Stars of Gifs and Memes You Are


My feelings towards gifs and memes are pretty much the same as my feelings about any form of new technology, particularly as they relate to the internet. I think they’re stupid and silly and superficial and play a role in further dumbing down our culture and shrinking our already microscopic attention spans.

At the same time, I kind of love them and have begun implementing gifs into my articles semi-regularly here at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. They’re tacky, they’re vulgar but good lord are they ever addictive. I belong to multiple bad memes Facebook groups but whether you’re obsessed with bad memes ironically, as I am, or obsessed with them non-ironically, as I probably also am, you’re still spending an awful lot of time thinking about dumb memes and overused gifs. 

For a long time I didn’t even know what gifs or memes were. As a middle-aged person, it is my inalienable right, even duty, to be unnecessarily confused by new terms and ideas but I must have figured the concept out at some point because it’s not all that unusual for me to think in terms of gifs. 


Working on the Weird Accordion to Al article on “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me”, for example, I found myself thinking that when most pop stars try to employ internet language in their work they come off about as convincingly as Steve Buscemi in the famous meme/gif from 30 Rock of him dressed in “youthful” clothes accompanied by the caption “How do you do fellow kids?” 


Memes de-contextualize and re-contextualize images that to us feel familiar and iconic even if we can’t quite place where they come from. I was a big 30 Rock fan and I’m pretty sure that I not only saw but wrote about the 30 Rock episode that generated this deathless meme but even I half-mis-remembered the image as possibly coming from one of the many Adam Sandler movies Buscemi has appeared in. 

The stars of some of the biggest, most popular and enduring memes and gifs are also, not surprisingly, some of the biggest, most popular and enduring stars, period. Michael Jackson, for example, has attained a curious posthumous online fame as the star of one of the top gifs of all time. Drake, meanwhile, is as big in the world of memes as he is in the world of pop music, something that I imagine makes him frown dramatically as he wrestles with the complicated, contradictory nature of fame and wealth but also smile real big because who doesn’t want to be rich and famous? I only wish there was a widely disseminated meme to convey that happiness and ambivalence. 


Memes and gifs don’t seem to die or even go away so there is a very good chance that my sons’ first experience of the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video will not be from the video itself but rather a de-contextualized micro-clip of the late King of Pop hungrily munching popcorn in anticipation. On a similar note, it’s likely that he’ll come across the meme from Goodfellas of white gangsters laughing maniacally in a group long before I decide it’s time for him to finally see one of the greatest movies of all time. 

The genius of the meme and the gif is that it takes something well-known or obscure and radically re-contextualizes it for the sake of a joke or a reference or a visual pun/flourish. But for future generations, the meme will provide at least part of the cultural context. When future generations look at Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus hipping Neo to the true nature of reality in The Matrix they’ll see a big moment from a big, iconic blockbuster but they’ll also be seeing an image that has been used and abused, mocked and recycled throughout the internet. This, in a sense, will become its new context. In many ways, it has already become its new context. 


There is already a pantheon of memes and gifs that have wormed their way into the national consciousness and show no signs of ever leaving. It’ll be interesting to see how my son’s generation processes and interprets these images and clips from various places in our culture that have been sliced and diced and re-purposed in bold, weird and sometimes absolutely inspired new ways. 

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