This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
YouTube’s trending page can be an eye-opener: It’s an ever-changing list of YouTube’s hottest content at any given moment, as so deemed by algorithmic alchemy, views and likes, and—presumably—a trained rabbit pulling random numbers out of a hat. But the trending page is not a universal metric of video hotness. Trending pages vary by country, and what is popular in the United States may be very different from what is popular in the United Arab Emirates. I get a kick out of browsing other nations’ trending pages, especially when I can’t speak the language. For example, this video—currently No. 1 in Iraq—combines elements of Jackass, reality television, and a nature documentary. I have no real idea what is happening, but I love it anyway.
By toggling between various nations’ YouTube trending pages, you can get a sense of what people all over the world are into at any given moment. At the current moment, planet Earth is crazy for an 11-year-old boy from rural Illinois who gained fame for yodeling inside a Walmart. The kid yodeler is named Mason Ramsey, and YouTube users absolutely love him. A cute kid capably displaying an unusual talent in a quotidian setting is as surefire a recipe for virality as I can imagine; add to that the extra-credit points conferred by incorporating Walmart, country music, and a little bow tie, and you’ve got a worldwide phenomenon on your hands.
Ramsey looks like a very young John Denver and sounds like a pitched-up Hank Williams. He is a fixture of the Walmart in Harrisburg, Illinois, where he apparently goes to yodel country songs on a regular basis—not over the PA system or anything, just in, like, the aisle where they keep the air mattresses. You might think this an unusual location for live music, but remember: Touring bands and Broadway productions do not often make their way into deep southern Illinois, so people take their entertainment where they can get it.
Anyway, a clip of Ramsey yodeling Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” in the Harrisburg Walmart recently went viral and attracted the attention of producers from The Ellen DeGeneres Show; the clip of his Ellen appearance has also gone viral. The Ellen clip, from Tuesday, is adorable in the manner of many Ellen clips. The kid yodeler says some darnedest things—he aspires to one day own a motor home; he enjoys napping under trees with a weed in his mouth—and yodels a bit. Ellen surprises him with an invitation to sing at the Grand Ole Opry and a partial college scholarship courtesy of Walmart. Ramsey fights back tears. It’s very touching.
Ramsey’s current domestic popularity might be the most predictable thing ever. His shtick—nostalgia, cuteness, country music, America—is basically the secret sauce behind most successful comic strips, car commercials, and political campaigns. But I was very surprised to see that this youthful yodeler is topping trending pages all over the world—even in places where they wouldn’t know Hank Williams Sr. from Hank Williams Jr. At the time I wrote this article, the Ellen interview was the top trending video in Australia, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, No. 2 in Canada, No. 3 in New Zealand, No. 4 in Finland, and it was in the top 20 in Croatia, Germany, Latvia, Lebanon, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates, among other nations. Two different cuts of the original footage of Ramsey’s Walmart performance were also trending in many of those countries.
One sign of a truly popular viral video is when other videos riffing on the primary sources become viral hits in their own right. Some enterprising souls have created not one but two EDM remixes of Ramsey’s Walmart performance, manipulating his high-pitched yodels so that they conform to a thumping club beat.
The first video is popular in Ireland, Sweden, Australia, and Norway, among other countries; the second video is less popular but still boasts more than 2,200,000 views. Meanwhile, famed and controversial YouTuber PewDiePie hopped aboard the yodel train with a long video critiquing the phenomenon. “This is what’s going viral these days? A kid singing at Walmart? That’s enough? That’s all it takes? You think I can’t do that?” says PewDiePie. His exegesis of Ramsey’s tunes and talents is currently trending in Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, South Africa, and Sweden, among other countries.
The Nordic countries especially love this kid, for some reason. As I write this, the clip titled “little boy yodeling in walmart” is No. 2 on Finland’s trending page, while the clip of his Ellen appearance is No. 4 there and the first EDM remix of his yodeling is No. 13. In Norway, Mason Ramsey–related content takes up the first three slots on the nation’s trending page and five of the top 10 slots overall. Sweden is almost as smitten, with five of the top 15 trending videos pertaining to Yodeling Walmart Boy.
How did this kid become a worldwide trend? According to YouTube, its trending pages feature videos that, among other factors, are widely appealing, are new and novel, are not “misleading, clickbaity or sensational,” and reflect the breadth of life’s rich pageant. None of these are really empirical metrics, which is one reason why we cannot easily reverse engineer a YouTube clip’s appeal. Because no one really knows precisely how the YouTube trending pages work, it can be hard to know how organic a given video’s reach really is. Is Ramsey trending worldwide because musical cuteness transcends cultural barriers? Or is he trending because someone at YouTube headquarters likes this video and has decided to surface it or otherwise increase its chances at success? Is his popularity merit-based, or did someone give him a little push along the way?
Probably both. Some things are universal. Everyone likes cute kids saying and singing funny things. And it’s universally intriguing when someone’s singing voice does not conform with what you would expect the singer to sound like based on his or her appearance. For example, Clarence “Frogman” Henry tasted fame with his song “Ain’t Got No Home” because it was novel and unusual to see an adult man who could credibly sing both like a girl and like a frog.
That said, Clarence “Frogman” Henry didn’t really have any follow-up hits, because eventually the novelty wears off. And maybe that’s the takeaway. The nature of YouTube trending fame is fickle, and PewDiePie is undoubtedly correct when he predicts that Ramsey’s time in the viral spotlight will be short. The Nordic nations and the rest of the world will soon lose interest or, more precisely, shift their attentions over to the next cute kid who comes along. As for Ramsey, well, at least he’ll always have the memories of the short time he dominated the international spotlight. And once the spotlight flickers out, he will always—always—have the bedding aisle at Walmart.