Do you remember the first time you heard “Turn Down For What?” I suspect the answer is no. I suspect it just emerged somewhere in your consciousness, as something you had always known—something you’d always screamed at people, indignantly. You never consciously started liking it, and that’s partially because you never consciously liked it at all. It was, without ever transitioning into a symbol, somehow only that: an indication to fire up, get loud, and pour everybody shots, even if doing so was perhaps irresponsible. Correction: especially, if doing so was irresponsible. It was what you heard, as a child, at sports stadiums and in commercials, wasn’t it? Hadn’t Johnny Carson done a bit about it, long ago? Didn’t Dickens riff on it in David Copperfield?
To wit: A few weeks ago, I went to a Cleveland Cavaliers game with my dad and a few of his friends. This was a pro sporting event, so obviously it was rich with testosterone and spectacle, but otherwise we were engaging in polite small talk. Hands were shaken, pleasantries about Thanksgiving exchanged. The lights dimmed for an introductory video showing the Cavs players throughout their careers beneath a somber Keith David voiceover, until the video erupted, after a minute or so, right into Lil Jon screaming that hook, signaling that all bets were fucking off: We (the arena) were falling out of our chairs, holding each other back, completely delirious, passing flasks to strangers in mid-blackout, all flashing lights and cocaine and broken marriages—and then regulation play started, and we went back to our nachos and talking about Kevin Love’s post game.
This is the story of “Turn Down For What.” From its inception, the very phrase was a shorthand for stupidity. You’d be hard-pressed to attend a sporting event in 2014 without hearing it at some point as an audience call to arms, and it has been embraced far and wide as parody and homage of this power elsewhere; it’s the “get down” backdrop for Michelle Obama, Spongebob Squarepants, the stars of 22 Jump Street, and many, many more. Tracks with this power emerge occasionally, but none in recent memory have had the bracing clarity of DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s. “Power” and “Niggas In Paris,” for example, contain all the baggage of Kanye West, Seething Artist™; “Hard In Da Paint” is too raw for popular consumption; “Till I Collapse” is too maudlin; “Get Lucky” too joyous; “Tubthumping” too British; and so on. “Turn Down For What” is different—one essential phrase, almost aquiline in its singleness of purpose.
Humanity, it seems, yearned for this. Few tracks get to experience the sort of golden age that “Turn Down For What” is presently enjoying. There are three minutes and 33 seconds of it, technically, but what everyone is thinking of when considering the song comes at roughly seconds 10 through 40: a hint of build, Lil Jon activating his special “holler” preset, and a bit of the beat’s spring-powered bounce. That’s the song’s entire legacy. The remaining two minutes are all comedown, relatively speaking—a bunch of sci-fi squiggles, left-turns, and echoes. In this way it recalls Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness,” which has endured for some 15 years thanks to a 30-second stretch of its own that became one of the signature soundbites of millennial butt rock. “Ooh wah ah ah ah” represents mainstream rock’s eyebrow-ring era crystallized in amber; the moment is exhausted, but the track, somehow, is not.
Time will tell if the same will be true of “Turn Down For What,” but these things sort themselves out over years, not months. I don’t particularly like the track, but I am in awe of it. Enjoying it is like enjoying enormous roller coasters or pornography: It occurs at a biological level, not a conscious one. Mostly, though, I’m impressed by the way the track has proliferated aboveground, through traditional channels, but with the attitude of a viral, “Harlem Shake”-style in-joke. Like “Gangnam Style,” it is neither meme nor song, but some strange hybrid of both. Unlike that track, though, it is deeply, profoundly American—a synthesis of hip-hop, pop-metal, male aggression, and sports spectatorship, delivered under the guise of a dance track.
Its life cycle bears this out. Google Trends shows the phrase at a simmer for most of 2013; the phrase pops up as the name of two Rich Homie Quan mixtapes in August, and in September someone legitimized it on Urban Dictionary. The trend chart shoots up precipitously in November of that year, when, according to a Columbia Records exec, the track was played after a miraculous Hail Mary touchdown at an Auburn-Georgia game. This was in Alabama, near Lil Jon’s home state of Georgia, where crunk still rules the earth, and where a Hail Mary comeback in a SEC rivalry game shoots like a cannonball through the entire region’s psychosocial fabric. The next month—one year ago this week—the track received its proper digital release, and in May came that preposterous dick-breaking video, at which point the trend chart yanks upward like a dotcom stock in the late ’90s. By fall of this year, the track was entrenched enough to be co-opted by establishments like Rock The Vote (“Turn Out For What”) and YouTube (the conceptually challenging “Turn Down For 2014”); and in between these tent poles, kittens, old ladies, parents, college students, celebrities, spokespeople, babies, and various amplification devices across the globe have rattled about in syncopation to it.
If there is something to love about the track—and a reason to root for it—it’s Lil Jon himself, who, now in his 40s, is surely one of the great pop weirdos of our time. For almost two decades he has worked as a sort of bizarro Pharrell, ping-ponging not from critical to commercial adoration but from club to club and back again, hiding behind his hat and his glasses and that tragicomic chalice full of drugs. (He was also on molly way before the rest of hip-hop.) His chief influence at this point seems to be his own early work; the tiny caged rabbit in the back of his brain that chirps catchphrases to him is just growing stronger, angrier, and perhaps more cunning with time. “Turn Down For What,” at least as the legend is told, was originally supposed to contain a Redman sample, until Jon blurted the eponymous phrase overtop instead. It is the track’s insurance policy against irrelevance. The phrase’s multitude of grammatical readings only lends it to repetition and application, qualities popular culture seems destined to abuse as the years go on. It will remain oblivious to approval. Like Lil’ Jon, the track is a self-contained, self-fulfilling party, rattling on indefinitely as if in proof of the fact that even a downward spiral is fun if you’re going too goddamn fast to think.