If at some point during the recent quarantine you found yourself lost on YouTube searching for some mindless entertainment, you might have come across medieval-style renditions of famous pop songs. Appearing suddenly in YouTube recommendations at the whim of their obscure algorithm, these covers are part of a booming internet musical genre dubbed ‘bardcore’, or sometimes ‘tavernwave’—the origins of these names are obscure but they mirror larger internet trends such as cottagecore or vaporwave. What exactly is the new internet trend bardcore, and why did it gain popularity during the coronavirus pandemic?
Following its very sudden rise in the middle of the pandemic, bardcore music has now built a solid fan base and is sparking creativity across a variety of mediums and platforms. From YouTube to TikTok, the bardcore hashtags are filled with everything from plain old shitposts to carefully created content.
If the exercise of recreating contemporary tracks with medieval instruments isn’t new to the internet, the trend had a boom on Youtube when, in late April 2020, user Cornelius Link posted a medieval-style instrumental cover of Tony Igy’s Astronomia, the track made famous by the then-trending Coffin Dance meme. The video quickly garnered a lot of attention and now boasts over 3 million views.
Another YouTube user going by the nickname Hildegard Von Blingin’ (borrowed from Saint Hildegard Von Bingen, an abbess, philosopher and lyrical composer from 12th Century Germany) then contributed to the spread of the bardcore trend with medieval-style covers of songs such as Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance or Haddaway’s What is Love, recorded with adapted Old English lyrics. Hildegard’s YouTube channel, which started in late May 2020, now counts over 22 million consecutive views, a testament to the fast growth of the bardcore trend.
Bardcore has now taken over YouTube with more and more covers by various contributors being posted every day. You can find a bardcore track for every taste, from Eiffel 65’s eurodance classic I’m Blue to Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. The trend is also expanding to other platforms, with a dedicated subreddit. Discord servers for peasant roleplay, Tumblr blogs curating medieval content and TikTok comedy skits about life in the Dark Ages. Even if bardcore started as an online musical genre, it could lead to a larger trend of 21st century medieval revival, a kind of neo-New Age for the digital era.
Where the rise of the cottagecore trend can be explained by young people’s desire to move away from cities and live an idealised simple life in the countryside, it seems at first harder to understand the sudden online fascination for (western) medieval life and culture.
Before the term ‘bardcore’ even appeared on the internet, there were some early signs of a medieval revival trend: the multiplication of Bayeux tapestry-inspired memes, the recent Instagram craze for DIY medieval-style corsets or the eye-catching chainmail dresses designed by Julien Dossena for Paco Rabanne’s Fall 2020 collection. On the surface, the advent of bardcore seems to simply be the product of intense quarantine boredom and a lucky push from the YouTube algorithm which is helping this upcoming trend grow to prominence.
But there’s something about the year 2020 that evokes to us our pop culture view of the medieval times: a global plague, constant social and political instability, tyrannic feudal rulers using armed forces to reinforce their power, people trusting superstitions over science and visible inequalities. These are things we’ve pictured in the past, we seem to be in these Dark Ages that our culture has imagined, although numerous historians agree that the medieval times weren’t as bad as we have a tendency to portray them nowadays.
Many people, especially young people, have been living with the feeling of impending doom for some time now. The climate emergency and the rise of inequalities have exacerbated the idea that our civilisation could very much be on the brink of collapse, if not a full-on apocalypse. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to it, showcasing the shortcomings of our current systems and reinforcing the idea that the world as we know it could be about to end.
There’s something quite medieval about fearing the end of the world in the middle of a plague, so why not make memes about it? Consciously or not, the rise of bardcore as both a music genre and an overall aesthetic feels like an ironic, if not nihilistic, take on our current reality. Are we all powerless peasants again, destined to wait for the world to end while serving capitalist lords accumulating wealth while the rest of the people suffer?
Bardcore content is funny in its anachronism and its absurdity, but it is also rooted in interesting parallels between medieval and contemporary times. It shows us that even if times are dark and the end might be nigh, there’s still humour and creativity to be drawn from it. Even during a plague or under the rule of controversial leaders, people still manage to create beautiful things like artists did for centuries during the Middle Ages.
If the world were to slowly descend into a new dark age, it only seems natural to look back at medieval times for inspiration. Bardcore is a way for young generations to confront that impending feeling of doom with absurd humour while also building new communities around shared interests. After all, the world might be ending but the memes were fun.
As 2020 continues to throw curveballs, at many points the expression ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ has seemed apt. With this, we have seen a rise of political content on social media to help the general public make sense of major global crisis after major global crisis. Internet memes make a joke, a point, or a connection and can operate to affirm and shape today’s politics through participation by reappropriation. But are they actually helpful?
As the best part of any group chat, memes are fundamentally fun. However, when used within a political context they enable a new kind of participatory conversation which complicates the traditional political structure. Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” For young people, who do a great deal of their communicating online, memes have become a significant practice for political engagement. A far cry from the cat memes of 2010, 2020 sees the internet taking on politicians and the established elite through the medium of memes.
Humour is inherently critical and functions to challenge social norms dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. In a way, memes are a continuation of caricatures, which were popularised in the 1700s as a form of satire. Political memes create and spread satire, allowing them to actively question politics rather than passively consume through more traditional news sources. Logan Callen, creator of the Instagram account @quarantined_political_memes, which is well known for its political compass memes, told Screen Shot, “When I first started my page back in March, the amount of engagement on political pages was much lower than it is now. My page has grown a lot recently, especially among younger people. I attribute this growing interest in politics to the popularisation of politics on social media.”
With few socioeconomic barriers to the internet, access to political content has never been easier, arming the younger generation with a powerful tool. However, the meme’s biggest strengths, speed and lack of gatekeepers can also prove its biggest flaws.
At their crux, memes are supposed to be funny, whether that humour is light-hearted or macabre. However, at the intersection of politics and humour, there is a very fine line to be balanced. Bigoted hostility, harassment and dangerous propaganda are often overlooked as ‘just a joke’, as extremists hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable. A 2015 study by the Texas University found that individuals who were socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as ‘on the fringe’ have a greater chance at creating a successful meme, lending weight to the idea of memes being an effective tool for extremists.
“Social media giving everyone a voice for their opinions is a double-edged sword,” explains Callen. “While it allows for every opinion to be heard, it also grants the opportunity for ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation. I have seen this a lot while on the political side of Instagram. While most memes I have come across aren’t dangerous in spreading misinformation or propaganda, I have seen a few that almost tricked me, and would definitely trick younger people.”
Memes thrive on a lack of information, the faster you can understand the point the higher the chance of it going viral. Seemingly well-intentioned memes can still dehumanise others through fetishisation, as when everything is reduced to an Instagram graphic it’s easy to forget the very real human experiences behind the content. One particularly disturbing example is the recent murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. An article in Vox stated that “as soon as Taylor’s name went viral, the call to action became something closer to a meme-fied catchphrase, with many social media users turning calls to arrest Taylor’s killers into a kind of structural gimmick.”
The tools we use to communicate are in danger of becoming counterproductive to actual communication. The term ‘slacktivism’ describes the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, involving very little effort or with the main purpose of boosting the participant’s ego.
And then there’s the concern that memes can very easily become our own personal echo chambers. Tatton Spiller, creator of the Instagram account @SimplePolitics and author of The Breakdown, explains, “The echo chamber effect is pretty awful. You follow people with whom you agree. You share those posts. You don’t interact with friends you follow but don’t share values with, they drop off your timeline, you see more of the stuff with which you do agree. You hear nothing, ever, of the other side. You forget that people with other views really exist. How can anyone believe that nonsense? You completely lose the ability to chat or engage with anyone who doesn’t hold your points of view.”
Memes aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of public conversation and shape the way we interact with events and debates. Even deepfake memes are on the rise. Activist and author of Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally, Sophie Williams, tells Screen Shot, “I think people spend so much time on social media, consciously and unconsciously absorbing the information they see, that it can be a really good starting point for people. What I think is essential to emphasise every time, is that posting or sharing on social media is not activism in itself. It’s not the end, it’s just the start. People have to take the information and apply it in their everyday lives, offline, through their actions.”
Social media is a powerful tool. It’s hard to imagine a major pop cultural or political moment that doesn’t generate an influx of internet memes. But with that comes a breeding ground for lies, indifference and optical allyship. Proceed with caution.