We talked to the guy who sang Chocolate Rain on the video's 10th anniversary
The man behind Chocolate Rain, the viral hit that dominated YouTube in 2007, has called his overnight fame “insane”.
How much do you remember about the internet in 2007?
Charlie bit my finger, the photo of the little girl standing in front of a burning house looking back like she did it, and the birth of Rickrolling make it a vintage year for shareable jokes online.
But perhaps one of the finest memes of that year was Tay Zonday’s Chocolate Rain, which has just turned 10 years old.
With 112 million views, it’s one of the most popular memes since the dawn of the internet – as well as one of the first.
Its star, Tay Zonday, was thrust into the spotlight 10 years ago when the music video for his original song went from internet joke to international news story.
So what happens when you become a worldwide trending topic overnight?
“I know I did about 30 radio interviews in the course of a week. Three of the four major labels wanted to sign me. People contacted me to sing at their corporate parties, their kids’ Bar Mitzvahs, sign me to publishing deals.”
“It was extremely overwhelming.”
Post with 16 votes and 793 views. Shared by ShortGiant. Chocolate rain!
But most importantly to Tay, there was no one who’d reached meme status before him whose example he could follow.
“It really hadn’t happened on that level or in that way before so I really had to play it by ear.”
The video is four minutes and 52 seconds of Tay performing the song, accompanying himself on the keyboard, in a homemade studio.
The quality is pretty poor by today’s YouTube standards, but the tune filled playgrounds and staff rooms throughout the summer of 2007.
It was only Tay’s third ever YouTube upload, and went viral while he was in the middle of a doctorate in American studies, appropriately with a focus on performance and social change.
“I was really an academic. I had dabbled with the piano but it was a hobbyist interest and not really in my blood.”
He credits 4chan, the low-tech online message board where users post anonymously, coming across his video and turning it into a joke, with making it go mainstream three months after he’d put it online.
Today, 112 million views would likely translate into cash, but Tay decided early on to make his song available for free download.
“I didn’t put it on iTunes,” he says, “I definitely regret that”.
“If I had made smarter business choices when it was hot that would have been good, but I didn’t know”.
As for the song’s contents, even skimming the lyrics (Chocolate Rain / The same crime has a higher price to pay) shows it was only a thinly veiled discussion of race. Does he think the viewers realised that?
“I believe about 20% of people who watched it at the time appreciated a deeper social message” he says.
And what about its meaning 10 years later, in a climate with the Black Lives Matter movement in one corner of the internet and President Donald Trump in another?
“I think I’m very lucky to have content that is truly evergreen,” he says coyly.
“I feel Chocolate Rain is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago”.
Despite its political undertones, Tay is arguably one of the least controversial viral characters still online. His video is more in the vein of Charlie bit my finger than Rebecca Black, the autotuned tween whose viral music video Friday got a decidedly crueller reception than Tay did in 2011.
“Especially on YouTube now and the internet, we all need to get clicks, we all need to be at some level of controversy,” he says.
“I think our political leadership speaks to that, where being on the tips of people’s tongues and not always for the least controversial reasons can have additional benefits in terms of success.”
Tay now makes videos commenting on current events, and the occasional pop cover.
But he doesn’t think it’s easier to go viral now, even though the internet seems to produce more new stars a day than the public can keep up with.
“I think it’s more difficult to go viral in 2017 than in 2007,” he says.
“In 2017 the social platforms are smarter, they make sure you see things that you like to see”.
According to Tay, content that went viral before 2012 could be more controversial than it can be now. He thinks his bizarre video alienated its audience in a way that wannabe viral stars couldn’t afford to do nowadays.
Despite his modesty, Chocolate Rain – with its low quality visuals, simple looping tune and Zonday’s habit of leaning away from the mic to breathe (a habit much mocked since) – proved a magical combination for an early audience of meme lovers.
He describes its success as “a perfect storm”: the contrast between his slim frame and deep bass voice, and the song’s easy repetition making it easy to imitate.
And after feeling like an outsider for most of his life, Chocolate Rain’s appeal seems to have confirmed to Tay that being different can only be a good thing.
“I’ve always been a particular guy, pretty awkward, lanky, a little bit Mr Bean-ish” he says of himself.
“But I think what really happened was Chocolate Rain taught me that maybe there’s an upside to that.”