Succession’s season-two glow-up has brought us no shortage of treasures: new haircuts for Shiv Roy and Cousin Greg(ory), an array of fine sweaters, regular encounters with Holly Hunter’s Rhea Jarrell, and, naturally, a ton of ecstatic fan tweets. For all the no-context screenshots and “Fuck off” GIFs, though, it’s clear which Succession memes are the mightiest. Hint: Cue the princely piano.
Nicholas Britell’s Emmy-winning theme for Succession has inspired several timelines’ worth of memes. The track — which melds radiant, detuned piano plinks and a bottom-heavy hip-hop beat — has been set to clips of Kermit the Frog and Bill Hader dancing (separately, sorry), and footage of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker doing his staircase strut. It’s been retrofitted to the iconic, old-timey Cheers opening and used to create a new intro for Arrested Development. Critics have dubbed it the song of the summer, joked about doing it at karaoke, and demanded that 2007 Lil Wayne rap over it. (We’ll happily settle for Pusha T, who cooked up a proper remix in collaboration with Britell.) This writer may or may not have made sure the song played at his wedding last month.
The Succession theme is such a hit online that it raises the question: Why? Why has this 90-second instrumental developed such a dedicated following, and what makes it so meme-able?
Generally speaking, there’s a very obvious common denominator among all music-driven memes. “Any song that becomes used in remixes and memes has to be good and fun to listen to,” says Adam Downer, an associate editor at the meme-explainer hub Know Your Meme. With its smashed-music-box sound, Succession’s title theme certainly clears that threshold; there’s a reason we here at Vaulter — excuse me, Vulture — recently welcomed the opening tune into the “Don’t You Dare Fast-Forward Through It canon.”
When asked about other TV themes that double as memes, Downer mentions those for Seinfeld and Game of Thrones, but also acknowledges a key difference in both of those examples: Those shows are pop-cultural behemoths, and their ubiquity played a big part in making those theme songs so meme-friendly. That’s not really the case with Succession.
“The Succession theme works almost more in line with meme songs that bubble up from nowhere, because Succession isn’t the biggest hit in the world, but the song goes,” says Downer, who authored Know Your Meme’s entry on the track. “That lends itself to more remixes and parodies and stuff like that, that’s almost completely disassociated from the show itself.”
Even if the fervor surrounding the Succession theme can feel somewhat separate from the HBO satire, there’s no doubt that part of the song’s appeal is that it makes you feel as though you’re in the world of the show, just steps away from a waiting helicopter or within arm’s reach of a, uh, “hyper-decanter.”
“It has this big ceremony to it — both the show and the song. It makes for a great entrance,” says Shinichi Ishii, who in June tweeted out a Succession theme meme that’s racked up thousands of likes. “That epicness is probably what people like about it, and what makes it actually listenable — not just in the show, but whenever you’re doing whatever you’re doing during the day.”
Ishii’s tweet jokes about him playing the show’s signature tune as soon as he gets ahold of the aux cord at a party — something that actually sort of happened. “I have played the song at a party before and, like, the three other people who knew the show were jamming to it hardcore with me,” he says. “If I were to describe the tone of the song, it sounds like a bright, evil grin in darkness. It has this weird, sinister tone to it.”
Comedian Demi Adejuyigbe took a more sing-song-y approach to his variation on the Succession theme, which he felt compelled to add his own lyrics to as the second season continued to accrue buzz. “Everyone I know is watching the show, so every conversation I’ve had for the past few months has evolved into Succession talk, and eventually into about how great the theme song is,” Adejuyigbe says over email.
When asked what about the song resonates with him, Adejuyigbe also points to its evocative “serious but cool” vibe. “I’ve seen a lot of prestige TV dramas that employ this mix of a light orchestral-piano melody with a driving, percussive beat (see also: Mad Men, House, Luther),” he says. “It works so well for Succession because it simultaneously sounds like the stuffy, upper-class air of an old money gala and a homemade FL Studio beat you’d find someone trying to sell on YouTube. It’s like the entire essence of Malibu’s Most Wanted boiled into a theme song — but good.”
Adam Catino, the person responsible for the Mario Paint–style rendition of the theme that recently made the rounds online, also gets a bit of a contact high when he hears the song. “It nails the tone of the show so well,” he says. “It’s kinda tough, it’s not too tough, it’s classy — it’s all these things that I think a lot of people just want to see themselves as, or want to relate to on one level or another. You feel tough listening to it, and you feel powerful listening to it.”
While the self-seriousness and sense of drama that fuels the song makes it ripe for parody, the music is distinct enough that the tune rings out even when it’s been flattened and filtered through 16-bit sound effects à la Catino’s handiwork. Ideally, you’ll find a time to play it that splits the difference between gravitas and goof. “I still feel the drive and the power of the song when sitting there, watching the opening credits, like, eating Indian leftovers,” Catino says, laughing. “It still somehow makes me feel like, ‘Yeah, cool.’”
There’s also the fact that, when you make a meme about the Succession theme or engage with one, you’re signifying that you’re up on one of the most buzzed-about TV shows of the past few months. As with any inside joke, you’re letting people know that you’re part of an in-crowd — in this case, one whose motto is “We here for you.” But really, there’s a simple explanation for why Succession’s theme is so meme-able, which Catino sums up in two words: “It slaps.”