Meet the meme critic
Kathryn Winn reviews 10 memes that missed the mainstream this year.
Kate, who has written two posts while on vacation this week, is finally taking an actual day off (check her Instagram for wistful sunset content). Filling in: Kathryn Winn! In her effusive newsletter, Memeforum, Kathryn renders swift and unsparing critical verdicts on new memes as they bubble up—a welcome service in this world of indiscriminate memeing for clout and lists and explainers repackaging it all for clicks. Here, she plucks out 10 of her favorite semi-obscure memes from the first three quarters of 2021. —Nick
Memeforum is a biweekly newsletter where I review current memes the way one would review art or films. Each week, I spend hours and hours combing through Twitter and TikTok for as many as I can find. The following 10 are the best—according to my research and personal taste—memes that missed the mainstream this year. Every other list will include the old favorites: Mittens Bernie, the Suez Canal, Couch Boy, Bama Rush Tok—the good stuff that everybody saw. This list is for the very online (or the not online to impress their online friends). Enjoy! —Kathryn Winn
Olivia Rodrigo’s Favorite Album
Olivia Rodrigo was the girl of the summer, but this was the meme for her true fans. In a combination of genuine excitement and viral marketing (which most memes are these days), TikTok generated a different meme from every bridge and chorus on her album. It made many people who thought they were too cool for Olivia warm to her, and many who were already on her side realize her depth as a person and a pop star. Olivia was not just the new Hannah Montana or One Direction: She was the new Fiona Apple, or a similar young poet taking the world by storm.
The Disney background was certainly part of her appeal and wide audience, but it wasn’t all of it. This meme was saying: Olivia is 18 and hitting her peak. She’s had time to grow and develop her taste. She has a mind of her own. Her favorite rap album is ... Broke With Expensive Taste. Conceivably she also has a favorite Björk album, or a favorite Radiohead album. She’s not just another young Disney starlet professing the love for mass culture required in her contract. She’s a young adult with discerning taste that translates into her music and lyrics. For many, this meme cemented the idea that Olivia was worth our attention. I love it because she is.
Humans Are the Most Advanced Species
The internet stokes outrage and rewards engagement on the basis of anger. At this point, we’re trained to announce it whenever we feel the slightest negative emotion. This has been disastrous for our culture as a whole, but sometimes, it’s really funny. I would trade the internet for a better world, but I don’t have that power, so when the consequences of our actions are funny rather than depressing, I laugh.
Everyone got so mad about this little crab building his little house. He’s just a little guy! But that didn’t stop anyone from getting unbelievably upset at the suggestion that humans aren’t the smartest creatures on earth. At first, people were jokingly saying things like, “Well, did the crab invent cigarettes?” But the longer it went on, the more the response became, “I’m not mad, I’m actually just joking when I say the crab didn’t invent cars, and I'm not mad that someone said the crab is smarter than us.” This only made it funnier. Engaging with the crab and pretending that the crab is not filling us with rage kills me every time. The crab can’t read these posts! The crab lives in the house he built in two minutes and hangs out in the ocean! People, meanwhile, have to take a walk to calm down. In trying to prove oneself smarter than the crab, one can only prove the crab's superiority.
Everyone needs a time in their life where they say things like, “I just find Truffaut so garish,” or, “We can all agree Ibsen’s later work is more compelling and original.” This meme—which sent up the renowned photographer Juergen Teller's crude, snapshot-like hipster celebrity portraiture—was our chance to flex that muscle. Everyone was bringing out their inner art critic at a dinner party. I just don’t see why W magazine keeps hiring him! we all said in unison, pretending to fall back on a fainting couch in the apartment of our lover, rather than checking Twitter in the breakroom of a job we hate. It was a way to let our pretension out while still masking it with comedy. We were still being funny, so it was allowed.
It was also a chance for everyone to pull up their favorite paparazzi photo of a celebrity looking weird. (Mine is Jennifer Garner handing Ben Affleck a bag of Jack in the Box before dropping him off at rehab). It’s nice when the internet, as a collective, talks about something with a little class. We have all this pop culture knowledge—let's make some jokes about it that show our education. The alternative is only talking about celebrities in the language of stan Twitter, which we should to at least try to rise above. We don’t need to always play to the lowest common denominator when making and participating in memes.
Sections of a Joint
This meme was all over Twitter around 4/20, and I loved it because I think it really broke ground in how we talk about weed. The world is now no longer divided into smokers and nonsmokers. We can talk about all the feelings people have when smoking, instead of writing off the paranoia and anxiety. This meme got people sharing their experiences in a way that appealed to stoners and non-stoners alike. No matter what anyone said, my response was usually something like, “so true bestie.” And it was not serious about weed that it could not be easily applied to things that have nothing to do with weed. (The meatball sub divided into two sections—“mama” and “mia”—was an instant classic.) It started with a list of complaints and ended silly, with a brief stop in which everyone was frank about their feelings without being too annoying. The meme enjoyed the perfect life cycle: It was around long enough to develop and grow, but not pervasive enough that we couldn’t escape it.
Matt Leblanc Irish Uncle
After the Friends reunion, all of Ireland decided that Matt Leblanc was sitting like someone’s uncle at any family gathering. Matt LeBlanc is not Irish. He is French-Canadian and Italian. I grew up around a lot of French-Canadian and Irish uncles, and they’re more similar than they are different. Maybe all old white men are the same. Or maybe all old men are the same. But it’s funny to me that no other culture or country took to Matt LeBlanc in this way. The memes were very specific to Ireland, written in dialect that had to be translated for Americans, which is why the meme didn’t really take off in the States.
The translations were the payoff: Oh, right—uncles are known to fall asleep in front of the TV, and then get mad when their cousins try to change the channel. It was also a chance to see another country's completely original take on something most English-speaking countries were watching. All of it was relatable, but it was unique to Ireland in a way we dared not replicate. We may all be connected, but we can still have inside jokes, even if they are shared with everyone else in our country.
The Internet can sometimes feel like one big school yard. We are constantly trying to trick each other. At our most innocent, we are declaring that it smells like updog in here. The jokes get more advanced as we age, but every iteration of every website has found ways for users to lightly prank each other. On TikTok, my favorite is getting Coconut Malled. The premise is simple. It starts off like a regular video with a hook to keep you watching, then all of the sudden, the video cuts to footage from Mario Kart's Coconut Mall. It is nostalgic and familiar. I have not simply been pranked, but I’m 12 again. I've been tricked the way only a child would be tricked.
Being Coconut Malled brings me back to my best friend's living room, playing Wii for the first time. It’s the easiest stage, the one that everyone starts with. Coconut Mall is as familiar as the real mall I grew up going to. Watching the video, I am shocked by the shift in tone, but then rocketed back to a time I had almost wholly forgotten.
Everyone lies sometimes, and this meme celebrated those lies. The video begins with the lyrics “Of course,” as if there’s no question at all. Why even bother to ask. Each person must lie with their full chest. Then, the signature TikTok transition, a turn to a different angle, the liar violently shaking their head and moving their mouth all the way over to one side. We see the pleasure of the lie. The facial expression made so often to oneself as we lie, now public.
All rejoice in their lies and the act of telling them. Of course I'm not attracted to Guy Fieri. In that moment we have become intimately familiar with a total stranger and the lie they carry with them. This guilty pleasure, once secret, is broadcast to everyone. No one is afraid of looking stupid. Watching people revel in their bad behavior brings a smile to my face every single time.
This spring everyone put their nose to the grindstone and cranked out memes about their Dream Blunt Rotations for exactly no one to enjoy. After that, it was the Nightmare Blunt Rotations. People who don’t smoke and don’t understand that we can lie on the internet threw their hat in the ring and brought us Dream Socratic Seminar, like from ninth grade English.
Finally, a hero came, and brought us Nightmare Socratic Seminar. Everything bad about the original meme is forgiven, because from those origins emerged something perfect, the diamond in the rough of a few horrible few weeks on the internet.
So much of being a person right now is talking at length about one's beliefs. So many people have made careers out of it and few of them are genuinely charismatic. They may be hot, and they may be smart, but listening to them talk for longer than 10 minutes makes me want to tear my hair out. Who would be cool to talk to or smoke with is a personal question with no objective answer. But determining who would make a 45-minute discussion of The Great Gatsby the most interminable is a challenge, a puzzle with a correct answer. Which combination of people would make even the loudest of know-it-alls want to skip class, and why is it AOC, James Charles, Ben Shapiro, and Doja Cat?
One hope for TikTok is that it will elevate artists from across platforms, and that content will not be stolen, but celebrated. Remixed and brought new life. This meme was exactly that. Little Bubby Child was on Instagram, making their art with some success, when they posted a couple of the pictures on TikTok with voice recordings attached. People liked those and made their own, reading and showing as many originals as the three-minute limit would allow. The originals have a wide cast of characters, and people who were able to approximate their voices based on the pictures were essentially doing their own stagings of the Instagram posts. Who really becomes Mawmaw? Who makes their performance of the line, “I need a sip of whiskey before I drive to calm my nerves” believable?
Little Bubby Child itself gave us a peek into the lives of the people in Appalachia in an honest way— honest meaning normal and familiar, and not shoving them onto a pedestal to gawk at. Some who jumped on it recognized the characters as their own friends and family. Maybe the details weren’t the same, but the place was recognizable as home. The performers, while strangers, shared the joy of collective memories, and their joy brought me joy. Plus, a bobcat that lives at the Bojangles and only eats biscuits is pure comedy any way you slice it.
I’ll be damned. I’ll be damned if I listen to facts up out the mouth of a man with an unwashed ass. So begins the best song of the year. We needed a simple way to dismiss people who crawl out of sewers to leave hateful and stupid comments on videos, and we finally got it. There was no need to preach or prove one’s point to a person who obviously did not want to understand. This sound saved us countless feuds. Simply reply to the comment with the magic song that starts “I’ll be damned…” We know the rest.
It’s nice when Tik Tok organically lifts up one of their own. No one had to tell anyone to support this song. It was not being forced down our throats. When a sound works, it works, and this sound really works for Tik Tok. It was made by an artist who posts his songs on TikTok, people found it and used it, he gained followers, and we’re one step closer to getting his song on Spotify.
Thank you so much for reading! If you liked this post, please subscribe to Memeforum. On Wednesdays, I review the week's memes in The Meme Report. On Sundays, I write a deep dive into older memes or a current Internet obsession.