Bigger Picture
How the most infectious song of the year “watch me (whip/nae nae)” took over the internet and beyond.
Words Kris Ex
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

This past October, Jeff Horning, the owner of a used car dealership in Wichita, Kan. posted a video to his company’s Facebook and YouTube accounts. The 45-second commercial starts seriously—with Horning boasting about his selection and financing options—before taking a quick step into the silly. Twenty seconds in, Horning suggests that you “pick out your whip, so you can nae nae,” while doing a set of dances that bare only passing resemblances to the moves he’s calling out. It’s intentionally hilarious and knowingly absurd, and it’s garnered the Priority Motorsports the most exposure the company’s ever had, simply by tapping into the latest viral dance craze. It would be easy to suggest that Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” is the latest in a line of ironically fun dances like the Cha-Cha Slide, the kind of dances that find themselves at home with bros and soccer moms, playgrounds and dorm rooms, country clubs and cookouts, pre-schoolers and grandmas. But that would overlook the unique space, which “Watch Me” occupies in pop culture. It’s grown into the biggest dance moment since the “Macarena,” but was birthed from the same circles that brought us closer-to-home movements like milly rocking, jerking, the dougie and the shmoney dance; and it’s seriously eclipsed its source material—We Are Toonz’ “Drop Tha NaeNae” and Famous to Most’s “Whip” (amongst others), while ingesting them. “Watch Me” is a symbol of an age where social media “content” is largely based on repurposing the originality of others, turning it into something new. It’s the perfect song for this pop culture moment.

The renditions of “Watch Me” are too many to name, and used car dealerships weren’t the only ones using the song. When Nikki Taylor of Carbondale, Ill. was eight months pregnant, she shot a video of her dancing to “Watch Me” with her 6-year-old daughter on Facebook and garnered 13 million views in one weekend. A YouTube account registered to Lindsay Jones, also posted Taylor’s video as its sole upload and garnered 4.7 million views. The official video has garnered over 400 million views on YouTube and everyone from Hillary Clinton and Alvin and the Chipmunks to cancer patients and father/daughter combinations have been caught on video doing the dance, with many of them raking up astronomical view counts. And it all started from a 16-year-old kid in the metro Atlanta area making things up as he went along outside of his chemistry class. “It was all just like a science experiment,” Silentó (born Richard Lamar Hawk) the now 17-year-old artist behind the song. “I tested a hypothesis that I had and it all did well.”

“Really well” is an understatement, and the song’s popularity is hard to overstate. Though it only reached as high as No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, its prevalence online dwarves the two million accredited sales. “This is one of those type of songs that every week there’s something virally that happens with that song,” says the song’s producer, Tim Mingo, also known as Bolo da Producer. “Even now that the radio numbers are down, it’s still like top on Spotify, it’s still being searched every day on iTunes Music—it’s one of those song that’s just infectious.”

Part of the song’s power is in its sly usage of the first person and its show-and-tell usage of call-and response. “It’s a individual song,” says Silentó. “It’s an each person song. Everybody has their own feel or their own position to my song, ’cause it’s like, ‘Watch me—ooh, ooh, ohh.’ You know, like watch me. No other dance song says watch me do it. It just be telling you to do it.”

“Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” also benefitted from shrewd marketing that capitalized on the ownership baked into the song. Much of the songs virality began long before Silentó inked a deal with Capitol Records this past spring, thanks to a campaign launched by online music distributor TuneCore in conjunction with DanceOn, a YouTube multichannel that serviced the song to key dancers in its network. The move was so successful that by the time Silentó’s official video dropped at the end of June, it opened up with a collage of teams, teens, preschoolers and everyday people dancing to the song.

“Watch Me” was originally shot as a Vine clip back in November of 2014 and immediately, Silentó knew he was on to something from the reaction of his friends. (Though he’s still fi nishing his senior year at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., he continues to handle all of his social media accounts himself. He’s also a relentless self-promoter. At the end of this interview, being conducted by phone as he kills time in a Las Vegas mall, awaiting his fitting for that night’s Soul Train Awards, Silentó meticulously and clearly runs down all of his social media accounts, just for the record. (He’s @TheRealSilento on Twitter, Instagram, Vine and SoundCloud; Silento TV on YouTube.)

Photos of Model Jessenia Vice Dancing From the XXL Winter 2015 Issue

Then and now, he would make up songs while banging on tables and share these ideas with his classmates through his phone, using them as sounding boards. When they gravitated to what would become “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” he began to pester Bolo to make the sketches into a full song.

“He kept begging me for like two months like, ‘Man I got this song,’” recalls Bolo. “All the kids in school they like it, they like it, they like it. I’m sitting there thinking and I’m like, ‘Man, he crazy. Nobody’s not gonna dance to two other dances that’s already been out already.’” One night in the studio, Bolo decided to just whip up quick beats so he could just hush Silentó up. “Let’s do this little concept, just get him out the way, so we can go ahead and work on this other record that we was working on that night,” he laughs. Bolo helped construct the song, switching around the hook (it was originally “watch me nae nae, watch me whip”), creating for pre-hooks and freestyle dance, vetoing the thought of actual rhymes on the song and encouraging Silentó to add in more dances like the Stanky Leg, the Bop and Silentó’s own invention, the Duff , which was the song they were supposed to have been working on. “When I heard it, the first thing that came out my mind was like, ‘Shit, this is crazy we got something,’” he says. “I don’t let him put songs up on his SoundCloud that we do ’cause a lot of times they’re not ready, but this was the one time out of any time I was like, ‘Go ahead, you can put it on your SoundCloud, that’s no problem.’ So he put it on there and immediately I just seen the reaction of it. In three days it had like 15,000 views and then it just doubled like every day. It just kept doubling on SoundCloud.”

Bolo had seen near-successes with his production work—the original version 2 Pistols and T-Pain collaboration work “She Got It,” the late Grand Hustle signee Doe B and a local college student Tiara’Nicole, who racked up two million views on YouTube for “Real Man” in 2009)—not living to fruition due to his lack of business acumen. This time around, he made sure that all dealing was right. He got the song coded under his ISRC and made a $9.99 TuneCore—a move which paid extreme dividends as the DanceOn campaign kicked in. “Every time the song was in any digital format, except for a few places, we got paid for that,” he says. “We were getting paid for every time somebody used that song on YouTube until we got signed through Capitol and they took over that.” Bolo splits all earnings with Silentó 50/50 and has secured his own deal as a producer with Capitol.

Jeff Horning, the used car salesman, didn’t actually use the song in his video, so there’s likely no revenue for the song makers there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find them complaining. With “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” they’ve created a song that’s mostly based off of dances that already existed, but has become something new and will go down in history as emblematic of the state of pop music in 2015. And, to hear Silentó tell it, it’s because the meaning of the song is universal and timeless.

“‘Watch me,’ you could use that for so many things,” he says. “Like watch me sell this car, watch me read this book, watch me make this money, watch me do my thing, watch me be an individual. It’s so many things you can use ‘watch me’ for. Watch me tell the weather, watch me tell what happened today. You can just stick it into everything.”

He’s right. People have stuck it into everything. And millions of us have watched.

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