June 14, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Meet Lubalin, composer of the TikTok sensation ‘Internet Drama’

The idea is simple: Pluck a bit of everyday social-media conflict from the internet’s bottomless trove — people arguing on Facebook, for instance, over a broccoli-casserole recipe — then turn the heated back-and-forth into a miniature music video.

But it’s Lubalin’s exquisite craft that elevates his comedic project — and has suddenly turned this once-obscure Canadian musician into an in-demand TikTok phenom whose less-than-a-minute-long clips have been viewed more than 75 million times in the last month.

“I think that might be what’s funny about it,” Lubalin says. “It’s something so stupid that I work so hard on.”

In the first installment of his viral “Internet Drama” series, which he posted on TikTok in late December, Lubalin, 30, voices both sides of a contentious Facebook exchange regarding a prospective home rental. The music is a hauntingly gorgeous piano ballad, the singing as breathy as though he were mourning a doomed romance. “Good evening, is this available?” he moans, giving an operatic intensity to the most banal of inquiries.

Lubalin’s second video, about that broccoli casserole, expertly adapts the Weeknd’s throbbing pop-soul sound to bring to life a string of messages about whether a woman named Caroline stole a recipe from a woman named Helen and tried to pass it off as her own. (Caroline’s pal Doris? Not in the mood to hear her friend slandered.)

Both videos make brilliant use of typos in the original text; Lubalin gets a weird emotional charge from vocalizing Doris’ insistence that Caroline is a “Chrietsn lady.” And his acting and camerawork, shaped by decades of reality TV’s visual hyperbole, are basically perfect — showy enough to convey the promised drama, straightforward enough to play on a small iPhone screen.

Though Lubalin didn’t have much of a following at the time, “Internet Drama” quickly found an audience on TikTok thanks to an algorithm that he, like the company, says is designed to put compelling material in front of its tens of millions of North American users.

“Every piece of content lives and dies on its own merit,” Lubalin says in a video chat from his home in Montreal. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You could have 5 million followers and still put out a flop very easily. Or you could have eight, like I did, and hit 9 million views in two days.”

Once that spark was lit, the fire soon spread to other platforms like Twitter and Instagram, where Lubalin’s videos earned retweets and shout-outs from the likes of Patton Oswalt and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. For the series’ latest installment — this one based on a poll about salad dressing — Lubalin took “Internet Drama” to “The Tonight Show” for a three-way collaboration with Jimmy Fallon and actress Alison Brie.

“It’s been insane and amazing,” he says of the last few weeks. “Exhausting too. It’s wild that literally at the beginning of December I was just some guy in his apartment who makes little songs.” Now he can’t open his inbox without facing proof of his newfound influencer status.

“There’s all these huge brands — I guess I can’t say any names — that want me to represent them,” he says. “I’m like, What is going on?”

Lubalin’s videos sit at the intersection of two creative traditions. A huge Flight of the Conchords fan, he points to that New Zealand duo and to Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island as important predecessors in mixing comedy and music; there’s also “Weird Al” Yankovic, of course, and Jack Black’s Tenacious D, all of whose jokes are made funnier by how exactingly their songs parody a given style.

With its reliance on repurposed source material, “Internet Drama” also feels aligned with the Gregory Brothers, who broke out a decade ago on YouTube with “Auto-Tune the News,” and with Sarah Cooper’s TikTok videos in which she lip-syncs the words of Donald Trump. There’s even a bit of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” — the made-to-order pop song starring an awkward Orange County middle-school student that went viral in 2011 — in the way Lubalin’s stuff finds comedy where none may have been intended. (His choice of platform also nods to TikTok’s unique ability to meme-ify music, as seen recently with sea shanties and with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”)

“Internet Drama” wasn’t Lubalin’s first crack at TikTok virality; his page contains earlier videos in which the singer-rapper-producer — who released a self-titled EP of original songs in September — remade hits by 21 Savage and Lil Nas X as a one-man choir. But his middling success with those taught him that what he needed was a stronger concept that he could over-deliver on, he says.

“I still wanted to find something that would use my musical skills, so that if it did work — although I never thought it would work like it has — then I could eventually bring people towards what I call my not-so-funny music.”

Asked how he finds the text for his videos, he says it’s tricky. “A lot of the drama on the internet is too harsh — it’s just not gonna be fun or funny,” he says. He and his partner, a graphic designer, spend hours combing through sites and forums looking for potential material, and now people have begun sending him ideas.

He discovered the home-rental exchange in a Reddit group called OldPeopleFacebook. Yet BuzzFeed reported this month that Helen and Doris were actually the creation of internet pranksters and that the broccoli-casserole battle wasn’t real.

Lubalin says he didn’t know that when he came across screenshots of their fight. “I guess it takes away a tiny bit,” he says. “But I think the reason it’s funny in the first place is that it feels real. So I think it’s OK.

“I mean, I love watching good scripted TV shows, you know?”

To write the songs, he’ll noodle around with different chords and line readings until he makes himself laugh; he and his partner storyboard the videos, and she helps him shoot them.

“We put a lot of thought into keeping it simple but also keeping it moving,” he says. “I have a short attention span, probably thanks to how much TikTok I consume, so I know how easy it is to lose people.”

Lubalin, who declines to reveal his real name, grew up in Ottawa with a single mom who supported his early interest in music. (Old Instagram and SoundCloud accounts appear to identify him as Sean Blake, though Lubalin’s rep says that’s “definitely not” him.) He moved to Montreal around eight years ago and found freelance work scoring corporate videos as he honed his own music, which has a moody electronic vibe. This month he released a new single, “Long Txts,” that layers his melodic post-Drake croon over a crisp hip-hop beat.

Lubalin says he hasn’t made any real money from his TikTok videos, though he’s weighing all those offers from the brands hitting him up.

“There’s somewhere I’m like, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m gonna do that — those guys are crooks,’” he says with a laugh. “But then it’s like, ‘These other guys, maybe they’re not so bad? That’s a lot of money.’”

When “Internet Drama” first exploded, he worried briefly that the videos would overshadow his other work — that he’d always be “that guy,” as he put it.

But the comments he’s been reading from fans lately have changed his thinking. “Someone the other day said they’d lost someone to COVID and that they were going through the darkest time of their life — and that my video was the light in their day,” he says.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this matters.’ Even if I’m just that guy, that’s fine.”