It’s been one week since we heard a Barenaked Ladies single contorted into pop art.
The remix of the band’s 1998 track “One Week,” created by SoundCloud user edes421, replaces every instrument (except the drums) with former BNL frontman Steven Page’s starter pistol of a lyric, “It’s been…” The result is a surreal, stuttering thing, like a chatbot re-creating the numb arm scene from Six Feet Under. It is not an easy or pleasurable listen.
It’s been played almost 180,000 times.
The track is the latest in an increasingly popular — and shamelessly displeasurable — goof we’re calling, for lack of a better term, the technical meme. Think of technical memes as the Ikea furniture of internet culture. You take a mechanically achievable formula and ironically apply it to pop culture novelties, like a 1990s nasal rock anthem or a forgotten Jerry Seinfeld cartoon.
We’re in a heyday for these oddities. There’s the “keeps getting faster” meme, in which a particular word or phrase triggers a movie or song to speed up until it sounds like a garbled mess. The “alphabetical movies” gag reorganized entire films so that the dialogue plays in alphabetical order. And the inverted song cover plays the melody from start to finish, while individual lines are sung from the last line to the first.
The “One Week” remix falls under the umbrella of the “one word song,” a meme in which each word in a song is replaced by that song’s most sacred phrase. Listen to Smash Mouth’s 1999 pop hit “All Star” with every word replaced by “someBODY” and you’ll get the gist.
A technical meme gets its charm not from aesthetic pleasure, but a workmanlike commitment to an arbitrary premise. These songs or video clips don’t sound good, let alone make sense, but they flaunt a perception of technical investment. Which is to say creating one takes slightly more effort than Photoshopping an image — though only slightly more, as a passing knowledge of Garage Band and a little motivation should get you all the way there. The result appears crafted, even if the reality is kind of the opposite. A technical meme deconstructs its human-made source material with the cool distance of molecular gastronomist.
Most technical memes are less enjoyable than their inspiration (a low bar to be sure). The “One Week” remix loses all of the original’s pop rock catchiness, and while the Smash Mouth remix retains the basic melody, its barking repetition of “someBODY” (which is the entire joke) fluctuates between stale and irritating.
But technical memes weren’t just mildly impressive earsores from the jump. One of the earliest examples of the technical meme came in 2010, when YouTube user Clashtato uploaded a version of Justin Bieber’s song “U Smile” that had been slowed 800 percent. The soporific track drew almost instant comparisons to Icelandic indie darlings Sigur Ros. The trick cheekily suggested that slowing a pop song down gave it more artistic weight. As if the young Bieber could easily become a true artist if he had a patient producer and some klonopin. You could play the track at a party and trick even the most pretentious guest into giving his approval, at which point you would pull back the curtain and embarrass him for his subconscious poptimism.
Slowing down a Justin Bieber track may have been a statement about artistic integrity, but technical memes quickly devolved from a semi-critical act into one of mindless labor. The same year Slow Bieber came out, YouTube user WolfgoreShow dropped “When does a dream become a nightmare?” a slowed-down version of a straight-to-VHS Mary Kate and Ashley movie, which lead to the much more popular cut “Gimme Pizza Slow.” In February of last year, Tumblr user stainedinlavenderblood posted a remix of the song “Bonetrousle” from the RPG Undertale, in which the glitchy chiptune track got faster and faster over the course of 11 minutes. And the technical meme may have reached its peak last November, with the release of its most well-known pop culture contributions to date: “The Bee Movie Trailer But Every Time They Say Bee It Does The Whole Trailer Really Fast” and “Bee Movie But It’s 20000x Faster,” both of which are pretty self-explanatory. (To keep things balanced, there’s also a slowed-down, 6-hour version of Bee Movie available on YouTube).
It’s been difficult to track these internet blips, because the shelf life of a technical meme is short. One listen or view is enough to get the joke; even the most ardent admirer of the craft is unlikely to revisit a ‘90s-hit-turned-linguistic-mess more than once. And yet, they’ve become a staple of blogs that circulate web culture ephemera, as if their comparably high production is too irresistible to let pass uncommented.
And so, technical memes begin to subvert the traditional idea the internet meme: that no one can predict which memes will go viral, that it’s all some combination of chance, timing and surreality. The fleeting popularity of technical memes is predetermined by their own formulas, and their tendency to go viral is less a surprise or an accident, than the correct answer to a question that can be solved with a little work.