Last week, I was captivated by the widespread Chinese internet parodies that transformed the second U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton into musical duets. By overlaying pictures and videos with soundtracks and subtitles, internet users reimagined the debate as a wide range of romantic songs, ranging from “Little Dimples,” a pop song by JJ Lin and Charlene Choi, to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the theme tune to the film “Dirty Dancing.”
The debate thus became source material for a plurality of new memes. On the internet, memes refer to virtual forms or ideas which spread rapidly and widely across a network, undergoing both random and intentional mutation as they do so. Specifically, a meme changes the form and meaning of the original content by rearranging the technological artifacts surrounding it.
One reason that the Trump-Clinton “duet” produced so many successful memes comes down to how the format of the debate naturally evoked musical performance. The two “singers,” one male and one female, moved slowly across the stage, clutching their microphones. Dynamic camera angles captured fleeting eye contact between them, providing fertile ground for online satirists to recast the images in more romantic terms.
The general mise-en-scene of the debate also reminded many Chinese of domestic karaoke culture. In China, karaoke bars commonly furnish customers with private rooms decked-out with handheld microphones, a mini-stage, and a high-definition TV set displaying subtitled music videos. The success of the karaoke meme as a series of moving objects accompanied by sound and visuals lay in its greater playfulness compared to static memes that simply Photoshop stand-alone images.
Memes circulate when the reappropriation of the original content resonates with the prevailing feelings of a society. In cyberspace, one role of memes is to allow the general public to cut those in power down to size. In this case, the empowerment gained from adding lyrics and backing music to videos of the debate echoes the experience of singing karaoke, whereby an amateur reinterprets a popular song on their own terms. By romanticizing two “serious” political candidates as pop musicians, the duet between Trump and Clinton serves to deconstruct the tension of partisan politics and ridicule the forms of power that sustain it.
A more interesting facet of such online behavior is that it may have links to the recent resurgence of Chinese nationalism. An emerging group, composed mainly of young web users, is expressing patriotism in blunt terms by inundating the social media accounts of well-known celebrities with thousands of comments. By moving political content backstage and foregrounding Chinese pop culture both visually and aurally, the debate has provided a mild way for such patriots to resist Western democracy.
In both the U.S. and China, political memes can serve as pressure valves. There was a particularly vitriolic tone to the second presidential debate, as both candidates attacked the other’s recent scandals. For viewers, these distractions from the issues that most directly affect their lives can prove alienating and dull. Meme-play allows them to postulate an alternative reality — for example, a karaoke performance — as a means of trivializing the prominence of the debate. In the Chinese context, where there exists little room for parodies of incumbent government officials, it is a safer option for netizens to poke fun at the two American presidential candidates.
The parody of American politicians both echoes and informs the Communist Party-led discourse on the debate. A recent opinion piece from state news agency Xinhua claimed that “the election is dirty, [and] democracy is vulgar.” The piece reappeared on the Weibo account of the Communist Youth League of China, accompanied by a screenshot of the candidates “singing” the aforementioned “Little Dimples.” This co-option of meme culture by party organs is actually a key government propaganda strategy on digital platforms, as it softens the rhetoric of the party’s position while covertly endearing itself to youth culture more generally.
Internet memes facilitate cultural and political participation across a wide range of people. Through creating, adapting, and spreading memes, the powerless can feel empowered, the deprived can feel fulfilled, and the isolated can feel connected. However, the promise of meme culture is so often left unrealized because its symbolic nature is not necessarily capable of cultivating a well-informed public.
Therefore, it is important to explore the extent to which this kind of lay-engagement or “clicktivism” — spreading information without contributing to its content — can transform into substantive engagement and lead to meaningful change. While meme culture has the potential to empower the masses, this particular case also illustrates how the process can be reversed in order to allow existing power-holders to promote their own discourse. As scholars in this field, we should examine the sociopolitical implications of internet memes more carefully in order to fully lay bare the promises they hold.
(Header image: An employee wearing a Donald Trump mask poses for a photo at the Shenzhen Lanbingcai Latex Crafts Factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Oct. 18, 2016. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images/VCG)