The times we’re in have inadvertently offered an example of why we say memes “go viral” on the internet: Like a virus, a meme spreads by copying itself. And during that process, it ends up morphing into a different variant that helps the meme spread even further.
As the past week has delivered an escalation in novel coronavirus cases throughout the US, we’ve watched coronavirus memes evolve from largely educational and encouraging PSAs into full-fledged, modern-day internet humor. Many memes have been inspired by movements around the country to self-quarantine or shelter in place, while others continue to remind us to wash our hands and avoid touching our face — but with considerably less sobriety than the previous wave of informational memes. There are also lots of offline pranks, absurdist millennial humor, and apocalyptic social parody.
The memes have evolved along with our experience of the pandemic. Its broader social effects have included sweeping institutional shutdowns across cities and states, and growing concern over supply shortages due to citizens in some locations reportedly stockpiling toilet paper and other items in case of quarantine. So as we’ve adjusted to this strange new reality, in which many of us might not be allowed to leave our homes for weeks, we’ve channeled our anxieties over Covid-19 into classic internet humor.
But there’s also an element of crucial real-life camaraderie in many of the memes, along with a more visible sense of anxiety that the previous round of coronavirus memes lacked. One thing remains the same, however: Viral (no pun-intended) comedy is bringing people together offline to dance, sing, and goof off — all to keep hopes and spirits high.
Music amid the mayhem, to remind us we’re all in this together
The initial wave of coronavirus memes largely involved straightforward, upbeat reminders about the importance of avoiding social contact, staying inside, and washing your hands. One popular recurring template was offering musical motifs to help you remember how long to wash hands — with lasting earworm effects.
the handwashing to songs infographics were a terrible idea. yesterday i started singing aju nice while i washed my hands and i'm still washing my hands right now i will be washing my hands for the rest of my life it will never fucking end— scoop wever (@boosatan) March 15, 2020
As the coronavirus gradually spread, the hand-washing meme was the first to move away from its original educational mode to become a full-on gag. This was thanks in large part to a website, Wash Your Lyrics, that gave everyone a template based on a widespread instructional poster for hand-washing. Here’s an example of the meme in its originally intended spirit, courtesy of perennial meme-maker High School Musical 2:
There’s even a little Latin chanting, for the liturgically-minded among us:
In the first round of the meme, it was conceivable that you could really use this template to thoroughly wash your hands accompanied to the refrain of, say, Toto’s “Africa.” But the “wash your lyrics” memes illustrate how rapidly coronavirus memes have evolved. After all, it’s highly unlikely anyone will seriously wash their hands to, say, the quadratic formula.
The hand-washing is no longer the point. The act of quoting funny things using the hand-washing template has become the point. In other words, it’s classic meme evolution.
Repurposed lyrics have popped up in a number of coronavirus memes — often helping people to adjust to the strange new requirements of “social distancing.” Take these lyrics from “For the First Time In Forever” from Frozen:
HOW TO AVOID CORONAVIRUS‼️— eca (@WlDOWBYTE) March 16, 2020
- Don’t let them in
- Don’t let them see
- Be the good girl you always have to be
- Don’t feel
- Put on a show
- Make one wrong move and everyone will know
Or try this advice from Natasha Bedingfield:
THINGS U CAN STILL DO WHILE SOCIALLY DISTANCING:— #1 natasha stan (@dougiec0n) March 16, 2020
-Stare at the blank page b4 u
-Open up the dirty window
-Let the sun illuminate the words that you cannot find
-Reach 4 something in the distance (so close u can almost taste it)
-Release ur inhibitions
-Feel the rain on ur skin
Singing and dancing have been a crucial part of the global response to coronavirus, from raps about hand-washing to indoor quarantine dances. Around the world, many people have been playing spontaneous outdoor concerts for their neighbors in quarantine — like this impromptu duet in Barcelona:
A pianist in Barcelona went to his balcony during the quarantine, to play a song for the neighborhood.— Muhammad Lila (@MuhammadLila) March 17, 2020
A sax player in the building next door saw what was happening and joined him.
And it was awesome.pic.twitter.com/XwAgZe0R17
Though Italians singing to each other from balconies is social media’s most prominent example of this kind of music-sharing, it seems to have become a real-world meme. Think of this activity as similar to a flash mob, with people sharing balcony music all over the world, and in some cases turning high-rises into the site of some indoor, impromptu block parties:
You don’t have to step outside to participate in all the musical joy the coronavirus is inadvertently inspiring. Coronavirus playlists are trending all over Spotify, spearheaded by celebrities like Rita Wilson, who celebrated testing positive for the virus alongside husband Tom Hanks by making a list of “Quarantunes.”
High School Musical is once again here for us, with star Ashley Tisdale, who played Sharpay in the HSM series, performing the movie’s choreography in a short viral Instagram post.
Tisdale sparked a trend of her own among her HSM castmates, starting with Rick Barton, who played the dancing high school basketball coach in the film, and joined in to do the choreography “with” her, thanks to the magic of TikTok.
Kaycee Stroh, who played Martha, quickly joined in as well. And the franchise’s co-star Vanessa Hudgens also put her own unique spin on the dance — in contrast to her recent strange rant about coronavirus deaths being “inevitable”:
Tisdale’s song, “We’re All In This Together,” has become a mild TikTok meme that’s entirely appropriate, given the moment we’re in. This meme and other dance memes like it encourage you to stay inside and “help flatten the curve,” to stay active and upbeat while you’re indoors, and find the humor while watching at home.
Old memes made new
Older memes, repurposed for the times in which we live, are all the rage right now too. Particularly apropos at the moment is the “tired/wired” listicle format, which deprecates one lifestyle in favor of another, better — or “better” — one:
TIRED: bringing back 13th century plague— Michal (@Miexriir) March 18, 2020
WIRED: bringing back those funky lil 13th century snail knights pic.twitter.com/dgcgh7as4q
GOING OUT TO BARS:— The Library Owl ♀️ (@SketchesbyBoze) March 16, 2020
• are you out of your mind
SECLUDING YOURSELF AT HOME IN A TATTERED WEDDING DRESS PLOTTING REVENGE ON ALL MEN:
• weirdly hot
• no one gets infected
• he will live to regret the day he broke your heart
“i can’t go because of coronavirus”— soul nate (@MNateShyamalan) March 17, 2020
“i’ve sworn an oath of solitude til the blight is purged from these lands”
- heroic, valiant
- they will assume you have a sword
- impossible to check if you really have a sword because of coronavirus
The requisite millennial Dadaist humor has gotten plenty of traction amid coronavirus memes. Take the common meme where celebrities get compared to random objects, usually in photo comparison Twitter threads. The Fiji Water girl from the 2019 Golden Globes has nothing on the coronavirus-inspired edition: celebrities as hand sanitizers.
fuck it, saoirse ronan as hand sanitizers.. a thread pic.twitter.com/xqUhS7Lg41— louisa (@littIew0men) March 14, 2020
xiaozhan as hand sanitizers ~ a thread pic.twitter.com/BNg9nBDVuf— luna ♡⃛ 肖战 (@xiaozhanism) March 16, 2020
timothée chalamet as hand sanitizers; a thread pic.twitter.com/qezOo9ghQy— çağla (@teddylaurie_) March 14, 2020
One of the internet’s oldest memes came roaring back in the form of a hilarious viral tweet referencing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” the idea that every human is six “degrees” away from prolific actor Kevin Bacon by virtue of connections between other people in their social networks. The Kevin Bacon meme was one of the first to become a fixture in the cultural consciousness, as indicated by the Oracle of Bacon website, which has been around since 1999. And as such, when writer Danny Zuker made a Kevin Bacon joke in reference to coronavirus, a lot of people immediately got it.
Not to be alarmist but if Kevin Bacon tests positive we’re all fucked. #COVD19— Danny Zuker (@DannyZuker) March 12, 2020
Bacon got fully on board with the joke — so much so that he took to Twitter Wednesday to start a hashtag meme, #IStayHomeFor. Noting, “I’m technically only six degrees away from you,” he encouraged people to embrace the importance of their own social connections.
Hey everybody, now it’s so important to STAY HOME and keep our distance from others. Join me and post a video or photo with a sign like this, with #IStayHomeFor, telling who you are staying home for, & tag 6 friends. Let's work together to stay home and keep each other safe. pic.twitter.com/ybv63bE42t— Kevin Bacon (@kevinbacon) March 18, 2020
Even though Bacon’s message is a response to a meme, and involves the use of a hashtag to promote a memetic movement, it probably falls into the category of the earlier types of coronavirus memes — the ones prominent in the initial stages of the disease’s spread. That is, it’s serving a bearer of optimism and encouragement to adopt new social behaviors in this strange time.
Specifically, Bacon used his meme to promote the importance of self-quarantining. And as the focus of health experts and government officials has shifted from preventing the virus from taking hold in local regions to containing its spread, coronavirus memes have likewise shifted from jokes about hand-washing to jokes about quarantines.
Quarantine jokes are helping us all fight cabin fever — or even embrace it
Like Bacon’s hashtag, many coronavirus memes encourage people to self-quarantine. But many serve a multifold purpose beyond that: They entertain the internet, and they give the quarantined an all-important outlet to deal with being shut in.
Me after working from home headed to happy hour in my kitchen pic.twitter.com/gQH9rvIxvC— HEM (@Bladeweiser) March 16, 2020
Often these kinds of memes happen with plenty of wry self-mockery.
when you find out your daily lifestyle is actually called "quarantine" pic.twitter.com/oPEFak09Ob— Charlie (@charlieamber94) March 16, 2020
Looking at the map for some weekend travel ideas pic.twitter.com/oaOzQNn76o— Lana Del Gay ️ ✨ (@McClellandShane) March 19, 2020
While stuck in quarantine, many people have been relying on music making to keep them sane. Others are letting their niche talents fly, as a way of keeping themselves from going stir-crazy — or perhaps embracing the inevitability of cabin fever.
quarantine is going well pic.twitter.com/2HVA12ThYO— addie weyrich (@spagaddie_sauce) March 15, 2020
This is how I’m trying to be in quarantine pic.twitter.com/QxgldpPdHY— the posting menace (@meohmyapplepie) March 17, 2020
Not everyone is happy about being stuck indoors, and for some people — and pets — the strain is clearly getting to them.
So, like, since we started working from home our cat has been going through phases.— Ænna Westelius (@bubblewire) March 16, 2020
Day 1: IM SO EXCITED YOURE HERE YOURE FINALLY HOME, NEVER LEAVE ME
Day 4: why are you still in my apartment please leave
Day 8: SEE HOW YOU ARE FORCING ME TO LIVE NOW pic.twitter.com/RwhGod1tVR
It’s not just cats who can’t handle the sudden lifestyle change. Tracking humans’ declining ability to cope with being shut-in is another variant of mocking the self-isolating lifestyle, as the newly quarantined adjust to the boredom of working from home, or not working at all:
day 3 of quarantine: start writing my essay pic.twitter.com/8JnRtBvoLO— umam (@hotmanpairs) March 17, 2020
day 9 in quarantine: On my way to working from home pic.twitter.com/GrAb8SxGOF— 10TAVY (@10TAVY) March 17, 2020
But all of this indoor activity and focus on prevention, containment, and staying positive is only half of the scope of the coronavirus memes — because, of course, it’s only a piece of the overall picture of the pandemic.
Me encountering another person on my daily corona walk pic.twitter.com/SsOJYb4ZHC— Rich Juzwiak (@RichJuz) March 18, 2020
It’s the end of the world as we know it (but memes feel fine)
Buoyed by all those thematic Spotify playlists, “The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” by ’90s alt-rock favorite R.E.M. is back on the charts. The song is a coy-but-thorough expression of our apocalyptic coronavirus fears, but don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency; there’s plenty more apocalyptic mayhem to go around.
This was my idea of apocalypse prep pic.twitter.com/5Lx9mtm8sj— Secular Talk (@KyleKulinski) March 13, 2020
Many of the memes around the pandemic-as-apocalypse have existed on a scale between wry eye-rolling at the “hysteria” surrounding the event, or have traded in comic hyperbole — with a touch of alarmism that might, or might not, be real.
"2020 sucks! It can't possibly get any worse"— secretlyyourfather (@despawnedfather) March 16, 2020
The idea of pretending that everything is fine when everything is very much not fine is a very common meme by now, but it’s been given ever more expanded meanings in the wake of Covid-19.
A number of memes have spoofed the onslaught of emails from random businesses eager to assure you they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the pandemic.
*opens freezer*— social distance warrior (@IAmSpilly) March 17, 2020
*note falls out*
“We here at Totino’s Pizza Rolls know you’ve been wondering about our response to COVID-19”
One strange side effect of living through a pandemic is finding out all the companies that have my email address on file— Gavin Jones (@ecologyofgavin) March 15, 2020
My inbox is like:
◽️A message from Dippin Dots about COVID-19
◽️Sport Clips Cares: Lets buzz Coronavirus together
◽️Farm & Fleet is here to help, Gavin
For some creators, the virus has yielded fantastic opportunities for comedy — both as a way of spoofing life proceeding normally:
And as a way of spoofing social behavior gone haywire:
Most of the humor currently making the rounds on social media involves a mix of absurdity and apocalypse-spoofing. Take the two Los Angeles violinists who took the opportunity to play “Nearer, My God to Thee” — the last song the band of the Titanic played as it sank — in the aisle of their local supermarket.
Unfortunately, these two women weren’t just playing around, but rather publicizing their plight as musicians who are currently out of work because of coronavirus. And that, too, is an example of one way coronavirus memes have shifted.
As more people have become directly, or indirectly, impacted by the virus’s impact, the memes springing up around the pandemic have moved away from educating us and have become more whimsical, absurdist, and deliberately comedic. They’ve involved people meme-ing in real time, in real space, at a time when many of us are closed off from “the real world.” And they’ve invited group participation at a level that reflects a sense of global solidarity and communion amid chaos.
What this newest wave of corona memes is reminding us louder and clearer than anything else is that — just like Sharpay said — we’re all in this together.