A couple days ago I was contacted by one of the PR executives in Sony Music about the year’s coverage. This is about par for the course for labels big enough to fund internal promotions – they’ll usually touch base with a few writers at the beginning of the year to talk about their scheduled projects, and try to find a match in the writer’s potential coverage. It’s known to have a suspect success rate, especially when an entity like Sony is communicating to a freelancer whose primary paychecks come from the independent circuit, but it’s always nice to keep the negotiations going. His biggest pitch? A guy named T. Mills – a California 22-year old who made it big on MySpace flexing candy-coated kiddy-profane hip-hop over flashy, nectarous, synth-blaring beats – all homemade in Pro Tools, Logic and Reason. Plucked from the masses and perched on a Warped Tour stage, eventually word made it up to Columbia A&R who hit him with a major label contract. 2012 is his for the taking, with an ardent group of giddy, but organically-gathered teenybopper fanbase waiting with bated breath.
Look, it’s a white kid covered in tattoos sporting a massive faux-hawk, giant gauged ears, constantly vamping into a webcam, rapping things like “I’m stupid so please give me brain/ and afterwards just fuck me” with a dressy, put-on barbarity like he’s desperately trying to convince everyone else in the room he’s not as scared as he looks. Oh, and his voice has a nasty tone too, but that’s just an aesthetic complaint. Needless to say T. Mills doesn’t fit into the editorial narrative of an Under The Radar. And that’s okay, I wish the kid all the success in the world; if you spend a length of time in this business you eventually come to terms that the potential for a solid livelihood is so knotted-up in drama, shortchanging, failed aspirations, broken promises, and a confounding, nigh-universal expectation to work for free you eventually stop caring about who ends up making it. If T. Mills turns this moment into long-term happiness, we should all be proud of him, simply for beating the odds. This is not an article out to get anybody.
It is, however, out to laugh at somebody. A brief look at T. Mills video for “Stupid Boy” is all you need to understand how the average MadeLoud reader would have an allergic, hilarious reaction. Scenie-weenie suburb-core chaff often has a poetic, unintentional comedy. It actually wasn’t too long ago that Justin Bieber was an internet meme – the video for “One Time” Video particularly found its way into threads, comments, and messages, usually following a “post the worst song ever!” prompt. I know, because I was often on the receiving end – watching all those jokes eventually morph into charts, movies, Grammys and book deals was surreal at the least. But honestly, it’s a story that’s getting less surreal every day. The memeification of songs deemed historically bad resulting in intense profitability is becoming a strangely ubiquitous career path. One of the other artists Sony was promoting? Kreayshawn, whose debut record is due out sometime by summer – she was signed a week after “Gucci Gucci” hit.
It’s not an exact science, and Kreayshawn knows she has a limited window to turn a lot of occasionally-malicious attention into a legitimate career. The odds are stacked against her, but it might not be as bleak as you’d expect. Sure, the people who’ve turned memeness all started with a song that was, by and large, considered hilariously terrible. Soulja Boy, Lil B, Rebecca Black – all classic YouTube videos. But somehow most of them have transcended such status; Lil B seems to be a very permanent hip-hop fixture with an unironically successful full-length, Rebecca Black first earned our ire but was quickly swallowed by America’s collective maternal warmth, and Soulja Boy? The kid has been in Fader, Altered Zones and Pitchfork this year – each time grabbing straight-faced accolades. He even cracked Pitchfork’s top 30 tracks last year.
This wasn’t always the plan. When William Hung blew up in a distinctly non-internet way, he was good for a few joke albums before his label was done with him. With projects like Kreayshawn, it seems like Universal is keen on making these kids last. It’s not a joke anymore. There’s increasing evidence that Lana Del Rey was signed to a major label the whole time, and the anonymity, provocative videos, lip-injections, pin-up cooing potentially part of an elaborate marketing scheme built to get the “have you seen this thing?” thunder brewing. Judged by the numbers it’s working perfectly, scarily perfectly – the fact that a giant label can generate the momentum usually built for free on Facebook shares is a discomforting thought.
In fact there’s really no telling if the meme cash-ins is a healthy thing for the industry. If I was a struggling musician I might feel a little bitter that a silly music video and limited mic skills can earn a record deal, but that isn’t necessarily a new thing – “Pac-Man Fever” sold a million singles back in ’81.
But Buckner & Garcia knew they weren’t gonna be kept around for much longer. Kreayshawn, T. Mills, Bieber, Soulja Boy and the rest of the YouTube-pop generation are much lengthier investments. It could be a the revenge of the underdogs, or it could be widespread exploitation – regardless, it’s certainly a venture the music industry would never endeavor on before.