it can also risk becoming disposable, fast-food art. PC Music, for example, made a huge impact when they debuted their schtick, but their edge has dulled since. Hyper-relevancy comes with significant risk.
Most music generally accepted as timeless focuses on universal subjects inherent to human nature, or events significant enough that they never lose their relevancy. Love, happiness, struggles, perseverance, loss—all things that every human being can relate to.
The Beatles, NWA, and Bob Dylan have all created music that’s rooted in a time and place, but still relevant today, mostly because their references (world peace, police brutality, and Vietnam, respectively) are more significant than a dance move, a viral video, or a modern aesthetic. It’s also worth noting, however, that their music uses these reference points to connect to important themes. The references in their music never outweigh the universal themes.
Vague language, or universal language that can fit into any context, is capable of being significantly more powerful because it can speak to anyone, from any time, at any time. When music is designed for consumers of vines and tweets, its lifespan is going to be in line with the lifespan of most things on Vine and Twitter—that is, very short. Time has a strange effect on music, and the things that spread the fastest are often the things that disappear just as quickly.
A meme is like achieving No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for one week only to disappear the next. The harder they come, the harder they fall. No one remembers Chuck Testa or the double rainbow guy—they’re only brought up in “remember this?” conversations. There isn’t an “oh yeah” big enough in the world to make either of them relevant again.
Time has a strange effect on music, and the things that spread the fastest are often the things that disappear just as quickly.
One artist who’s been capitalizing on our diminishing attention spans and becoming one of the most memed artists in modern music is Drake. As long as he keeps it up, he remains on the cutting edge, because his music is so of-the-moment that it’s hard to think about a specific time without remembering a Drake song, Drake video, or Drake meme that goes with it. But will that music last? And is that how music should be consumed?
Drake’s newfound sense of immediacy has done him wonders in the short-term, but only time will tell how it holds up. Being so closely tied to memes and trends is a slippery slope. This approach brings in the numbers quickly, but will the numbers keep coming? It’s hard to see Drake’s current urge to capitalize on diminishing attention spans working out in the long run. He’s had arguably the biggest year of his career, but it’s been because of his tendency to ride waves rather than create them. So Far Gone and Take Care helped to usher in a new era of emotional rap, but ever since then, Drake has seemingly been more interested in the work of others—Future, D.R.A.M., iLoveMakonnen, Skepta—than his own.
Jumping on what’s hot right now and creating meme-able moments (like the “Hotline Bling” video) makes you current, but it doesn’t lend itself to a sense of importance that normally comes with lasting works of art. While easily consumed music can be just as enjoyable as more challenging works—like Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, for example—it’s usually the more challenging works that push things forward, influence others, and are remembered for their lasting impact. When something is memed to death the first week of its release, it’s usually a sign that the drop-off is going to be hard and people are going to get sick of the song soon enough.
What makes an artist like Kendrick different to Death Grips or Drake is that he never panders towards his audience. He doesn’t join in on the joke like Death Grips’ whole “JENNY DEATH WHEN” fiasco, instead he creates a product his fans would never have expected. When an artist—and a musician in particular—plays into a joke, it just adds more fuel to the fire. There’s nothing wrong with embracing meme culture to create something very much of the moment, but it should never define or overtake the art itself. Kendrick isn’t trying to please fans in the ways they’ve been pleased before, whereas Drake is playing up to their every desire. It’s definitely working, but will it come at the cost of longevity?
While easily consumed music can be just as enjoyable as more challenging works, it’s usually the more challenging works that push things forward, influence others, and are remembered for their lasting impact.
Should an artist go for quick success, short-term fans, and music that hits instantly? Or are they brave enough to make music that might turn people off, like Kanye’s now wildly influential 808s & Heartbreak? These questions don’t offer immediate or obvious answers, and that’s because there’s nothing inherently at fault with either approach. It’s just beginning to look like artists are less interested in exploring the advantages of the latter, when the temptation of the former continues to linger. The internet has taught listeners that they don’t need to have patience anymore, and for better or for worse, artists are reacting to this new landscape.
While there’s a place for both approaches, there’s not a permanent place for both. Even though the prospect of a trending topic is incredibly appealing, musicians like Kendrick have proven immediacy isn’t essential to becoming an important artist in 2015. Fighting off the temptation to create something fleeting means a bigger reward in the long run, even if it’s more of a gradual win than an immediate one. The only way to leave a lasting impact when alternative options are only a click away is to create art that demands time and energy. How many artists are brave enough to do that?