You can’t explain the popularity of ‘Baby Shark,’ and that’s the point
(CNN) — When humans of the far future study the culture of their ancient ancestors from the year 2019, it’s going to be pretty hard to avoid the topic of “Baby Shark.”
“Baby Shark,” that wholesome children’s song that’s somehow become an anthem for toddlers, families, marquee celebrities and groups of complete strangers from Indonesia to Indiana. “Baby Shark,” that viral earworm/mom group in-joke/meme/marketing craze circling the globe in innumerable, unlimited permutations.
“Baby Shark,” doo doo doo doo doo doo.
For the second week in a row the most popular rendition of the song, produced by Korean entertainment company Pinkfong, is sitting pretty in the Top 40 of the Billboard Top 100.
It’s not the first viral internet hit to do so, and Billboard wasn’t its first conquest — the song has already hit the UK Top 40, and was only the third song produced by a Korean artist to do so, after international mega-hitmakers Psy and BTS.
It’s been a while since we have seen a cultural moment so global, so richly interdisciplinary as this, the era of “Baby Shark.” In this moment, a multitude of psychologies, theories and human truths unfold. But not a single one of them can properly explain why “Baby Shark” has become the megalodon it is.
If we examine them together, however, maybe they can get us close to a working theory. We owe it to future generations to try.
Truth #1: Virality is unpredictable
The story of “Baby Shark” begins, as most legends do, with a cosmic mystery: The mystery of internet virality. No matter what social media marketing companies or online influencers tell you, internet virality is a mercurial animal that knows no coaxing, boosting or strategizing. It just is.
Pinkfong’s US CEO Bin Jeong knows this intimately. Pinkfong, a branch of the Korean company SmartStudy, produces what can only be described as a metric ton of online content, mainly in the form of brightly colored, well-produced YouTube videos that attract millions of views from children all over the world. Its YouTube channel has more than 1,100 video uploads that account for more than 7 BILLION views.
So when Pinkfong posted a dance version of “Baby Shark” in 2016, set to the company’s signature brand of energizing K-pop beats, everyone knew it would probably do well.
They just had no idea how well.
“We instantly saw that Baby Shark starting performing, even compared to our other best-performing videos on the channel.” Jeong tells CNN. “We saw it was going to be special.”
Sensing its potential, Jeong says the company tried to bridle the viral animal.
“We put more marketing behind it, but that’s not how or why it became so viral,” she says. “To be honest, no matter what you do, the ones that make it, make it on their own.”
Instead, the wild beast broke free. In 2017, the #BabySharkChallenge captivated social media users in Indonesia, much in the same vein as the Harlem Shake and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The meme made the song even more popular, and Korean artists like Red Velvet and BlackPink filmed themselves singing and dancing along.
All the while, the views on Pinkfong’s video ticked upward; past a billion views, and then another. The original video has nearly 2.2 billion views now, making it one of the most-watched videos in Youtube’s history.
Pinkfong had nothing to do with any of this, Jeong says. It just was.
Truth #2: ‘Baby Shark’ is kid catnip
To be fair, while internet virality and the whims of a global public are fairly mysterious concepts, the music tastes of the average toddler are not.
And boy, does “Baby Shark” hit all of their buttons.
Author and pediatrician Claudia Gold says simple songs with easy melodies, repetition, and wholesome themes help kids keep order in a new and confusing world.
“When you’re 6 months old, or 2 or 5 years old, so many things are going on that you try to make sense of,” she says. “A song can kind of harness that experience and be comforting in its repetition.”
Oh, and repeat they do. Ask any parent with young children about “Baby Shark” and their eyes glaze over, haunted by months of constant backseat singalongs and Saturday morning “Baby Shark” marathons so tedious they should be outlawed under the Geneva Convention.
“Even before children can speak, they know how to communicate for a certain melody to be played over and over again,” Gold says. “It’s a way of calming and organizing young brains.”
Still, “Baby Shark” has flourished in part because adults, no matter how reluctantly, have embraced it too.
Jeong, Pinkfong’s US CEO, says that was according to plan. A lot of Pinkfong’s content creators are parents, she explains, so they have not only a good idea of what kids like, but of what they personally can tolerate.
“When our content creators create songs, they know the pain of watching it over and over again,” she says. “They are moms, so they wanted to really create something that can be enjoyed by the entire family.”
Susan Morley, a parenting coach in Atlanta, says parents know that when it comes to childhood obsessions, their kids could do a lot worse than “Baby Shark.”
“These nursery rhymes prepare children for language,” she says. “They’re fun and they create a world-to-lyric connection, where kids can recognize real-life themes like family.”
Plus, it’s easier to stomach than more complicated obsessions like “Fortnite.” Or, God forbid, Barney.
“Even parents who hate ‘Baby Shark,’ hate it less than they hated Barney,” Morley says.
Truth #3: It takes something special to unite younger and older audiences
So kids love “Baby Shark.” That still doesn’t explain why the song, in all of its repetitive chomping glory, has showed up on late night talk shows and “The X Factor” and various social media apps.
Is it the dance component? That’s a big inter-generational draw.
“That part is so important,” says Gold, of the simple hand motions that accompany the song. “Children are making sense of the physical experience and managing big feeling and controlling themselves, according to their abilities, in a way that they can feel good about.”
For older children and young adults, it means hip hop versions, internet memes and recurring social media moments like the #BabySharkChallenge, which most recently showed up on TikTok, a video sharing app that’s still relatively new in the US and didn’t even exist when Pinkfong’s fated video published in July 2016.
If you think about it, that trajectory is really amazing. After all, it’s not like “Baby Shark” started with Pinkfong. Anecdotally, the song has been around for at least 15 years and has floated about in the folkloric way most nursery rhymes do — with slightly different endings and slightly different origins.
A video of a woman singing the German version of the song, Kleiner Hai, went viral in Europe in 2010 for many of the same reasons we’re still weathering “Baby Shark” today: It was cute. It was catchy. It was ripe for mimicry and reinvention.
Truth #4: The way we listen, watch and play is changing
The YouTube of 2010 may have inspired some important viral moments, but the YouTube of 2019 is a massive all-encompassing entertainment hub. That’s exactly why “Baby Shark” landed on the Billboard Hot 100 next to Imagine Dragons and Cardi B. It’s simple math, really: In 2013, Billboard charts began to factor YouTube views into its equations, in addition to streaming data. There are literally thousands of “Baby Shark” videos on YouTube, primed and ready for searching little fingers to find. A charting breakthrough was only a matter of time.
It’s a little terrifying to consider, if you’re a parent. Those thousands of “Baby Shark” videos are shocking in both their breadth and specificity, in their deft algorithmic delivery of a bored toddler’s every hunt-and-peck wish. There’s Baby Shark featuring Elsa from “Frozen.” Baby Shark Christmas carols. Live-action Baby Shark. CGI Baby Shark. All of them, over and over again, in a kaleidoscope of colors, characters and creators. If a child were at the helm, searching for whatever ideas pop into their impressionable minds, they could fall into an eternal “Baby Shark” viewing hole and never come out.
While some parents don’t want to admit it, that’s exactly what happens sometimes.
“As soon as a child is old enough to be on any device, they’re going to be searching,” says Morley. “Toddlers are free searching. They may not know exactly what they’re doing, but they’re pushing buttons all over and sometimes parents are too busy and distracted and disconnected to look over their shoulders. It’s uncharted territory for a lot of parents, and they find it hard to keep up.”
And it’s no secret that the more kids search, watch and replay, the more creators see the demand for that kind of content, and the more they produce.
Maybe using a nursery rhyme to examine humanity’s changing relationship with technology is treading too close to the abyss, but in the vast “Baby Shark” discourse, there’s one moment that Gold says really caught her eye. In October 2018, an adorable video of a little girl asking her Amazon Echo to play “Baby Shark” captured hearts around the world (it also, according to Google trends, coincided with a significant spike in “Baby Shark” searches).
“It’s amazing to watch,” Gold says. “What is it like for a toddler; how do they understand that you ask this box with lights on it to play a song? I don’t think any of us know how children are processing that fact.”
“And yet, there’s an interesting moment when she’s talking to the device, and she realizes it can’t understand her,” Gold continues. “And the little girl looks at her mother because she knows that her mother will be able to make it work. She’s not alone with the Echo. She can see beyond it.”
That human connection, Gold says, is how we maintain healthy relationships with the cloying, grasping powers of internet content. While billions of YouTube views and complex Billboard metrics may be the solid evidence of “Baby Shark’s” success, that human interaction — the dancing, the jokes, the remixes, the fun — is the true heartbeat of this viral animal.
If Pinkfong has anything to say about it, “Baby Shark” won’t be going away anytime soon. In December, the company launched a line of “Baby Shark”-inspired plush toys and clothing on Amazon. Within days, Jeong says, everything was sold out. Now, the company is working with American manufacturers to expand their product line.
Even with all of that strategizing and growth, Jeong still recognizes that mysterious spark of magic that made all of this happen.
“If you really think about it, it’s surreal,” she says.
Yeah, we agree. We really do, doo doo doo doo doo doo.