The Chocolate Wars

On the bewildering summertime dominance of Tay Zonday and R. Kelly

The New York Times sounded bummed last month when it crowned Rihanna's "Umbrella" as Song of the Summer, perhaps crestfallen that there was no real contender to the throne. Sure, the strains of Umbrella-ella-ella-ay-ay-ay saturating the radio waves neatly coincided with a season of freak flooding in both London and New York City (and Minnesota and Denmark and . . .), but a lithe Bahamian announcing that "It's raining more than evah" doesn't quite do away with the summertime blues.

Yet earlier this month, no less a pop-culture expert than Jimmy Kimmel announced his own song of the summer: "Chocolate Rain," by a 25-year-old Minneapolis grad student by the name of Tay Zonday (real name: Adam Behnar). Uploaded to YouTube in late April, the clip has since gotten well over seven million plays. And just what makes "Chocolate Rain" tick—or, more accurately, stick? Could it be the incessantly repetitive piano line pounding into your ears like a dentist's drill? Is it Zonday's awkward veering-away from the mic "to breathe in"? Or is it instead the bold eschewing of verse- chorus-verse for the constant drubbing of a fudgy metaphor?

More than anything, it's Zonday's naïve, bowel-rattling baritone. Video tributes—including a shout-out from Green Day drummer Tre Cool and an answer song called "Vanilla Snow"—revel in that ludicrously low frequency, while other videos have placed Zonday in a lineage that includes McGruff the Crime Dog and Darth Vader. Yet his pencil-neck frame and caramel baby-face (reminiscent of Emmanuel Lewis) make him less the progeny of Barry White than that of a similarly gawky deep throat: Rick Astley. One video (set to music from the Nintendo game Mega Man II) explains how "ZONDAY CREATED CHOCOLATE RAIN TO STOP THE FAGGOTRY OF RICKROLL"; not to be outdone, Zonday soon posted an octave-lower cover of Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." He's since uploaded a dreadfully clueless cover of "Motherless Child" and inflectionless readings from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. He also has a live music gig booked in Minneapolis in October with Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, similar flashes in the Internet pan.

As inscrutable as "Diddy Wah Diddy," "Spoonful," and "a bustle in your hedgerow," "Chocolate Rain" can be read as anything from heroin addiction to scat to, as one commenter put it, subliminal messages about chocolate embedded by aliens. Zonday divulged on Opie and Anthony's radio show that it's actually about institutional racism, which actually does little to lessen musician turned comedian John Mayer's "poopy poopy" read. For all its seeming inanity, with lines about "History quickly crashing through your veins," the song has a weird levity to it, whether or not it means to embody being a short-lived Internet phenom. While his popularity may not outlast the season (unless CNN needs a replacement for their James Earl Jones voice-over), Zonday has already hinted at such brevity on another (far less popular) video, "Internet Dream," wherein the pop-culture simpleton turned YouTube star marvels, "Man, this Internet is something else!"


If a closeted grad student with an iPod chock-full of his own demos and little else can become a viral-video celebrity, surely an actual pop star like R. Kelly can be one too, especially if you can make out his face in the video this time around. Cramming all the plot twists of a soap-opera season into three minutes, 2005's "Trapped in the Closet" became a pop-culture touchstone in the early days of YouTube, spawning infinite parodies, from Weird Al's "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" to South Park's Tom Cruise episode to Rocky Horror–esque sing-along screenings to blogs with explanatory diagrams to the Voice's own drawing of Chewbacca tapping Pluto's ass doggy-style to illustrate Kelly's extraterrestrial slow jam, "Sex Planet." (In my opinion, that should've gotten more attention—Ed.)

In the estimation of New York magazine, countless IFC Center devotees, and trainspotters crowded around open Macbooks around the country, "the cultural event of the season" has arrived with Kelly's second installment of his soap opera/film noir/serial non sequitur/r&b WTF: Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 13-22. And regardless of how many sets of bespectacled eyes happen upon it, the series remains as inscrutable and enervating as, say, "Chocolate Rain." Laugh at the man or with him, but the joke is on us: Kelly is both funnier than his imitators and way ahead of his audience.

Of course, whether or not the r&b artist is a certified video auteur will unfortunately be determined not on the Web, but next month in a Chicago courtroom. Whatever the verdict, Kelly will have kept five steps ahead of his imitators and critics, not to mention those ped—uh, cinephiles, too. He told Variety that he envisioned Trapped as an independent film, then told the audience at the sold-out IFC premiere that making the film was like building the first airplane, later divulging to IFC.com's Matt Singer that "I can't call it a song anymore." Instead, it's "a musical-visual alien."

If only it weren't so terrestrial this second time around. Trapped in the Closet embraces blockbuster Hollywood enfranchisement, simultaneously thinning and bloating out its ideas, stringing its audience along while setting us up for future installments. Cliffhangers swap out the closeted Rufus and Chuck for a lip-lock between Tina and Roxanna. There's a witty exchange between "LL Fool J" and "The Blobfather," an overt homage (complete with dream sequence) to The Sopranos—yet another brilliant series that ran too long. "You crazier than a fish wit' titties" may be the best one-liner of the entire series, but there's no cherry-pie-gobbling, big-dicked midget shitting himself this go-around. At best, we get Kells as the stuttering Pimp Luscious, doubling up his roles as Sylvester, the narrator, the cotton-ball-bearded old coot Randolph, and the Reverend Moseley J. Adams.

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