While venereal-disease jokes have always been a crowd pleaser, contagious illness has never otherwise been an especially hot topic in the annals of popular song. There was a vogue for tuberculosis songs in 1930s country and blues, and music in the AIDS crisis is its own special case. But for the most part sickness has never been so inspiring to songwriters as, say, calamities at sea (Ernest Stoneman’s 1924 “The Sinking of the Titanic” was one of the recording business’s first runaway hits), or on the railroad, or down in the mines.
Maybe disease is too grindingly depressing to lend itself (STIs aside) to romanticizing or moralizing, compared with war, crime, or heartsickness. Or, going by the evidence of a new coronavirus playlist that’s being compiled daily on Spotify, maybe sickness songs always have been happening but not getting past the cultural gatekeepers. Now, with the technology available for songs to spread to the planet’s listening devices without any protective barrier, we get to hear in something like real time the sound of humanity freaking out and goofing around in the face of global threat and social disruption. The first thing you learn is that people universally seem to think it’s pretty hilarious to start their song with a fake cough.
Most of what appears on Spotify’s “The Sound of the Virus” playlist is what Jody Rosen called in an Los Angeles Times column on Friday “pandemic pop,” human outcries of gloriously bad taste, such as Brooklyn producer iMarkkeyz’s much-shared remix of a compulsively catchy Cardi B rant. The polyglot list is dominated by rap and electronic dance tracks from around the world, including a ton from Europe and many from Latin America. But with the list now totaling at least 470 entries—already about 105 more than when I first caught wind of it a couple of days ago—it’s beginning to offer something for everyone. There are pious spiritual treatments, raucous punk and metal raves, would-be “Weird Al” song parodies (“My Sharona” to “My Corona” is the go-to), and acoustic singer-songwriters (I’m taken with Daniel Quién’s downbeat “No Me Quiero Morir de Coronavirus,” or “I Don’t Want to Die of the Coronavirus”). There are also a whole lot of somethings for nobody, except presumably the tracks’ makers and their friends.
The only really consistent rule of thumb, according to the playlist’s inventor, Glenn McDonald? “There are, fittingly, very few tracks from genres that traditionally involve recording studios.”
Luckily, McDonald, Spotify’s “data alchemist” has primed it to sort by popularity, so most of the top 30 tracks are at least listenable, with some more gems scattered through at least the rest of the top 100. As I clicked-and-skipped through the bottom 200, meanwhile, I started to feel in need of bed rest. By then I had heard too many cough-cough rhythms, pretend panics (cloaking the real kind), beer and toilet paper jokes, “fuck Corona!” exclamations (a highly prevalent title choice), and audio news clips over electronic music. Not to mention way too many hints of anti-Chinese racism, and far, far too many weird body-horror rap verses that turned into misogynist sex things.
But more than all that my head was just stuck on a loop that went “rona-rona-rona-rona-rona-rona.” In many languages, the sheer musicality of the virus’s informal name compels performers to chant it. Very few opted for “COVID-19” instead.
Those are the main two options because of how McDonald has set up the playlist, with ongoing keyword searches that automatically aggregate the tracks. Originally, in the capsule description on the platform, he joked that this means the playlist is hygienically “untouched by human curatorial hands”—though as things went along, McDonald started vetting the selections more for relevance, and most recently he’s started incorporating songs that he finds “about staying in the house” after seeing them turn up in users’ searches for related material. The highest-charting of those on the list so far is “Quédate en Casa (Stay Home)” by reggaeton artist Ariel de Cuba. Still, that means that a ton of less blatantly named tracks are no doubt being missed, not to mention those that aren’t titled with words spelled in the Roman alphabet, including from the pandemic’s original epicenter in China.
For instance, there’s a semiofficial coronavirus song featuring many Chinese celebrities, drawing from the “We Are the World” charity song model of the 1980s and 1990s rather than the viral hit template of today.
Bono of U2 posted a song in a similar spirit to Instagram last week that didn’t exactly teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, though rapper-producer Will.i.am has now remixed it into a somewhat more palatable form, adding vocals from himself, Jennifer Hudson, and Yokishi of X Japan. (On the Gal Gadot–driven celebs-sing-“Imagine” video, meanwhile, the final diagnosis has already been delivered.)
But a much bigger worldwide splash has been made by “Ghen Cô Vy,” the Vietnamese hand-washing song that was celebrated by John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight. McDonald says it hasn’t shown up on Spotify yet.
Some of the most popular tunes have had many weeks to build, such as the playlist’s topper, “Corona Virus,” by Dominican dembow artist Yofrangel—its video, released in February, of his posse’s antics in the back of an ambulance, is not to be missed—and its No. 2, the lilting “La Cumbia del Coronavirus” by Mister Cumbia, which came out in January. The latter has followed up its success with “El Reggaeton del Coronavirus” and “El Huapango del Coronavirus,” although McDonald has limited the Spotify selections to one per artist.
In the warped time scale brought on by the growth of the pandemic, I dimly remember when the musical meme that was monopolizing my attention was the “Wash Your Lyrics” site set up by a 17-year-old in Britain, which matched the song lyrics of your choice to a hand-washing poster. Now, much of the predictable onslaught of highly dubious coronavirus content on TikTok includes a cough-and-wash mime dance set to the “Corona Virus” track by a kid named Lil Nix, a Soundcloud rapper who clearly hopes it will make him the Lil Nas X of his micro-micro-generation.
But some of these numbers really stand up as songs as well, at least for this suspended moment, finding exactly the dosage of grim humor to deliver temporary relief. Psychs, a rapper from south London, might actually be experiencing the career boost that Lil Nix is dreaming of, with his song “Spreadin’ (Coronavirus),” although, as he lamented to the Guardian, he’s going to have to wait until the music industry kicks back into gear post-quarantine to do much about it.
Detroit’s Gmac Cash comes in nearly as strong with his hilarious—but also, you sense, sincerely anxious—“Coronavirus,” in which he declares not only that he’s “ ’bout to stay at the crib for about a year” but that if anybody he knows is keeping their diagnosis under wraps, he’ll happily help the authorities track them down. Welcome to the new snitching.
Underrepresented on McDonald’s playlist is the wealth of virus-themed dancehall reggae that’s been spreading out of Jamaica, from both newcomers and veterans like Sizzla. My favorite of those is “New Hail” by Zagga, which copes with the etiquette issue raised when hygiene dictates you can’t handshake or fist-bump. The answer is a foot tap: “New hail, when you see mi, new hail/ Stretch out yuh foot when yuh see me.” The slippery way Zagga articulates those lines, and the chime of synth marimbas beneath them, makes for the most enticing Emily Post update ever.
Whether even as contagious a corona anthem as “New Hail” will be remembered after we go back (assuming we go back!) to pressing the flesh, let alone as long as Stoneman’s “Titanic” is, seems a dubious proposition. But for McDonald, that is less important than bringing all the reactions together to form a kind of archive. “I mainly think of it as a living history,” he tells me. “I’m guessing this one is more interesting to us while we’re going through this than it will be in retrospect—but we’ll see what ‘retrospect’ consists of.”
Perhaps, though, it means that from 2020—unlike during the Black Death or, say, the London cholera outbreaks of the 1830s—we will be able to leave future generations a fuller picture of what ordinary people were, in Bertolt Brecht’s famous 1939 lines, “singing/ about the dark times.” Or at least fake coughing about them.