Nothing tends to better exemplify a specific moment in human history than the culture and art it produces. And in 2020, no unit of culture has more currency than the internet meme.
At the start of the year, the threat of a potential WWIII with Iran (remember that?) prompted the teens on TikTok to joke about how they would evade a hypothetical draft and how terrible they’d fare in conflict. It was a way of channeling the very real anxiety about the possibility of war into some comedic relief — laughter is the best medicine and all that.
Then, in March, a pandemic shut down the entire world. In the months since, we’ve witnessed catastrophic death, record job loss and virtually no leadership from Washington — resulting in only more confusion, about the importance of masks, social distancing and the virus itself. Our anxieties have skyrocketed (and are still rocketing), along with feelings of loneliness caused by isolation. And once again, we’ve turned to memes to offer some relief and mutual commiserating, perhaps more so than we ever have before.
“I think that we’ve seen memes ride the wave of the current events more so now, or at least, it’s been more striking,” Don Caldwell, Editor-in-Chief of Know Your Meme, the website that documents various Internet memes, viral videos, catchphrases and more, tells InsideHook.
“The pandemic memes have been all over the place. There’ve been numerous memes that if they weren’t about the pandemic directly, they were at least indirectly about it or had a tone or a general vibe that referenced the pandemic in a way,” he adds.
Within just the first three months of the pandemic, Know Your Meme saw a record-breaking 100 sub-entries in the parent-entry for the pandemic, while more than 6,500 images were uploaded to its database, according to a COVID-19 Meme Insights report conducted by the website.
There was the “Coronavirus Remix,” in which Brooklyn D.J. and producer DJ iMarkkeyzturned remixed a 46-second Instagram clip of rapper Cardi B discussing the virus. Elsewhere, a popular copypasta managed to perfectly sum up our feelings of isolation (and how much we missed the homies). Others amplified how ungodly long the month of March felt.
But perhaps no coronavirus meme has managed to transcend its interweb plane quite like the Dancing Pallbearers, also known as the Coffin Dancers.
The meme, if you’re unfamiliar, refers to a Ghanian group of pallbearers who dance with coffins in order to make funerals a more celebratory occasion. The group gained worldwide attention from a 2017 BBC feature story, where they were seen showing off some impressive choreography all while hoisting up a coffin.
In March 2020, the video of the dancing pallbearers was paired with the EDM song “Astronomia” by Tony Igy and used in conjunction with “epic fail” photos and videos.
But as the pandemic started to unfold, the pallbearers were used as PSAs for the virus. In Brazil, their image was plastered on billboards next to a warning message: “Stay home or dance with us.” Then in May, the pallbearers themselves adopted the message. A video posted to Twitter by one of the members of the group showed the pallbearers wearing surgical masks, thanking first responders and again urging the public to stay home or dance with them.
“I can’t really think of too many other memes that just become so real like this. Like the people that star in the meme becoming these figures that are also promoting best practices about a current crisis,” says Caldwell. “It’s one of the iconic 2020 memes in that way.”
On top of the anxiety generated by the pandemic, the anxiety induced by the upcoming presidential election has also seeped into our memes.
Historically, presidential election cycles, and debates in particular, have been hotbeds for viral images and videos. And while the debates thus far have produced comical memes like “Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia” and the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head, many of the reactions to the debates were simply about how nerve-wracking they were to watch.
But as Caldwell notes above, not every great meme has explicitly addressed the pandemic or political upheaval. Some have referenced the distress most of us are feeling about the state of the world in more subtle, indirect ways.
Back in July, the internet was overrun with hyperrealistic cakes. Compilation videos of what looked to be regular old vegetables, fruits or inanimate objects were sliced into and revealed to be … cake! While initially the internet made jokes about the level of gross fondant on these things or even attempted to cut into real tissue boxes, the hyperrealistic cakes soon began to take an existential toll, with some commenters questioning if they themselves were in fact cake.
The disconcerting nature of those cakes perfectly mirrored the disconcerting nature of, well, being alive right now. If a hyperrealistic uncooked chicken cake isn’t the quintessential visual representation of the mindfuck that is our current reality, I don’t know what is.
More recently, the internet couldn’t stop thinking about one particular TikTok of the Vörös twins mispronouncing “Da Vinci.” In the TikTok, which now has more than 2.3 million likes and 16.7 million views, the question “Who painted the Mona Lisa?” was answered with a quizzical “Da Vinky?” from the two identical Hungarian Canadian twins.
The clip became a popular sound to duet on TikTok, but soon found its way to Twitter, where “Da Vinky?” memes about the Teletubbies and Armie Hammer in The Social Network began to spread. But as we all kept repeating this dumb word into oblivion, it soon became clear that “Da Vinky?” was the only thing our rotten brains were capable of muttering.
Vampire heartthrob-turned-sophisticated indie actor Robert Pattinson has also stepped into the fold to deliver one of the most enduring memes of 2020. Originally uploaded to Instagram by Josh Safdie in 2017 to promote the film Good Times, a photo of the actor wearing a tracksuit in an empty kitchen looking seriously perturbed really popped off across social platforms last month.
The photo of R-Patz looking like a stereotypical white dirtball sparked a relatable feeling in many. He reminded people of that guy you kicked out of your party but somehow keeps getting back in, or your cousin. Others inevitably referenced Twilight, even going as far as editing tracksuit Pattinson into the film. But most importantly, we can’t stop meme-ing this particular photo because it so succinctly grasps, again, that uncertainty we’ve all been feeling.
“Pattinson’s quizzical expression captures the uncertainty of how to react in the midst of a pandemic and political upheaval, the stilted and unnatural pose of someone braced for yet another narrative twist. He waits for the other shoe to drop (and then the next, and the next),” wrote Miles Klee for MEL Magazine.
To state what may seem obvious by now, 2020 also saw an uptick in viral memes born on TikTok, e.g., “Da Vinky?” and the Dancing Pallbearers, both of which originated on the platform.
Which brings us to what might be the biggest meme of 2020: TikTokker Nathan Apodaca (who you might know better as doggface208) skateboarding with a jug of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry in hand while lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The original video, which was posted on September 25th, now has about 60 million views on TikTok, and according to the platform, it has inspired more than 134,000 tribute videos, most notably from Mac Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks.
We’ve already discussed what makes Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” so meme-worthy, and it’s not difficult to see why millions of people resonated with Apodaca’s video. The vibes are simply immaculate. The clip exemplifies a relaxed state of being we’re all desperately, dare I say, dreaming for.
“This video represents a collective mood of just wanting to chill and listen to Fleetwood Mac and take a break from the stress,” notes Caldwell. “There’s also a little bit of melancholy behind it too, with the song itself, that ties back to the current zeitgeist.”
Memes have always helped us connect and commiserate with friends, family, coworkers and strangers on the internet, but with a pandemic keeping us isolated, the desire for a collective experience has only intensified.
“Memes have come to fill a niche, fill a void in people’s need to have social connection at a time where they’re having to practice social distancing,” says Caldwell.
Memes, by definition, translate complex emotions and sentiments into easily shareable photos, videos and text posts. There is a comfort in knowing that our own fraught feelings resonate with thousands — or even millions — of people who are similarly unnerved by a hyperrealistic uncooked chicken cake, or wildly amused by a dopey mispronunciation.
“A lot of these things are based on having a shared reaction to a piece of media, being able to see a piece of media and understand the same thing from it,” explains Caldwell. “Like the feeling you get seeing Robert Pattinson with that facial expression in that tracksuit, that feeling is shared amongst people. And that’s something that has become more important for people during this period to help facilitate social connection,” he adds.
We still have a little less than three months left of 2020, a presidential election to suffer through and a pandemic with no end in sight. There is, regrettably, ample opportunity for ever more morbid and catastrophic memes to reign. But amid fires and plagues and other biblical omens, there is something reassuring in their resilience. Even in the end times, we’ll always have the memes to keep us company.
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