Little Dark Age: Mapping the Evolution of a Meme

How an indie song accumulated layers of meaning as it passed through social platforms

 

When an artist, or a media company, releases a piece of content into the wider world, it can mutate into something out of all recognition. These transformations can range from the boundlessly inventive to the deeply problematic, and often take place within the kinds of online space that sit beyond the purview of traditional monitoring.

That’s precisely what happened to the MGMT song ‘Little Dark Age’. 

Hip-hop helped establish the idea of a song as a malleable source material, rather than an ultimate endpoint. However, the explosion in instances of songs soundtracking short videos on social media, particularly on TikTok, has ushered in a new period of mass re-contextualisation, in which pieces of music are shorn of original intent in favor of new interpretation, Bella Poarch’s mime-a-long to “M to the B” being a notable example

By 2017 MGMT, onetime purveyors of acid blasted beach rock in “Time to Pretend” and “Kids”, had released a trio of albums, each of which had place respectably in the Billboard charts without threatening to become a runaway hit. In that year, however, they released ‘Little Dark Age’. Having prompted online engagement from a number of indie or hipster online communities, the song lay dormant in the popular consciousness before seeing an enormous surge in online interest in 2020.

What was behind this?

 

Utilising Pulsar TRAC, we examined the conversation around the song across Twitter and Reddit from 2020 to 2022, and learned that the song’s popularity could be understood by mapping which communities engaged with it. 

By 2020, a number of such communities had decided that the song’s catchy discordance and evocative lyrics made it a perfect fit for fan-generated videos around pre-existing IP, largely anime-based. 

This helped to amplify the lingering popularity the song still enjoyed across regions as diverse as Germany, Iran and Brazil.

TikTok’s escalating popularity around this time also meant that it became the natural destination for many such videos. But the platform also played host to another, tangential trend, in which the ‘Little Dark Age’ cited in the lyrics was no long associated with a challenge or difficulty experienced by a fictional character, but rather used to refer to the ‘decline’ of western civilisation in the face of ‘woke’ ideals. 

This was made all the more ironic by MGMT’s own revelation that the song was written to embody their own feelings of confusion and displacement around President Trump’s victory in the 2017 election.

The 2021-2022 shift in audiences engaging in discourse around the song, or more specifically it’s numerous ‘edits’, reflected this change.

 
 
The largely progressive communities who had previously dominated discussion around the meme were over time replaced by communities who shared a hard-right ideology. 
 
Looking at the commonalities across the two audiences, it’s possible to map how knowledge of the meme might have crossed the political divide. In the US, for instance, gaming and meme-orientated humor are a unifying factor for both the largest progressive and the largest right-wing group. At the same time, the conversation in Brazil appears to have become steadily more politicised, as the Bolsanaro-following ‘Brazilian Memeposters & Politicos’ spun out to form a distinct online community. 
 

 
Except the shift in association is not complete. Because not only do ‘Pitchfork/NME Fans’ and ‘Progressive Memers & Gamers’ remain from previous iterations of the conversation, we also see the addition of football-focused fan groups. These are only the most visible instance of wider culture co-opting the meme for their own use, from Formula 1 rivalries: 
 

 
… to spreading Christian teachings: 
 

 
In fact, the song has even impacted how advertising efforts of international corporations are received and understood:
 

 
 
 
If there’s a further irony within all this, it’s that MGMT have not experienced the same fate as other TikTok-famous artists, and become disassociated from their work. Instead, their pre-existing fame and presence amongst online communities has seen the song accumulate 336 million plays on Spotify, and release a new wave of appreciation for the band and their work. 
 

 

If you’re interested learning more about this dataset, or discovering how social data can lead to insights across technology, consulting and a number of other spaces, simply fill out the form below.

 

 

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