Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…
This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first facebook.com referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:
In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.
For Youth By Youth?
Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of Billboard.com cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it's apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:
I haven't had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.
I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.
Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos
Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:
I can't wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.
Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.
I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.
All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.
*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless.
Junk Food and Autonomy
“Junk” foods are often portrayed as childish. They appeal to the most basic human taste preferences: sweet, salty, and fatty. Of course adults like those things too, and many adults eat junk food. But I’m sure Rembert Browne isn’t the only one for whom the idea of Hot Cheetos & a lemonade Brisk induced a kind of nostalgia. Or perhaps reminded you of whatever occupied a comparable place in your childhood. For Jesse Taylor on The Raw Story, it was shortbread cookies:
My favorite childhood snacks were those little daisy-shaped shortbread cookies with holes in the middle, because I could only get them at my babysitter’s house. They fit on your fingers like rings, and the game was to always see how much you could eat before the cookie fell apart and off your fingers. Objectively, they were crappy, and when I found them years later and bought them for myself for the first time, I ate an entire package of them, slipped over my pinkie, because my other fingers were too big. They were sweet, and excessive, but they were mine.
My equivalent is probably Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts, which a friend and I discovered in the general store at the evangelical Baptist camp where we spent two weeks during the summer after sixth grade.** Like Taylor’s shortbread cookies, Giant Sweet Tarts were exciting primarily because they were novel. We’d never encountered them before. There was also a sort of art to eating them because they were too big to fit comfortably in your mouth, but were also too hard to bite into. The advertized “chewiness” really referred to a sort of vague pliability in the center that really only became chewy with the application of heat and moisture. The method I came to prefer involved softening them between my palms and then breaking them into quarters by folding them until they snapped, which required a sort of slow, consistent pressure. It didn’t always work perfectly, which was part of the appeal—there was a technique that had to be honed. The challenge of getting the pieces to break into clean, equal portions was as much of a reason to eat them as the intense sour-sweetness.
Sometime after returning from camp, the 7-Eleven in our neighborhood started carrying them and we were so stoked. It wasn’t really because they tasted better than any of the other dozens of varieties of vaguely fruity sour candies—which are basically all the same—but by that point, Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts had become our thing. They were part of our identity, and made us feel distinct from the kids whose preferences ran towards Starbursts or MnMs (yawn!) or that one person in every class who actually liked old person candies like Good ‘n Plenty and Jordan Almonds. And, of course, they also distinguished us from our parents, who seemed wholly indifferent to candy of any kind and snack foods in general. In retrospect, my dad did eat potato chips, trail mix with MnMs, and ice cream, all of which my mom purchased regularly along with all the other groceries. Those may have hit all the same salty, sweet, fatty tastes but because those were normalized as just food, they didn’t seem special or appealing. They could not be distinctly mine.
I think what HC&T evokes isn’t so much any particular tastes people might associate with childhood—peanut butter & jelly sandwiches or Kraft macaroni and cheese might be better suited for that. Instead, as Browne and Taylor both argue, the song is about a kind of autonomy. Both writers claim that’s best expressed by the lines about how they purchased the snacks at the corner store*** with their own money:
riding around with my allowance
so nobody can stop me
hot cheetos & takis, thats my favorite snack
bought 'em with my own money i don't give 'em back
But I’m not sure that’s as crucial as the way the snacks serve as a symbol of distinction from your parents and affiliation with your peers. Browne says that what makes getting money as a kid so sweet is that “YOU HAD EARNED IT BY RAKING THE LEAVES,” but there’s no reference in the song to earning the money. Instead, just two lines after the lyrics about riding around with his allowance, Nasir says,
my mom hit the ATM, cuz she know i need them
Mom provides the cash and may even drive them to the store, but she also represents the familial center that eating Hot Cheetos is a kind of escape from, or an authority to be rebelled against (politely):
my mama said "have u had enough?"
i looked and i said "no ma'am"
mama said "slow down, boy u bout to blow"
but i'm fi'nna get more, u should drive me to the store
The fact that they can get the snacks with their own money does matter—but probably only because that means Mom couldn’t stop you from eating them. You’re going to find a way to get them. The most she can do is suggest you take it easy. Eating them anyway is a relatively small and innocent act of defiance, a way of identifying with your friends instead of your parents and performing a kind of independence and identity with salience for your social world.
**We were convinced by her church youth group leader that it would be an awesome experience and ignored crucial details in the promotional pamphlet that probably should have made us suspicious, like the fact that girls were not allowed to wear shorts that hit above the knee and there were daily church services (which turned out to be plural) listed along with the 18-hole disc golf course and ropes course and team-building activities (which turned out to include competitive scripture memorization) that promised to keep us occupied.
***For some reason, the Village Voice writer seems to think it might come as a surprise to some readers that Minnesota has corner stores: “18. The universality of all of this. Do you think of Minneapolis as a place where there are lots of corner stores? Do you think of Minnesota as a hotbed for Atlanta-reminiscent rap? These are kids showing you both things are, in one small way, true.” Which, what? Does anyone honestly think corner stores are a purely coastal phenomenon?
A Taste of Adulthood
So why do the Y.N.RichKids express their culinary independence through flaming hot snack foods? I suspect it has something to do with the related facts that spiciness is an acquired taste and spicy foods can induce a potentially-addictive endorphin release. Unlike snack foods that are really all about sweetness, saltiness and/or fat, which are tastes that even babies like, Hot Cheetos & Takis are a slightly more mature snack.
Although some cultures (past and present) include spiciness in their set of basic tastes, it’s actually a tactile sensation—we don’t really taste culinary heat, we feel it. The same is true of the cooling sensation of mint. Both are detected by the trigeminal nerve, which also relays information about texture and temperature to the brain and causes migraine headaches, which may be why spicy foods can be a migraine trigger. Food developer Barbara Stuckey refers to spiciness as an irritaste because capsaicin, the active ingredient in chiles, is an irritant, which is to say it causes pain.
Babies universally reject the irritaste of capsaicin, even if they’re born to chili-loving parents in chili-loving cultures. Actually, in some of those cultures, applying chili paste to the nipple is a traditional part of weaning practice because no babies like it and all of them learn pretty quickly that Mom’s breast has mysteriously become a source of intolerable pain rather than sweet nourishment. With repeated exposure and social pressure, some kids may begin to accept spicy foods as young as four. Others take much longer, and many never do.
This is basically the same process we go through with bitter, astringent, and pungent foods and drinks—including coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, stinky cheese, and many kinds of pickles. Most people don’t like those things as kids and even adults tend to find them unpleasant the first (or second or third) times they try them. But all of those things offer rewards—both chemical and cultural—and as people come to associate those rewards with the initially-offensive stimuli (both consciously and subconsciously), their experience of them changes. The flavors and sensations become tolerable or, in many cases, pleasurable.
For example, many people just starting to drink coffee add sweetener and milk to cut the bitterness. As they come to associate the aroma and taste of coffee with the desirable effects of caffeine and/or sugar, most come to like the aroma and some come to appreciate the bitter taste. A few will transition from sweet and milky to black.
Similarly, most people acclimate themselves to alcohol gradually, starting with lighter beers, white wine, and sweet cocktails. With enough exposure, many find that they like stronger beers, more alcoholic red wines, and maybe even hard liquor neat. In general, the most initially-offensive, hardest to acquire tastes get associated with maturity, sophistication, and power—and also addiction, danger, and vice. They’re also gendered. White wine and sweet cocktails are feminine while male homebrewers often seem to be in a perpetual pissing match about just how hoppy, bitter, and alcoholic they can make their beer.
Individual differences in the degree of initial aversion to these stimuli, willingness to endure repeated exposure to them, and the extent of eventual acclimation (or addiction) vary based on genetics, social and cultural influences, and personality factors. Some people have a much stronger reaction to bitter tastes in general (which may or may not be related to aversions to specific flavor molecules like whatever makes cilantro taste like soap to 15% of the population). Some people are more susceptible to the chemical rewards of caffeine, nicotine, and/or alcohol. Some people are more strongly motivated by the social rewards of liking “sophisticated” foods.
But Nothing Can Compare to them H O T Cheetos (except possibly Takis)
However, even among “adult” tastes, the ability to tolerate and enjoy spiciness is peculiar in that it seems to be unique to humans. You can get omnivores like rats addicted to alcohol and other drugs. And rats will tolerate spicy food, but even rats that have been acclimated to capsaicin still prefer the chow sans heat if given a choice. In trying to explain the human affection for capsaicin-induced pain, psychologist Paul Rozin discovered that undergrads who like spicy food are also more likely to enjoy roller coasters. He theorized that some people enjoy “benign masochism,” or biologically-aversive stimuli in a safe setting. So maybe what spicy food represents is the experience of pain and danger that humans can enjoy if we know it won’t really hurt us. But that’s not so exciting to a rat, who gets no social cred for being a daredevil and would probably experience a death-defying simulation like a roller coaster as actual mortal danger, not a super fun experience worth standing in line for many hours.
All of that—the associations with adulthood and danger, the appeal of being a kind of culinary daredevil, the mildly-addictive endorphin hit from capsaicin-induced pain—gets layered on top of the chemical reward pathways that any snacks containing carbohydrates and salt and fat and MSG would trigger. I imagine that’s why they’re Frito Lay’s best-seller, why the Y.N.RichKids like them better than skittles starburst fritos and doritos, and part of the reason the song went viral.
A Slightly Weird Post-Script
Apparently Hot Cheetos (not unlike all spicy foods), may sometimes cause gastrointestinal distress. An El Paso-area TV news station reported earlier this year on a teenage girl who was hospitalized and treated for an ulcer supposedly related to her consumption of spicy snacks, and there are some anecdotal reports of ER nurses looking for the telltale signs of red-dusted fingers when kids between the ages of 5-15 are admitted with stomach pain (ht: Mike Rubin).
I’m actually surprised this hasn’t gotten more media attention, not because it seems likely to be a real cause for concern, but because any potential health risk associated with “junk food,” particularly one that affects children and is associated with urban, non-white, non-rich people is a prime candidate for moral panic. What little coverage it has gotten definitely makes Hot Cheetos seem even more like an illicit drug:
Dalilah was on medication for several months and now she's doing fine. She even stopped the hot habit, for a while.
"I stayed away from them for a while but then I thought I could start eating them again but then I think about it, 'No I have to stop,'" Dalilah said. "I guess I always think about what happened in the hospital so I can keep it at a limit."
. . .
"Children don't know any better,” said Dr. Gomez. “They love the Hot Cheetos. They're pretty addicting from what I hear. The more you eat, the more irritation you can cause and eventually it can lead to a problem that can lead to hospitalization."
It's a message Dalilah now shares with other teens.
"I even told some of my friends what I went through but they don't know unless it happens to them," Dalilah said. "I don't think anybody would want to go through what I did."
I think that might make better fodder for a follow-up than fruits & vegetables. Personally, I’d love to hear the Y.N.RichKids’ take on Volcano Butt.