The most popular videos on YouTube are unrepeatable phenomena. It's a big world, and there are a lot of weird people out there, but not until YouTube became such a global sensation did everyone realize exactly how many weird people are out there, and exactly how weird they are. You have the Star Wars Kid, an overweight teenager who became famous when he filmed himself pretending to be Darth Maul using a broom handle as a lightsaber, and his schoolmates got hold of the tape. You have the Numa Numa guy, another overweight teenager who sings along to a bizarre Eastern European song with hilarious expressions, and waves his arms around. You have the Dramatic Prairie Dog, about whom there is nothing further to say other than "the funniest 5 seconds of your life". And in this august company, you have Chocolate Rain, a song by Tay Zonday.
At first it seems hard to grasp why on Earth over thirty million people have viewed this song on YouTube. That's 30,000,000. That's a very large number of people, and it's really not a very good song. It features Tay, a nerdy-looking bespectacled black kid (in fact, Tay is 26), standing in front of a studio mic. At the start of the clip, he stands up, having just started up his backing track, a tinny loop that sounds like it was knocked together on a Casio keyboard. When he sings his first words - "Chocolate Rain" - his voice is incongruously deep. The delivery of the lines is strangely stilted, the rhythm of the words matching the rhythm of the backing track too closely, so that he sounds somewhat mechanical. Tay's expressions are odd - he sings with a kind of grimace on one side of his face, and with an expression of wide-eyed unselfconsciousness. He moves away from the mic to breathe in. So that people know what he is doing this for, some large white text appears, saying "**I move away from the mic to breathe in". When asked why he put this text in, Tay replied, "I just figured that if I didn't mention it people would wonder what I was doing." The lyrics are somewhat obscure, but seem to deal with issues of racism and social inequality.
Part of the charm of Chocolate Rain is the sincerity and naivety of Tay Zonday himself — the idea that he has put in this piece of text to explain one piece of weirdness, but seems to have no clear idea of the full extent of the weirdness of this song and by extension himself. In fact, it is just this sincerity and unselfconsciousness that characterizes almost all of the most popular internet memes. The Star Wars Kid, the Numa Numa guy, and Tay Zonday, are just people doing something that they are very into, without (it seems) much idea that anyone else will find it weird or hilarious, and certainly without any idea that it will be seen thirty million times.
"I'm pretty sure the 'Chocolate Rain' attention started as a joke at 4chan.org, an image board that is credited with starting lots of popular internet phenomena. It spread to a general audience and people started uploading spoofs. I don't know what causes people to listen to my music."
— Tay Zonday
Like many of the biggest memes, Chocolate Rain was popularized by 4chan. It was first posted on YouTube in April 2007, and by October 2008 had hit the 30,000,000 views mark, due to a number of factors — it became widely parodied on 4chan and YouTube, and eventually Tay Zonday appeared as a character in a South Park episode, in which his head is made to explode by the Dramatic Prairie Dog. Chocolate Rain has been parodied an unknown (but very large) number of times, both on YouTube and in more mainstream productions; Tay, who seems like a good sport and an interesting guy, has also parodied the song himself, as "Summer Break" and "Cherry Chocolate Rain". It's unclear whether he has managed to profit from his unexpected fame in any big way; Chocolate Rain was released under a Creative Commons license, a fact which may have assisted its rapid proliferation across the internet and other media.
"I want nonprofit radio and small mom/pop cafes to be able to play my music for free. But I also want giant corporations who can afford to give me a dime or two to pay fair royalties."
— Tay Zonday