You’ve probably seen the Chocolate Rain video that’s this month’s hamster dance. (Although Internet phenomena had a longer shelf life in the dancing hamster and dancing baby era.) I saw something about it on TMZ, then my husband played the video for me when it hit the front page of Yahoo! Once you’re on the front page of Yahoo!, you’re famous on the Internet.
On first viewing, the guy singing seems like a teenage savant, and that’s part of the appeal of the video. He’s singing in this odd monotone that’s somewhat fascinating and the song is catchy despite being weird and repetitive.
It turns out that Tay Zonday is a 25 year-old politically aware guy, and is surprisingly articulate, if a bit wacky and defensive. In an interview with HHNLive.com he says that he’s not in a relationship and then goes off on the reasons why people pair up, saying it’s economic and tying it into social injustice. He makes a lot of really good points.
HHNLive: Can you give us a brief background? Where are you from? How old are you? What is your background?
Tay Zonday: I live in Minneapolis. I’m 25 years old. I’m not sure what you mean by “background.” Is that a code word for “race?” The straight-faced answer is that I’m Martian. They don’t have a box for me on the census form. I’m the write-in candidate that the government leaves no space for when you have to choose your race.
Seriously, is race something you choose? The whole point is that I don’t choose it. It is somebody else’s shortcut to my soul. So journalists ask “what’s your background?” like I’m supposed to retell someone else’s story about me as though it’s a fact of who I am and where I come from. As long as I talk about myself in fiction that someone else wrote, I might as well write my own fiction: I’m from Mars. Most believe the story that I’m a black mulatto.
HHNLive: For all the ladies out there, is Tay Zonday single?
TZ: Oh c’mon, relationships are so twentieth century! Why do we imagine ourselves in these pairs? There’s the economic reason: If I don’t have a partner to take care of me in rough times, I might not get through. So when things like Katrina happen and you know the government isn’t going to be there . . . you’ve got this insurance policy of a loving partner who will take care of you. When you can’t afford the surgery you need, you’ve got this insurance policy of a loving partner to take care of you because you have no healthcare. You can say it’s love. You can say it’s sex. But economics and getting by day-to-day are the main reason to label yourself based on the relationship you are in. You better have a committed lover there for you when your government isn’t.
So when Rush Limbaugh talks about the dangerous breakup of the family, and when gays are talking about recognizing same-sex relationships . . . they are actually talking about the same thing. The Human Rights Campaign (pro-gay marriage) and the Christian Coalition (pro-traditional family) agree: We need to spend our lives labeling ourselves based on what relationship we are in. But when you stop being afraid that nobody’s going to be there to support you if you become disabled; When you stop being afraid that you can’t live a decent life without two incomes; When you stop being afraid that life is so hard that you’ve got to have an ally at your side just to stay afloat . . . then you stop worrying about relationships. You stop labeling yourself according to your own relationship. You stop worrying about what other people are doing in their relationships. It no longer matters whether Tay Zonday is single.
I’m not dogging stable relationships. I think they can be fantastic. But when relationship status totally dominates the way we think about each other, there are bigger reasons than love and sex. Heaven knows those can happen without a relationship. You asked this as a very simple question. But I connected the dots. In music and life, you’ve got to connect the dots to see how simple things relate to power.
Zonday says that his voice is just deep like that and that he gets about 20 e-mails a day from people saying it must be faked. He also said that people compare him to one of the Jackson 5 “because people have a limited vocabulary of what young black men can be.”
He says it doesn’t matter whether he wants to be an artist or entertainer, and that people interpret his work the way they want to. He doesn’t want to says he’s serious or joking because people will find fault with him either way.
As for his musical influences, he says they’re extremely limited and that he didn’t listen to music casually when growing up because his parents were very strict about it:
HHNLive: Who are some of your musical influences?
TZ: You aren’t going to believe this: I have never really listened to music. (Wow, my critics will quote that one). What I mean is that some people buy an iPod and they will listen to that thing in every spare moment of life: Walking to the bus. Riding on the bus. Walking to their job. Doing the dishes. Or they’ll have the radio blasting as they commute in the car. It has never been my practice to make music the backdrop of daily living. Part of it is that my parents were very strict as I grew up. I was not allowed to listen to a lot of music. Even in my late teen years as I approached adulthood, if it wasn’t classical music or Disney music, then it wasn’t really welcome in my house. I never watched MTV or VH1. I never watched rated-R movies. I grew up in a very intense pop-culture and pop-music isolation.
My only outlet was the internet, where my parents could not see what I was doing. So I would download MP3 files of music that I played in my headphones. But back then, you couldn’t just grab the Tupac Discography in one download. There weren’t even entire albums in, say, 1997. Most people were still on dialup modem connections. You only found MP3s of top singles and top hits. I cobbled together a modest MP3 collection that my parents could not hear. But because it was just top hits and not albums, I never came to identify strongly with any particular artist. And, of course, it wasn’t like I could put up posters or go to live concerts.
In many ways, I feel like a musical orphan. I’m not sure who my influences are. Growing up, I learned to hide the fact that I had any passion or enjoyment for music or life. Being “influenced” to laugh or dance was always a sickness or pathology. It made my parents fearful that they were losing their kids. To this day, I’m not sure you could get me to admit that I was influenced by anything. It’s just beaten out of the way I think. Perhaps people call my music “unique” because I don’t feel beholden to any influences.
Zonday says he would be open to doing voice-overs or commercials when he’s asked about it, but that he doesn’t know what the future will bring and doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. He says he gets so many messages on MySpace he can’t keep up with them, and that he still has his day job.
The guy certainly seems like he’ll weather Internet fame well, and he’s making the most of his 15 minutes with such revealing and thought-provoking interviews. I would like to see him write a book about the phenomenon of making it on the Internet. He definitely sounds like he can add a lot of insight and intellectual discussion to the way that society latches on to funny videos. To me it’s just a way to kill five minutes. (And I’ve managed to expand that into entire days by paying attention to the celebrities as a career.)
Here’s Zonday’s version of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which he says “has deep cultural significance in some internet circles.” I thought it was just a throwaway diddy, but what the hell do I know? It’s not quite “Chocolate Rain”
You can view the rest of Zonday’s videos, including “Chocolate Rain,” on his channel on YouTube.
Thanks to Fark for linking this interview.