1. “Gurenge”, LiSA, Gurenge, 2019, JPop, Japan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwkzK-F0Y00&ab_channel=LiSAOfficialYouTube 
  2. “Weight of the World”, J’Nique Nicole, Marina Kawano, and Emi Evans, NieR: Automata, 2010, Video game music, Multiple locations, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLvUYQL-UmU&ab_channel=HQDiveo
  3. “Shiny Smily Story”, Hololive IDOL PROJECT, Bouquet, 2021, Idol pop, Japan, ​ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjMJVSN86kQ&ab_channel=HoloVClips
  4. “Dong Saya Dae”, BgA, Dong Saya Dae, 2016, KPop, United States, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beZFLT0Ixag&ab_channel=nigahiga
  5. “We’ll Meet Again”, Vera Lynn and London Theatre, We’ll Meet Again, 1939, WW2 British Pop, UK, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTWy9jim7Mw&ab_channel=OfficialLondonTheatre
  6. “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Rick Astley, Whenever You Need Somebody, 1987, Dance pop, UK, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ&ab_channel=RickAstley
  7. “Alkatraz”, DEMONDICE, Alktatraz, 2020, Fusion hip hop, United States, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRQ3sKGQ2KQ&ab_channel=DEMONDICE
  8. “Thai Cha Cha”, Namewee, All East Asia, 2018, Cha Cha, Thailand, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRQ5VRNL4aQ&ab_channel=Namewee
  9. “Thunderstruck”, Two Cellos, Celloverse, 2014, Classical/rock, Croatia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT3SBzmDxGk&ab_channel=2CELLOS
  10. “Rasputin vs Stalin”, Epic Rap Battles of History, ERB Season 5, 2013, Rap, United States, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT2z0nrsQ8o&ab_channel=ERB

Hololive 1st Fes, January 2020, Photo by Ayo Kajino

This quarter, we’ve often explored musical communities along ethnic and cultural lines. However, I argue that we are overlooking a new dimension of musical communities —the virtual dimension of the internet. Platforms like YouTube have increased the accessibility of almost all forms of music. With a larger, virtual audience comes new interpretations of music that may destabilize notions of how music was “meant” to be appreciated.

Thus, I expand upon our discussion by examining how virtual communities are both created through music and reshape existing interpretations of music. I’ve curated 10 songs above to explore this topic. I believe that music generates virtual communities, that virtual communities provide novel interpretations of music through parody, and that virtual communities allow for bold experimentation with fusion music.

The first three songs exemplify how music creates new virtual communities. “Gurenge” made its most famous appearance in the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, but is better known as the opening of a famous anime, “Demon Slayer.” Anime used to be a fringe genre, but online anime and anisong streaming greatly popularized the genre in Japan and worldwide. When Olympic performers danced to “Gurenge,” they were in fact dancing to two distinct audiences: the anime community and the worldwide audience tuning into the Olympics. The wider Olympic audience may appreciate the celebratory anticipation of Gurenge’s opening triplets, yet anime fans around the world instantly recognize the same six syllables as iconic Demon Slayer. The difference in interpretation is most similar to how Shresthova (2008) described Bollywood dances convey cultural messages that an “outsider” cannot realize. Catchy anime opening and ending songs, streamed worldwide, had created a distinct virtual community.

The second song, “Weight of the World”, is a poignant instance of how music intertwines with other media forms to create virtual communities. The song plays in the last stage of a singleplayer game called Nier. The last stage is so difficult that it cannot be completed alone. Instead, the player receives help from past data of players who have already completed the game. As the player struggles alone first, a single voice sings “Weight of the World” with a melancholy intimacy. However, when the other players join, the song becomes a chorus of rebellion. The volume intensifies. The song transitions to different languages. Drums roll as words of encouragement left by previous players fill the screen. “Weight of the World” interweaves into the gameplay, orchestrating an emotional experience between people who have never met except in the virtual space. Nier being an emotional experience is not an individual perspective. If you search on YouTube for playthroughs of this ending, you will find many, many players with similar responses.

The third song, “Shiny Smily Story”, demonstrates how music establishes vigorous virtual communities without a physical presence. The song comes from Hololive, a virtual idol group in which performers livestream behind virtual avatars instead of using their own faces. Fans of Hololive mostly enjoy the live streams independently. However, when the idols performed “Shiny Smily Story” live in the stadium, fans synchronized their chants perfectly. Everyone knew when the pauses occurred between the fast notes. The forty-three million subscribers of Hololive have no such physical presence, yet given an opportunity to demonstrate, they are there! Hololive music is niche in that those who know it become the “insiders,” who, in Hololive lingo, are jokingly said to “have fallen into the rabbit hole.” The niche music establishes “inside tropes” to rally around, enabling individual subscribers to coalesce into a virtual musical community.

Forming communities around music is nothing new. As we’ve read in Vianna (1999), samba became a symbol of Brazilian national identity. Tang (2021) examines an ongoing movement to bolster Chinese folk identity through the yuan sheng tai movement. In both cases, unifying behind music was an intentional, sometimes centrally-planned initiative. What I find remarkable is that these fiercely unique virtual communities did not form as the result of any orders from above. Niche music became common knowledge for people who have never met in real life.

So far, we have discussed how music helps form virtual communities. But virtual communities also create new interpretations of music through parodies. The next three songs are all instances of internet parodies. “Dong Saya Dae”, for example, pokes fun at the absurdity of KPop bands. The song title lacks the KPop suave because it means “I have to take a shit,” yet the electronic beats, autotuned chorus, and intense fashion still assert the bold attitude particular to KPop.

In sharp contrast, the London Theatre’s virtual performance of “We’ll Meet Again” transforms the significance of this WWII British song into a sign of solidarity against COVID. The song was originally a solo by Vera Lynn, but the chorus parody greatly enriches it by playing out the dynamics between high and low pitches. Individual singers combine into a chorus, uniting to hold a high note or serving as a countermelody to featured singers in each segment. The complex but coordinated melodies convey both an appreciation of diversity and plea for unity in the face of COVID.

The most famous parody, however, is the “Rick Roll” meme. Debuted in 1987, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was never intended to be an internet meme. Yet the internet has created multiple parodies in which people are fooled into opening the song, only to be blasted with cheesy city pop instrumentals. The original meaning of “Never Gonna Give You Up” has long been replaced by an association with pranks.

Finally, I argue that virtual communities also tend to produce unique “fusion” music. “Rasputin vs. Stalin” by Epic Rap Battles of History, for example, exclusively produces rap on YouTube in which the rappers represent historical characters. The beat changes every time someone new enters. It sounds like a military march for Stalin, but becomes a 1980s electro-disco mix for Gorbachev. Similarly, 2Cellos base their community on YouTube. Their song, “Thunderstruck,” begins as a typical baroque concert with curt, disciplined notes. They then slam their cellos and apply aggressive vibratos to create rock beats, yet without abandoning the baroque staccato. The result is what I make to be a confusing but energetic mixture of baroque and rock. Namewee’s “Thai Cha-Cha” matches the rhythmic dance of Cha-Cha with everyday motions in Thailand, such as mango-harvesting and Muay-Thai boxing. Finally, Alkatraz by DEMONDICE, a virtual persona, combines 1920s swing with 2020 pop-rap. She raps against a beat of saxophones and repetitive minor-key jazz.

All three examples were niche because they were bold fusion experiments. From my perspective, music this unique could not have been supported by a conventional audience. It isn’t the norm to hear this music randomly on the streets, in a mall, or on any top 10 list. No such group of people with similar tastes exists in a physical location to support the music. Instead, this unique “fusion” music is popular because its virtual format engages niche and scattered individuals everywhere. So to borrow from Kyra Gaunt (2006), to what extent is this virtual fusion music “anti-essentialist”? They still identifiably conform to the essential structures of the genres they borrow from. For example, “Thunderstruck” is distinctly Baroque not just in the cello instrumentals, but in the outfits of the performers. These songs are more “anti-anti-essentialist.” In other words, these artists express some traditional cultural traits while still engaging in cultural exchange In these cases, the wide reach of virtual platforms allows bold cultural exchange without rejecting the traditional bases from which these exchanges occur.

These ten songs illustrate the complex dynamics between virtual communities and music. Some virtual communities form their distinct culture around the music. Others challenge our understanding of mainstream songs by creating internet parodies. Yet other virtual creators take advantage of the wide reach of virtual platforms to produce and support their bold fusion music. We have discussed musical communities defined by traditional elements like race and history. I believe the virtual dimension challenges us to realize that musical communities are evolving before our very eyes.

Calvin Zhang is a 4th year Economics specialization Data Science major. His academic interests include econometrics and spatial data science. Of course, he is also an avid anime fan. 

Works Cited:

Gaunt, Kyra Danielle. 2006. “Education, Liberation: Learning the Ropes of a Musical Blackness” in The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. New York: New York University Press, pp. 37–55.

Shresthova, Sangita. 2008. “Dancing to an Indian Beat: ‘Dola’ Goes My Diasporic Heart.” Chapter 9 in Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance, edited by Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 243–63.

Tang, Kai. 2021. “Singing a Chinese Nation: Heritage Preservation, the Yuanshengtai Movement, and New Trends in Chinese Folk Music in the Twenty-First Century.” Ethnomusicology 65, no. 1: 1–31.

Vianna, Hermano. 1999. “Samba of my Native Land” in The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music & National Identity in Brazil. University of North Carolina Press, pp. 77–92