Look Meme, I'm Famemeous: The Year the Music Internet Left Blogs Behind
Screw an album review.
Music in 2014 was a lot of things. It was the year the full-length rap album died. It was the year R&B music was alive and well (it was apparently not in 2013). It was “heavier” than usual, whatever that means. It was the number one topic on Twitter. It also wasn’t the same without Rihanna. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that 2014 was a bad year for music.
Of course, that’s not really true: Music is dope, and a lot of dope stuff came out in 2014. But what 2014 really lacked were huge albums, albums that could be lightning rods (aside from their delivery system), albums that were overhyped, and albums around which a clear critical consensus could swell behind. In 2014, the albums were smaller stakes, the critical swell less defined. We’ve heard for years that the Internet was killing off record reviews, because if people want to hear an album, any album, it’s just a click away via Spotify or Pirate Bay or YouTube. It finally feels like that is actually true and not just worried doomsaying from music critics worried about their meager potential income dropping lower than Nicki in the “Anaconda” video.
The reason music feels like it was “weak” in 2014 is that most of the best, most exciting music on the Internet this year didn’t need an official album review, didn’t need the imprimatur of the blogs flogging the now-dead predictable buzz band hype cycle, and they didn’t need write-ups in dying music magazines to get noticed. All they needed was ground level support from fans on the internet—who often discovered them not from music blogs but from Twitter or Soundcloud or Vine—and then turned them into stars through meme-ification. In 2014, music was “happening” across so many different social media outlets that no media outlet could hope to keep up; by the time most places got to writing about some of 2014’s biggest internet music stars, they were 2000 and late. This year, an artist’s potential as an easily meme-able commodity had as much impact on their Internet fame as whether their music was “good.”
Take one of 2014’s biggest internet breakout stars—though you’d be hard pressed to find him on most “respected” music blogs or magazines—Spooky Black, the mysterious experimental, R&B-inspired Minnesota teenager who released multiple projects in 2014 (Black Silk was his finest). Emerging with the instant classic video for “Without You”—which featured him dressed like a budget 90s loverman—Spooky instantly took over Soundcloud, which this year has secretly become the number one location for cool teens to hang on the internet. And cool teens didn’t love much more than Spooky, and his group Thestand4rd, allowing the group to have a sold out U.S. tour without nary an interview, or hard biographical facts emerging, even after Spooky’s family sold merch at all their shows. It remains to be seen if Spooky has to go the Weeknd route and submit to questioning and a public unmasking in order to be a star, but he probably doesn’t have to do anything other than keep putting his music up on Soundcloud and touring to have a real career.
There was no music-critic lightning rod more visible in the middle third of 2014 than another outsider teenager, Yung Lean. His Unknown Memory was one of this year’s most awaited LPs—it served as the physical introduction of Lean into a rap marketplace that had to reckon with the fact that a Swedish teen who calls himself a “Sad Boy” might have made one of the year’s best rap albums. Despite every third person at Pitchfork Fest looking like a member of SBE, Pitchfork trashed Lean, like you knew they would. But where vicious takedowns of the likes of Black Kids or Jet or Travis Morrison were legendary and had a real purpose in establishing indie zeitgeist, the Lean review felt inevitable and pointless. Lean is popular—for real popular, as he sold out tons of shows around the U.S. too—with kids who are purchasing gallons of Arizona Tea and limited edition Mishka merchandise and are tweeting Lean lyrics in all caps and are not offended or even worried about a Pitchfork review—they probably haven’t even heard of Pitchfork. Meanwhile the average Pitchfork reader who thinks the War on Drugs vs. Mark Kozelek feud is actual news gets to maintain the smug self-satisfaction that comes with Yung Lean getting a worse score than Alt-J. Lean exists in a world where he’s so huge he HAS to be reviewed by Pitchfork, but it has literally no impact on how anyone sees him.
Summer 2K14’s hottest jam was recorded by another near-teenager: Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” became the song you heard coming out of car speakers and house parties all July and August. This year was rife with “bringing back New York hip-hop” typical localist bullshit from rap blogs, so it’s extra salient that the biggest New York MC was a 20-year-old self-starter who released his video on YouTube and saw his signature dance (“The Shmoney Dance”) turned into this year’s most viral dance/hat throw. It’s possible your grandma has even done it, or you did it at wedding. Of course, after Bobby became one of this year’s hottest commodities, Epic rushed in to commoditize the Shmurda team, signing him to a contract and releasing Shmurda She Wrote, his debut EP, months after “Hot N*gga” was tearing up parties and Twitter feeds. To Epic’s credit, they did get an official release of “Hot N*gga” onto the Billboard charts, a rare case of a meme becoming a hit in the “real” world.
Then there’s the Music Meme King, Riff Raff, who for my money released this year’s best album, Neon Icon. Riff Raff spent the last few years circling a mainstream breakthrough—whatever tenuous thing that means in 2014—but thanks to the hilarious Vine-ability of “Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz” he became a more bankable touring act and an even more critic proof rapper. At this point, he’s big enough of a phenomenon that he can sell licensed Spring Breakers-inspired face masks and even dumber merch. Reviews of Neon Icon hemmed and hawed—hemming and hawing is essential to the reaction of serious critics to Riff Raff—over Riff Raff’s perceived minstrelsy, which is an important discussion to have, but that discussion’s impact on Riff Raff’s 2014 was negligible. He still toured, recorded his absurdist Vines, and ironed Quesadillas in hotel rooms across the country in 2014. He used to be the subject of a lot of “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?” thinkpieces, but now Riff Raff is post-thinkpiece. He is never going to explain anything like people want, and now he’s too popular for it to matter.
The meme-ification of music went beyond just those three guys of course. Young Thug’s dismantling and reconstruction of Atlanta hip-hop was occasionally overshadowed by segments of Twitter rising up to mock his sartorial choices and question his sexuality while another branch tried to figure out what he was actually saying. iLoveMakonnen made “club going up on a Tuesday” into the thing it was most fun to Tweet at 3 AM when you were drunk. Chief Keef turned his Instagram into a place to premiere music, and it became a place to interact with him while his major label deal fell apart. Azealia Banks used to be famous for trashing other musicians on Twitter and saying she makes better music than them, and this year she actually finally released an album, and it totally ruled. Migos not only released two superlative mixtapes, they had a dumb thing they had nothing to do with—Migos > Beatles—become a meme, which then had more of a backlash than any Migos release. All of these acts existed outside of the traditional buzz band/music press hype cycle till they could no longer be ignored by publications just trying to keep up.
Will this up from bottom of social media trend continue in 2014? It’s hard to say. But in 2015, Drake, Kanye, and probably Rihanna, and maybe Jay-Z will all put out new albums, and it will be seen as a “strong” year for music. There will probably be a clear number one album, and no one will tweet “2015 was a bad year for music.” But it also seems possible that there will be a new meme-ified music personality who will come from nowhere and dominate all the music talk on Twitter. They’ll probably be discovered on Yik Yak.
Andrew Winistorfer took a bunch of photos of himself rap squatting this year. Follow Andrew Winistorfer on Twitter.