Even before memes were a mainstream form of communication, The Presidents Of The United States Of America and their debut self-titled album had all the makings of a viral success. That first record was loaded with pop-punk earworms filled with absurd lyrics that fans—and listeners who overheard the songs on the radio—ate up. Between the band’s bizarre style and the subsequent music video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Gump” (a parody of PUSA’s “Lump”), the group was a hit—at my elementary school, at least. On any summer day in 1996, you could hear a school bus full of kids on the way to a soccer game screaming the album’s most famous refrain: “Millions of peaches / Peaches for me.” Not everyone got it, though: Entertainment Weekly called the album “a turgid amalgam of Fugazi and Green Day [that] lacks both the muscle and tunefulness of its forerunners.” It’s not entirely wrong. PUSA bears similarities to both those bands, but their bass-heavy guitar stylings lean heavier on Primus, while the lyrics are straight-up They Might Be Giants. Nevertheless, it’s the playfulness that adolescents from the era likely still remember. Had the track come out today, it would’ve been all over social media; instead, nostalgia for the song is.
It took a while, but in late May, PUSA went viral when filmmaker Jessica Ellis tweeted, “A good way to tell elder millennials from younger ones is to shriek-sing ‘PEACHES COME FROM A CAN’ at them and see what happens.” Ellis tapped into something primal for “geriatric millennials,” as the age group of people in their late 30s and early 40s have recently (and unfortunately) been dubbed. “Peaches come from a can”—and the followup lyric, “they were put there by a man”—went from obscure bite of ’90s nostalgia to trending meme within hours.
“Peaches” may not be a perfect song, but it is memorable. What’s more, it possesses the ideal elements to become a potent meme—and boy, was “Peaches” meme’d. Dr. Shane Tilton, an associate professor of writing and multimedia studies at Ohio Northern University and author of the upcoming book Meme Life, attributes pop music’s prevalence in memes to four strengths: formula, performance, meaning, and social experience. “Most [pop songs] are built on a formula,” says Tilton. “They’re time-constrained. They tend to have the same types of chords and musical construction. It is something that is easy to pull apart.” Deconstructing bits of culture and mixing them with others is crucial to internet mashups. The more easily netizens can break them down, the more quickly they spread. Not only is “Peaches” a very tightly written song, but its lyrics leave the door wide open for visual media. How hard is it to Google a can of peaches?
But a meme has to mean something to an audience—even non-sequiturs must make contextual sense to get any shares. As Tilton says, pop songs hold sensory significance, evoking a place and time for the listener. “I can tell you where I was the first time I heard ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic. The song has some kind of embedded meaning to me. Every time I hear it, I sort of remember where I was.” Through memes, fans communicate that transportive quality, allowing followers to convey that “summer of ’96" vibe. “You’re trying to communicate that feeling,” says Tilton. “You’re trying to communicate something that you experienced, and the song is the closest way of expressing that meaning that an audience might understand.”
Nostalgia is a significant theme in memes, but it’s how they communicate that feeling that matters. This lines up closely with what Ellis says. “I’ve loved the song since I was a teenager. It came out when I was 13,” Ellis told The A.V. Club over Twitter. “I’ve always associated [it] with that particular era of mid-’90s music that was very abstract lyrically and had a harder alt-rock edge that made very uncool people like me feel very cool.” Her tweet also touches on another of Tilton’s strengths: Pop songs are performative, and fit perfectly into Twitter prompts like Ellis’ tweet. Tilton says that it reminds him of the long-running inhaling seagull format, an image macro that exhibits the feeling of screaming a favorite song. “When you hear the first lyrics, you can scream them out,” he says. “Pop songs are built that way. They’re built to be easily accessible to an audience, and they’re built to be sung. That screaming bird isn’t really that different from performing the song at karaoke.”
It’s common for these types of resurgences to happen around pop songs, particularly ones that are so tied to a place and time. Late last year, fellow mid-’90s pop-punkers Eve 6 and their famed “heart in a blender” song (“Inside Out”) became internet fodder, helping their self-deprecating singer become a Twitter celebrity in the process. Regardless of genre, idiosyncratic lyrics (like “heart in a blender” or “Peaches come from a can / They were put there by a man”) make for good memes. Doja Cat had her first big hit with “Mooo!” a song where she dreams of being a cow. After the track’s release, image formats similar to the inhaling seagull, like “Turn Up The Volume,” were captioned with “Bitch I’m a cow. I’m not a cat. I don’t meow.” Fans taking their love of absurd lyrics and imbuing them with meaning allows them to laugh at the song and themselves while also asking their audience if they feel the same way.
This returns us to Tilton’s final classification of meme strength: Memes are a social experience. When people share a tweet like Ellis’ or a Justin Timberlake “It’s Gonna Be May” post, they aren’t just sharing their appreciation of the song—they are helping to solidify and change the meaning of the song. To someone who has never heard “Peaches” and doesn’t share in that nostalgia, the song’s lyrics become an expression of joy—transforming the meme and what it communicates. For example, when TikToker Nathan Apodaca’s video, which featured himself skateboarding on a highway while sipping some Ocean Spray and lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” there was a two-pronged effect. The song re-entered the Billboard charts, buoyed by listeners old and new. It also changed the meaning that many associate with “Dreams”: What used to be a song about a breakup is now one about liberation, a carefree vibe that thousands were ready to share in their own way.
Many of the songs on The Presidents Of The United States Of America have similar potential. Maybe the album’s other hit single, “Lump,” would’ve inspired remixes, had America Online been a bit more robust when “Weird Al” first released “Gump.” The opener, “Kitty,” which turns on the finicky relationship between man and cat, features a chorus of meows that sits nicely alongside “Mooo!” as a silly novelty song that scratches online culture’s itch for absurdity. (To say nothing of how the internet’s obsession with the mysteriously malevolent mind of the cat makes the song a perfect fit for social-media consumption.) But there’s something about “Peaches.” Maybe it’s the interest the internet, in general, has with the fruit, whether it be in emoji form or a scene from Call Me By Your Name. Moreover, it’s such an evocative song that crafting a post doesn’t require much mental flexing.
By taking the alt-rock formulas of the time and loading them with absurdity, The Presidents Of The United States Of America were able to ensure their immortality, both in the hearts of older millennials and online. “For a meme to be successful, it has to be derivative. There are thousands of pop songs that have been produced, and very few get that second life,” says Tilton. “The reason is that there’s something unique or there’s something different that sparks the interest of an audience or a content creator.” “Peaches” may be a frivolous little pop song, but its magic is in its bizarre details, a specific feeling it conjures that only it can provide. “It’s a very weird song,” says Ellis. “You shouldn’t be able to rock out so hard on the chorus as you are singing about stone fruit, but you do, and that silliness is so much fun. You don’t sing that song; you shriek it.” And when you can’t shriek, you meme.