Steal this Dan or: Don’t Burn Bridgers

A screed on the memeification of music

It is becoming increasingly difficult to parse whether someone is being earnest or ironic at the same time that it is becoming increasingly difficult to parse whether I myself am being earnest or ironic The internet has stripped away enough layers that the difference between doing it for the bit or doing it so long that it’s no longer a bit is wafer-thin. Are you playing up your worst qualities on Twitter as a joke or are you really just a piece of shit? Don’t expect me to answer. I have better things to do…

Are you a fan of the song “All Star” by the band Smash Mouth? Do you like Limp Bizkit? Blink-182? How about Mitski or Phoebe Bridgers? Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or “Africa” by Toto? 

One last question: Do you listen to Nickelback when nobody is around; or, like a tree falling in the forest, does it require an audience for it to make sense? 

What I’m building toward is an essay on the memeificiation of music. The answer to my last question is of course you don’t listen to Butt-Rock in your bedroom alone. (Unless you do; that’s OK.) Nickelback is a joke and just like tickling yourself, you cannot be the perpetrator and victim of the same hand. Playing Nickleback relies on an assumed outcome: mainly, annoying your company.

I asked some of my friends what bands or musicians they think are memes. “Who if not weezer lmao,” the preeminent emo writer Danielle Chelosky said via text. “Weezer,” my friend, Michael Kandel, a comedian replied. He added, “lil John” and “All emo/warped tour bands.” The artist Alyssa Lester said the first two musicians who came to mind were Phoebe Bridgers and Mac DeMarco.

Weezer is a good example of a self-aware meme. Rivers and co. realized that the band was being memed and that the song “Africa” by Toto is a meme. And so, if the two combined forces (Weezer covering “Africa” by Toto), it could pay off. And it did. In 2018, Weezer’s rendition peaked at number 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and gave the band its first entry on the chart in more than eight years. 

While reportedly nobody was hurt in the creation and release of Weezer’s “Africa,” I’d say the wildly low-brow low stakes publicity stunt does devalue Weezer’s stock. It’s giving the people what they want instead of, idk, a true expression of artistic achievement. 

In a contemporary article for VICE’s Noisey, writer Dan Ozzi takes credit for the meme. His takeaway is thus: “[Weezer’s “Africa” is] ubiquitous to the point of static noise, like watching Andy Warhol silkscreen Rivers Cuomo’s face over and over until his image has been stripped of all meaning.” Irony can be effective as a tool of parody, but—as Poe’s law stipulates—parody must be distinguishable from propaganda.   

To meme something is to make a shorthand for it. It becomes an inside joke among people who know. But what do they know? There’s a bit of internet literacy needed to spot the jokes, but apart from that, there is no substance to the joke. The joke is hollow. The joke is “I like this band, and you do too” or “Neither of us likes this band.” It’s less a joke and more a shibboleth, a secret handshake. Being authentic online is corny so you make your favorite band a meme. 

We’re running up that hill, we’re writing an essay about memes, we’re reading an essay about memes, now.

We meme parts of our personality because it’s too banal to just say I like the Sopranos. You have to integrate it into your brand. You don’t just like the Sopranos. You friggin love a-da Sopranos. Nobody should think of the Sopranos without thinking of you, a digital media survivor with only a sparse patch of hair and a cluttered cabinet filled with insulated coffee mugs sporting logos of companies that laid you off.

Memes are about identification. The Grateful Dead was a meme before the internet existed. Being a Dead Head is a form of virtue signaling, which is one of the main drives behind memeing a band. 

My friend, writer Alisha Wexler, diagnosed the problem as marketing in a, “hyperdigitalized and irony poisoned world.” The problem, she says, is the PR machine sells a narrative and the narrative somehow eclipses basic questions like, “Is this music any good?” 

Call it the alienation of listening—my play on Marx’s concept of the alienation of labor. Consumers are kept as far away from the songs as possible. Each year brings a new pop-star documentary that is meant to provide an all-access view of say Beyoncé’s or Taylor’s life, but are we really meant to believe that there’s more truth in the artifice of these films than in the actual art?   

It’s clear that these narratives are winning out. The star dictates the story and uncritical music journalists jot it all down word for word. Each month we get the same profile of the same artist on the three or four remaining sites without any deviation from the script. 

The idea for this piece came to me while I was flossing and listening to a tape of The Royal Scam I nabbed from my roommate’s room while she’s away convalescing in my home state (Florida).

Steely Dan. I love this band. And lately, I’ve found myself annoyed that other people do, too. It’s not that I think there’s a limited supply of Guacho streams on Spotify; or, that I’m a possessive six-year-old unwilling to share. The one time I bumped into Donald Fagen at an Upper West Side bagel spot, he was nice. He shook my hand. By all means, give him the money he deserves. (At $. 0033 per stream, you better start clicking.) 

               What I take umbrage with isn’t more people enjoying my secret special favorite band. I didn’t invent Bard College, where Fagen and Walter Becker, met. Steely Dan is fun. There’s a myth out there that Steely Dan is all polished high-brow stuff for the hepcats. Despite the exegesis on it being the most difficult to read 33 1/3rd series, Aja is an album that gets pleasure from giving pleasure. Put down your Gradus ad Parnassum. You don’t need a degree in ethnomusicology to respond to the syncopation in the rhythm of “Black Cow,” a groovy character study in being cucked. Put on “Peg.” You’ll move to the beat even if you aren’t moved by the Beats

           What I do take umbrage with is the arc that the memeification of culture takes. It’s not going to be long before Steely Dan is called male manipulator music or critical thought is canceled and Steely Dan is kicked off its high horse. That’s how these things usually play out. 

“My biggest fear is that I will recklessly be made out to be a mythical god by the press, and then one day, it will come out that I am actually just a regular person—and people will feel resentment,” Mitski told Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes in 2016. She continued: “You see that in Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway—one minute everyone loves them, and then the next minute it just becomes trendy to hate them. That scares me so much.” 

Liking Mitski is a meme, but as she stressed in their interview, she is also a person. It is hard to remember that when someone or something becomes a meme. Mitski memes are camp. All memeing of music is. I fucking love Carly! Rae! Jepson! It’s a performance, like robots doing Shakespeare. 

It’s sad, all these years later, realizing that Mitksi was a victim of the cycle she outlined. The issue with the “I would die for Mitski meme” is it’s not a joke, it’s just a punchline. And punchlines get old. When things get old, we want something new and turn on what’s old. (See: Phoebe Bridgers (26) arguing with David Crosby (79) on Twitter.) We resent old memes and this is especially true if we weren’t in on the joke in the first place. (Imagine how annoying the ubiquitous Spongebob memes are to anyone who is well-adjusted today and hasn’t seen the show.) 

Here’s how the Mitski meme played out: Someone online accused Mitski of human trafficking and because the shot rang out, Mitski had to respond to the noise. In a since-deleted Tweet, Mitski denied the allegations and many commentators online weighed in with the conclusion being that the purported survivor’s details don’t add up. Mitski deleted her Twitter and Instagram and has kept a low profile since. Where once she was hailed as indie rock’s savior, she was kicked from her throne (for the time being) by a baseless claim that was argued as fervently as a man representing himself on the stand of his own murder trial. 

Indie rock’s current reigning queen of sad is Phoebe Bridgers. The young singer’s fans and haters peck each other alive on Twitter. The party lines are more fiercely drawn than between those who approve and oppose Roe v. Wade. But what are the two sides fighting about? It’s not so much about whether her music is good or bad. (The song “Kyoto” brings me closest to believing that she’s more than just fine.) The pro- camp won’t stand for anything short of universal praise and the anti-camp wants the right to disagree with the pro- camp. Stanning someone is not the humble monotheism of Judaism. It’s the gaudy and haughty Christianity, seeking converts and not afraid to shed some blood in the process. 

When the temperature is turned up, someone will step up and take the mantle of number 1 fan literally. They will lie, cheat, steal, and maybe even SWAT a Pitchfork reviewer’s childhood home. And their community will reward them.

When you intrinsically link a band with your personality or sense of being—a possible side-effect of memeing an artist—you find it harder to back down. It’s harder to admit that Nicki Minaj may not be perfect if you’re a Barb than if you’re not. It’s ok for artists not to be perfect. But when you’re literally obsessed with Gaga, it’s hard to see the trees for the forest. Lady G. worked with R. Kelly back in 2013 and, in part due to pressure from Little Monsters everywhere holding her accountable, she condemned the track and had it removed from streaming services. (While I think erasing the song seems more like PR than genuine remorse, I’ll take her at (poker) face value.) 

It is worth imaging how the same scenario might have played out with a little more toxicity on the part of the stan. Nicki’s army has been known to attack dissenters and has been particularly lax on her association with sexual abusers. If Nicki is your queen, that’s fine. But if you see her harmful actions and can’t voice opposition, that’s toxic.    

When you meme music, not only do the fans get flattened, but the art and artist do, too. When you think of Kate Bush, what song comes to mind? Do you enjoy listening to “Run Up That Hill” or has some of the fun been sucked from it when it’s just cultural detritus? Not a song you know and love, but a reference point. 

When you think of Steely Dan, do you think of Can’t Buy a Thrill, the band’s excellent—though not entirely representative—debut? No. Of course you don’t. You’re thinking of Aja, their best-selling album or Gaucho, the meme-approved dark house contender. We’re not engaging in good faith. There is no Steely Dan discourse. People are fans of being a fan of Steely Dan. It’s not pastiche; it’s parody. 

Stan, hater, or fan, all be damned. If the opposite of love is hate then to oppose the Stan ideology is to adopt the disposition of a troll. Neither side can possibly win. All that’s left are scorned fans and hurt artists.