Finding the AI line

Read to the end for John Wick holding Shadow the Hedgehog like Mary holding baby Jesus

Hey there, folks. I’m on a little “vacation” (slightly diminished work schedule) this week. Taking a couple days off before my summer gets busy (and it looks like it’s going to be real busy). There won’t be audio versions or a weekend issue this week. Everything is back to normal next week, though.

Also, Adam and I are over in Sherwood this week with a real crazy piece about Reddit’s r/all. You can check that out here. And I’m also over at Fast Company writing about what streaming platforms are doing to TV soundtracks. You can check that out here.

As for today’s issue, I am very excited to announce the return of Allegra Rosenberg, who’s come back with a deep dive into the magical world of AI-generated SpongeBob songs.

The Art Of Making AI Art No One Hates

"Just know that when I'm criticizing AI this is excluded," was a recent comment on, wait for it… a (since-deleted) TikTok of someone dancing to “The Bottom 2” a SpongeBob-themed rap song featuring AI-assisted vocals by an artist named Glorb.  

In Glorb’s viral tracks, which he (presumably it’s a he) has been releasing since June of last year, SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs, and the rest of the Bikini Bottom gang spit aggressive bars over sick beats under rap names like “SpongeOpp” and “Mr. Swags.” The songs, whose lyrics incorporate plenty of playful references to the original cartoon, have racked up millions of plays across streaming services. 

Much like the Skibidi Toilet cinematic universe which has enthralled the country’s captive, and seemingly growing, population of iPad children, Glorb’s SpongeBob world is a guns-blazing CGI wonderland, with a lore-heavy plot connecting up the videos which can otherwise be watched on their own for pure entertainment. 

SpongeBob-themed rap was a preexisting genre, pioneered by artists like Oddwin, but the pseudonymous and mysterious Glorb has quickly become the foremost practitioner, thanks to the fact that his songs are really fucking good. So good that many speculate that in real life he’s a high-level producer or artist in the music industry — guesses include the rapper Logic or the producer BNYX, who has worked with Yeat and Drake — and so good that his use of AI filters to transform his vocals into the familiar voices of SpongeBob is a non-issue.

Kalhan Rosenblatt’s story for NBC News consulted AI boosters who see Glorb’s success as a sign that the AI music revolution might finally be upon us, and copyright professors issuing warnings about the impossibility of regulation. But Glorb didn’t respond for comment and neither did Nickelodeon. It’s also unclear what the actors themselves think about the use of their voices.

Record labels such as Universal Music Group (UMG), with unashamedly AI-curious Lucian Grainge at the helm, are pursuing a parallel course of cautiously investing in AI products while simultaneously calling for stricter regulation. The central concern of labels is naturally the protection and maximization of their artists’ earning potential, whether that’s by saving artists from robot competition or giving them access to AI tools that would give them an edge in the market.

I can imagine that the Glorb phenomenon is sending premonitory shivers down the canny Grainge’s spine. Here is an example of a use-case for AI in music that does not by necessity leave real human creative labor at the door. 

Glorb’s music is not transformative fandom strictly speaking, but it certainly falls under the same umbrella. He places fair use disclaimers in his YouTube descriptions like fan fiction of old, and relies on the referential knowledge and eager nostalgia of his audience as a solid foundation to do acrobatic artistic tricks around. Yes, the songs are good on their own, but it’s that golden combination of high quality and intertextuality — the same combination that has seen popular fan fiction launching the careers of bestselling authors — which activates the guilty-pleasure insta-fondness which leads to hard-won fan loyalty. 

Like a virus sneakily bypassing the immune system, Glorb has slid past the defenses of the AI-skeptical by sheer merit, resulting in TikToks with captions like, “AI isn’t real art” okay then explain this??” and, “Still the best use of AI by far 🔥🔥. But when the use of AI doesn’t quite result in these lofty heights of artistic accomplishment, the backlash can be immediate and consequential. 

Boy Room, a genuinely hilarious web series produced by creative studio Gymnasium, tours disgusting boy rooms — navy sheets, no duvet cover, you know the type. The episodes used generative-AI as stock images and to depict aesthetic improvements recommended by the host, comedian Rachel Coster. "This with no AI would be peak,” reads one of the top comments on a recent episode. “I was really enjoying this series but all the AI art has thrown me off 🥲,” reads another. In the new episodes released since, the use of AI has thankfully been severely cut down on. It clearly just wasn’t worth it.

Which has led to a certain irony for creators who want to, in a sense, get away with using AI. At as it exists least right now. Like Glorb — and like ObscurestVinyl, a popular creator of sublimely funny parodies of retro music generated with the help of AI tool Suno — they have to find a way to use it that is both impossible to achieve without it, and also not reliant on it as a shortcut. It has to make people comment, “This is what AI was actually for.” And it’s these edge cases that interested parties should keep an eye on. Because the line between acceptable and unacceptable is always shifting, and the key to surviving any era of the internet is about finding out how to innovate on the right side of it.

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

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