I remember where I was when Ariana DeBose did the thing.
I was watching the oft-overlooked movie musical Burlesque on a sleepy Sunday afternoon when my boyfriend, from the adjoining couch, said, “Oh no.” I asked him what was wrong, and he tossed me his phone. On it, a video of a beleaguered Ariana DeBose at the BAFTAs, performing a number that combined tweaked versions of “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” “We Are Family,” and an instantly infamous rap that called out female performers and creatives.
For the back half of the performance, DeBose was breathless, presumably from a year of carrying the West Side Story campaign and Tony Awards telecast on her back. But also because I believe—and I have not, nor will I be, checking this—she addressed every woman in the room in about two minutes.
There’s a lot to parse through in what is undeniably a fever dream of a performance. Some standout lyrics, of course, are “Electric Malady? Marie, girl, what a slay” in reference to director Marie Lidén’s documentary on electrosensitivity. There’s “Jamie Lee, you are all of us!” But the moment that stopped time and launched a thousand memes was when, standing in front of EGOT winner Viola Davis, DeBose started gyrating and twisting while singing, “An-jah-lah-Bah-set did the thing, Viola Davis, my woman king!”
It was at that moment that I knew DeBose was doomed. The internet these days is more fickle than ever. Dare I say, vicious. And despite years of pitch perfect appearances, nothing could save DeBose from ridicule. What I did not expect is just how fickle the internet would be about its own sharp turn. Four days have passed since Ariana DeBose did the thing, and we are not the same as we were when it started.
Somehow, the clip went from a reviled disaster Sunday night to becoming this camp, over-the-top, now-beloved moment—and there's something sad and ironic that DeBose left Twitter RIGHT before the tides turned. “Angela Bassett Did the Thing” is a phenomenon that has happened in waves and in stages. In the end, one thing’s for sure: DeBose comes out winning.
1. Unbridled shock
This was an unavoidable first wave of responses. Love it or hate it, this was a lot to digest. The performance has rhyming couplets that would make Shakespeare’s old bones disintegrate. This is all about the immediate reaction, recognizing the surrealness of it all, and questioning our own reality. In what world was this greenlit by an entire event team? Is it a joke? Do we have taste?
2. Performative disgust
Every big internet moment comes with a dose of performative disgust. This is when people inevitably get a little mean about something that isn’t actually that serious. In the case of DeBose’s rap, it happened late Sunday into early Monday, when people turned a bit toothier and cast judgment on her singing, called out the uncomfortable actresses in the audience, or went as far to suggest she didn’t deserve her Oscar for West Side Story. You know—tweets that yield high engagement, just for the sake of being dickish. Unfortunately, this was the same period that Ariana DeBose locked her Twitter.
3. Wider application
The saddest part of this phase, which largely happened late Monday into Tuesday, is that it came just after DeBose officially deactivated her Twitter. Just as the tides were turning in her favor, the internet collectively pivoted to its “oh, can you not take a joke?” stance and started considering how the rap could be applied in a wider sense. We’re talking other references, pairing it with other memes, and the little particulars of the video that we might have missed because, well, Ariana was doing the thing. I mean, come on, Viola Davis snapping along to the rap should be as much of a meme as the rap itself.
4. Ironic appreciation
Not every internet moment makes it to this stage. Most peter out at Performative Disgust or Wider Application, but no. The “Angela Bassett Did the Thing” rap was bigger than that. Ironic appreciation comes when something so monumental happens so quickly that its orbit circles back around. In the course of just two days, Ariana DeBose went from flop to top. Was this actually a good rap? Was it so absurd and camp that it could become a cultural moment in and of itself?
Turns out, the answers to those questions were yes. The Angela Bassett Did the Thing rap, in the short span of four days, became iconic. And good for it because, here’s the thing (not Angela Bassett’s thing, but the greater point): Ariana DeBose is a talented theater kid who flew too close to the sun, sure. But the key word there is talented. And better yet, she’s joined in on the joke. If there’s one thing I remember from the film 8 Mile, it’s Kim Basinger’s accent. But if there’s a second thing I remember from the film 8 Mile, it’s that if you join in on the joke and beat your bully to the punch, you take all the power away. Stand in your power, Ariana. Do the thing.