By Gabe Rosenthal
On November 3, about a week after a group of high school students from Jacksonville uploaded the original video, Rae Sremmurd, the rap duo, posted a video of the two of them doing the viral phenomenon “The Mannequin Challenge” at one of their shows to the tune of their song “Black Beatles.” By November 14, the song had reached the #1 spot on the Billboard charts where it has stayed for four weeks. Despite the fact that the album containing the track was released in August, the song did not reach this level of success until after its association with the Mannequin Challenge. This is by no means a coincidence, as the relationship between the song and the meme was a deliberate one orchestrated by Rae Sremmurd, Interscope Records, and the music blog turned media conglomerate Pizzaslime (Coscarelli).
I was immediately fascinated by the relationship between the internet as a social platform and the dissemination of music. I thought the timeline of the song’s success was particularly revealing as to the power of the Internet to establish something as a cultural artifact. Given that the album came out in August, but the song didn’t reach mainstream success until November substantiates the link between the success of the song and the prevalence of “The Mannequin Challenge.” Gunner Safron, a marketing manager for Interscope, told Pigeons and Planes (a music blog) that the song “was going to be a hit. It was going to be a catalog song for them. But there’s no way anything tops the charts as quickly as it did unless you have some sort of viral component” (Moore). This speaks to the fact that while the song may have been great on it’s own, it was not reaching the mainstream audiences it needed to in order to become the cultural phenomenon it had the power to be. That is, until the rap duo did a version of the Mannequin Challenge at one of their shows, effectively making “Black Beatles” the soundtrack for the viral sensation.
In that vein, I am enamored with the concept of celebrity presence on the Internet. Alice Marwick and danah boyd note that platforms such as Twitter have become management tools for celebrities to regulate their relationship with audiences, “rather than relying on formal access brokers like managers and agents to maintain the distance between themselves and fans” (307). In the case of Rae Sremmurd and the Mannequin Challenge, this barrier between audience and performer is, in a sense, broken down. After performing the Mannequin Challenge with the song, Rae Sremmurd demonstrated a behavior, through the replication of which, fans could use to engage personally with the rappers.
Similarly, Marwick and boyd note the social concept of authenticity that celebrities are held to and is always relative and ultimately constructed based on context. They also highlight that self-disclosure, a power greatly increased by social media platforms, is the fan preferred method of celebrity interaction because it is perceived to be so much more “authentic” (313). Therefore, I believe that Rae Sremmurd’s choice to release their Mannequin Challenge on Twitter was one made with the notion of self-disclosure in mind. In doing so, the duo is presenting a cultural artifact that they personally co-sign; making the Mannequin Challenge an image associated with all the “trendiness” and influence Rae Sremmurd owns.
Something else I appreciated about this happening was the brilliant use of cross-platform media marketing. In a sense, Rae Sremmurd is acting as an arm of the Interscope Records musical enterprise and therefore in the best interest of the corporation. The direct involvement of Interscope marketing figures and the Internet brand Pizzaslime offers solid evidence to this line of thinking. Furthermore, the significance of cross-platform marketing as a method by which media spaces are controlled by corporate interest has already been spoken to by Jonathan Hardy in reference to HBO’s True Blood. He understands commercial intertextuality to be: “material that is fashion in autonomous and creative ways for self-expression and social communication, generation of new forms of participation, and collaboration amongst prosumers” (327). This is also reinforced by direct participation and collaboration on recreations of the Mannequin Challenge by Rae Sremmurd and other celebrities. Paul McCartney uploaded a video of himself doing the Mannequin Challenge with the caption, “Love those Black Beatles.” Additionally, Rae Sremmurd personally added “Black Beatles” to Hillary Clinton’s version of the Mannequin Challenge with the caption “#GoVoteChallenge.”
Finally, the relationship between Rae Sremmurd and the Mannequin Challenge mirrors the relationship between HBO and Gawker in the “Bloodcopy Incident” described by Hardy (332). Both incidents provide circumstances through which we can further understand and theorize intertextual space, or the integrative analysis Hardy pleads for at the end of his piece (333). I believe Rae Sremmurd might have contributed to the precedent of behavior, for not just rappers but celebrities, set by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” All of these artists utilized cross-platform representations of the same songs to promote and disseminate their work, for profit. I am curious how other artists will perpetuate this standard, perhaps leading to the generation of completely new forms of media.