How Bill Wurtz’s Videos Make the Internet a Better Place
The YouTuber bringing an old-school vibe to our current digital age.
The Internet can feel like a definitively shitty place these days. Facebook has morphed into a slog of political posts from distant family members, photos of babies, and the occasional event invite. Twitter contains little but reactionary rage. Email has long been all business. Even Instagram, blessed keeper of pretty photos, has turned into an endless stream of dull “suggested” videos, a slurry of selfies, and a cesspool of sponcon (that’s sponsored content for those of you who aren’t hip to the lingo of our new hell).
The internet is angry. But worse than that? It’s dull. Sure, we have memes and those are fun, but what happened to the exciting, surprising content of yore?
Enter Bill Wurtz, a YouTube songwriter and video maker whose work feels like a surprising throwback to another, better time to be online. Some of his videos, like his apocalyptic anthem “Mount St. Helens is about to Blow Up,” are just catchy, oddball animated music videos. Others, like the 28-second long “what is love?”, are nonsensical super shorts. Some feature appearances from the creator himself, jamming out on an entire band’s worth of instruments. And a couple of Wurtz’s videos are spellbinding epics, such as one that chronicles the “history of the entire world, i guess” in 19 minutes — and which has a staggering 57 million views.
The common factor of his videos? They’re lo-fi, mixing cliché lyrics with the absurd, smashing jazz-style crooning with deadpan spoken word, sending neon text careening across the screen, combining Microsoft Word-level animation with clip art. Wurtz’s voice sounds dreamy and synthy and comedic all at once. In his videos, logic is thrown out the window, with delightful results.
The early and mid-aughts may not have been the best time for culture writ large. Yes, we had the pleasure of Arrested Development and peak Britney Spears, but can we also talk about crimped hair and that weird trend of wearing skirts over jeans? Despite that, it was also an undeniable Renaissance for the “weird internet.” Websites were bare bones, with HTML-coded palates rendering everything in too-saturated colors. Videos appeared on individual Shockwave sites or eBaum’s World rather than on YouTube. Social media was, blessedly, nascent.
I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that the internet was a purer place then, as anyone on AIM asked by a perv in Wisconsin for their ASL can attest. To the contrary, the internet seemed like a uniquely dark, alternative world full of unusual sites, hidden corners, and lurking strangers. Yet there was a purity to this impurity: We all hid behind screen names. We all assumed that the weirdos espousing insane rants on threads were, in fact, just trolls and not part of a growing political contingent. It seemed nuts to give out your real name or information. We all acknowledged what the internet was, which is to say: freaky. And back in those pre-virality days, finding a bit of bizarre Web 1.0 meant you were in the know.
Much of that work has had an indelible impact on the internet content we see today. All of us of a certain age can recall End of Ze World, an animated harbinger for our current anxiety; the pulsing beat of Badgers; the incessant, addicting lyrics of Peanut Butter Jelly Time; the naïve charm of Numa Numa; the ultra-creep factor of Salad Fingers; the sweetness of Homestar Runner; the better-than-SNL Muffins and Shoes sketches; the dark twist in Charlie the Unicorn; and the baffling original performance of Chocolate Rain.
For the first time in history, people could make anything they wanted — however outrageous and unexpected — and post it online. They’d do this expecting no one would ever see it, unlike today where we know that anything posted on the internet lives forever, like some terrible, shambling zombie of our awful fan-fic and LiveJournal posts. This was before “going viral” was an aspiration, or even something that people realized could happen, and when the tools at our disposal were crude and imperfect.
This is the aesthetic and tradition that birthed Bill Wurtz’s videos.
Bill Wurtz doesn’t really do interviews. Even when he won the Best In Weird prize at the Shorty Awards (presented by LMFAO rapper Redfoo who was trying, oh how he was trying, to be “weird” and failing desperately), Wurtz — who actually showed up in-person — gave an acceptance speech that consisted of only two, hurried words: “Thank you.” After years of posting his work publicly, he only recently did his first substantial interview for the H3 Podcast.
Wurtz has a section of his website where fans can ask him anonymous questions. I used it to ask, “Why don't you do interviews?” to which he responded, “I was thinking of letting you ask me the questions instead. Cut out the middleman, you know.” Unsurprisingly, Wurtz didn’t respond to a request from OK Whatever for an interview.
Some of the answers on his website verge on poetic. When a fan asked whether Wurtz experiences a lack of motivation, he wrote back, “I always remember the golden rule, interest never disappears, it only moves. Like the motion of the solar system.” Others have tried to figure out where his inspiration comes from. “How the heck are you so gosh darn wacky?” wrote one fan. Wurtz replied: “I'm just trying to be reasonable.” None of it really gets you any closer to knowing Wurtz, but that’s kind of the point. He’s merely a guy who makes unique stuff and releases it into the world. And that’s one of the best, most old-school things about him.
A thin guy with a mop of hair in an indistinguishable blond-brown-red hue, Wurtz is notably nondescript. The longtime musician began struggling to complete songs sometime around 2011 and began posting his work regularly as a way to get it into the world. As a self-professed perfectionist, the important thing wasn’t necessarily quality, but quantity…and the fact that he was finishing something. In 2014, he forced himself to make a song every day, five days a week. His website, which launched that same year, looked like it was made in the late ’90s. It contained everything he ever made, all the way back to the early 2000s. He posted everything exclusively on his site until a friend suggested he try YouTube.
“I don’t really like streaming, actually,” he said on the H3 Podcast. “I like to be able to pause [videos] and horse it around and see what you’re dealing with, so I didn’t really like YouTube.”
Despite his reservations, he did it anyway. He joined Vine, too, where he posted ultra-short gems, such as “still a piece of garbage,” and gained some popularity there. Since then, he’s maintained his strict schedule which means he doesn’t “have time to do anything but make music,” as he said in his H3 interview.
Things really changed for Wurtz in early 2016 when he posted a video called “history of japan,” which boils down the entire history of the country into a 9-minute long, frenetic, animated masterpiece. It took him 14 weeks to create, and when it came out, the piece blew up online. Wurtz’s video now has more than 44 million views on YouTube. In May of the next year, Wurtz posted a sort of sequel about the history of the entire world, which took even longer to create and racked up even more views. The internet went wild, the video made YouTube’s list of top trending videos of the year, and Wurtz’s internet fame was cemented.
Though several how-to videos attempt to detail how to emulate Wurtz’s very particular style, none really capture his essence. Because make no mistake: Wurtz is not just generating crap and dumping it online. His work is art.
Though his origins are largely unknown, he’s said he’s self-taught. Sleuthing internet fans have deduced that he also likely attended Berklee College of Music. Though his songs might sound random, peeling back their layers shows Wurtz’s structural knowledge and legit musical acumen. A YouTube song analyst separated out the strange computer sounds, bleeps, bloops, and lo-fi digital synth to reveal that, actually, there’s some advanced composition in Wurtz’s songs. Another YouTuber convincingly defended Wurtz’s place in the modern art canon.
Despite his relentless work schedule, he’s not in it for the fame or the cash. Wurtz is notoriously private. All of his material is still available on his website for free, he eschews nearly all ads for his videos, and he’s allegedly turned down sponsorship deals. He’s in the early pre-planning stages for a live show, but he doesn’t tour yet. He makes cash through some iTunes sales, merchandise, and with a Patreon page (that he rarely promotes and that is blank except for the title “bill wurtz is creating”). When asked by a fan on his site why he doesn’t use ads, he responded: “I do have some, but the reason I don't have more is because I think they suck.” On H3 he fondly recalled a time when there were no ads on YouTube at all…yet another Wurtz-style throwback to a time where stuff on the internet was free, wacky, and presented without expectations. To a time when makers were largely anonymous or, at least, far less self-promoting. To a time when art was created for the sake of it.
When I asked Wurtz via his website whether his videos are akin to those from the old internet, early-aughts style, he wrote, “I've never looked at it that way but I could.”
This got me wondering about whether, just maybe, I’ve been thinking of things the wrong way. Or, at least, in a non-Wurtzian way. I remembered that after confessing to H3 that he enjoys pop music despite its marginalization as “serious” art, Wurtz said, “For any given year in the past everyone’s always trying to say that nothing’s good nowadays and the latest technology has ruined everything. Once you see how prevalent that viewpoint is at every single moment in history, suddenly you can’t take it seriously anymore.”
Perhaps, then, it’s off-base to say that Bill Wurtz’s videos are great for their 1.0 vibe. Perhaps it’s great because it’s what he’s making in the here and now. Perhaps that is precisely what makes it special.