Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Neil Cicierega: Internet Dadaist

Posted by nathanpowers22 on February 27, 2017

Nathan Powers, Brianna Embry, Tommi Stowers, Scott Kaufman

Neil Cicierega is a man whose name might not immediately ring any bells for you. However, since age 14 in 2001, Cicierega has been in the business of making and uploading content to the Internet, nearly all of it inextricably linked to pop culture figures and media texts. As he explained in his presentation at the XOXO Festival last year, Cicierega was homeschooled from an early age and became infatuated with creative, computer-centric outlets, in part thanks to the influence of his father, a computer programmer and guitarist. Making dozens of unfinished videogames with the support of his parents, he eventually started composing music for said games and became part of numerous online communities where he garnered a small audience for his work. “Hyakugojyuuichi,” a chaotic Flash animation set to the Japanese Pokémon theme and rife with characters from pop culture (e.g. Bill Nye, Harry Potter, and Pee Wee Herman, to name only a few), became his first mainstream success when Salon wrote an article about it. In response, he spawned a genre of Flash animation he dubbed “animutation,” which led to hundreds of “fanimutations” that built on general themes tied to his own work.

Subsequently, Cicierega has become best known for “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny” on Newgrounds, the “Potter Puppet Pals” series on YouTube, and most recently, his “Mouth Trilogy.” The Mouth Trilogy is a series of three albums based mostly on comedic mashups of various pop staples from the late 80s to mid-00s, but named for the frequent use of “All Star” by Smash Mouth on each of them. (Mouth Silence is supposed to be a “prequel” to the others with no actual Smash Mouth samples used, but multiple hidden references to the song have since been discovered.) Our group decided to focus on the Mouth Trilogy, and a few of his other videos, because we felt that while these mashups are entertaining (or horrible, depending on your sense of humor and reverence for classic songs like “Imagine”), they demonstrate how an online content creator can make a living by “reappraising the residual.” Additionally, we highlight a couple of songs off his most recent effort, Mouth Moods, as examples of how this process has led to conflict with media rights holders in spite of what many would argue constitutes “fair use” of the copyrighted material.

“It’s the World Wide Web” kicks off our stream playlist with a campy homage to office instructional videos, popularized during the late 80s and 90s. In addition to using the video to “assert his own cultural fluency” (as Whitney Phillips might describe it) regarding trends like this and D.A.R.E., we just thought that “It’s the World Wide Web” functioned as a brief introduction to Cicierega’s sense of humor and what’s in store for the rest of the streams. “Neil Cicierega: Internet Person” is simply the presentation he gave at the aforementioned XOXO Festival, where he discusses his creative trajectory over time, his fascination with pop culture (mostly that from when he was growing up in the 90s), and brief insights on the creative landscape as it currently exists online.

The other videos continue to underscore Cicierega’s cultural awareness and aptitude for directly or indirectly lampooning popular media texts over the past few decades. To achieve this, he cleverly interweaves seemingly disparate ideas and sounds in order to produce diverse, yet cohesive, wholes. As an example of the former, “MOUTH” unites the animated children’s film Shrek with frantic, sinister imagery in unholy matrimony to produce an altogether unsettling audiovisual experience. In the case of the latter, “The Starting Line” demonstrates how Cicierega is just as capable of humorously blending numerous pop singles from the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Outkast, MC Hammer, The Smashing Pumpkins, and (of course) Smash Mouth, despite the differences in genre and overall mood. “Fly Away (lyrics),” while not a part of the Mouth Trilogy, demonstrates a similar appreciation for remix culture that simultaneously pokes fun at the simplicity of Lenny Kravitz’s lyrics on “Fly Away” and the omnipresent “lyrics” videos made and uploaded to YouTube by well-intentioned fans. In the same video, he repurposes yet another residual aspect of pop culture by injecting quotes from a 1985 Milky Way commercial as a play on Kravitz’s reference to our galaxy.

However, as previously mentioned, a couple of Cicierega’s most recent pieces, “Dear Dinosaur” and “Busta,” have had their audio removed from his YouTube uploads due to copyright claims by Sony/ATV and Warner Music Group (WMG), respectively. The former was targeted because it used a slightly altered instrumental from “Dear Prudence” by The Beatles as the backing track throughout, while the latter used the intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin. Because Cicierega’s work isn’t exactly a mainstream success and each song whose rights he supposedly infringed on is mashed up with other songs (“Walk the Dinosaur” for “Dear Dinosaur,” and “No Scrubs” for “Busta”), one could easily argue they don’t occupy the same competitive space as the rock legends from which he borrowed musical elements. In our group’s view, this serves as yet another example of how media conglomerates like Sony/ATV and WMG have failed to keep pace with the rapidly shifting models of participatory culture today.

In all, we only covered a drop in the bucket of content Neil Cicierega has produced in his 16-year presence online. In many ways, he has served as a pioneer for content creation on multiple platforms in this time, though he is rarely recognized as such and remains generally underappreciated as an artist. Since Salon first brought his work into the public eye, however, Cicierega has been acknowledged as a sort of Internet Dadaist, which we feel is an accurate title. His mashups, remixes, and reappraisal of the things that make quintessential “90s kids” nostalgic are notably similar in scope to the innovative collages and assemblages that Dadaism birthed in the 20th century. Nevertheless, what really separates Cicierega from this “anti-art” movement, which was more concerned with subverting norms in the art scene at the time, is that almost everything he does is for the entertainment of Internet subcultures and, most importantly, himself.

  1. It’s the World Wide Web: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-cMzpyMnw
  2. Neil Cicierega: Internet Person: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/neil-cicierega-internet-person-yc5tZQXR
  3. MOUTH: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-poK5Rbci
  4. Imagine All Star People: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-xKMQNr4q
  5. Daft Mouth: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-GBE5ZtQA
  6. Best: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/best-n8YiFHKL
  7. Fly Away (lyrics): http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/lenny-kravitz-fly-away-lyrics-sneraTH5
  8. Bustin: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-K7fQkAm2
  9. The Starting Line: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/the-starting-line-tqvqXW4k
  10. Dear Dinosaur: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/dear-dinosaur-BXn67eeG
  11. Annoyed Grunt: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/annoyed-grunt-DBpdJoRa
  12. Busta: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/busta-L6TJt6nG
  13. Shit: http://deepstream.tv/curate/WKUPOP201/deep-stream-tuqwvzQK

Edit: For the majority of the videos used in our stream playlist, the annotations simply provide context in the form of (1) hearing the unaltered source material Cicierega samples, (2) linking the choice of certain audio clips to other connotations they have in pop culture, and (3) providing commentary (from media outlets and ourselves) on what Cicierega may be attempting to achieve in these creative endeavors. In some cases, especially for “Neil Cicierega: Internet Person,” we also link to things that have sort of fallen out of cultural relevancy (or are just obscure) and as a result might need to be defined (e.g. zombo.com, Fark, etc.).


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