The “meme explainer” used to be a novel format. You’ve read one, a piece in which an apparently educated writer fluent in both internet culture and Marxism examines a viral, youth-fueled trend of the moment — Surgery on a grape? Crying Michael Jordan? — and explains what it means, and whether it says something about the way we live now. These explainers can be entertaining and thoughtful, provided the writer doesn’t forget they’re actually just writing about a picture of a 3-D frog riding a unicycle. But they’re often awkward, because any attempt to make legible a fundamentally unexplainable phenomena is difficult, especially when it’s really, really not that deep.
And there is nothing that deep I could say about a particular video that tore across the internet in September, so I will instead embed it here so you can just watch it:
zendaya is meechee pic.twitter.com/zE6rXniAnQ— Gabriel Gundacker (@gabegundacker) September 23, 2018
On its face, simple: a seemingly kind man singing a nonsense song about the names of famous people and fictitious monsters. I watched it five times after I first saw it, and then maybe 700 times in the next few days. The same happened to many of my friends, the airy melody and cheerful vocal looped in their brains. One told a harrowing story about a coworker walking in on him singing “Gina Rodriguez is Kolka” with the passion of Aretha doing “Nessun Dorma,” and slowly backing out the door. Others didn’t get it, even after checking out the meme explainers.
I found the clip hilarious, at first for reasons I couldn’t possibly begin to put into words. For weeks after I saw the video, I’d catch myself passionately singing “Zendaya is Meechee” in private moments. But as time went on, it took on a deeper meaning for me. I don’t think it says much about the way we live now, but it did encapsulate something about the way I live now, which made it more valuable than any explainer I might have read this year.
Let’s talk about headlines for a second. Here are some headlines that have appeared on BuzzFeed in the last week: “People Are Criticizing People For Criticizing Monterey Bay Aquarium's Tweet Calling An Otter ‘Thicc’ And ‘Chonky’”; “Dax Shepard Denied Claims He Cheated On Kristen Bell In The Most Dax Shepard Way”; “I Just Found Out What Time Americans Start School And I'm Shook”; An OG ‘Full House’ Character Is Bisexual And We're Obsessed.” (Many websites sound like this now, but BuzzFeed is among the most popular, as well as a site I check somewhat regularly, so it’s the example I’m using here.)
These headlines and their kin greet me as though I’m halfway familiar with whatever they are talking about. I am, but not in a way that requires active engagement. I understand because I look at similar headlines without clicking, read discussions of their content without joining in, and absorb the context through secondary and tertiary sources. The internet often assumes intimacy, forgoes explanation, and presents itself as a shimmering wall of phrases you might recognize. How many times have you read an article that began, “You’ve probably seen this by now unless you’ve been living under a rock,” only to bring up some asinine event that anyone, including you, could have missed?
As the year went on, if I read these kinds of headlines together in quick succession, a sort of semantic satiation took over my brain. The names of actors, television shows, musicians, events, emotions, and more lost their meaning, shifting from fixed units of information to jumbles of letters. And after September, when one of these headlines crossed my path, I’d look at it and think something along the lines of, “so you’re telling me Zendaya is Meechee, and that Danny DeVito may be Dorgle.” (The latter is another indelible line from the song.) “Zendaya is Meechee” became a substitute for any phrase, a nonsense slurry embalming my brain whenever some fatuous event too exhausting to decode ambushed me in the wild.
So much was presented to me under the guise of utility or self-improvement that I could only take in so much before my mind fogged over and processed everything as... Meechee.
I am aware, faintly, that this is a problem exclusive to people whose livelihoods or lack thereof push them to sit in front of internet for large quantities of time, and that the phenomena I’m describing might be easily cured by throwing my laptop into a dumpster. But I also think the problem, as it happened to me, was a byproduct of the internet’s procession toward total content saturation, as there are now thousands of websites and strains of thought one might be expected to be familiar with, and a demonstration of the human brain’s natural capacity for understanding. So much was presented to me under the guise of utility or self-improvement that I could only take in so much before my mind fogged over and processed everything as... Meechee.
This aphasia was brought on by exhaustion, not disinterest. It began to seem necessary, if not ethical, to intentionally back off and let some events pass without consideration beyond “that happened,” or, if you were lightly damaged from a particular meme, “ah, Meechee.” Given the option of everything, a purposely limited purview felt much healthier, if not more honest, because no one really has all that time, and because it would be even worse to be so exhausted by the ultimately discardable that the consequential could not be properly considered.
A close friend often says: “I wish I was just a little bit stupider, or a little bit smarter.” What I think he means is that he wishes he was naturally comfortable with not knowing as much as he could, or that he was biologically advanced enough to process these thousands of available data points and place them into a coherent framework without losing his mind or his marriage. It’s not easy to find an equilibrium if you’re online even a little bit, because the essential promise of the internet is a space where this understanding is funneled right into your brain. If you consume one more article, one more debate, one more fact, one more Tweet, you will know more and thus be a more developed person.
But the possibility of interconnectivity and information exchange is nothing without safeguards for what’s worth consuming. And even if we learned of everything through curated lists pieced together by the smartest people with the best taste, the recommended pace of this consumption would leave us without the time necessary for it to take hold and actually mean something, instead of being just another data point, another event, song, show, film, book, video game, sport, restaurant, article, all the markers of life and a year gone by. The old standard of aesthetic snobbery was a music nerd who’d look down on you for listening to blink-182 instead of Sonic Youth. A more contemporary model is a heavily online person bewildered you aren’t familiar with the world as they experience it, for all the myopic standards that comprises.
I didn’t give up this year, nor did I want to, though I knew people who disconnected entirely and claimed it was the best decision they ever made. My first instinct was to consider them a little weak for this, though if the default tone of the way we live now is to make you feel like a dumbass for missing out, then maybe the only sane thing to do is to play into such an assumption and take a hike.
If external forces continue to tell us that our attention is being misspent by not absorbing content, then you’d really stick it to them by taking your attention off the board entirely. The world would whizz by, but you wouldn’t have known or expected any different, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone. You would be able to decide what was important, and what was just Meechee.