Rarely does a single song capture the heart, soul and undivided attention of a generation quite like Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
I’m only kidding. But I’d be lying if I said Drake’s July 2015 hit hasn’t taken the world and the web by storm. A quick Google search of the song’s title receives 32.5 million results, some of which include the song’s infamous music video, YouTube and Vine parodies of the song and articles from prestigious publications covering the song’s explosion over social media. It’s a phenomenon only found in the 21st century, the digital age. I’m here to figure out how “Hotline Bling” grabbed the Internet’s attention, and why it won’t relent.
The song spells out Drake’s regrets after leaving behind an ex-girlfriend. He worries about his ex with lyrics like, “You got a reputation for yourself now / Everybody knows and I feel left out.” He wonders if she’s “rollin’ up a backwoods for someone else / Doing things I taught you, gettin’ nasty for someone else,” when frankly, this girl “don’t need no one else, no.” I suppose the rapper’s lyrics are relatable … that is, if you’re a wealthy rapper with a penchant for kinks and an irreparably broken heart. Yet the track’s beat is catchy and addictive. The song is an earworm ideal for radio play with its short refrain and lack of slurs or curses.
However, I believe that the song truly stole the spotlight when the rapper released its namesake music video on Oct. 26, 2015. The video is nothing short of hilarious, featuring Drake singing along to “Hotline Bling” in colorfully-lit rooms with sexy female backup dancers. Drake himself puts on a memorable show, dancing in a way that can only be described as bizarre. His awkward gyrating begs for context: why is Drake dancing like that? Is he one of those performers who just can’t dance? Who are all of these women? What’s up with all the outfit changes and scene switching? How is Jimmy Brooks from Degrassi getting his groove on without his wheelchair?
Internet users have parodied and played off of Drake’s dancing to no end. Some of my favorite parodies include a pug dressed up in a turtleneck sweater and red puffer coat bopping from side-to-side to the song’s beat. Another classic is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ likeness superimposed onto the music video, brought to us by none other than the hilarious Ellen Degeneres. Regardless of your niche interests or comedic preferences, there’s a “Hotline Bling” spoof right up your alley.
Alas, the question still stands: how in the World Wide Web’s name does a music video go from chuckle-worthy to meme famous?
Jonathan L. Zittrain, a digital media scholar and law professor at Harvard University, reflected on this very topic in a 2014 essay from the Journal of Visual Culture. According to Zittrain, Memes take on a shared, iconic quality that pair with a resonating message. A meme in its prime exposes a fundamental truth about something. The transposability inherent to memes allows Internet users to channel that truth and apply it in new situations.
Zittrain’s analysis leads me to believe that there is a larger truth to be found in Drake’s single, which explains its leap to iconic Internet meme royalty. I’m still grappling to figure out what that truth is, though. Is it the sting of jealousy and bitterness after a breakup, which is evident in “Hotline Bling?” Is it the painfully poor dance skills of the rapper himself, something most of us can relate to? Who am I, a lowly writer with a music column, to think that I might have the answer?
There’s the answer, I suppose. I don’t know. And I’m presuming with great faith that the “truth” found in Drake’s hit and its coordinating music video is up for endless interpretation, too. But this answer-less question doesn’t preclude us from enjoying Drake’s songs or music videos, nor does it preclude us from searching YouTube for “Hotline Bling” parodies on a lazy afternoon.