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For all of you who sport-fish the internet, trolling for memes and diggs and clips you find interesting—you have, in the past month, pulled up your lines to find them heavy with "Chocolate Rain." You have watched the homemade YouTube video of a baby-faced, caramel-skinned young man with the unlikely name of Tay Zonday singing and playing a catchy little loop on a keyboard. You have marveled at his low, subsonic baritone pulling out the vowel in "Raaaaiin." And you have thought to yourself, on and off throughout the day, "He flashes that short message on the screen explaining, '**i move away from the mic to breathe in,' but doesn't every singer have to breathe in at some point?" As if that's the one thing that so screams out for explanation that he just had to write it into the video. Here's a better question: WTF?
(Those yet unexposed to "Chocolate Rain" are not missing anything life-shaking. Even though it's the hottest thing on the internet and Zonday has appeared on Best Week Ever and Jimmy Kimmel Live, I don't imagine the video has much more of a shelf life at this point. If a co-worker hasn't directed you to the clip yet, you probably don't need to know about it; perhaps you can continue on, turning instead to our paper's award-winning sports section?)
Appreciation of the video and Zonday has spread through the internet in a sort of pyramid shape. At the top are those who savor the oddness of the song and create their own responses to it (including little graphic images combining screenshots of Zonday with funny captions, and YouTube videos offering personal performances of the song, some done by genuine luminaries such as McGruff the Crime Dog or handsome rock sensation John Mayer). At the bottom are those unconcerned with being cultural tastemakers, who enjoy the song with the same simple authentic pleasure that one might get from a summer breeze.
Since Tay Zonday lives here in Minneapolis, it is possible for me to investigate firsthand the mind that rocks the interweb. The first question on anyone's lips is, "Is he serious?" While the "Chocolate Rain" video is weird and clueless in many ways, the musicianship is solid enough that the hook of the song, at least, stands on its own. Is it the product of a talented songwriter having a laugh, or a fascinatingly naive outsider who happens to have actual vocal chops?
Soon after I meet Zonday (real name: Adam Behnar) at a local café, it becomes clear that he is the latter. He looks just like he does on the computer screen. The pictures Zonday chooses to promote himself add to the outsider-art effect—he has a snub nose and arm-length eyelashes, and when he poses for the camera, the result is the guileless smiley-face of a little kid. Zonday is working on his Ph.D. at the U (he also serves on the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission), and he talks in the dense, intellectual jargon of academia. Zonday opines that his image stands out because we've come to expect black men "to look hyper-masculinized." It's a valid point, but it does nothing to take away the suspicion that, at 25, Zonday is just starting to figure out what most 15-year-old kids already know: how to look cool in a snapshot.
But then, Zonday describes a solitary adolescence, without the connection to peers that is so crucial for developing a public image. His parents were very protective, keeping him sheltered, and even now, he admits, "I think I'm a recluse."
"My mother was raised as a stage kid," explains Zonday of the woman he says was accepted into Julliard for voice, "but she didn't want to force that on us." Though he played piano and sang from his youth, he passed up the conservatory for a scholastic career path. "She gave me the idea that being a professional in the arts would lead to a life of struggle and poverty. If I do have a regret, it's that I didn't pursue more credentials in the arts."
But he always wrote songs and sang to himself. He tells me that he's had the melody for "Chocolate Rain" for 10 years, though he only wrote the lyrics last winter—around the same time he named his alter ego. "Tay Zonday is a kind of character identity that I see as bottomless," he says.
His interest in music is all on the creative side—he doesn't consume any of it. "I think I forgot how to like listening to it. Where do people even find the time?" he asks. His iPod is loaded with his own recordings. He's never gone to live concerts. He doesn't own a TV, says he doesn't go to the movies, and doesn't read novels. If he goes out, he might "go to a Fringe Festival show, or maybe Ball's Cabaret," where a few years ago he actually performed live.
Zonday comes off as a candid and curious sort who's trying to analyze his situation but doesn't quite have the correct tools to do so. He relates to American pop culture and its reflexive irony, appropriation, and in-jokes as if he's a foreign exchange student. But though he may be unfamiliar with pop trivia, it seems pop culture is plenty familiar with him: As we are talking a passerby recognizes him, saying, "Hey, I saw you on Kimmel, right?"