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Iconic Songs Used in Memes

Updated: 2 days ago

This is a different sort of blog than what I normally write about, but I went down the rabbit hole recently, revisiting the days of Vine. It got me thinking about how popular songs became even more popular thanks to memes, and what an interesting phenomenon that is.

Meme culture is such an integral part of our society. So much so that it has the power to put a piece of media back into the spotlight that may have faded to obscurity with time. Thanks to memes, there are certain films and songs out there that continue to make an appearance in the zeitgeist because of the internet’s jokes that blow up and become universally known. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here’s the formal definition of what’s considered a meme according to Google... 

A meme is “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.” 

Today, I wanted to put together a list of songs that blew up or found an audience again thanks to meme culture. Let’s get started. 

“Never Gonna Give You Up” - Rick Astley 

This is one of the first songs to blow up thanks to memes. The 1980s hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video was deemed humorous by kids in the 2000s who began sending the video to their friends, which became known as “rickrolling.” The term “rickrolled” is a term used in the world of memes to describe when a link is posted pretending to be something else, and when the person clicks on it, it redirects you to Rick Astley’s music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was the ultimate prank in the 2000s. The first tracked Rick Roll that the internet is aware of was on the imageboard "4chan" as a variant of "duckrolling" the same basic thing as a Rick Roll but linking to a picture of a duck on wheels (Source). 

The music video was uploaded formally by the label in 2009 and since the redirects for rickrolling were sent to this upload, the video has 1.4 billion views and 17 million likes. It reached the 1 billion milestone in 2021, 34 years after its initial release! “Never Gonna Give You Up” is one of those timeless classics that will live on as long as people continue to make rickrolling a thing. Astley is a good sport about the song being a meme phenomenon and doesn’t mind the attention from it, but he has said that he finds it is bizarre. I would put the music video here, but I don’t want to rick roll all of you so instead, here's a link to an interview of Rick Astley talking about how intends to remove the song from YouTube since he isn’t getting royalties from it. Yes, really! This legend isn’t getting a dime for these billions of views.  


“Photograph” by Nickelback 

Nickelback, much like the Shrek movies, has become a meme in general. There are dozens of memes related to the band. Hating Nickelback is a meme in itself and there’s another popular one comparing Chad Kroeger’s 2000s hair to ramen noodles. But the one that is the most well-known is of course the one involving their 2005 song “Photograph.” In the clip, viewers see a part of their music videLo but instead of Kroeger saying, “Look at this photograph,” it’s edited to have him just say, “look at this graph” as the frame he holds up no longer has a photo but a bar graph. There’s an awkward pause and a close up of Kroeger awkwardly smiling. It’s goofy. It’s simple. It’s iconic. It’s because of this meme that new generations know this 2000s hit. You can watch a few fans in this reaction video immediately bring up the meme when the song begins. Check it out here if you’re interested:

Nickelback has enjoyed the “Look at this graph” meme and even reference it before playing the song at their shows. When I saw them last year (yes, I’ve seen them live many times. I’m not a Nickelback hater), they said something along the lines of, “These days, people know this next one as ‘look at this graph’” before beginning to play “Photograph.” I love that they have fun with it and lean into the fact that people associate them with memes. And it’s because of the “look at this graph” meme, people know their 2005 hit.  

Check out the meme below... 

 "All Star" by Smash Mouth 

I personally don’t find it surprising that this song became a go-to song for memes because of its association with the 2001 movie Shrek. You can probably find hundreds of memes created from the Shrek franchise alone, but it’s the ones featuring the opening track from the first film that is the most well-known. In the opening scene of Shrek, we meet Shrek himself as he wakes up and goes about his morning routine in the swamp. The image of Shrek busting open his door with the lyrics, “Somebody once told me,” will be forever intertwined in my mind, and I’m sure it’s in the mind of many others. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint just one usage of this song with a meme. One example that always cracks me up is when the song was edited to make the phrase, “and they don’t stop coming” repeat on an infinite loop, never continuing the rest of the song. There’s even a version where someone pitch-corrected the phrase to make the song musically continue but each line is “and they don’t stop coming.” Then there’s the 10-hour version... Steve Harwell has such an iconic 2000s look in the music video too. RIP to an absolute legend. 

See the pitch-corrected example below... 

“My Heart Will Go On” - Celine Dion 

“My Heart Will Go On” was written for the 1997 blockbuster Titanic which already gave the song major cultural relevance for decades. But meme culture breathed new life into the somber track when people started editing the song into iconic moments from other films and realized how well it fit in many movies. You can see an example of that here. While those are funny, the meme that is often associated with “My Heart Will Go On” is the poorly played version on a recorder. Just thinking about it makes me laugh. Once this laughably terrible version was posted, it began to get edited into other “sad” moments, especially in the days of Vine. While “My Heart Will Go On” has a lot of staying power because of its association with Titanic, I love that it’s found so many more people because of the meme. Can you make it through all 4 minutes and 16 seconds? 

“Old Town Road” - Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus 

“Old Town Road” absolutely took over the internet when it was released. You could not escape this song. No one was safe and that was partly because of the virality of Tik Tok. It got huge because of the popular videos made by users where they’d transform from their normal attire to a full-blown cowboy costume. From there, more memes flourished, and the song picked up popularity outside of the app with celebrities. It has such an earworm of a chorus that once you hear it, it’s difficult to get it out of your head. The perfect sort of song for a meme. Check out a compilation of some of the cowboy transformations from Tik Tok below... 

While Billy Ray Cyrus has a feature in the song, the snippet used for memes doesn’t include much of him. Outside of the Tik Tok trend, the meme that really cracks me up is the one where someone edited the song to replace lyrics with the word “horse” so it’s primarily Lil Nas X just singing about horses. It’s so silly, and I love it. Watch below: 

“Mad World” - Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ version  

“Mad World” is the perfect sad song to be turned into a meme because of its popularity pre-meme. Fans of the film Donnie Darko already loved the song. I swear, it’s like that song was written specifically for that story despite being released 20 years before the movie. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that it’s iconic. While Tears for Fears wrote the original song, it’s the cover by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules that is often used in memes. I’m sure it’s self-explanatory what it’s used for – to highlight sad moments or add humor to an on-the-surface sad moment. For example, it might be used in a video of a kid about to blow out his birthday candles but his brother beats him to it – cue the opening sad piano. There aren’t enough Mad World compilations on YouTube to pull from but there are certainly a lot of silly covers, like a Kermit version and a Goofy version. My personal favorite is the one that started a lot of the memes, and that’s the edit of “Mad World” over the SpongeBob episode where the character Squidward is repeating his days over and over with a deep frown. Poor Squidward. 

“Run” - Awolnation 

This particular song usage cracks me up because I’m a genuine Awolnation fan. So when “Run” and their other song “Sail” started getting used in memes, especially on Vine and Tik Tok, I was just thrilled people were listening to the song. The trend for “Run” was at first acting out a scene where something would justify a person to mouth, “Run” in time with the song before going into the breakdown and people running away. There were also edits of the song over clips of a person about to be chased by an animal. All of them are great and get a chuckle out of me but my favorite is also rumored to be the clip that started the trend. It’s of the umbrellas getting blown away in the wind, rolling down the beach towards people. The timing of the “Run” is just so perfect.  

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Tell me in the comments which song you love that’s been used in a popular meme!

Written by Kristen Petronio


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