2017 In Review

The Year In Viral Success Stories: The Good, The Bhad, & The Buzzy

The fidget spinner may very well be the emblem of 2017: an omnipresent commercial object meant to relieve stress. It didn’t take long for the toy to become a cultural phenomenon, and like any meme in today’s age, the fidget spinner’s mass popularity was fueled by some wicked mix of ubiquity, social influence, and the internet. With time on their hands and parents’ money in their pockets, kids were first to the trend around April. Soon thereafter, aided by social media and market tracking, fidget spinners were everywhere — a charming distraction from political chaos. The rotating plastic (or metal, depending on your preference) hypnotized people of all ages, dominating physical and online spaces.

Through a similar equation, 2017 saw music careers driven by fandom and digital relevance. Meme stars were rewarded with record deals and viral personalities became even more impossible to ignore. These primarily negative trends at least yielded some positive runoff: like the fidget spinner, cultural phenomena inspire community among their followers. At its best, the internet provides a space for organic artist development, collaboration, and music discovery — a place for genuine artistry to flourish without the domineering hand of industry promotion. The flip-side finds artists stuck in an internet echo chamber, consumed by a social media-built persona and, ultimately, stagnated by its power. Once you’re everywhere, where do you go?

Kids who popularized the fidget spinner had the screen time and, consequently, the clout to bring memes into prominence this year. But only time will tell if they have the attention span to maintain them. Twelve-year-old rapper Matt Ox was initially noticed by the rap collective Working On Dying, but what made him attract the public eye was the fidget spinner motif in the music video for his single “Overwhelming.” In other words: He became a meme because of a meme. “I told ‘em, put fidget spinners in the video, it’ll blow up,” he says in a Noisey Raps video. It did blow up, and he was eventually signed to Warner Bros. The song sounds like KidzBop on lean, but I’m not so much criticizing Ox or his music (he is 12, after all) as I’m questioning the gimmick-minded system that bred him. The kid is a walking headline — a spectacle built on buzz — made to trend, but not necessarily to last. His press coverage was ample but, unsurprisingly, short-lived. There’s only so much you can say about the 12-year-old fidget spinning rapper, all of which I just wrote in this sentence.

There’s a lot more you can say about Jake Paul, mainly because he insists on posting videos every single day. If you’re unfamiliar, Paul is the spawn of Vine whose inane digital output has only grown since the six-second video platform’s extinction last year. Vlogs, pranks, and music videos are delivered to his 10 million YouTube subscribers, each running (much) longer than six seconds. His fanbase, which he cleverly nicknamed the “Jake Paulers,” seems to be made up of tweens and a subset of young adults who probably miss college. Scrolling through his titles and thumbnails — “OUR FIRST MAKEOUT SESSION” and “I COVERED MY FRIEND’S CAR IN PEANUT BUTTER” among them — it becomes abundantly clear that music isn’t his main goal. Paul is building a brand, of which his music is a mere appendage. His songs are like commercials put to music; most every one includes an overt plug for his clothing line.

Founded on selfie culture and views, Paul’s music regurgitates itself and the digital landscape it exists within, perhaps most evident on his first and most popular song, “It’s Everyday Bro,” which is literally about vlogging. The music video, which now has 160 million views, debuted in May in Paul’s typical flashy, hi-res fashion; watching Paul and his YouTube gang whip and nae-nae while rapping about text messages and Rolex watches feels like entering an internet feedback loop. Fans and artists are buying into its apparent reach; Gucci Mane raps on the remix of “It’s Everyday Bro” and Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd has a verse on Paul’s new Christmas song, unfortunately called “Litmas.”

Unlike Paul’s fame, Danielle Bregoli’s reputation blew up from under her, which somehow makes it less hatable. Paul is really flexing for those views, but with Bregoli, aka Bhad Bhabie, “it’s really no flex.” So she says in her song, “I Got It,” before going on to tell us how much stupid money she’s making off of a meme. Her Dr. Phil outburst last year and “cash me outside” catchphrase made her a viral star with a ready-made fanbase — the perfect candidate for a record deal, apparently. Posts with the hashtag #CashMeOutside began to circulate social media following the episode, along with screengrabs of a frustrated Bregoli. In January, SoundCloud producer DJ Suede remixed sound bites of Bregoli’s iconic Dr. Phil moment, unbeknownst to her, to a catchy trap beat that made its way to #88 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #50 on the Streaming Songs chart; the song prompted fan videos of “#CashMeOutside” dances all over social media. The groundwork was laid out for her: fans, a brand, a funny tagline, and now, a theme song.

Bregoli made her debut as Bhad Bhabie this year with four catchy, made-to-meme singles, milking the themes that made her (youth and attitude) for all they’re worth. Each song is more or less the same, each one a tool to play up her signature charismatic-brat brand and establish a Bhad Bhabie language to support it (see: “Hi Bich” and “These Heaux”). This is the danger of an artist built on internet fandom, a career that only comments on itself and exists to fit a tweetable format. Just as Matt Ox is known as the “fidget spinner kid,” Bregoli is commonly referred to as the “cash me outside girl.” Acts like theirs merely hold a mirror to certain sects of online culture and are about as sustainable as selling fidget spinners. If the fidget spinner fanbase persists and fidget spinners outlast 2017, maybe Bregoli and Ox will have a shot too.

Proving more durability, SoundCloud rap held stakes in mainstream music this year with the success of of the late Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert, Smokepurpp, Playboi Carti, and Lil Pump, among others. Artists associated with SoundCloud rap tend to have the same hazy, vaporwave aesthetic and viral appeal, as if divinely ordained to connect with a teen audience. The genre is kind of its own meme — it’s wildly repetitive and speaks to a new, sad generation, heavy on internet slang with an affection for Xanax. They operate in a way that seems to befit their teenage listeners, alternating between goofy social media content and largely depressing or numbing music. I imagine this is why they’re so popular with their fans — shared disillusionment and social media prevalence.

Sometimes that disillusionment tips over into something darker. XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine found massive, blindly loyal followings this year that spread from SoundCloud and continued to grow notwithstanding assault and rape allegations against the rappers. What’s worse, XXXTentacion’s rising popularity seemed to coincide with when he was exposed. Thankfully, fandom’s tendency to follow figures with seemingly relatable personalities does not always lead to such dark places. It can manifest itself in lighter ways, like a quirky Jennifer Lawrence talking on late-night TV about not shaving her legs or something. In the case of Cardi B, that personal magnetism resulted in one of the year’s great feel-good stories.

Cardi takes relatable to a new level. She’s raw. She didn’t need to be sensationalized by the media; she herself is sensational. Her quippy, unfiltered Vine rants found her initial fanbase in 2013. She spoke with blunt candor about being a stripper, haters, men, sex; words ricocheted off one another, and there was always a punchline. Her current music career is more or less a maturation of those rants. Cardi widened her reach and furthered her brand on VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop in 2015 before dropping her debut mixtape in 2016. This year breakout single “Bodak Yellow” followed, building momentum for months before rising to the very top of Billboard’s Hot 100. On the song, she teases out the authenticity and unabashed confidence that won people over online, flaunting her success from a retrospective perch. There’s a telling quote in Fader’s 2016 profile of Cardi B. She reflects on dealing with the producers of Love & Hip-Hop: “Yo, I have a brand. I’m not even a artist and I fill out clubs. Three thousand, whatever the crap, I fill them shits out!” She was onto something. Cardi B built a business around herself by being herself. Cardi’s rise realized social networking as a level playing field that thrives on audience reception.

Of course, fans have always played a role in an artist’s success, but online fan communities and social media carry an increasing amount of weight in a culture that gravitates toward virality. These online groups and fan forums are the echo chambers within the echo chamber, but can bring like-minded people together in a positive way. Members of Brockhampton met through a Kanye West message board, KanyeToThe, but their prolific innovation bears little resemblance to Kanye or their internet basis. In 2015, they entered and won an online competition that helped expand the reach of their self-released mixtape in 2016. Brockhampton ringleader Kevin Abstract shot and directed a string of intriguing, vivid music videos surrounding their critically celebrated debut studio album this year, Saturation, in June, followed by Saturation II in August, and Saturation III last week. The Saturation trilogy boasts layers of supergroup capacity; fueled by and founded on fandom, the group fuses diverse personalities, sounds, and talents under a shared vision. Their close-knit 14-member team accounts for vocalists, producers, a sound engineer, a photographer, a creative director, a webmaster, and a manager.

Superorganism similarly found their bandmates through music forums. The core members now live together in London and assemble songs by sending laptop recordings, samples, and mixes back and forth, and maintain long-distance collaboration with internet friends. Their underground hit “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” was passed around online and got them signed to Domino this year. They share Brockhampton’s model, with eight unique members joined under mutual musical goals and tastes. Don’t be surprised to see a lot more of this going forward. In 2017, it’s surprising if a musician doesn’t get their start online, but just as it’s increasingly rare for people to meet offline, bands are moving beyond merely launching on the internet to forming and creating there. In this vein, online fan communities and forums could become the new breeding ground for a generation of musicians. An ability to digitally connect, create, and share with different perspectives and talents has the potential to outweigh any digital detritus.