February 9, 2020: the nine year anniversary of the 2011 hit “Friday”. It is unlikely any of us marked our calendar and celebrated, but nevertheless Rebecca Black commemorated the holiday with a heartfelt Instagram post detailing her pubescent struggles with depression and her since “glow-up”. Those of us who heard the news were reminded of the national rage against “Friday”, our participation in the matter, and guiltily thought “good for her.” However, with respect to Rebecca’s terrific struggle, “Friday” is something to be proud of. While not the first of its kind, it took the novelty song and unintentionally spun it on its head for a virtual audience. And for better or worse, novelty songs have shaped us and will continue to shape us in their ever-adaptive forms.
To establish a basis, it is important to discuss “Friday’s” precursors. But, instead of delving into the history of the novelty song, let’s stick to the type akin to Friday: those that raised us. It is, therefore, completely necessary to discuss “Axel F” by Crazy Frog, the Swedish spaz-beat that took the 2000s by storm. What started off as a gimmick between a teenage computer salesman and his similarly Swedish kamrat, became a controversial sensation. Anyone over 18 was pained by the aggressive synth and mindless high-pitched “bing bing bong” gibberish; however, our generation reacted just the opposite. In our elementary age, we knew “Axel F” as the transcendental ringtone from Nickelodeon commercial breaks; if you were lucky enough to own a Motorola, you begged your parents to call that 800 number. As adults, we treat it with a transformed respect. Encased in nostalgia, it has become a means to enliven a space. Come dud of a house party, “Axel F” has the power to get all sad saps up off the couch just in time to chant “w-W-w-What’s going on?!”
But, unlike “Friday”, “Axel F” was intentionally memeable. The young Swede created Crazy Frog’s infamous sound by mimicking his motorcycle’s two-stroke engine. It is improbable he expected it to debut at number one in the UK in 2005 and remain so for four weeks straight. As an honest attempt at music, the success of “Friday” is more tragic. While the video went viral in a matter of days and reached Billboard’s Top 100 within a month, its attention proved odious. The consensus amongst all demographics seemed to be: this nasally preteen must be publicly shamed. Poor Rebecca Black was the first public figure we could both relate to and hate on.
That being said, Black took her infamy and played to its strengths. Remember the mini-series where she took over Funny or Die? Or when she appeared in Katy Perry’s “T.G.I.F” music video? Admittedly, I didn’t either, but by poking fun at herself Black was able to partially patch up her derelict image.
Doing so, she inadvertently reinstated the novelty artist in the 2010s. While there is no direct correlation between Black’s success and the parody boom of the ’10s, there is definitely a line to be drawn. YouTube personalities like Schmoyoho, Bad Lip Reading, and Brock’s Dubs were just some of the leading creators making parody tunes in Rebecca’s wake. Whether she caused the wave or merely rode it is unclear, but she was a contributing pioneer nonetheless.
As the stage for novelty expanded, the genre bled into the professional realm. Inching back to the styles of Frank Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic, a new generation of parody musicians broke into the established music scene. Among the most notable are Zack Fox, Lil Dicky, Yung Gravy, and JPEGMAFIA.
While it is unnecessary to dissect each of these musician’s discography, it is important to emphasize their entirely different approaches to, and motives behind, their music. This conglomerate represents a spectrum, with Zack Fox and Lil Dicky on one end, Yung Gravy in the middle, and JPEGMAFIA at the far other end.
Fox and Dicky are the most true to the traditional novelty artist. Both brand themselves as comedians and set out to do exactly that with their music. Much like “Axel F”, Fox’s song “Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression)” began as a bit and blew up thanks to internet culture. The song now has over 26 million listens on Spotify and has been featured on Genius’s “Verified”. Similarly, Lil Dicky’s music is unabashedly comedic. Most recently he released Dave, a fictionalized comedy series based on the early years of his career. It pokes fun at his insecurities within and outside of the rap community, and very much acknowledges the humor in his music and career.
Yung Gravy, however, denies his place as a “meme” rapper. Although his lyrics center around thanksgiving dishes and ‘thots’, Gravy claimed in an interview with the Badger Herald that his comical lyrics are merely spontaneous and do not define his career, putting him in the middle of the spectrum.
JPEGMAFIA, however, hugs both realms: parody and sincerity. Over noise-esque beats, JPEG spews his political and ethical viewpoints in internet-rhetoric that is both thought-provoking and knee-slapping. While he has been dubbed a “troll”, he rejects this title and insists his controversial lyrics are his attempt to re-appropriate American symbols and culture. To JPEG, America should not be known for its love of Veterans or the NRA, but its overarching diversity and underlying racism. His music is one big, well-deserved call-out on American culture and its distaste for BIPOCs.
So what does this all tell us? A few things: 1) The novelty artist has ebbed and flowed with the expansion of media, 2) Rebecca Black walked so that JPEGMAFIA could fly, and 3) ironically, the novelty song should be taken seriously as it slyly reveals uncomfortable truths. Lucky for us, novelty songs seem to be in their heyday. So don’t be surprised if you cackle along to all new releases.
Delaney Faherty is .WAV’s Content Editor. She wrote the article and created the cover art.