By Sam Needleman
There’s a story Patrick Phelan, CC ’22, likes to share with anyone who has just discovered the folder in his camera roll that contains some 12,000 memes. “Let me tell you about the last time I went to Verizon to get a new phone,” he says. “They were like”—he laughs giddily, then assumes the store manager’s posture—“‘Are you sure you want us to transfer all of these?’” His face goes straight again, his lips pursed. “Yes,” he states sternly. “Every single one of them.”
I once heard Phelan tell this story to his CC class. He and his peers were having lunch after a dry discussion of Plato’s Republic, and the topic of conversation was the course’s impenetrable professor. “Why is he literally unsearchable?” someone wondered aloud. “Just a nobody grad student,” said another. Phelan pulled out his phone, and in 30 seconds, he produced the professor’s academic credentials, his address, his wedding registry, and a video of his fiancée arguing against marijuana legalization on local news. Everyone was impressed, and the topic changed to Phelan’s formidable online chops.
On the Internet, Phelan is a sort of low-stakes, watered-down Renaissance man. Instead of painting frescoes or revolutionizing astronomy, he uploads hardcore synth and spams anonymous chat rooms. As a musician, his business is on YouTube and Soundcloud; as a lover of memes, his pleasure is on Twitter. He’s an online omnivore who loves every platform except Instagram, which he calls “edited, sanitized, polished, manicured.” A true Y2K cusper nourished on a bastard diet of Millennial and Gen Z content, he has an outsider’s palate and a sharp critical knife.
He’s also a gatekeeper who tends to share his discoveries only with close friends. On rare occasions, he has burst into a new niche with a Twitter handle (@bigbonedbridget) or a Spotify persona (Adonis, whose only single, “Red Bottoms,” sets its erotic narrative rolling with a denunciation of Instagrammy partygoers: “Taking pictures and ignoring how the night had gotten boring made me want to dip. But then I saw you standing all alone with the water bottle margarita that I brought from home.”) After a time, his accounts disappear.
Last spring, when he was catapulted from Dive 106 to the Boston suburb where he grew up, Phelan took to TikTok. For the first time in his life, he amassed a following on a non-anonymous account. To date, he has over five million views. It’s the ideal app for Phelan because it caters perfectly to the meme; everything is an ephemeral sign. “There are a million visual cues,” he pointed out to me recently, sounding like a true junkie-critic over discount Fumo pasta. “Then you hear the audio, and it’s like a cue, and your brain processes: What kind of thing am I about to see?” If the Internet is a dark universe, Phelan sees TikTok as its largest black hole, collapsing time and space with liberatory intensity. “It’s almost restorative for all the corrosive stuff the Internet does to people,” he said.
Phelan’s TikToks deploy the same memeable subjects he’s always gravitated toward: feet pics, the Property Brothers, shoplifting, cyberbullying, Outback Steakhouse, Peppa Pig. And while his work resonates broadly with what one viewer called a “very online” audience, he is, above all, a satirist of college life. Consider his recent TikTok in which he opens a fridge door to reveal side-by-side gallons of Chobani, Oatly, and Trader Joe’s Non-Dairy Oat Beverage, with the caption “when every roommate has their own oat milk” and a widely shared voiceover of a woman saying “this is definitely fruity.” It’s a decidedly East Campus gag.
Memeing a college—if one is to do it well—is not for the faint of heart. At Columbia, you have to doggedly avoid the stew of redundant tropes that the masses slurp up from the “buy sell” trough: Ferris is bad, Ref is crowded, finals are stressful. Then you have to transcend character clichés: the incessant Gcal-er, the Core-loving devil’s advocate, the illiterate SEAS virgin. The rare soul who climbs this ladder is rewarded with a vista devoid of basics. In a sea of locals, Phelan wants a raft of originality. No, he insists: The fact that you went to a suburban private school isn’t funny, and it never was.
Phelan has been preaching the gospel of good memes since I met him in a John Jay lounge many NSOPs ago. He was watching Flavor of Love 2 without headphones and complaining about being “a sewer rat compared to all these boarding school biddies.” It was registration day, and neither of us could find an interesting History lecture with openings—we didn’t know about waitlists—so we signed up for War in Germany, 1618–2018. Adam Tooze’s masterful sermons on Westphalia and Bismarck in a schvitzy Pupin auditorium provided the perfect venue for Phelan to expose me to Trisha Paytas. Throughout the semester, as everyone kicked it into high gear, he made it clear that he had no time for his self-serious, ingratiating, preprofessional peers—anyone, that is, with a big old Columbia stick up their ass. While the “busted Betties” and “Raggedy Anns,” as he dubbed them, clustered around each other for social security, Phelan committed to the finer things in college life, from red wine to torrid love affairs.
With a reactionary sense of humor that he describes as self-consciously “hideous, heinous,” he became campus’s best approximation of Camille Paglia: an insatiable iconoclast whose equal devotion to Freud and the Real Housewives never feels refined and forced, just refreshing and forceful. He has seemingly memorized every Pitchfork rating ever published, but he disdains cultural hierarchies. Asked what the best music ever made is, he said, “Part of me wants to be like, ‘the Beatles,’ and part of me wants to be like, ‘the Lizzie McGuire soundtrack.’” Like all great satirists, he not only makes lacerating judgments but roots them in raw passions. His Meghan McCain montages are uproarious because he really watches The View; his Nicki Minaj memes are of the highest order because he’s a Barb through and through; and his Columbia content hits different because, deep down, he loves it here. He’s a critic of his peers, but he appreciates and joins in on their critiques of “power, administration, institutions, tradition.”
After expeditiously agreeing to my request to write about him, he texted me, “I’m just glad my piece won’t use the ‘from the classroom to the fields to the stage’ format. Cause I haven’t found success in any of those forums.” Has anyone, really? Phelan makes you realize that too few people on this smarty-pants campus spend their spare time making their friends burst into uncontrollable laughter. Sometimes, an unprompted message from him is so arbitrary, so gratifying, so profane, so perfectly timed that you have to leave your discussion section to giggle. For a brief, ecstatic moment in an empty Hamilton hallway, you don’t bother to compose yourself.