Drake might be the first rapper to truly conquer the Internet. The purest of hip-hop heads can complain, but the Canadian superstar has successfully surfed a unique wave of online hysteria to (almost) the top of the charts. Recent single ‘Hotline Bling’ is Drake’s joint highest charting solo single in the US; whilst this may not be all so spectacular, the manner of the track’s ascendance undoubtedly is.
Released at the end of July, as a stand-alone single, ‘Hotline Bling’ appeared a little marooned – allegedly between major releases. At first, sales were underwhelming. Nonetheless, the release of the accompanying video on October 19, 2015 marked an instantaneous sales and hype boom. According to Billboard, in the week ending October 29, ‘Hotline Bling’ was streamed over 20 million times in the US alone – up 58 percent on the previous week. It would seem that the power of the music video remains intact.
Yet, although other factors are always at play, the development and emergence of viral content following on from this particular music video has played a huge role in its considerable commercial success. Throughout the Director X directed video, Drake’s graphic facial expressions and ‘dad-dance’ moves were ready-made viral material, ripe for the picking. Within hours, dozens of viral memes and vines mocking and manipulating the video were whizzing across the web, reaching massive audiences in double-quick time. They continue to do so. At the time of writing, one of the most popular – the Drake Wii Tennis loop – has more than 20 million loops, and is showing no sign of slowing down.
There can be no doubt that meme-ready content of this ilk is a far-reaching cultural moment. In the video for ‘Hotline Bling’, purposeful frames and consistent themes are interspersed with short and varied clips that can easily stand-alone. The effect of this is to enable the production of viral content that is easily digestible and entertaining, but that also reinforces familiarity and, importantly, is user generated. Barriers to entry in the digital sphere are low, and this breeds a participatory culture. The Internet, to a certain degree, is a largely democratic playground with freedom of expression and accessibility supposedly at the fore. This openness means that viral content has the ability to draw global audiences of millions in milliseconds; it also has the ability to endure and develop further, unlike an isolated music video.
Significantly, the viral videos and memes from Drake’s video simultaneously retain and subvert the essence of the original video itself. Although the original consumer of the video becomes a second-hand producer, they remain a consumer of their own product. The concept of ‘subvertising’ – maintaining key elements of a recognisable item whilst evoking ‘cognitive dissonance’ by subtly masking the product being advertised – is poignant here. The consumers of the video themselves are effectively pushing products willingly, and it should not be forgotten that a consequence of sharing is more views of the original video, which can result in more streams, sales and, ultimately, profit.
“So what?” you might ask. It is all voluntary activity, pursued largely as entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Yet, this is itself crucial. The bounds of the methods used by an already contrived music business are ever-widening. Whilst we voluntarily share favourite songs and videos, the danger is that consumers are increasingly manipulated and ferried to do the dirty work of ad executives. The detectable passivity of Hotline Bling’s director Director X in a recent interview with i-D is perturbing. Just as X reiterates that he has delivered “what the guys asked for,” he is equally unfazed, and even contented, by its reduction to taunting six-second snippets. For any established and self-respecting ‘creative’, this is surprising. Whilst this may not be in itself wholly damning evidence that denies Director X any sort of artistic integrity, it proves the cash-driven, financially self-interested side of the music industry.
This kind of communication technique to aggressively sell a product is not new. Memes are the visual equivalent of the soundbites and tagline actively used by today’s politicians and sales reps. Advertisers have long relied on sharp taglines, just as – since the popularisation of television – politicians have come to rely on seconds of media-friendly catchphrases. Short, sharp and potent content, it appears, is effective in making impressions on the masses in seconds, one way or another. Interventionist journalism is often cited as a cause of the increasing use of soundbite politics over the past 60 years, but the narrowing complexity of political rhetoric in the age of the ‘spin doctor’ cannot be ignored. The rules about the concentration and repetition of a simple message to sell policies, ideas and visions are printed on the first page of the handbook.
Whether consumers are being sold a political ideology or a music video, our vulnerabilities are clear to see. ‘Hotline Bling’ offers tangible evidence that the frenzied nature of the internet and the meme-sphere within it can offer lucrative commercial opportunities. Whilst this method depends upon quality and original cultural content, memes are the ‘ideal vehicle’ to carry a message and a product – facilitated by their intrinsically humorous nature – to millions across the globe. With this in mind, the manipulation of cultural content for financial gain seems inevitable. Music videos have always been intentionally provocative items used to sell records – it’s just that, today, we’re doing all the legwork.
Jamie Taylor is a Politics graduate from the University of Leeds.