Future Tense

Alexa, Play This Perfectly Timed Burn

What do tech-based jokes like this say about us and our relationship to technology?

An Amazon Echo, surrounded by flames.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Amazon.

I don’t, for the record, make an effort to keep up with the Kardashians. But somehow, they keep up with me. I’m frankly embarrassed that I know who the bit players in the Kardashian epic are, but I do. So when Khloé recently hit back at her sister Kourtney’s recent ex Younes Bendjima on Instagram using an Alexa-themed burned, I understood two things intuitively: why she was asking Alexa to play “Heard It All Before” by Sunshine Anderson and that a new form of shade was upon us.

The comment in question, captured by the CommentsByCelebs Instagram (truly a gift and a curse for those of us who would care not to care), came after Bendjima denied a Daily Mail report that he had already moved on with a “bikini-clad model” Jordan Ozuna.

“Alexa play ‘heard it all before’ by Sunshine Anderson,” wrote Khloé, who really has.

But the fiery comment made one thing (other than the sisters’ fierce loyalty to one another) clear: That asking a hypothetical Alexa to put on a hypothetical song isn’t just for sadness anymore. Alexa is for burns.

Amazon’s digital assistant has been helping internet commenters express themselves through song for a few months now. It all started with the “this is so sad Alexa play Despacito” meme, which first appeared on Tumblr in June. Within days, people had begun altering the meme, adding different songs at the end of the phrase, though they were still generally about being sad and improving one’s mood. As Brian Feldman explained(?) in Select All, the meme exploded in popularity, “for no apparent reason other than the incredible image it conjures in the mind of its user. … The shift from playing music at the press of a button to having to ask for music from your disembodied robot wife is just funny, especially when juxtaposed with tragedy.”

Soon enough, the “Alexa play x” meme wasn’t just for feeling sad. The “this is so sad” was dropped, and the meme expanded into asking Alexa to play any song for any purpose, shorthand for “here’s what I’m feeling”—almost a sort of throwback to the days of Myspace page songs or AIM away message lyrics (back in my day, we used actual music to broadcast our moods and tastes), but a more subtle, 2018 internet speak way of doing it.

Alexa, play god is a woman” deserves its own subcategory and has become a favorite among the Ariana Grande stans, feminists, and those celebrating women. And now, Twitter is full of these.

Scrolling through the Twitter results for “Alexa play” could keep you (OK, me) entertained for days. But on these particular days, the most effective ones are smack talk.

The meme, and Alexa, appears to have found its higher purpose: the Twitter burn. As it is wont to do, the internet has taken hold of something sweet and fun and turned it into a way to insult people:

Sometimes it’s sad AND a burn, or it’s not a song at all:

On the night I discovered this, a classic Twitter rap feud had descended into Alexa song requests:

Typing an Alexa command—something that is literally meant to be spoke aloud—as a comment might seem stupid, and contrived, and it is. (She can’t read!) But it’s actually a perfect online dis—a mic drop with implied exit music. It casually forces the disee to conjure the song inside her own head, where it will hopefully get stuck, a soundtrack that sets the tone for your feud. Yes, Alexa commands are meant to be announced, but this is a way of announcing your state of mind.

It’s also coolly understated: “so sad, alexa play stupid hoe” is more effective than “you’re a stupid hoe.” It’s smoother than dropping a YouTube link, even though you could also get your point across that way—that would imply you went to the trouble to look up the URL. It’s rather millennial, calling on a cultural awareness of both music and tech—you have to know that Rhianna’s “Take a Bow” is about ironically congratulating a cheater for his performance to get this one, or for this dis, that the YG’s “Big Bank” is about, er, being a star and having lots of money? You’re chill, your use of Alexa is chill, and Alexa is chill, too?

Look, Alexa didn’t ask to be dragged into this—“Alexa, say, ‘I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative’ ”—but is this not the perfect piece of free advertising for Amazon? Amazon’s smart speaker is now so culturally ubiquitous that we use the idea of it to make jokes and jabs, arguably more than we use the tech itself. I’m sure in most cases the tweeters aren’t actually giving Alexa their song request, that many probably don’t even have an Echo. But Alexa has become synonymous with digital assistants (sorry Google) and therefore with the convenience and coolness that tech has brought into our lives. Not only has Alexa been integrated seamlessly into our homes—she’s been integrated seamlessly into our meme speak. And while a lot of in-home tech still feels futuristic and silly, we’ve all accepted this one as totally mundane.

Is Alexa the new “DJ,” permanently replacing the omnipresent being we call on to play things (a love song, that beat, my song) in pop culture? Will we be making this tech-based joke forever? It’s hard to say, as there’s never really been a standard voice-activated command like it. Apple has pervaded every corner of our lives, but you don’t hear anyone saying, “I’m a Mac.” It’s probably safe to say that people will be invoking Alexa for internet clapbacks for as long as rappers are referencing cryptocurrency in songs.

Khloé’s use of the dis cements its place as an insult category: Stars—they’re just like us! But actually, right? Our belief that celebrities also ask things of their Alexa (when they could easily ask them of their assistants) was solidified by clever Echo marketing.

Ultimately, this meme is great news for Amazon. It feeds into the idea that Alexa is going to do everything for us: give us news, help us make our jokes, allow us to scorn our enemies. As multiple people have tweeted today:

“Alexa, play everyone who played me.”