5. Numa Numa Dance (December 2004)
Before there was YouTube, before there was anything, there was the Numa Numa kid. 18-year-old Gary Brolsma didn’t think that he was doing anything special when, on December 2004, he recorded himself doing a dramatic lip-dub and a silly dance to the record ‘Dragostea Din Tei’ by Moldovan pop group O-Zone. He certainly didn’t think that he was about to change the world. But he did think it was funny enough to share, so he uploaded the short video to Newgrounds.com, a site dedicated to sharing original stuff. The quality was horrendous, as the ability to upload videos online was still a very new thing, but it was good enough to be watchable, and it turned out Gary wasn’t the only one who thought it was funny. His ‘Numa Numa Dance’ video caught on like nothing ever seen on Newgrounds before, and by February 2005 it already had two million hits on the site alone. More than that, it was shared elsewhere, and the total of people who watched it was estimated at tens of millions or even more. His total commitment to something as silly as a lipsync, the animated way in which he used his face and body, and the happy vibe of the song (unknown to most people) make for an irresistible video.
Gary Brolsma showed the way. When YouTube came on a few months later, one of the biggest things on it were kids trying to recreate the magic, making up silly dances and lip-dubbing to pop songs. ‘Drogostea Din Tei’, the “numa numa song”, became a staple which many tried to perform, and permeated the mainstream to such an extent that Rihanna stole it for her ‘Live Your Life’ duet with T.I. ‘Numa Numa Dance’ is considered today one of the most watched videos of all time, with over a billion views on all mediums, but it is a lot more than that. It is the beginning point for a new art-form, the art of the Internet video.
4. “Chocolate Rain” Original Song by Tay Zonday (April 2007)
There was a lot happening on YouTube in the first two years of its existence: vloggers, lip-dubbers, cute animal or baby vids, people uploading their original video projects. But it was all a local affair. Sometimes a video would go viral, even reach millions of views, but that’s the best you could hope for. No one could figure out the secret of how to make a true sensation, one that would break the boundaries of YouTube. That is, until Tay Zonday came along.
Of course, he never meant it. Tay was simply recording an original song he wrote, a rather somber protest song called ‘Chocolate Rain’. But he did it on YouTube and enabled us to see the recording process, and once the world saw the footage it couldn’t stop laughing. First, there’s the mismatch between Tay’s boyish looks and the incredible deepness of his voice. Secondly, there’s the mismatch between his seriousness and the apparent meaninglessness of the lyrics. And to top it all off, Tay and the producer decided that they don’t want his breath to be heard in the recording, so he took quick steps away from the mic in order to breath. This is probably something that was done in many recordings in the past, but this is the first time we got to see it and it just looked ridiculous. The explanation added to the body of the video only served to make it somehow more ridiculous, and the combination of all these things put together made the world roll on the floor while holding its collective belly.
The vid came out a day before YouTube’s second birthday, in April 2007, and lay in obscurity for three months. But a lot happened in those three months. These were the months when 4Chan, the Internet’s kingmaker in those days, discovered the magical possibilities of YouTube and began scavenging it for hidden pearls. ‘Chocolate Rain’ was found and took 4Chan over in July, and by August it was everywhere. It became a viral sensation like nothing that came before, getting tens of millions of views and rocketing Tay Zonday into the public’s eye. He was the first youtuber to become a pop star, albeit minor, and showed the way to others. Shortly after, YouTube started to see its first musical stars, who became famous on the site and tried to use it as a launchpad for a career in the music business. One of them, who became very big on YouTube in 2008, was a channel called ‘Kidrauhl’, owned by a cute little Canadian boy with a nightingale voice and considerable talent who went by the name Justin.
Those who listened more intently to the song realized that Zonday is actually trolling us with some quality poetry. Hailing from Minneapolis, Bob Dylan’s alma mater, Tay wrote a very Dylanesque song full of symbolic images that portray a reality of racial inequality and indifference leading to poverty and crime, delivered in his grave voice over a torrent of chilling piano notes. For some, ‘Chocolate Rain’ is the 21st century’s ‘A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’.
But this is not what makes this video so significant and historic. The real importance of ‘Chocolate Rain’ is that it deciphered the secret of what makes a great Internet video. To achieve greatness, a video must have that “WTF??!” quality. It must be something you enjoy watching, can’t stop watching, yet you can’t rationally explain why. If ‘Chocolate Rain’ is only fourth on my parade of greatest Internet vids, it is because there were three videos that created an even bigger WTF moment.
3. Friday (February 2011)
At the end of 2009, Justin Bieber, one of YouTube’s biggest stars, was signed by a record label and started releasing singles. With his YouTube following to back him up he became a sensation in no time, and by 2010 he was the hottest name in the music industry. The rules were rewritten: from here on, a kid going on YouTube didn’t just dream of becoming big on the site. He would dream of making it all the way to the top.
One person who sought to capitalize on this new teenage dream was Patrice Wilson, a Californian record producer who was running a label called the ARK music factory. Through YouTube, he invited young kids to come and audition, promising to produce a single and a video for them. The first to come was a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black, and Patrice did what he promised: he wrote a song for her to record called ‘Friday’, produced the record and the video-clip, and even added his own rap segment. The vid was uploaded to YouTube on February 10, 2011, and Rebecca was happy that she had a little clip to show her family and friends. But then, a month after the vid was released, she suddenly found that the view count on it was growing by tens of thousands a day; then hundreds of thousands a day; then millions. Within weeks, Friday became the biggest musical video to come out of YouTube, and Rebecca was in the eye of a storm.
What made it go so viral? The answer, of course, is that it is one of the worst videos ever made. And the best thing about it is that it just continues to get worse as it goes along: whenever you think we’ve reached rock bottom and it couldn’t possibly get any more terrible, it finds the way. The excruciatingly banal lyrics, the unnatural way in which they are bent to fit into the melody, the auto-tuned singing, the unholy wedding of unfunky melody and rap, the lameness of the rap itself, the goofy dance moves, the images of 13-year-olds driving, the sudden appearance of Wilson which gives the vid an eerie pedo vibe, all combine to create an epic disaster. I just couldn’t get the smile off my face when I was watching it in those heady days of 2011. But for something to have that “so bad it’s good” quality, there must also be some genuinely good things about it, and I noted two things that I thought were actually fine: one is the catchy hook, an anthemic celebration of the best day of the week, and the other is Rebecca herself, who is actually charming and engaging. The way in which she does her best to shine while all this awfulness transpires around her continues to tickle my funny bone to this very day.
Of course, I am already jaded enough to appreciate such trash. For teens and tweens, who still believe that they can create a world in which everything is pure, authentic and good, such videos are an anathema. Poor Rebecca Black, who just wanted to record a little video she could show her friends, was made public enemy number one, accused of ruining music and destroying the Internet. Many kids’ daily routine included visiting the video (and I’m willing to bet that they also watched and listened to it from start to finish every time) just to vote it down and leave nasty comments. By the middle of June, just three months after it went viral, it had 167 million views and more than three million dislikes. Who knows what numbers it would have reached, but then it was taken down due to a legal battle of ownership between Black and ARK (for some reason, both sides actually wanted ownership over the fiasco). Rebecca eventually won and the video was put back up on her own channel in September, and the whole thing began all over again.
Patrice Wilson carried on from there, embracing his image as the worst songwriter ever and creating other videos in a similar vein, always finding a new girl or boy who were willing to make fools of themselves for fame. He is one of YouTube’s most successful trolls, always managing to find ways to anger viewers and get lots of views. But he never managed to find another Rebecca and recreate the magic of ‘Friday’.
Rebecca Black persevered. With admirable resilience and tenacity, she withstood all the hate, ridicule, taunting, shaming and bullying, and continued to put out music and videos. Slowly, her charm started to win people over, and she became a successful YouTuber. At the end of 2013 she uploaded a song called ‘Saturday’, which showed her moving on to a new day. The song got more than twenty million views and was her first offering to get more likes than dislikes, marking her full victory.
But it is not as big as ‘Friday’, which continues to draw viewers who cannot stop watching it even as they unload their bile. Many simply refuse to accept that they like it, and their denial compounds their anger. It is still the most hated video on YouTube. Mark my words, haters: twenty years from now, whenever you hear ‘Friday’, you will have tears of nostalgia, and then you’ll realize how much you actually love it.
2. Gangnam Style (July 2012)
Internet culture is a trans-Pacific affair. It developed mainly through cultural exchange between the US and East Asia. For Internet geeks, Japan in particular is the epitome of cool, with its video games, manga, anime, J-pop, vocaloids, emojis, fashion and commercials all having a massive effect on youth everywhere, especially the US. Japan has affected two of our senses: our sense of fashion and our sense of humor. Our sense of fashion has become very kawaii, while the Japanese sense of humor – surrealistic, bizarre and random, at least in Western eyes – became the humor that characterizes Internet culture. But around the turn of this decade, Japan started to be rivaled. South Korea emerged as a new player in pop culture, with its music industry doing the old Motown thing of grooming and producing spiffy musical acts for the world’s consumption. By 2011, K-pop became hugely popular both in Asia and in the West, a well oiled machine producing hit after hit. It is music that is very easy to consume, catchy tunes that are sung in Korean but with an English hook, set to the most updated sounds (mainly EDM), delivered by sexy young Koreans and wrapped in vibrant and sassy videos. But nothing prepared us for Psy.
Psy is not your run-of-the-mill K-pop artist. He has been around for a while, and does not look like a polished pop doll. His song ‘Gangnam Style’ is done in K-pop fashion – mostly Korean with a recurring English phrase and set to ecstatic rave music – but is more ironic in tone, making fun of the fashionable people in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The video is similarly making fun of empty fashion, as everyone is dancing silly dances and behaving in erratic ways, while the video production is just one failure after another. The record took off immediately among K-pop fans upon its release in July 2012, containing everything that a K-pop record needs while being even more lively and ecstatic, but it is the video that really put it over the top. The random, rowdy, vulgar and ridiculous assortment of pulsating images is exactly what Internet humor likes, and made the video irresistible. No matter where they’re from or what age group they belonged to, people were swept by the craze. The video broke every existing YouTube record, shooting to the top of its most viewed in no time. Within less than six months of its release, it became the first YouTube video to break the billion views barrier.
After this success, everything changed. The music industry and media finally realized that YouTube is where the center of pop culture is at, and started paying attention. When the Harlem Shake craze broke in February 2013, everyone was on it within days, and the same has happened with every viral craze that came since. YouTube used to be this community were things were allowed to develop organically. Now it’s the mainstream, the big money. And naturally, it just isn’t as fun as it was. There are no post-2012 vids on my parade.
‘Gangnam Style’ remains a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. It literally broke the YouTube view clock, which was set to a maximum of 2 to the power of 20 (around 2.1 billion), an amount the programmers couldn’t imagine anyone would ever reach. It took ‘Gangnam Style’ a mere two years to reach it, and it continues to push forward. It’s kind of the YouTube Mecca now, a place you have to visit sometime just to pay tribute. It is the most popular Internet video ever, and it doesn’t look like any video will be able to dislodge it from this position for a long time to come. And yet, it is not the greatest video on YouTube. Because the greatest Internet video of all time, and the number one on my list, is…