Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

AWOLNATION’s “Sail” is more than just a one-meme wonder

AWOLNATION singer Aaron Bruno at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
AWOLNATION singer Aaron Bruno at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In the internet age, getting meme’d into stardom is a surefire way to get your two minutes in the spotlight—before becoming a shelved memory that people occasionally Google to relive 60 seconds of comedic gold. Sure, some songs that have become memes should stay memes (e.g., “Photograph” by Nickelback), but there are a few songs that shouldn’t—tracks that became memes in part because they’re fantastic. The Killers are a great band, but many people know them solely from their extensively meme’d hit, “Mr. Brightside.” Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” re-entered the charts last year, more than 40 years since it was first released, after Nathan Apodaca’s TikTok of him lip-synching and sipping cranberry juice while skateboarding went viral. While becoming a meme is a fine bullet point for established acts to add to their resumés, more often than not the fad burns out and fades into obscurity. Unlike Fleetwood Mac, most bands that got the meme-treatment, like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” became irrelevant after the internet was over saturated with videos of notoriously bad dance moves. Most of these songs are better left as memes, but plenty of other artists have watched their work meet this diminished end, even if they are grateful for the brief recognition.

Very few songs have been meme’d to the near-universal degree of AWOLNATION’s “Sail.” You know the one: It’s the track with the one-word chorus that encouraged everybody to scream it at the top of their lungs. But it, and the album that spawned it, deserve so much more than being featured in seven-second Vines and cat videos. Upon its debut in September 2011, “Sail” first charted at No. 89 and stayed in the Billboard Hot 100 for 20 weeks. While the song did fine for AWOL’s debut single (it also hit No. 4 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart), “Sail” didn’t start breaking records until 2013. Its second launch into the spotlight can be traced back to its use in The History Channel’s Vikings trailer, which nearly tripled its initial downloads and helped the song go platinum.

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From there, “Sail” took off into meme notoriety, featured in Vines and parodied on YouTube, even as it also became a staple of then-current TV and film trailers. During this period, it returned to the Billboard charts for 59 more weeks, peaking at number 17. It is the second longest running song to stay in the Billboard Hot 100 chart (79 weeks total), and the first song in history to re-enter the Hot 100 a year later without ever first entering in the Top 20.

Some of the parodies were so popular that their viewership surpassed the song’s official music video.

Over the years, the song’s uses ranged from background music to “Fail” videos to an opening of a Fleabag episode to badass intro entry music for Keanu Reeves.

Among younger millennials and Gen Z festival-goers, the song has arguably reached “Sweet Caroline” levels of fame. But the song has also left critics continuously comparing future AWOLNATION releases to its predecessor. In interviews, AWOL’s frontman Aaron Bruno has expressed his disbelief at “Sail”’s success, but both the track and the band earned their stripes.

Unlike a lot of songs that enter the Hot 100, “Sail” strays from the traditional pop song formula into Bruno’s multi-genre approach. The song is simultaneously a dance-worthy bop and an electronic-alternative-rock headbanger, which helped showcase a form of alternative music that rarely made the mainstream spotlight. It builds on itself using layers of heavy synth and bass with a driving, powerful beat, while the eerie backdrop of radio static highlights the plinking piano. “Sail” feels like it was ripped out of some otherworldly experience (emphasized in the music video). Listening to it free from the weight of its meme-friendly associations can be almost a transformative experience—something that can be said about AWOLNATION’s entire debut album, Megalithic Symphony.

The record’s songs are like mismatched pieces from various puzzles that somehow fit together in a mosaic of mashed-up genres and sounds. What the album lacks in sonic cohesion, it makes up for in infectious choruses and addictive earworms. From start to finish, Bruno puts his full range of vocal talent to work; his belting screams from “Sail” offer a sharp contrast to the softer vocals in ballads like “Not Your Fault” and “All I Need.” Megalithic Symphony goes through genres like water, shifting from hard rock to electronic pop to hip-hop to alternative rock with each song. To further push the theme of style-morphing, the album closes with “Knights Of Shame,” a song comprised of nearly 15 minutes’ worth of extreme genre-hopping.

Megalithic Symphony is a beautifully chaotic debut release that set the tone for AWOLNATION’s career. Ten years after its release, the record lives in the shadow of its hit single—a double-edged sword, both gratifying and disheartening. While many people can identify “Sail” just from the first few piano notes in the intro, most are unfamiliar with the band that delivered the hit, the unfortunate plight of many one-hit-wonder groups. Sometimes it pays to delve deeper behind a meme, especially when a song is launched into internet fame and is circulating back into pop culture. You might just find yourself introduced to your new favorite band. Unless, of course, that meme involves a Nickelback song. Then, perhaps not.