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Neil Cicierega and the Tricky Business of Making Meme Music

The Smash Mouth-sampling artist's latest unsettling full-length raises questions about the longevity of the mashup as a form.

Neil Cicierega doesn't seem real. He's like a surge of smoke from a monitor, a command line overload running in a mawkish, gut-wrenching collapse. As one of the earliest self-professed "content creators" in internet existence, Cicierega came of age directly alongside the web—amongst all else, a tool for cultural production that neither he, nor the world really understood the potential off at the time. After making one of the first viral videos in existence back in 2007—an installment of his eccentric Potter Puppet Pals webseries—Cicierega came to realize that the strange songs and videos he'd made for fun as a young homeschool student had a burgeoning new audience online—first on the fandom platform Newgrounds, and later finding more success on YouTube, where the video now has over 171 million views.

Caught in a new spotlight, Cicierega watched his videos morph and mutate into remixes, tributes, and fan videos as the burgeoning phenomenon of the YouTube Celebrity was quickly taking shape. Through the years, he continued creating content, producing a number of grab-bag comedy videos on his YouTube channel, and later porting the Potter Puppet Pals series to its own channel, where the series would continue until 2015.

But as most vloggers and YouTube personalities slowly settled into new models for long-term sustainment, Cicierega ventured further into the detrital grit of the web's lowest common denominator with the 2014 release of his debut mashup album, Mouth Sounds. The first release under his own name after years making music as Lemon Demon, Mouth Sounds is an album of of Smash Mouth-centric remixes, conceived and recorded long after the mashup fell out of vogue. Turning the band's hit "All Star" into a sample-based MIDI chorale, Cicierega slaps Smash Mouth atop Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews, Michael Jackson, and Nirvana til they're mangled beyond recognition. The album was followed by another collection of mashups, Mouth Silence, later that year, and just last month he dropped a third installment in the series, Mouth Moods.

As a mashup artist, Cicierega doesn't just combine songs; he makes the most painful concoctions of cross-cultural kitsch feel perfectly natural together. Layering MIA's "Paper Planes" with the screech from Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness" and Austin Powers' "Yeah, baby!," the producer fashions song after song into a grimace of contradictions. As music critic Sasha Geffen once wrote at Impose, "The songs fit so comfortably together that it's hard to imagine they were ever sorted into separate taste brackets. The '90s bro rock cliché and the mid-aughts indie underdog fuse into one pure shot of pop."

On Mouth Moods, Cicierega pushes farther into nostalgic novelty, slamming Barenaked Ladies' "One Week," and 3 Doors Down's "Story of a Girl" into a slapstick assemblage of jagged edges. It's hard to describe just what it feels like to drop "Back in Black" over "1000 Miles" because in some ways, there's a fundamental disconnect in the way Cicierega uses records. Where a more traditional DJ thrives on continuity, Cicierega smashes sounds designed to evoke a grimace. He shifts from second to second with a visceral rushes of nu-metal and powerpop, hard and soft as one. If Weird Al and Girl Talk ever had a baby, chances are the thing would still pale in comparison to the expertly-crafted meme vomit of Mouth Moods. The album's just too much, too fast, too familiar, an hour-long overload of synaptic euphoria that doubles as extended game of Name That Tune.

With over 400,000 plays on SoundCloud to date, clearly there are some fans out there, and the record's appeal seems rooted in large part in its comedy. Fascinated by the absurd impact of hearing two polar opposites combined into something sweet, commenters write with a simultaneous awe and grimace. "I wish I could erase my memory of this moment and relive it on loop forever," writes one fan after about five-and-a-half minutes. It gets at the fact that the music works best for listeners still unfamiliar with it. The joke lands hardest on the unsuspecting listener, its impact doomed to fade with repeated listens.

Three years after his mashup debut, it's worth noting that much of his work here stays the same, even as the web itself is changing. Shrek and Smash Mouth memes are hitting their outer limits, but Cicierega's routine still attempts to provoke the same reaction. By colliding TLC's "No Scrubs" with Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and basking in the composite's zany eccentricity, Mouth Moods definitely feels like a stronger development in the series; Cicierega's software and sampling skills have each become more refined. But again and again, the producer still returns to the same garish punchline.

Other "meme producers" have crafted tracks with a similar comedic intent. Variants like "all star but the vocals are pitch shifted to the initial note" by William Hutchinson or YouTube user Dpaje's "All Star" in Alphabetical Order each riff on near identical jokes, stretching an instantaneous sample recognition into the full duration of a song, all while running the joke into the ground. Where others' jokes hit immediately and slowly dwindle with time, Cicierega's constantly dropping new samples. While this density limits the extent to which any given moment is actually Laugh Out Loud funny, it creates a sustained effect that, like most bad jokes on the internet, never really leave the subconscious imagination.

That said, Mouth Moods highlights the new banality of mashup culture as a whole. As the blog culture that gave birth to acts like Girl Talk gives way to corporate playlists and our fascination with straightforward, Hood Internet-style track combinations finally flickers out, maybe the mashup ceased to be an exciting, progressive form of dance music. Of course, there are artists like Elysia Crampton and Organ Tapes who apply the mashup's collapse of context to more visionary compositions. But since its inception, blog culture has long rewarded more obvious sampling with viral traffic and and baited media attention, allowing more and more artists with a thirst for the headlines the opportunity to make jokes like Cicierega's. As THUMP's UK editor Josh Baines wrote last year, while the mashup was once championed in highbrow circles as an "important development" culturally, the whole thing was really always "self-serving bollocks that was a (well intentioned) attempt at justifying the existence of some very, very, very horrible music."

Maybe Cicierega's music then begins from that point of banality. When Mouth Sounds dropped in 2014, the mashup was already past its prime and from its genesis, the disconnect at the heart of Cicierega's work always seemed more interested in shock value than cultural longevity. As meme culture slowly subsumes laptop trends, and whole critically acclaimed genres like vaporwave spiral into punchlines, maybe the mashup is the latest net genre to fall victim to the goofy fate that awaits all internet artifacts. Anything this oversaturated and easy-to-make was always bound to end in memes anyway.

Rob Arcand is a writer and he's on Twitter.