Food & Drink Editor Adele Franghiadi takes a deep dive into the music industry’s use of memes, looking for the intersection of meme-culture and capitalism
In the past few years, corporations and celebrities have increasingly made use of memes – user-generated images or bitesize videos that can be easily shared online – for marketing and profit-making purposes. However, due to meme-culture’s anti-mainstream ethos, these outputs have appeared to fail, as seen on Reddit’s r/FellowKids, where high-power figures are mocked for their embarrassing meme-culture attempts. As a Global Popular Musics student, I was struck by how these reactions and the lack of corporate success can be better understood through examining the relationship between musical subcultures and mainstreams. As global meme-culture itself mirrors musical subcultural value, the use of meme-culture references and aesthetics, especially in commercial musical outputs such as Katy Perry’s ‘Swish Swish’ and John Mayer’s ‘New Light (Premium Content!)’ videos, mirrors hegemonic musical-mainstreaming processes, and raises complex issues of creative ownership within musical consumerism.
Meme-culture itself is quite hard to pin-down, but key themes and ideologies can be identified. Operating on social media platforms, meme-culture is a product of Web 2.0’s participatory culture that emphasises user-generated content, to be shared far and wide. Meme-culture epitomises this ethos, as it relies on organic content production and sharing for meme-formats to evolve into contextually-specific outputs. Therefore, in meme-culture, internet users occupy a unique position of being both producers and consumers, or ‘prosumers’ according to Bradley E. Wiggins and G Bret Bowers in 2014. This ‘prosumer’ culture has, in turn, represented a growing challenge to traditional media dissemination, which flows linearly from hegemonic media producers (such as major record labels or TV stations) down to consumers, who have little chance to influence outputs in significant ways without being part of the producing party.
Another challenge that meme-culture presents to hegemonic processes is its unique ability to facilitate user-generated globalisation. Typical globalisation processes involve economics and imbalances of social-mobility, but in meme-culture, as long as you have access to the internet and a social media account, you can share and modify memes as an equal participant in the global flows of meme formats, as part of the ‘prosumer’ structuring. Additionally, meme-culture specifically relies on internet-users taking globally-circulated meme-formats and ‘localising’ them through modifying the joke to suit a unique context that only certain individuals will understand, and therefore share within their sphere of digital influence. Take, for example, the University of Birmemeham, where, as UoB students, we are able to enjoy the campus-specific, localised jokes applied to widely understood, global meme-formats.
Meme-culture, however, can be further understood in context of musical subcultures. In subcultural scenes, much like meme-culture, there tends to be a ground-up ideology, and often there is an anti-mainstream, anti-hegemonic ethos among participants. However, the processes through which subcultural value is attributed to cultural outputs is strikingly similar to meme-culture. A primary tenet of a musical underground, according to Sarah Thornton’s 1996 study of British club culture, is that participants must possess insider knowledges that reflect their innate understanding of the subcultural scene. In music, this may be knowing certain slang, artists, behaviours, or even people, such as events organisers or producers. In meme-culture, this insider knowledge is also important if you want to be accepted within the ‘scene’. As meme-culture’s trends change so quickly, being able to keep up-to-date with cultural references, like the most recent format, is integral to being seen as ‘in the know’ and ‘hip’, as using a ‘stale’ meme reflects your lack of insider knowledge, much like using out-of-date slang in non-digital scenes.
However, Thornton also notes that this insider knowledge is ‘threatened by the general distribution and easy access of mass media’ (Thornton, 1996: 6). At a glance, this specification sets memes apart from musical subcultural value and implies they should exist in the ‘mainstream’, as they specifically exist in forms of mass media, such as social media networks. Additionally, their mass-appeal and ubiquity online has also led some users to associates memes with mainstreams, as argued by participants in my survey for researching this subject. However, as argued by Thornton, Jason Toynbee (2002) and Rupa Huq (2006), mainstreams and subcultures are not so clearly separated, which further complicates the status of memes. According to Jonathan L. Zittrain in 2014, despite its mass-appeal, meme-culture is generated by and for ‘people without a megaphone against institutions that often dominate mainstream culture’ (Zittrain, 2014: 389). This anti-hegemonic, ‘prosumer’ ethos is therefore diametrically opposed to cultural mainstreams, regardless of the size of meme-culture’s following, and shows that mainstreams aren’t so much about size, but about cultural production processes and user judgements.
In musicology, this issue has been explored in great depth, and can easily be re-applied to meme-culture. Jason Toynbee’s 2002 study of musical mainstreaming processes describes how mainstreams rely on the promotion of commercial products and services, which are ‘foisted on undiscriminating consumers by an industry concerned only with making profit’ (Toynbee, 2002: 149). Already, it is clear that non-economic meme-culture struggles to fit the mainstream mould. However, Toynbee’s definition of musical mainstreaming processes helps to further understand why meme-culture has failed to be successfully co-opted by corporations and high-power agencies. In the American music industry, mainstreams are formed by the hegemonic record labels recognising the potential for profit in underground scenes, and through ‘negotiation and alliance with subordinate groups’ rather than outright domination (Toynbee, 2002: 150), the mainstream label begins to push the underground scene into the profit-making hegemonic mainstream. This alliance, however takes a long time of planning and negotiating, and relies on the longevity of musical styles, as it guarantees the music will still be on trend after it is eventually promoted up through the ranks. In meme-culture, where trends change on sometimes as quick as a weekly basis, this process is evidently not applicable. Yet in Katy Perry’s ‘Swish Swish’ video, such an attempt at mainstreaming memes was made. Survey participants were quick to pick up on how this video used ‘stale’ memes, and failed to demonstrate an understanding of how meme-culture’s trends work, making it a ‘cringeworthy’ experience
Another way that memes have evaded the mainstream, despite the culture’s wide-reach, is through the cultural production structure. Mainstreams, particularly in the music industry, are maintained through an ‘oligonomy’, which merges an ‘oligopsony’ on the buying side and an ‘oligopoly’ on the selling side, according to Jack Bishop in 2005. In the oligopsony side, there are many sellers (singers, songwriters, producers etc.) pitching to a limited number of buyers (major record labels), who the push down the sellers’ prices, as they have the increased power in such a saturated buyer’s market. After then producing songs, videos, and marketing materials, the mainstream products are ready to sell in the oligopoly side. Here, the limited number of sellers (major record labels) are selling to a massive market of buyers (the average consumer), so the labels therefore have the power to drive prices up in this seller’s market. Furthermore, the labels are able to maintain control of profits and defend against piracy through strict copyright and ownership laws, which prohibit their products being used in any way that jeopardises their ability to make a profit. Therefore, mainstreams are structured around the hegemonic label being able to make the most money possible, and on their own terms, through the merging of two separate economic structures.
This oligonomy, however, is near-impossible to apply to meme-culture. As meme-culture is so centred around freely sharing content as far and wide as possible, and relies on unprohibited creativity to modify meme-formats into localised jokes, there is (at least in theory) no way that memes can be subject to a linear sharing structure. However, attempts at forcing meme-culture into this oligonomic mould have been made. In both ‘Swish Swish’ and John Mayer’s ‘New Light (Premium Content!)’, the meme-based humour is literally trapped in the context of the wider video, preventing specific sharing. In ‘Swish Swish’, Perry specifically references memes, which can only be shared (legally at least) through sending a link to the entire music video. In ‘New Light (Premium Content!)’, whilst there are few specific meme-formats, the video appears to capitalise upon the general aesthetic of homemade-ness and awkward, ‘ironic’ behaviour of internet humour. However, Mayer’s attempt at ‘memey’ humour can again only be shared (legally…) through directing viewers to his entire music video.
Since the music industry clocked on to YouTube’s adverstising revenue and the power of participatory culture, online music videos have become huge earners, according to Heather McIntosh in 2016. When music videos were only shown on TV, profits were hugely limited, as television programming limited the number of times the video could be played, and also narrowed the audience as viewers could only watch when the video was being screened. Online, the audience is greatly increased, and each person can watch a video any number of times, whenever they please, thus making online music videos an incredibly profitable resource nowadays. In making videos that appear ‘memey’, it seems that the labels wished to make content that people would be compelled to share, not because the singers wish to be part of meme-culture, but because there is a huge potential for profit the more the video is shared. Furthermore, these videos, as copyrighted material, prohibit modifications or further creativity. This all represent a clear affront to meme-culture’s values of freely sharing bitesize videos that encourage creative modification by a number of prosumers, so that content can be localised and shared further. Through monetisation and legal limitations by high-power agencies, videos and outputs such as these represent an attempt to force meme-culture into the linear flow of hegemonic oligonomies where producers dictate how cultural outputs are consumed and how they will make money off their products, despite meme-culture’s cyclical structure which is non-economic, and largely non-prohibitive between ordinary people.
In ‘Swish Swish’ in particular, many survey participants commented on their distaste for such mainstreaming attempts on meme-culture. From the use of ‘stale’ memes (which only get ‘staler’ as time goes by), through to the transparency of the economic factors in the appropriation of memes, viewers commented that the video was ’embarrassing to watch’, and evidently ‘against the spirit of memes’. It was noted and seen as offensive that corporations would ‘target meme-culture and…monetise it’, and that celebrities would attempt to ‘garner popularity’ by ‘shoehorning’ meme-culture into their profit-making products.
The disgust that young people online have expressed towards corporate involvement in meme-culture, whilst appearing trivial on the surface, may therefore not actually be misplaced. Corporations who use memes continually appear as either ‘not in the know’ about the nature of the references they’re making, or seem to not care that they’re using memes incorrectly at both theoretical and aesthetic levels, as long as they’re making a profit. The growing academic interest in meme-culture will hopefully trickle down into popular discourse, much like subcultural/mainstream discourses in music has, which may one day lead to high-power agencies realising some things are just off limits. However, until then, we’ll have to just grin and bear it when embarrassing attempts at being ‘hip’ and ‘memey’ are made – looking at you, ‘Swish Swish’.