The Meme Machine

In the age of Internet-sharing, one viral video might precipitate a record deal. But it won't sustain a career.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the most famous rappers to come out of East Oakland is a small, skinny, tattooed, 22-year-old white hipster chick. Still, many people were flummoxed by Kreayshawn (nee Natassia Zolot), the high-school dropout and self-made video artist who became an overnight YouTube celebrity — “overnight” being hardly an understatement, since her “Gucci Gucci” music video earned about three million hits in two weeks. (It has more than 27 million to date.) That was enough to pique the interest of Columbia Records A&R representative Mark Williams, who signed her on the spot. And it was enough to compel every music writer (including this one) to write her own think-piece about the Kreayshawn phenomenon. We all willingly acknowledged that she was more a meme than a bonafide artist, more fascinating than talented, more indicative of “viral media” than of some aesthetic shift in hip-hop. But that alone warranted our attention.

Of course, Kreayshawn wasn’t the first star to emerge this way. Another well-known East Bay rapper, Lil B, also built a persona on the Internet that he eventually parlayed into real-world success. Unlike Kreayshawn, though, his was a little more considered and calculating, given that it relied heavily on Twitter. (He currently has more than 363,000 followers.) And there are others, like Wallpaper (another Twitter-driven act) and YouthSpeaks-poet-turned-rapper George Watsky. It appears that the fastest route to stardom, in a culture fueled by social networking, is over-exposing yourself on the Internet in hopes of going viral.

The cynical read, of course, is that talent doesn’t really matter anymore. For proof, one need look no further than Rebecca Black, whose vanity-release single “Friday” was universally derided as the worst song in the history of the world after garnering more than 167 million YouTube plays. That said, it became a commercial boon for Black, anyway. She sold forty thousand digital singles in her first week after releasing the song on iTunes, inked a record deal with DB Entertainment, and appeared in the video for Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night.” Kohl’s Department Stores licensed “Friday” for a whole slew of Black Friday advertisements. By then, it had as much currency as any nationally televised fast-food jingle. And it sounded about as pleasant as a yapping pooch or a whining baby.

That said, not every viral music star amounts to a form of auditory misfortune. Kreayshawn leaves a lot to be desired as a rapper, but the “Gucci Gucci” video stands alone as a work of art. Much has been made of Kreayshawn as a fashion icon (her distinctive Minnie Mouse ears, doorknocker earrings, and librarian glasses were a refreshing contrast to the sartorial choices of most female pop stars; not to mention they were easy to imitate), and fans also latched on to the anti-consumerist message of “Gucci Gucci,” even though it wasn’t indicative of Kreayshawn’s political bent. Most importantly, the song itself was catchy. Same goes for Lil B’s material, which is consistently well-crafted and often substantive. His album I’m Gay referenced Marvin Gaye in the cover art, which seemed like a deliberate attempt to place the artist in an established canon of black music. Clearly, neither he nor Kreayshawn wants to be written off as a mere viral joke.

And in fact, there are legitimately great artists who begin as Internet sensations, such as Brooklyn trio Das Racist, whose “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” video took off before web-sharing was really a pop-music trope. Although emcees Heems and Kool A.D. treat their own popularity with a sense of winking self-irony, they’re genuinely respected by critics. And unlike Kreayshawn or Lil B, they don’t go out of their way to seem vapid or shock audiences. Rather, they take pleasure in being the smartest guys in the room.

In some ways, using the Internet as a marketing platform might be a salutary thing for pop music. Williams was quick to point out that Kreayshawn’s popularity was “organic,” because she wasn’t manufactured in a recording studio or pre-packaged by some wealthy producer wanting to dictate consumer taste. In her case, that’s certainly true. On the flipside, though, Kreayshawn’s Internet success hasn’t been a great guarantor of longevity — rather, it’s proved quite the opposite. Everything Kreayshawn has put out since “Gucci Gucci” has been image- rather than substance-based. She’s coined a few slang words, had some Twitter beefs, and even starred in a video game, but she’s dropped no more radio hits. And save for one forthcoming single with Snoop Dogg and cohort V-Nasty, she has none on the horizon.

Consider that evidence of how this form of star-making can be perilous. Too often it’s all about the surface, in an even more superficial way than old-school forms of grooming and manufacturing. It seems the only way for Kreayshawn to keep her Internet buzz going is to continue squabbling with more-famous rappers on Twitter, and even that gets tiresome.

Similarly, the only way for Lil B to sustain his mystique is to continue acting like a drug-addled weirdo, which ultimately gives him a lot more mileage than any serious attempt to fit into a musical tradition. It’s a sign of the times that stars crop up and fizzle out almost instantaneously, and perhaps that’s the risk you take in making a viral video. Or maybe it’s just a tradeoff. For anyone desiring to stick around, most of the old rules still apply.


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