Last week brought the news that a decades-old, relatively obscure Dinosaur Jr. song had suddenly become a hit in Japan, for reasons that were not clear to anyone in the English-language music press at the time. Now, Gizmodo has an explanation, involving clips from an old Japanese variety show working in tandem with a culprit we should have suspected from the beginning: the YouTube algorithm.
Dinosaur Jr.’s surprise Japanese hit is “Over Your Shoulder,” the closing track of the band’s sixth album, 1994’s Without a Sound—a record with a less-than-perfect reputation, being the first Dino album to feature none of the original trio besides vocalist/guitarist J Mascis. “Over Your Shoulder” is not even the best-known song on Without a Sound; by a long shot, that would be the album-opening “Feel the Pain,” which became something of an alt radio staple. But as it turns out, the former song was frequently used as a musical cue in “Gachinko Fight Club,” a segment on a popular Japanese variety show called Gachinko! that went off the air in 2003. “Gachinko Fight Club,” which featured average people being trained as boxers, used “Over Your Shoulder” to convey the “sentiment, distress and emotion” involved in learning to fight, according to a Japanese entertainment consultant interviewed by Gizmodo.
For whatever reason, YouTube’s video recommendation algorithm apparently began fixating on user-uploaded clips of old “Fight Club” clips recently, repeatedly suggesting them to a wide range of viewers. (“Everybody’s YouTube recommendation Gachinko Fight Club,” reads a tweet from a Japanese user cited by Gizmodo.) And because Billboard tabulates streams from YouTube and other internet platforms into its stats for hit singles—even non-official content like the Gachinko videos—these plays contributed to the song’s standing on the Japanese charts. A similar thing happened recently in the U.S. with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which hit the Hot 100 last year based on a viral joke tweet involving a video of a dance troupe performing to the classic 1977 single.
The YouTube algorithm is infamously fickle in its affections—it is at least partially responsible for several obscure Japanese albums becoming highly sought-after collectors’ items in the States—but Gizmodo has a few theories for why the Gachinko videos became popular: some recent appearances by former Gachinko! cast members on Japanese TV; the fact that the show is not available on official streaming services or DVD, leaving fans with no other option but these YouTube snippets. Read their full story here, and Spin’s 2018 feature on the algorithm’s strange power over music listeners here.