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The YouTube comment section for Earl Sweatshirt’s 'East' is a modern-day 'Canterbury Tales'

web of bars

<p>Musician Earl Sweatshirt's controversial track "EAST" continues to beguile and bewilder fans who can't stop trying to figure out what the song means.</p>

Musician Earl Sweatshirt's controversial track "EAST" continues to beguile and bewilder fans who can't stop trying to figure out what the song means.

Child-prodigy turned transcendental mountain-man Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, better-known as Earl Sweatshirt, has long been trending toward more challenging sounds and concepts in his music. After proving that he could outrap the best of the best, Earl rejected fame and secluded himself in the shadows, both literally and musically.

Earl’s music has always packed misery and existentialism into murky soundscapes; each release further warps his reality and condenses his apocalyptic visions. On his most recent project, “Feet of Clay,”  Earl layers all of his seventh dimension rhetoric into an almost impossibly dense 15 minutes.

Nowhere on the album is Earl’s disdain for appealing to the masses and being fathomable more apparent than on the infamous “EAST.” On this track, Earl berates the listener with cryptic bars over an abrasive beat featuring a poorly-mixed sample of what I can only assume is the world’s oldest accordion. 

As out there as “EAST” is, something about the beat resonates with people. It’s a disquieting earworm. It is both the most jarring and most relaxing sound possible. It lifts the listener up while pressing them back down, holding their consciousness in limbo and leaving them unable to articulate exactly what it is they are feeling.

The music video for “EAST” finds our reclusive protagonist walking by the ocean, drinking a Corona (!), hanging out with his friends and lip-syncing with about 10% effort. Meanwhile, rectangular frames, depicting scenes where Earl just sort of shuffles around, appear and disappear haphazardly.. That’s the whole video:  Earl giving the finger to the people who expected something specific from him. 

The video was always intended as a meme, but not even Earl could have foreseen what it would become. In the comment section, people dished different interpretations of what exactly this song sounds like. The heated reactions mixed with the neural paralysis from the accordion allowed people to unlock heretofore unknown creativity. The section contains some of the most original and hilarious figurative language I have ever seen.

Most of the comments compare the beat to some obscure reference. There is a wealth of material within that range, however, from continuations of internet jokes (e.g. “It sound like the beat was made on Microsoft paint”), biblical references (“What Adam and Eve heard after they ate the apple”), common experiences (“This song sounds like when you squeeze a ketchup bottle and ketchup water comes out”), to the abstract bizarre (“This sounds like an accordion being interrogated by another accordion”). 

The accordion caption contest became an arms race. To this day, almost a year after the video was released, people still comment multiple times per hour. Like Sweatshirt’s lyrics, the most praised comments are concise and layered. With only a few words, they can communicate niche yet universal themes — entire stories even. A top comment on the “EAST” section is among the most sought-after internet achievements. It is its own prize.

In this comment section, people from unique backgrounds convened to take a journey together — an undeniably spiritual journey, considering how ethereal and unnerving Earl’s beat is. Each member offers a story, which is then judged by the masses. There are winners and losers; prizes and empty hands. In broad strokes, these YouTube commenters are reenacting the plot of “The Canterbury Tales.”

In that Middle English classic by Geoffrey Chaucer, pilgrims travel to an inn, telling stories along the way in order to win a free meal. The story is hilariously inconsequential, yet has endured for 800 years. It is anti-establishment, funny and ultimately meaningless. There are no stakes. It is a story about people telling stories. 

Earl’s 2019 EP “Feet of Clay” could not be further from this low-stakes fluff. Cornerstones of modern Earl Sweatshirt are his certainty that we are headed for an earth-shattering reckoning and his tragic inability to cope. (A representative lyric: “Chunk a Deuce if you know it’s the end.”) Earl can see the mass graves of the future, and he knows he can do nothing but joke until we get there.

Still, the comment section keeps it light. I have a feeling most of the people who comment could not recall a single lyric from the song. The commenters breed camaraderie, creativity and competition. They are not thinking too hard about the sinister journey Earl presents to them. Instead, they are telling jokes. It is a timeless literary truth: The best art is universal.

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