Last month, after Republican leadership failed to bring its Obamacare replacement bill to a House vote, the television writer Justin Halpern spotted an easy opportunity to crack a joke. He doctored the same-day New York Times story, adding a paragraph that (completely inaccurately) described Speaker of the House Paul Ryan leaving "the White House in defeat ... Within moments, the muffled sound of Papa Roach's 'Last Resort' were heard blaring from inside the car as it drove away." And then he tweeted it.
It was a tossed-off prank; Halpern told BuzzFeed News the whole thing might have taken him two minutes.
But, like the 2000 song it references, the joke was a massive hit.
In addition to being retweeted nearly 20,000 times, often by people (including journalists) who believed the screenshot to be authentic, the tweet prompted a spate of piggybacking jokes and, ultimately, a game response from the band itself:
(A spokesperson for Ryan declined to comment about Papa Roach.)
Seventeen years after its biggest song, a band that Spin described at the time as "the latest in midline nu-metal minstrelsy" had landed, mirthfully, at the center of the news cycle. What is it about this song that caused such an intense reaction? And what is so damn funny about Paul Ryan listening to "Last Resort"?
"It's the perfect joke, that song," Halpern told BuzzFeed News. "The punchline hits the moment you press play. It's a comedy writer's dream."
The punchline, of course, is the notoriously melodramatic opening couplet — "CUT MY LIFE INTO PIECES / THIS IS MY LAST RESORT" — which singer Jacoby Shaddix screams a capella, in a verge-of-tears staccato.
And though it leads into a song about a very unfunny subject — suicide — the lines, in all of their uncomfortably emotional glory, have recently become a kind of joking social media mantra of exasperation, sadness, and defeat. Used alike by devastated sports fans, cackling Keksters, Obama nostalgists, and rankled cultural commentators, the song serves now as an ironized shorthand for letting something get under your skin, for caring too much, for losing and then getting into your feelings. If, as Amanda Hess wrote recently, none of us are safe from getting "owned," "Last Resort" is the anthem of the owned-but-owning-it, the internet loser's performative cry of pain, the cuck's winking lament.
"Last Resort" is a gift that keeps giving social media new ways to laugh. But to understand why it's been so durable, it's useful to remember just how big a smash "Last Resort" was when it was just a rock song — back when rock songs could be cultural touchstones.
The song started as an idle classical scale plinked on a piano by the band's bassist Tobin Esperance in early 1999, in the Sacramento house where Papa Roach practiced. "I was like, that's fucking sick, let's put that on guitar," Shaddix recalled to BuzzFeed News. They did, and it turned into the song's instantly memorable power metal riff. Inspired, Shaddix wrote the "stream of consciousness" lyrics, about a friend who attempted suicide.
"From the moment we wrote it, we were like, this could be the song that gets us a record deal," Shaddix said.
It did more than that: On the strength of "Last Resort," Infest, the band's major-label debut, sold 7 million copies worldwide. And the "Last Resort" video became a staple on MTV, to the point that the network eventually invited the band on Total Request Live. Indeed, that ubiquitous video, which cuts between overhead fisheye shots of the band and Nan Goldin-esque portraits of sullen teens in their late-’90s suburban bedrooms, may be as responsible as the lyrics for the song being so closely associated with teenage over-emoting. For people listening to popular music at the turn of the millennium, "Last Resort" and its vision of teenage angst were inescapable.
Eventually, the song receded into rock radio afternoon rotation. And by the mid-2000s, rap-rock and nu-metal — two genres with which Papa Roach were closely associated — had become music-world punchlines. That, combined with the infamous opening line and the humorless video, made it a natural target for the Weird Al-style lyrical interpolations that were popular on message boards like 4chan and Something Awful in the late aughts. According to KnowYourMeme, the first "Last Resort" meme to break out of the message boards was the still-popular "Cut my life into pizza / This is my plastic fork." (Others included "Cut my life into peaches / This is my last fruit tart" and "Cut my life into beaches / This is my last resort.")
Shaddix took it in stride. "That shit’s genius," he told BuzzFeed News. "I even came up with one. I almost went through a divorce, so, 'Cut my wife into pieces, this is my last divorce.' Thankfully, we worked it out."
As much internet joke-making moved onto Twitter, users began to post the lyrics next to any old thing: An image of someone famous with their mouth open, a screenshot of Shaquille O'Neal looking distressed, a dog forced to wake up too early. Today, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people tweet "Last Resort" content every day. A quick Twitter search finds "Last Resort" as the punchline to an array of up-to-the-minute memes, from the Meryl Streep shouting meme to the mildly offensive different-ethnicities-pandering-to-each-other-with-music meme. But in 2017, it is used most predominantly to signify ironic despair or alarm over caring too much about something on the internet, as these users of 4chan/pol did when FiveThirtyEight predicted a Hillary Clinton victory:
So what is it about "Last Resort" specifically — why has it hung on as meme fodder for so long, once we account for its datedness and its popularity? Nu-metal produced far more embarrassing songs, and "Last Resort," however dramatic, can't touch the skin-crawling emotiveness of, say, Linkin Park at its treacliest. Well, for one, maybe it's not surprising that a song about teenagers bursting with inexpressible emotions, featuring a video about sad and angry high-schoolers alone in their rooms, has had such a lasting second life on the solipsistic social internet, where obsessive self-presentation is the norm and nobody knows that you're a dog. Or maybe, once you look past the trappings, you're left with a song that is really, actually, gasp, kind of great.
"That guitar riff to open up is super catchy," Halpern said. "We get to enjoy it and make fun of it at the same time — the holy grail for a cynical, snark-filled audience."
But, wait, isn't the song about suicide? Well, yes:
So should it really be a joke? Shaddix, for one, said he was happy people were using his band's song at the expense of Paul Ryan, who was "trying to take this bill that’s helping people and ditch it." And, he added, the song "continues to be an anthem for struggling kids." (Papa Roach is currently touring in support of its forthcoming ninth studio album, Crooked Teeth, out May 19.)
But also, Shaddix said, funny is funny. "I love having a good laugh and if it's at my expense, whatever. Whether someone’s taking the piss out of it or not, who cares? It’s a straight fucking banger."
"I’ve been cutting life into pieces for 17 years, dog, what's up?" ●
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.