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MEMES, Part 11: I've heard this before33:56
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In this episode, we challenge all of our stated ideas about the definition of memes and how they operate as a unique unit of cultural information. We’ll cross-examine memes and their relevance and look at the ways in which music has many of the same qualities as the memes we know and love today. From Tik Tok all the way back to the very beginning of human culture, music provides insight into why memes are such an obsession right now, and how they spread.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory Sivertson: I'm going to close my computer, OK?

Ben Brock Johnson: Is that a good idea because you're on? Aren't we calling, talking to each other on Slack? On Zoom.? Did we lose Amory? Oh, Amory.

Ben: Amory Sivertson.

Amory: Benjamin Brock-aman John-saman. That's my current mood. Hello, Ben.

Ben: This will work. OK, you ready? Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Amory: Oh, I can't work with that, unfortunately. Tell me more.

Ben: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Nothing?

Amory: I got nothing.

Ben: All right. You're not alone in your confusion because once upon a time, the Starfleet crew of the Enterprise were also bewildered Amory in a classic Star Trek episode called “Darmok.”

Amory: Oh!

Madeleine Vasaly: Well, I actually didn't see “Darmok” for the first time on TV, I saw it as part of a linguistic anthropology class I was taking in college. 

Ben: This is Madeleine Vasaly. She is a freelance editor in Minnesota. She is a Darmok fan.

Madeleine: basically the premise of the episode is that Picard and the Enterprise crew encounter a civilization that completely baffles their universal translator.  

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OK, Amory, we have talked about this, right, a little bit. Yes.

Amory: Yes, we have.

Ben: OK. And you immediately went and watched the episode, I know several times. So in the episode, Captain Picard, a.k.a. Patrick Stewart, is on a video call like a Zoom call between ships with this alien civilization, the Tamarins. Only he can't understand what they are saying.

B: In a kind of high stakes effort to make a genuine connection with this Tamarian civilization, Captain Picard does this high stakes thing. He beams down to a dangerous planet to meet the Tamarian leader tete a tete.

And at first it’s hard for Picard to tell whether this Tamarian captain wants to be friends. Or kill him. Because he can’t figure out how to TALK to him.

[PICARD: What now, Captain? Will you attack me in my sleep?]

Madeleine: And eventually Picard comes around to communicate with this guy that they're trying to communicate with because as they eventually figure out, the Tamarins speak in references instead of in literal language.

[PICARD: That's how you communicate, isn't it? By citing example. By metaphor!]

Amory: Yes, I've awoken.

Ben: So when Madeleine saw this Star Trek episode in her linguistics class, she thought it was cool, but more like, huh, that's interesting. Cool. And then in 2018, she goes to a copy editors conference. Also, very cool.

Amory: Oh yeah.

Madeleine: So I decided to stop into a session on constructed languages by an editor named Sea Chapman, and she basically spent an hour talking about how we can go about creating fictional languages 

Ben: During the Q&A, someone brought up Darmok and the Tamarian language.

Madeleine: Everyone else in the audience sort of made this like, Oh yeah, like familiar noise. Because chances are, if you're at a conference attending a presentation about Con Langs, you're probably a bit of a nerd and you've probably seen Darmok. 

Conlang, as in constructed languages.

Amory: Oh, I just thought that was like another Star Trek term coming in.

Ben: Anyway, this led to a giant nerd debate, of course, about the Tamarian language. And then this one guy stood up and said, “Woah, woah, woah. I'm a linguist. The Tamarian way of speaking, references, i's not a great example of constructed language because…”

Madeleine: Well, language doesn't work that way, but memes sure do.

Amory: Memes!

Ben: Tamarin is a language of means, right? Madeleine said the room was suddenly overcome with a collective epiphany like, wow, did Star Trek really predict memes?

Madeleine: I think the reason it made sense is because so often when I see memes used online, they're not used as part of a conversation, necessarily. They're used almost in place of a conversation. So instead of someone using a meme in addition to something that they're saying, they're communicating their response entirely through the meme. And so in that way, saying that memes were like, Darmok. It just sort of made natural, natural sense to me. 

Amory: This is brilliant. Yeah. When did this episode come out?

Ben: 1991

Amory: Get out of here.

Ben: So for today's episode, the final endless thread meme season episode, we're going to you maybe where no person has gone before to challenge everything we've been learning in our season and explode the definition of memes like we're hitting it with pulse cannons from the Starship Enterprise.

Amory: Pew, pew.

Ben: You ready? Battle stations?

Amory: I don't know. Star Trek. I'm sorry, but I'm ready. Yes. Let's go. All right. To infinity and bey––. Nope. Wrong reference.

Ben: Close enough. I'll take it.

Ben: All right. Do you want to let everyone know how much you know about what we're talking about today?

Amory: You've referred to it as the mystery episode this whole time that we've been working on this season.

Ben: Well, so there are reasons we kept this a secret from you. And I think one of the biggest reasons is that I have this theory that I don't think you're going to like.

Amory: Oh, OK.

Ben: Can you give me the most primordial forms of culture?

Amory: Writing,

Ben: OK.

Amory: Spoken language.

Ben: OK, getting closer, getting warmer.

Amory: Something that comes out of one's mouth?

Ben: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Amory: Like singing.

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: Ahh!

Ben: Music. One of the first forms of culture, I feel like is music, right? And my crazy theory is that all music from the beginning of time to right now. Is just infinite meaning.

Amory: Hmm.

Ben: OK. OK, you're open, I like it.

Amory: Yeah, the idea of thinking of it as mimetic is new to my brain, but the whole the standard, you know, nothing is original. Everything is based on something else, referencing something else––that's that's not new to me.

Ben: OK. That's our show, everyone. Take care. All right. So I'm going to explain this for the skeptical listeners out there. We should do a refresher for anyone out there who may have missed our previous nine episodes. We should define meme. Can you define memes?

Amory: I hope so. I would say if I've learned anything at all, is that a meme is a unit of culture or a unit of cultural information in the same way that a gene is a unit of genetic information. And as that unit of cultural information passes from person to person or is shared from person to person, it evolves in some way. It changes in some way.

Ben: That's good. So we started with Darmok. But now onto our next chapter, which has in a way, a similar name Tik Tok.

Amory: I love talking about Tik Tok.

Ben: Yeah, Tik Tok talk.

Amory: Tik Tok talk. On the clock.

Ben: So. So we haven't talked that much about Tik Tok and our meme series, but it's can you explain - how would you explain Tik Tok?

Amory: Tik Tok is a social media platform that is primarily videos that people are sharing. And to me, Tik Tok is where you go to get weird. It's where you go to show how weird human beings are. And I really appreciate that about it.

Ben: Yeah, me too. And I think also Tik Tok as a platform is kind of built for memeing, and music is a big part of the meaning on TikTok. And that's because all Tik Tok videos with music have links at the bottom that lead to that music. So if I want to use it, all I do is click “Use this sound,” and I've got the backing track for my next different referential Tik Tok.

Amory: Hmm.

Ryan Broderick: As far as I'm aware, it's one of the only platforms that has ever existed that really does this. 

Ben: So this is Ryan Broderick.

Ryan: and because of this feature, audio is extremely malleable. So there's lots of remixes. There's lots of, you know, screwing with sound and playing with sound and taking different sounds and combining them. 

Ben: So Ryan writes the internet culture newsletter Garbage Day. He knows memes, big time, because in Garbage Day he’s often logging them and explaining them as they appear and get popular online. And one example he gave is this artist Bella Poarch, who recently released this song called “Build a B*tch.”

Ryan: It's a really weird vibe and it doesn't really make sense on its own, but it also doesn't need to make sense on its own because it's got like lyrics that are perfect for lip synching to it has a little base hits that you can cut your video to very clearly. That’s really all you need.

Ben: So Bella Poarch designed her song to be used on Tik Tok, right? She set out to make me music in a way. Take my song lip sync, change it up, do whatever. But maybe the clearest example of how TikTok is built for musical meaning is…

[“Sea Shanty” by Nathan Evans: She'd not been two weeks from shore / When down on her a right whale bore] 

Ben: So shanty, or “Sea Shanty” is a meme. It starts with Nathan Evans, the Scottish mailman, in his mid 20s. He's an aspiring musician, and in the final week of 2020, he's really feeling these like weird pandemic life vibes. So he posts a TikTok of himself singing an old sea chanty.

Ben: Soon, man, the Wellerman come….

Amory: I can't believe that was the end of 2020,

Ben: I know it feels like 20 years ago. Yeah. Oh, so he doesn't expect much of a response, right? He just kind of like, does this thing, he posts it and everyone starts doing their own sea chanties. It blows up, in part because of this Tik Tok feature called duets.

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Ryan: And it's a pretty cool idea. It's like a, quote, tweet or a blog, but a video version. So if I like your video, I can take your video duet with it and then add myself to your video or add your video inside my video. And people can get really creative with this. They can add like layers and layers and layers of videos. I’ve seen some absolutely wild ones that are virtually impossible to describe in audio only. Just, they’re really incredible. 

[“Sea Shanty” by Nathan Evans: Soon may the Wellerman come / To bring us sugar and tea and rum]

Amory: I love it. I love TikTok, I love the freedom that it gives people to, to get creative, and I think the the duetting feature is brilliant and yeah, I'm all in.

Ben: All right. I love it. I love that. You love it. All right. So so we've reached this point with Tik Tok and other platforms. Music and video memes, they kind of are starting to maybe outshine static memes in some cases sea shanties or songs, but they're also memes. Music as meme. But I know I proposed something bigger like this idea that all music, the entire library of music from ancient drums and flutes to Lil Nas X is all a meme. Mm hmm. And we'll get there after the break.

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Ben: OK, so Amory, if I had to guess, I know you make beautiful music and I've heard it and it is truly beautiful, but you're I don't think you do. You do samples. Do you use samples in your music making?

Amory: I don't. No. The closest I've come is taking recordings that I've made on my phone and mixing those into some tracks. Yeah, but that's not sampling someone else's work, necessarily, but it is kind of repurposing something that was made for a totally different reason. Yeah. And incorporating it in,

Ben: That's really cool. That's cool that you do that. And it's I think it's relevant to this part of the conversation. So I called up this other guy, Jason O'Bryan, and he teaches at the Abbey Road Institute in London. Clearly Beatles focused in many ways, but Jason teaches young musicians all about music and the technological advances we’ve created in making that music.

Jason O’Bryan: The first sampler really that was commercially available and successful was an instrument called the Chamberlain

Ben: It's named after its inventor, Harry Chamberlain, who wondered if he could make a keyboard, play prerecorded flute sounds and match the pitches with the keys,

Jason: so that that instrument developed into the Mellotron, which is a more famous instrument which was used on the beginning of Strawberry Fields Forever, providing the flute intro to that song.

Amory: Oh, of course.

Ben: classic. So at the beginning, like back in the day, sampling really meant hooking a recording up with a keyboard, right? So the keys would trigger the recording. And if you think about that, you're cutting a piece of sound, right? And then you're like pasting it and you're remixing it. Is this sounding familiar?

Amory: Yeah, yeah. OK. I'm still with you.

Ben: All right. That's close. I almost lost her.

Amory: Oh, no. I guess. Yeah, OK, I'm here.

Ben: OK, so then of course, sampling evolves right as a musical art form. Instead of making strange keyboard music from a single flute, no people start using more complex samples.

Jason: things like Rapper's Delight by the Sugar Sugar Hill Gang, which sampled good times by Chic in the early 80s. The baseline. 

Ben: Can you sing it better than me? 

Jason: Yeah. So the bass line goes, (sings) bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. 

Amory: If there was if we made one of those video podcasts, there would be so many little. You'd see so many little shoulder shimmy coming from me right now.

Ben: Good, good. All right. So then sampling evolves again, right? Instead of using a single drum fill or baseline, people start making music entirely comprised of samples. And so one of the first examples is De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising. There's also the Beastie Boys album Paul's Boutique, which you probably have heard of.

Amory: Mm hmm.

Jason: That album for me was it was a real eye opener as to what was possible with samplers, because up to that point, they had provided an element of a song rather than the entire basis of all the music on an album, which which is what it was, is a it's a kind of masterpiece in the art of sampling, really that record. 

Jason: So that so that album features samples like Sly and the Family Stone

Jason: and what that what the album does as well as it doesn't only just it doesn't only loop one idea and repeat it. It goes from idea to idea kind of rapid pace. So it's kind of constantly changing. The drums are changing. The the musical loops are changing. I guess it's like the Mona Lisa of sampling. 

Ben: So I don't know, I mean, Mona Lisa of sampling is…  that's a pretty intense statement, but but let's focus in for a minute, right? Samples are literal cultural units that are being spread and remixed and recontextualized within other music here, right?

Amory: Yeah. And if those cultural units are made up of all of the cultural units that came before it, that allowed that information or work of art to be created, then we're in a sense like sampling, on sampling, on sampling, on sampling, on sampling exponentially.

Ben: You're smoking what I'm rolling. You're smoking what I'm rolling.  So, all right, so let me ask you this as a music player. Are you an ear person? Like, do you learn songs by ear?

Amory: I'd say more by ear than than by music. Yeah.

Ben: What's the earliest song you can remember kind of hearing out?

Amory: Probably something by the Beatles, you know, probably like the interlude in “In My Life,” the piano interlude, which actually was played much slower and then was sped up in the recording that you hear. But I wanted to learn it and learn it at the tempo that's on the recording.

Amory: And that I remember learning by ear.

Ben: All right, well, I asked some other cool people this question.

Reggie Watts: the first song I clearly remember doing that with for how where I was around. Those are all of them, right? Yeah, no. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John. Let's get physical.

Amory: Physical Physical.

Reggie: I mimicked her tonality. Her range and her that. Soft kind of up there tonality, I remember that one very clearly, I'm sure there were others before that but that was kind of definitely my first one.

Ben: So this, Amory, is Reggie Watts, who has a lot of influences, which he learned from mimicking people like Olivia Newton-John, Ray Charles, the Fat Boys...

Reggie: And then and then Michael Winslow from the police academy movies, he blew me away because he was a beatboxer.

Ben: Oh hell yeah. 

Reggie: It wasn't really a beatboxer. He does do beatbox stuff, but he's more like a mimic. He's more like a world machine. Humans, yeah, culture mimic guy.

Reggie: And I was like, woah, because I was always, you know, obviously, when you play as kids, you know, Star Wars was big back then for me. So, you know, you'd be playing you know, like all these sounds and stuff and as a kid anyways. But then like you had Michael Winslow, you had like that super high level, you know, mimicry. And I was like, Oh shit, this is whoa, this is crazy. 

Ben: Yeah, 

Reggie: I mean, how does he do this? And then, you know, and then I just started practicing when I would hear things like machines, I would try to get the right sound, the resonance of it, like the friction of like a gear coming to a halt, all that stuff.

Ben: So Amory, you know, Reggie Watts, have you do you know of Reggie Watts?

Amory: He's he like, he's the bandleader of some. Is it a late night show band or something? James Corden?

Ben: Yes, and he's like an amazing musician and comedian. And you know, this all sort of makes sense if you listen to Reggie Watts, like it's not the traditional throwdown to beat it for a rap thing, right? It is music unto itself. It pours out of him. It is based on the things he hears, musical or not.

Reggie: Yeah, I mean, I still do it today. You know, I'm just like walking around, going [BEATBOX] and just like walking around doing my thing. And sometimes I don't even notice I'm doing it. 

Ben: The other thing worth saying here is that, like you, Emery, he's not really like an extremely online kind of person. Reggie Watts, he is. He's not a Tik Tok God, if you will.

Ben: Are you meme aware or are you a meme or are you a meme lord? Or are you? Do you? 

Reggie: (LAUGHS) Meme Lord?

Ben: So to me, this made Reggie the perfect person to propose this theory to.

Ben: I guess I just wonder what you what you think about that as an idea that, like a lot of music is like essentially assembled cultural units that are sort of like, you know, assembled originally by the originator, but also in some ways, you know, arguably referential to other work consciously or unconsciously. 

Reggie: Yeah. I mean, you know, like Thundercat’s, was it blood on the blood on the dance floor? 

Ben: Oh yeah. Yeah, I know what you're talking about. Yeah. 

Reggie: Nobody move. Duh Duh, Duh Duh.

[Thundercat: Nobody move, there's blood on the floor. / And I can't find my heart] 

Reggie: When I when I heard that I was like, I'm so confused right now because like, I know that drum beat. But that's like, I keep hearing footsteps, baby in the nine o’ in the night. 

Reggie: That song is that's the beat bum si ka bum si ka. Do do do. So, you know, there's like tons and tons and tons of quotes that are used all the time in music.

And even in THAT example…there’s a MIDDLE step between “Footsteps in the Dark” by the Isley Brothers…released in 1977…and Thundercat’s 2017 album. Which surely Reggie knows as well. The 1993 song by Ice Cube, “A Good Day.”

Ben: This stuff is genre and music culture agnostic. Here's something that I really liked recently. It's from a video of Dave Grohl talking with Pharrell about recording Nirvana's Nevermind.

[Dave Grohl: I pulled so much stuff from the Gap Band and Cameo and Tony Tompson on all of those songs. All that [drums] that’s disco. 

Pharrell: Wow. [drums] 

Dave: That’s all it is.] 

Ben: So Reggie also mentioned Doja Cat, this L.A. rapper who has this one song “Kiss Me More.”

Reggie: there's basically a moment that sounds like (sings) at the end of the chorus, and that's basically Gwen Stefani. Yeah. “Hollaback Girl.”

Reggie: Hollaback girl mixed with two other songs which are just like, it's it's it's own song. It's not like it's not like me going like they totally ripped off, you know? No, it's not that at all. And and the mixture of it just makes this beautiful, amazing, hooky line that makes you feel good in ways that are just beyond the immediate form of what it is. So in a way, music is kind of like one of the original memes. I mean, meme generators, because, you know, you hear these quotes or you hear a texture or you hear a rhythm or you hear a register, there's so many. It's a multi-dimensional equation that's happening. And when you hear it, it makes you feel all these different ways differently.

Ben: So we're kind of talking about this idea that like, music is built on something, and that something had to come before and whether it's music theory or musical influence. Just focus on influence for a second, right? Like Ryan, the guy I spoke with about Tik Tok, he and I were talking about Lil Nas X.

And Ryan mentioned that Lil Nas X doesn't actually have a clear genre.

Ryan: He doesn't really have a specific sound. But he was a barb, he was a Nicki Minaj stan, and so his music, it sounds a lot like what a Nicki Minaj stan would make music sound. You know, that's what it sounds like. 

Ben: And so let’s follow that down the rabbit hole … because Lil Nas X loves Nikki Minaj.

Ben: Nikki Minaj has said that the singer Monica is one of her greatest musical influences.

Ben: Monica was a big fan of Whitney Houston.

Ben: Whitney loved Aretha Franklin.

Ben: Aretha’s central influence was Clara Ward.

Ben: Clara listened to Queen C. Anderson.

Ben: Queen C. came from Gospel …  gospel from blues…blues from slave work songs … which had rhythms based on African drum beats … which … I mean, Africa is where humans began. The point being like with internet memes, you can trace the origins of a single piece of music all the way back as far as the documentation exists.

Amory: This is so fun. This is so fun, and it's also good. Yeah, it's so fun. And, you know, great job. And I think while this is so fun, it also is kind of like nothing…

Ben: Nothing matters, it's all just cultural reference.

Amory: Well, kind of, yeah. You know, like, I don't know, I'd say it's equal parts exciting and also kind of like, is anything original then? Does anything matter? Will I ever make something original? And why is that even important to me? Does that matter? Maybe, maybe it doesn't matter because we're just here to exist, right? I don't know.

Ben: No, that's right, though I think that's right. And I think that, you know, we've talked about in this season, we've talked about context collapse, right? And this idea that like, yeah, you know, for a lot of people means they come from a specific place in the person like consuming that meme, like understands that and is like, “Oh yeah, this is from The Office” or whatever. But like over time, the ones that survive the longest are the ones where you don't actually need to understand anything necessarily about the original to understand the meaning of the latest iteration. Right?

Amory: Yeah. And you know what? This is where this is, why and as you know, my appreciation for memes has increased over the course of the series and over the process from zero to ehhhhh we’re getting there. But one thing I do really appreciate any time you're talking about. Culture in general is that culture is about a feeling. To me, it's so left brain, it's so like just stop thinking about what it is or how it came to be and doesn't make you feel something. And by presenting me with a musical example, you have done something great for me, which is that means and all culture are about a feeling and that will always be more important to me than knowing something or not. Is just feeling something.

Ben: All right, well, thank you for playing along and listening in, and thanks to all the endless thread listeners who have been listening to our meme series and for going on this weird wild ride with us.

Amory: I'm a meme. You're a meme everywhere, meme, meme everywhere.

Ben: Meme meme.

[CREDITS]

Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, Amory’s shower songs... my bathtub tunes? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.

Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. Call us. Yes, pick up the phone. 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to endlessthread@wbur.org. We just might feature your voice memo and your suggestion on the show.

Ben: For example...

Holden: Hey, this is Holden from Las Vegas, Nevada. I think the single most underrated meme is the coffin dance meme, which is the pallbearers from Ghana. I mean, yes, it sounds tragic. But you see them dancing holding up a coffin. It’s just something that is very upbeat, very fun. It’s just a fun way that we handle grief. That’s my two cents for that.

Amory: This episode was produced by Dean Russell, Ben Brock Johnson and Frank Hernandez. Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson

Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.

Amory: Mix and Sound Design by Matt Reed. Original music in this episode also by Matt Reed. Also, check out the songs you heard in this episode — Including the one you just heard, “4 Chords” by Axis of Awesome — at our website wbur.org/endlessthread.

Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:

Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.

Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.

Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian.

Kenyatta Cheese co-founded the site Know Your Meme, where Don Caldwell is Editor in Chief.

Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.

Amory: This episode was produced by Dean Russell, Ben Brock Johnson and Frank Hernandez. Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson

Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.

Amory: Mixing and Sound Design by Paul Viatkus.

Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner and Rachel Carlson.

Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and the shaggy, warm, and the crumbs of the sad cake you baked to celebrate the end of a pandemic that isn't over. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email endlessthread@wbur.org.

Ben: Stay cool forever!

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