Why Did These 10 Songs Go Viral?

Sometimes songs take on a life of their own. Whether because of their timelessness, their lyrics, their hilarity, or their catchiness, they go viral. We've picked 10 of our favorite musical references from viral songs currently in the zeitgeist to take a look at the language and see if their popularity makes any sense ...

Our first musical interlude features the unlikely combo of comedian Andy Samberg and rapper T-Pain. Oh yea, and a boat.

I'm on a boat

The hit single I’m on a Boat was released by The Lonely Island on February 3, 2009 and premiered on NBC’s Saturday Night Live as a Saturday Night Live: Digital Short on February 9, 2009. It features comedians Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, alongside special guest rapper T-Pain, performing on a boat.

Much of the song’s lyrics are bombastic and profane observations about being on a boat, such as “I’m on a boat motherf**ker take a look at me, / Straight flowin' on a boat on the deep blue sea.”

People often humorously allude to the song by declaring in speech or text I’m on a boat when actually on a seafaring vessel. The phrase is typically proclaimed in a loud or obnoxious manner, similar to Samberg’s delivery in the music video, and it is often meant to express how being on a boat is a special experience. The allusion can be both sincere and ironic, and it is frequently referenced with nostalgia ... and in that feeling lies the reason for its popularity and virality.

Our next viral song also features white comedians rapping on boats. Do you sense a theme?

Boats 'N Hoes

Comedians Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly teamed up with director Adam McKay for the popular 2008 comedy, Step Brothers. In the movie, Ferrell and Reilly play unemployed, middle-aged, music production-aspiring stepbrothers in need of direction in life. Under threat of being thrown out of their parents’ house, the two, improbably, start an entertainment company, inaugurating their venture with a music video for their song Boats ‘N Hoes, filmed on one of their father’s boats. Its hook goes: “Boats ‘n hoes, boats ‘n hoes / gotta have me my boats ‘n hoes.”

The ironic ridiculousness of the song, its quotable verses featuring cheesy sex and sailing puns (e.g., going port to port, among much more explicit lines), and its parody of rap video tropes helped make it a hit in popular culture, further boosted by the star power of Ferrell and Reilly in the late 2000s.

The phrase has even surpassed the popularity of the movie. The lower-cased boats ‘n hoes has become a colloquial way to express excitement and enjoyment, especially when vacationing or partying on a boat or body of water. However, while many women do quote or allude to Boats ‘N Hoes, many others may consider the phrase’s ho, a slang term for a whore, vulgar and offensive.

Jenny from the Block

Before J. Lo was an international superstar, she was Jenny from the Block, as she sang on her 2002 hit song by that name. The song is about how she will never forget her roots despite her international fame and wealth. The success of Jenny from the Block has led the popular media to use it as a nickname for Jennifer Lopez.

Someone acting or dancing like Lopez in the video may also occasionally be called a Jenny from the Block, as may some young, music-inclined, or fame-aspiring women living in the Bronx. Fans of the song or Jennifer Lopez, especially those also named Jennifer or from the Bronx, commonly use Jenny from the Block as a username on social media.

The relatable aspect of this phrase definitely contributed to the catchiness of the beat in this song: that's a recipe for viral stardom.

Miss Mary Mack

Miss Mary Mack is by far the oldest musical reference on this list, but she remains a constant feature in modern rap songs. We tip our hat to this viral all star.

It's unclear exactly where the name Miss Mary Mack came from and who Miss Mary Mack is. Regardless of its exact origin, the rhyme was firmly established as a black children’s clapping games by the 1920s. And now, as one of the most popular and best-known children’s clapping games, Miss Mary Mack is nostalgically alluded to in colloquial speech and writing. The first few, and most popular, verses are also often riffed on in jokes. These jokes typically reference Miss Mary Mack‘s fashion sense (e.g., That moment you realize Miss Mary Mack all dressed in black with silver buttons all down her back was most definitely emo) or play with the song’s structure and rhyme (e.g., Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack throw that a$$ back back back).

Miss Mary Mack has been widely referenced in hip-hop rap, including “Miss Mary Mack” by Juicy J (2015), “Circles” by B.o.B. (2012), and “Rockabye Baby” by Priscilla Renea (2009). Notably, rap artist Rich Kidz referenced Miss Mary Mack in “Pop That” (2013), singing: “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack / All dressed in black, black, black / She got tattoos / All down her back, back, back.” That portion of the song inspired a dance craze that spread as the video Miss Mary Mack Challenge on social media.

What can't this woman do?

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Coming in as the second-oldest song on this list, Smells Like Teen Spirit was the 1991 Nirvana single that catapulted them to fame.

Supposedly, the name came from graffiti that Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill once wrote on the wall of lead singer Kurt Cobain’s hotel room. She wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” in reference to a deodorant brand that Cobain’s girlfriend at the time wore. Cobain, who didn’t know what Teen Spirit was, was said to have interpreted it as a revolutionary catchphrase and named a song after it.

With its distinctive, distorted guitar riff, Smells Like Teen Spirit became Nirvana’s most popular song. It served as an anthem for many of Generation X, who, like Cobain, found themselves confused and uncertain about the world around them. The song’s nihilistic vibe (“Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious”) appealed to many in a youth culture perceived as apathetic and cynical by outsiders.

If Smells Like Teen Spirit was the anthem of Gen X, then this next song is the Millennial anthem.

What Does the Fox Say?

The earworm What Does the Fox Say? went viral in 2013, earning over 750-million views and spawning an internet meme based on its chorus line, What does the fox say?

The song was written by Norwegian brothers Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker, known together as the comedy duo Ylvis. In 2013, they had an offbeat idea: Make an intentionally terrible song, pair it with a high-quality, studio-level music video, and release it as a joke they expected to fail but help promote their Norwegian TV show. 

What Does the Fox Say? is recognized as a piece of mid-2010s pop culture, often discussed in the context of viral content and internet culture more generally. It is sometimes quoted by comedians and alluded to on TV, in movies, and around the internet. Memes of What Does the Fox Say? picture foxes and provide captions providing funny, alternative things the fox is saying. A prominent sound effect that the fox is given in the song and video, ring-ding-ding-ding-ding, is also often referenced and used with images of foxes on social media.

Our next featured musical reference also comes from a bit of unusual Scandinavian comedy that went internationally viral.

We Are Number One

We Are Number One sounds like a champion's boast—which it is—but it's also a song from the Icelandic children's television show LazyTown that became a popular meme through countless remixes and parodies.

In the original We Are Number One song, Robbie Rotten shows his bad-guy buds, Bobbie, Tobbie, and Fobbie Rotten, all the different ways he plans to catch Sportacus. As Robbie sing-splains: “If you wanna be a Villain Number One / You have to chase a superhero on the run.” The song, which is super catchy whether you like it or not features a Hungarian klezmer-like melody, and its video visuals are absolutely bananas. One part shows Robbie trying to catch Sportacus with a giant butterfly net, for example.

We Are Number One first aired in October 2014. That might have been the end of it, but, sadly, Stefán Karl Stefánsson, who played Robbie Rotten, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 2016. A GoFundMe campaign to raise money for his treatment was immediately launched. To draw attention to the campaign, fans began releasing remixes of the We Are Number One song. (Tragically, Stefánsson passed away in August 2018.)

We Are Number One parodies were most popular in December 2016. This led some users to joke that the meme—and Robbie Rotten himself—had achieved “god-like meme status,” which in turn spawned its own set of memes. Because meme culture.

Suavemente

This next musical reference, Suavemente, is well, incredibly smooth. From the Spanish for "smoothly," Suavemente popularly refers to a 1998 Spanish-language song by Elvis Crespo. It inspired a popular meme in 2015 when it was compared to rapper Drake's dancing in his music video for "Hotline Bling."

Suavemente has been popular in the Latinx community since its release in 1998. The song has become (and is referenced as) a party staple and a crowd favorite, the type that everyone gets up to dance to at an event.

Gaining popularity in both English- and Spanish-speaking populations, it is common to see the Spanish-language title Suavemente familiarly used in English (e.g., I know there’s a party when I hear the beginning of Suavemente). Internet personality @JValentino_ notably parodied Suavemente by singing an English translation of the lyrics. On the internet, people will also post the lyrics of the song, most of them highlighting the drawn-out way Elvis Crespo sings (e.g., Suuuuuuaveeementeeeeeee).

What's more fun to sing than that?

Juju on that Beat

Some of the best song lyrics that go viral come from dance challenges—think Gangnam Style circa 2012. Juju on that Beat was one our favorite of these kinds of viral trends.

Juju has a variety of meanings. It is the name of a type of guitar and drum-based music among the Yoruba in West Africa. It can refer to a supernatural power or luck caused by a charm or fetish. Since the 1940s, juju has also been slang for marijuana. In their 2016 song Juju on That Beat, hip-hop duo Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall draw on juju‘s associations of being “high” or “enchanted.” Hilfigerrr has explained the slang juju as “like I’m the height … turned up … I don’t care.”

Also known as the TZ Anthem (the two Zs, Zay and Zay), the song was originally created in 2014 when Hilfigerrr freestyled over the beat of Crime Mob’s 2004 track “Knuck if you Buck.” The duo released the song as a single in July 2016 when they were just 15 years old. Detroit dance duo Fresh the Clown approached Hillfigerrr and McCall about making it a dance challenge—think the Mannequin Challenge or the Harlem Shake.

Later that summer, Fresh the Clown posted a YouTube video where they danced the juju (à la the Whip or Nae Nae). Under the hashtag “#TZAnthemChallenge,” the dance went viral, helping Hillfigerrr and McCall become an overnight sensation and sending Juju on That Beat to #5 on the Billboard charts.

Vindicated

To be vindicated is to be proven correct or cleared of blame. But, for emo fans of a certain age, the word instantly brings to mind the 2004 Dashboard Confessional hit Vindicated, which repeats the word—very emotionally, very often.

Band frontman Chris Carrabba wrote the song for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, where it ultimately played over the end credits. The peak-vindicated era coincided, not unsurprisingly, with the release of the song in 2004. People still reference the song today, a testament to its enduring popularity. It does have a reputation, though, for being very emo. But, just try belting out the chorus ... we bet you'll feel all the feels instantaneously.

What's funny though is that Vindicated notably riffed on a meme based on LGBTQ+ self-identification poll. The chorus of Vindicated “I am vindicated / I am selfish / I am wrong…”) lends itself to the menu options ...

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