Finally, An Exhaustive Structural Analysis of ‘Damn Daniel’
Like James Dean or “Harlem Shake,” Damn Daniel was destined to burn brightly but briefly. The viral video died yesterday morning, at the ripe old age of fourteen days, after hackers infiltrated the Twitter account of its creator, Riverside Polytechnic High School sophomore Josh Holz. Rather than mourn its passing, though, we should celebrate its eventful life. In its two weeks of existence, Damn Daniel—a 30-second compilation of Holz half-sarcastically complimenting his friend Daniel Lara’s clothing—inspired corporate bandwagon-jumping, eBay hucksters, fan fiction, fan tattoos, and an Ellen segment.
What made Damn Daniel so popular? Nobody’s been able to nail it down, though not for want of trying. Like many memes, Damn Daniel provoked a series of would-be explainers, each trying to identify the source of its cryptic appeal. Most didn’t get very far. The New York Times gave up halfway, declaring that “there is no explanation for this kind of thing.” Tech Insider wrote that “It’s hard to explain why it’s so funny.” “If you think this is a sad indictment of our society and feel like complaining about it, I won’t stop you,” declared USA Today, raising the stakes considerably.
That’s a familiar pose when it comes to Internet culture, one that leads to a kind of pop nihilism: This stuff is completely random and meaningless, so why bother trying to comprehend it? But Damn Daniel isn’t incomprehensible; its appeal is rooted in characteristics and themes that have powered popular art for a good half-century now. So without further ado, here’s why it’s not so mystifying after all that Damn Daniel that made it so damn irresistible.
Repetition. Say something once, and it’s funny. Say it twice, and it’s kind of cute. Say it three or four times, and it gets annoying. But say it five times, and it transcends its meaning entirely and enters the realm of Dadaist genius. It’s an old rule, one that goes back to Warhol’s silk-screens, and used to great comic effect by The Simpsons and Mr. Show. It also explains why Damn Daniel didn’t really get funny until about 20 seconds in, when the words get unmoored from their referents.
Rhythm. Would this video have been as popular if Daniel went by Dan? I don’t think so. That’s because “Damn Daniel” is a dactyl, a classic rhythmic structure in which a long syllable is followed by two short ones, used in classic poetry like Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” (“Half a league, half a league, half a league onward!”) Damn, dactyl! And that’s not even getting into “back at it again with the white Vans,” a riot of syncopation that calls to mind Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
You could hear Holz hone the rhythm of his catchphrase as time went on. Over the course of his video, he stretched out the “damn” until it approached Clay Davis proportions. He also gave “Daniel” a more percussive punch, creating greater contrast between the two words. That inherent funkiness made Damn Daniel great fodder for dance remixes.
Cute Boy. From A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles to JTT, non-threatening, fresh-faced tween-bait have always represented a powerful cultural force. Daniel carries on this tradition with aplomb. He has received love letters and marriage proposals (despite the fact that he is 14 years old), and is routinely mobbed by admirers wherever he goes. “The girls are just a huge bonus out of all this,” Lara told Ellen DeGeneres. It may seem odd that a normally attractive guy who does little more than successfully wear clothing should prove so magnetic, but it is precisely that ill-defined quality that makes him so popular, a blank slate upon which his admirers can write their romantic fantasies. (To wit: Alex from Target.)
Addictive Catchphrase. As Lorne Michaels can tell you, an irresistible catchphrase is the key to comedy immortality. But engineering one is a dark art. Damn, Daniel works precisely because it isn’t manufactured, but a seemingly genuine expression of friendship. To hear it was to repeat it, and then to post yourself repeating it, spreading the viral load around social media. Before long even celebrities were cutting their own versions of the video. It resembled nothing so much as Budweiser’s famous “Whassup” campaign, another paean to dopey male camaraderie powered by an impossible-not-to-repeat catchphrase at its core.
Popularity As Art. In his 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo wrote about a tourist attraction called “The Most Photographed Barn in America,” whose popularity derived not from any intrinsic qualities, but simply from the fact that so many other people had photographed it. “We’re not here to capture the image,” one character explained, “we’re here to maintain one.” It was a nifty metaphor for the way that popular recognition can become its own kind of self-propelling artistic achievement, whatever its source.
In those terms, for two beautiful weeks, Damn Daniel was the most-clicked barn in America, a video that people watched to honor the perverse achievement that something so ridiculous had been watched by so many. In this, it was aided by the modern content industry, which is ever-eager to ride nascent trends as they explode into must-click phenomena. (I count eleven Buzzfeed posts about Damn Daniel, including “21 Pairs of Vans That Will Make You Say Damn, Daniel” and “Damn! What Percent Daniel Are You?“) The gleeful subtext to every Damn Daniel post is, “Can you believe we’re watching this?” But not only is the Damn Daniel craze totally believable; it’s downright traditional.