I’d never thought much about the hit 1982 tune by California rock band Toto. “Africa” had always kind of just been there.
But one day, seemingly apropos of nothing, the song sprung itself on me and I was hooked. It happened in the back of a taxi, whizzing through the streets of Amsterdam in the middle of the night. I was drunk on the warm summer, the good company, and a bottle of amazing red. In other words, I was in just the right kind of mood to be charmed by this lovable 80s jam, with its sincere melancholy making for the perfect soundtrack to your life.
Once I fell for “Africa” I quickly discovered, as one does, I wasn’t the only one. “Africa” is so popular on the web it’s practically a meme. It’s internet catnip, all 4 minutes and 55 glorious seconds of it, and the first clue as to why is right in the song itself. “Africa” is less a piece of music and more of a feeling. It starts off gently, so it took a moment before I realized what was playing in the taxi. “I hear the drums echoing tonight,” David Paich croons over the keyboard, perking my ears to the earnestness of his voice filling the car, and in that moment, possibly the whole world. "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you!" Soon I’d given up all pretense of having a conversation, and by the time the soaring chorus kicked in you bet I was singing: “It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you!”
“Africa” turns 35 this year, and somehow, this dorky and emotional oddball inspires almost undivided adoration across the web. There’s an “Africa” bot tweeting the song’s lyrics. There’s www.ibless.therains.downin.africa, where the official “Africa” music video infinitely loops. (To date, the video has over 250 million views on YouTube alone.) The song has been used in numerous ads and TV series, recently in peak 80s sci-fi nostalgia show Stranger Things. South Park, Community (featuring Betty White), and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (featuring Justin Timberlake) have all parodied the song.
This is the kind of unironic appreciation Toto’s “Africa” often inspires in people. Twitter search “Africa + Toto” and watch your screen fill with apropos-of-nothing declarations of happiness and love: "I don't know what it is about ‘Africa’ by Toto, but it makes me feel like I can do anything,” one reads. "Don't talk to me until I've had my morning ‘Africa’ by Toto,” reads another. “If you’re stressed,” muses yet another, “just remember that ‘Africa’ by Toto exists.”
It goes on and on.
Nick Desideri, a Chicago-based pop music enthusiast, can confirm that “Africa” indeed holds a special place in the internet’s heart. “Good morning, my mentions are full of about 50+ people yelling at me about ‘Africa’ by Toto,” Desideri tweeted a day after his Unifying Theory of Bops chart of jams versus bangers (above) went viral earlier this month.
“Aside from ‘Africa’ by Toto, [Beyonce’s] ‘Love On Top’ was the most contentious placing,” Desideri told me in an email. He says the vast majority of commenters were supportive, but there were a significant number of frustrated “Africa” fans, many of who claimed the song’s low placing invalidated the whole chart. “Since ‘Africa’ by Toto is basically a meme at this point I'm not surprised by the widespread dissatisfaction, but I am surprised by the depth of it,” said Desideri.
This affection may explain why new songs often find themselves compared with Toto’s stone-cold classic. When Taylor Swift released the first single from her new album in August, Mollie Goodfellow, a London-based journalist, got nearly 60,000 likes when she tweeted: “Why would I listen to Taylor's new song six times to ‘get into it’ when I can listen to ‘Africa’ by Toto once and lose my shit?”
But how exactly did “Africa” become what is arguably the internet’s favorite song? Several other all-time great pop and rock records, including Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and Prince’s 1999, charted in 1983, the same year “Africa” topped the US Billboard Hot 100. While each of those albums and respective titular singles remain both wildly popular and critically acclaimed, “Africa” might have quietly won out, as a stand-alone track, by being just dorky enough to appeal to the internet’s feel-good, wholesome meme-making community.
“‘Africa’ is a peak 80s tune. It’s so completely of its time,” said Ben Lunt, Executive Digital Director at BMB, an ad agency in London. Lunt is old enough to remember “Africa” being “extremely unfashionable” when he was a kid in the late 80s, but now he views it as a guilty pleasure. “‘Africa’ crosses generations. There's a genuine nostalgia of people of my age, and a borrowed nostalgia of younger people,” said Lunt. He suggests young people may like the song because it sounds like the music their parents played when they were kids. “It has that tie-back to your childhood and that makes you feel safe.”
“It's more about evoking a feeling than constructing a cohesive narrative.”
The song's popularity is aided by the fact that it’s actually a very well-crafted piece of music, with driving drum loops, layered harmonies, and an anthemic chorus. The lyrics can be a bit hard to make out, and as is often the case with 80s tracks, even once you hear the words they can be a bit nonsensical. This has probably helped the song to thrive online, says Lunt, as a meme needs to be vague enough so people can put their own spin on as it spreads. “But usually when something becomes a meme there’s something that’s being subverted,” said Lunt. “There's not a lot of subversion going on with the ‘Africa’ meme. People are mostly just using it as an expression of joy and love.”
At the time when Toto keyboardist David Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro wrote the song, they’d never actually been to Africa. Porcaro, who died in 1992, described the lyrics thusly: “A white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past.” This isn’t supposed to be a song about the continent; it’s about an idea, or a borrowed nostalgia for somewhere you’ve never been.
“‘Africa’ is a product of a particular cultural moment,” said Kate Miltner, an internet researcher at the University of Southern California. The line “I bless the rains down in Africa” makes sense in the context of the Ethiopian famine in the early 80s, which sparked a global response with charity singles “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, Miltner added. Toto’s song is similar in how it takes a white, Western view of the continent, and the music video also has some generic African imagery that wouldn’t go over so well if it was made today (as Taylor Swift discovered when she recorded the video for “Wildest Dreams” in Africa).
The internet is not known for being forgiving of problematic cultural elements like appropriation or whitewashing, so it’s perhaps surprising that this criticism hasn’t really been levied against the hit, written by a band whose original lineup was six white dudes. Miltner says the song’s vagueness may point to why that is, as it’s not very explicit. On the surface, “the song appears to be about a guy who has some feelings for a girl, and then there's some mythological references,” Miltner told me, highlighting the geographically impossible line: “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”. “It's more about evoking a feeling than constructing a cohesive narrative,” she added.
So “Africa” may come across a bit cheesy in 2017. But in 1982 it was completely sincere: “There's currently a fetishisation of the earnest and the pure within internet culture. You may see a photo of a dog and a deer snuggling, captioned ‘Too pure for this world,’” said Miltner, who thinks the reason the internet has embraced the song is in part because it’s of a time when earnestness was far more socially acceptable.
The 80s had its own social and political problems too, of course. Miltner, for her part, thinks the current political climate can hold another hint to why the internet has adopted “Africa” by Toto. This hyper-sincere, throwback track might never actually be deemed cool, but that’s part of the point: We can belt out the song’s ridiculous lyrics and love it without reservation, just like I discovered for myself during that charmed late night cab ride through Amsterdam.
“It's a permission for catharsis,” said Miltner. “We are living in very strange times right now.”
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