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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Why Adam Levine's Cringe DMs Are Perfect for the Meme Machine

A royal epoch ending in the UK. A war roiling across Europe. A constant drumbeat of inflation creeping up, cutting household budgets. An ever-present worry that the pandemic isn’t over. The world is in an odd place, and anxiety levels are through the roof. Things are so bad, in fact, that people—the very online ones, at least—are turning to Adam Levine for comfort.

In recent days, the Maroon 5 singer has been the subject of claims that he sent flirtatious Instagram messages to a string of women. Model Sumner Stroh also alleged that Levine cheated on his wife, Behati Prinsloo, last year. In an Instagram story, Levine admitted to speaking to women “in a flirtatious manner” but denied that he had had a physical affair. A number of other women have since shared similar messages they claim are from Levine.

Those messages have given new fodder to the internet’s meme machine, making it impossible to scroll through Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter without being confronted by jokes taking screenshots of the alleged messages out of context.

“Memes tend to spread fast and far when they are easy to make sense of without the initial topical context and when they're technically easy for people to participate in via remix,” says Alex Turvy, a PhD candidate at Tulane University in New Orleans who studies memes. “This one has both in spades.”

The raw material—Levine’s alleged sexts—are vague enough to be deployed in a number of different situations. And they’re as subtle as some of Maroon 5’s crooniest songs. “This genre of meme requires almost zero cultural literacy,” Turvy says, “so it can be understood and created by basically anyone.”

And they are being created by plenty of people. People have remixed Levine’s alleged request that he “may need to see the booty” of Stroh, followed by the word “Fuckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk” (with 25 Ks), into the minds of pirates, among others. One Twitter user said it was “truly a gift, and we need to incorporate it into the lexicon.”

“It’s the perfect combination of celeb relatability—seeing someone so polished be so cringey in text to express a feeling that we’ve all had at one point—and the sheer absurdity of it,” says Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends at XX Artists, a marketing agency. Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme, agrees. “It’s like a teenage boy wrote them, which makes them super memeable.”

The “booty” is just one of the treasures in Levine’s alleged DMs. Another two-part missive also went viral this week. “It is truly unreal how fucking hot you are / Like it blows my mind” is, on the face of it, an affirmation of a woman’s attractiveness. But taken out of context by the internet’s meme makers, it was transformed into an ode to mozzarella sticks and a reinterpretation of the Goldilocks fairy tale, among other things.

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Both of those moments from Levine’s alleged messages to Stroh work as memes because of their universality. They are relatable (most people can imagine themselves dumbstruck over how attractive someone is), and their vagueness means they can be mapped onto other objects or into other scenarios. “It’s silly, but most people have had a moment where we’ve thought, ‘It’s unreal how hot you are,’ whether it’s about another person or biting into a pizza roll,” says Brennan.

A third screenshot from Levine’s alleged messages, where he apparently marvels at the beauty of Stroh’s body by saying “Holy fuck / Holy fucking fuck / That body of yours is absurd,” has less memeable potential, but has “proven to be a very good exploitable meme as well,” says Caldwell. The template is simple: Couple Levine’s alleged texts with words or images that draw attention to their objectifying nature.

“It’s technically really easy to make your own version, unlike certain formats or genres,” says Turvy. “I’ve mostly seen it in two ways: Either it’s just a screenshot of some of the texts and a recontextualizing caption, or it’s an image pasted above some of the texts to make it look like he’s replying about the body being incredible to something funny like Gritty or Shrek.”

That the situation is spicy also helps. “More controversial origins make for more compelling meme formats,” says Joe Federer, former head of brand strategy at Reddit. As a meme format, he argues, Levine’s alleged DMs come “pre-charged with meaning.”

The idea of prying into the apparent lustful thoughts of one of the world’s best-known musicians is as controversial as it is relatable. Plus, people enjoy bringing down celebrities a peg or two—especially at times like this when their troubles can seem even more inconsequential.

“People already sort of hate Maroon 5,” says Turvy. “They’re like the Nickelback of soft coffee-shop rock. Adam Levine has been an incredibly famous musician for what feels like forever. He was People’s Sexiest Man Alive at one point—but he’s sort of a cipher we can project anything on to.”

The controversy, and the ability to make Levine the butt of jokes, is also a welcome tonic from the dreadfulness of the news cycle at present.

“So much of our world has felt high stakes in the past several years, it can be a relief to joke about something that feels light without too many repercussions,” says Brennan. That is, without too many repercussions for the meme-makers. Levine, meanwhile, is going through the 21st century equivalent of being placed in the stocks and getting tomatoes thrown at him.

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