how walmart yodel boy went from meme to actual celebrity

A month after first going viral, Mason Ramsey -- aka Walmart Yodel Boy -- finds himself with a record deal, festival slots and a full backstory. But what does this all mean for the history of the meme?

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May 9 2018, 10:46am

We've come a long way since the advent of the internet. Gone are the days when “surfing the web” involved an arduous process of dial-up bloops and gigantic pixels, each NeoPets session existing as a fragile bubble; a temporary moment that could be immediately shattered by a single piercing yell of, “Get off the line, I need to call your Gran!” No, these days we live in a content-rich world, with an entire digital universe of dog memes and oatposting at our disposal in milliseconds. Anyone with observational wit and a smartphone has a shot at making it big for all of fifteen seconds -- and all it really takes is one surrealist tweet about people in a dentist's waiting room repeatedly yelling the word “teeth”, or a well-timed picture of a pug on a skateboard.

However, at odds with this lightening-quick turnover of meme kings and queens “doing the numbers”, curious exceptions are starting to creep through the ether, dominating the internet's attention for entire months, and even going on to become celebrities. The most curious exception of all? He goes by the name of Walmart Yodel Boy.

In the past, you would have expected this Milky Bar Kid look-alike to disappear back to wherever he came from after a few hours adoration. Previously, our most persistent online heroes ranged from the articulate, chicken nugget-loving King Curtis right through to the pair of calamitous child chefs who tipped fruit everywhere in You Forgot Blueberries. As lasting as these viral moments are -- shared daily in GIF form, even today -- there’s no backstory. Existing as characters in isolated bubbles, executing comedy gold or emitting razor-sharp pieces of quotable wisdom like, “bacon is good for me!” before disappearing forever, our internet icons of yore never really existed in any wider sense.

But now things are different. In 2018, we find ourselves in a strange era in which memes mean money. The once anonymous protagonists fuelling our short-lived laughs are increasingly becoming bona fide celebrities, with corporations keen to get a slice of the action. And Mason Ramsey has taken things further than ever.

Walmart Yodel Boy -- who originally went viral at the start of April after yodelling Lovesick Blues by Hank Williams Sr. in the middle of an Illinois Walmart -- has somehow just signed a deal with Atlantic Records. Over the last month, the young country music lover has appeared live at Coachella festival, yodelled for millions on Ellen and dominated Spotify with his debut single (which currently has over 11m plays and counting). Mason’s first release is called Famous, and contains -- spoiler alert -- absolutely no yodelling. Instead, it’s a cutesy love song. “If I'm gonna be famous for somethin' girl, I wanna be famous for lovin' you,” he sings atop a country-tinged pop bop. It’s a cute little romantic ditty, even if he is only 11-years-old and perhaps a touch young to be thinking about long-term commitment at this stage in life. It's also bonkers to think that all of this came off the back of a two-minute opportunistic video.

While no shade should be cast towards Walmart Yodel Boy through all of this -- he’s a kid living his actual dream right now and only a total demon would try to disparage that -- his rapid success story and celebrity status forms part of a wider shift in the way that good old-fashioned viral absurdity can be watered down and monetised in 2018.

It turns out Mason Ramsey is just the tip of a very large, corporate iceberg. Eager to cash in on the tempting reach of viral trends, countless brands are trying their hands at meme marketing, with usually dreadful results. Last year American diner chain Denny’s decided to get in on the viral action, posting a series of face-palm prompting memes on social media. One particularly notable effort asked readers to “zoom in on the syrup”, revealing the cheerful message: "has this distracted you from overwhelming existential dread lol". Answer -- no, quite the opposite. Another attempt at meme marketing by Starburst -- who in fairness manufacture some very tasty chewy sweets -- also fell flat. Because let’s face it, “may I compare thee to a pink Starburst” doesn’t quite cut it in the romance department. The whole thing is about as tragic as it sounds; the marketing equivalent of “how do you do, fellow kids?”. It turns out that memes aren’t quite so hilarious when they strike the specific tone of brands trying far too hard to flog everyday products. Who knew?

Another recent attempt at meme-flavoured ‘engagement’ by McDonald’s loses its way even more dramatically. The punchline (a term used very loosely on this occasion) revolves around somebody called James who sent a gravely inappropriate video to his entire family chat by accident. He has purchased a McDonald’s Breakfast Wrap as consolation; a move that leaves many deeply distressing questions in its wake. For instance, what on earth did James do in the first place to warrant such a visceral reaction? Did it involve the participation of his latest purchase from McDonald’s, in a similar fashion to the unfortunate pastry encounter in gross teen comedy American Pie? Was it even legal? Either way, I won’t be buying a breakfast wrap there any time soon.

Taking stock of all of this -- from cringey impact text overlays that make no sense, to the cardinal sin of brands misusing emojis -- it’s easy to picture a real-life dystopia where viral video stars turn into the leading currency for advertisers. In the future, it’s not too dramatic to imagine a world where people like Mason Ramsey will end up fronting video campaigns for the Yodel courier service, and leading porridge companies flogging us oats with the help of 19th century paintings and umlauts. If things continue this way, Yodel Boy will probably have an official biography by the time he’s 25.

And where does all of this leave our sacred memes, in all their absurd, inexplicable splendour? Well, let’s face it, if Jeremy from the marketing department doesn’t put down his handbook on engaging with ‘the youth’ soon, the whole thing will evaporate into nout, living on only in historical textbooks, and the timelines of a few Facebook mums who cling onto posting Minion memes despite the turning tide. There’s still hope that in a post-Yodel Boy world our viral sensations may remain pure and untouched by the tampering hands of suit-wearing advertising gurus, free to fight another day. If not, thanks for the meme-ories, internet.