“The Knife Song”: When Memeification Hurts Instead of Helps

Posted March 7

Korean musician Psy went viral — and mainstream — last year with his tongue-in-cheek song “Gangnam Style,” in part because he chose to waive the copyright on the song so that anyone and everyone could cover it (which they did, in droves). In Psy’s case, those spinoffs and covers helped make the longtime musician a household name in the U.S. In the case of budding musician Rusty Cage, however, the sudden memeification of his jam, “The Knife Song,” had a totally different effect: It took away his ownership.

Rusty Cage — a.k.a. 23-year-old Gainesville, Florida, musician Ben Steele — has a proclivity for playing with knives. “When I’m drunk I like to make a complete jackass of myself and one of the ways of doing that is if I’m at a party, I’ll start doing the hand thing with the knife,” Steele says, referring to a dangerous game in which the player stabs the spaces between his fingers in rapid succession (and no one really wins).

“So one day I was like, ‘I might as well write a song to it and record it really quick.’ Really, nothing really inspired it except that it seemed like something to do,” he says.

Steele posted the resulting, macabre tune, “The Knife Song,” to YouTube in August of 2011, and has since seen modest success from the vid. “It was getting roughly 20,000 views per month,” he says. According to Steele, the video really blew up at the end of February, when it started making the rounds on Facebook. By the beginning of March, Steele says, the video was getting 120,000 views per day.

At that point, a 16-year-old Norwegian girl named Hanna Fylling Ellingseter posted her cover of the song to YouTube, reddit deemed it the next Internet trend, and all around the Interwebs, bloggers made reddit’s wish so. The only problem? Steele was left entirely out of the equation. His original song was credited to someone else. His lyrics were mangled. In some cases, even, the title of the jam was changed as well. The coverer eclipsed the coveree (likely, in part, because there’s something much more terrifying about watching a wide-eyed 16-year-old risking life and limb than a 23-year-old man with tattoos and a gravely voice — but we digress).

Steele’s reaction? He had the video taken down. Not out of spite, he says, but out of a sense of ownership. He’s currently working on releasing an app called “Finger Crash (Official Knife Game Song App)” (which should be out in the few days), and he and his publisher were distressed that the material for the game was spreading around the Web, unattributed and incorrect. “It was a knee jerk reaction,” he says. “It was nothing personal to [Ellingseter].”

“[Commenters] really hated the fact that the videos got taken down,” Steele says. “But it was almost like that was a business move. It’s almost like instead of Psy, everyone’s like, ‘Have you heard “Gangnam Style” by Keiko?’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. What the f**k? You got the lyrics wrong. You changed the name.’ I understand it’s petty, but it’s done.”

Steele has one EP out and another on the way, but despite his protective stance on “The Knife Song,” he doesn’t plan to include the jam on any of his records — just the app. “I’m not trying to build a career around stabbing myself,” he says. “Hopefully it draws attention to my other music.”

What do you think? Was Steele right to take down Ellingseter’s video?