Conventional wisdom holds that the explosive, meme-enabled viral popularity of surprise hits like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” is one of those things that simply can’t be bought, that it has to occur organically in order for people to buy in, and that the magic evaporates as soon as anyone sees a marketer’s fingerprints on it. Which is hilariously wrong—if there’s one thing that consumers of American pop culture have proven again and again it’s that they couldn’t give a shit where the stuff comes from as long as they’re sufficiently entertained.
Take, for instance, the song “#SELFIE” by the Chainsmokers, which just entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 55 despite (or rather thanks to) an unabashedly deliberate and well-funded campaign to send it viral. The song itself is garbage, paint-by-numbers EDM with all the artistic flavor of an audio software preset that makes “Harlem Shake” sound like Selected Ambient Works Volume II. But the song’s only there to deliver the meme, and if the song had any personality it might distract from the hashtag-packed spoken-word bit that’s the real focus here.
In lieu of sung vocals or an actual instrumental melody, the Chainsmokers (whoever they are) decided to cast a young woman as a typical SoCal suburbanite trying to look cool at an LA club dispensing a seemingly endless stream of low-level complaining and nightlife ennui. The punch line, if you want to call it that, comes at the end of every verse where she says something about taking a selfie. Or rather a “#SELFIE.” It’s like if “Baby Got Back” was just the girl on the intro for the entire time and the beat wasn’t as good.
“#SELFIE” is unimaginative and blatantly bandwagon-jumping even for a fad-based novelty song, but it’s clever. For one thing, if the metric ton of surprisingly fearful trend pieces that have been published over the past year are right, young people these days love taking selfies. On a more subtle level, the narrator’s nonstop bitching about clubbing is probably appealing to the vast number of clubgoers who don’t live in big cities and spend their weekends going to see DJs play in strip malls and would like to affect the same kind of “over it”-ness.
Whatever the source of its appeal, the song’s taking off, with some well-thought-out assistance by superstar DJ/child of privilege/unabashed fameball Steve Aoki (whose Dim Mak label released the “#SELFIE” single) and the shadowy social media marketing group theAudience, who put the whole deal together. The likelihood of “#SELFIE” repeating the number one success of “Harlem Shake” or “Gangnam Style” seems slim, but it has one thing that neither of those smashes had, which is a built-in solution to its inevitable backlash. The “Fuck Your #SELFIE” shirt that the Chainsmokers wear in the video, could be an indication of some kind of not-especially-well-thought-out cultural critique embedded within the song, or it could work equally well for the no doubt large number of people who find “#SELFIE” obnoxious on any number of levels. Either way, it’s available for $24.99.