Whenever Bill Wurtz releases a new video on YouTube, a squad of diehard fans flock to listen to his musical creations. Random lyrics and animations that look like a hurricane of late 1990s clip art and ugly fonts are set to a soundtrack of smooth jazz-pop, if smooth jazz-pop loved salvia.
It’s a specific aesthetic—one that inspires devotion. “Looks like we got the new song name—let’s try unscrambling it,” reads one Reddit thread as it tries to solve an anagram from Wurtz that reads “‘hi’ (wrong, delete).” Another digs into a response from Wurtz about whether a song is a prophecy for the future. There’s also sleuthing on what college Wurtz went to. How old he might be (probably 27). Whether he’s too depressed (again). When he’ll follow up on his 53-million-view, 20-minute magnum opus on YouTube, “history of the entire world, i guess,” which paired legitimate historical facts with his trademark sound and visuals.
To watch a Bill Wurtz video is to explore the head of an idiosyncratic man—one who makes you struggle with preconceived notions of what coherent art is supposed to be. Wurtz flashes talent on all sorts of instruments, including piano, bass, drums and his own voice, which is a silky tenor with range and energy. He produces animated videos that sparkle with neon text, dancing stick figures and vaporwave-y transitions. He also wades in Weird Twitter, offering punchlines designed to inspire confused laughs.
I’ve been a fan of Wurtz for a long time, but never really understood the man behind the videos. I ended up at his subreddit page, pouring through fans’ posts and replies, because I couldn’t seem to get ahold of him. Wurtz isn’t difficult to find: He tweets every day, answers questions on his personal site and posts to Instagram. And I sent messages to all these accounts, plus the email address tucked deep in his site. Alas, no Wurtz.
I should’ve expected it, given that Wurtz has never made a show of his public persona. He’s been transparent in sharing his thoughts, frustrations and insecurities via short audio files or journal posts (usually just a few broken sentences) on his website, displayed in an unending string of timestamps and dates. But despite racking up nearly three million followers on YouTube (with 276 million-plus views on his content), Wurtz has kept a low profile in every other way, especially in terms of press. One indicative moment was his acceptance of a 2016 Shorty Award for “Best in Weird,” in which he ambled up to the stage in a black suit and tie and delivered a two-word speech: “Thank you!”
Meanwhile, he takes time to give fans earnest, if somewhat loopy-sounding, answers to their (many, many) questions. What’s the best part of being an artist? (“The part where you get to think of something and then make it appear in someone’s mind.”) How did he get out of a years-long creative rut? (“I realized that if there really is infinite creative potential, then you can literally just start with anything, like rabbit snakes.”) And, on occasion, he delivers precise advice, especially on the craft of songwriting. “You have to know the exact road map… for a while I thought you could go in with a verse and a chorus and hope a bridge comes to you in the studio,” he tells one aspiring musician. “This is where you get Worthless Bridge Syndrome, which is rampant all over the music business.”
This blend of enigma and honesty is a unique feature, and an important one for his fans. “I thought he was just a meme guy who happened to also sing. What changed my impression was going through his website a few months later and finding the ‘reality’ page, where he uploads vlogs from the past documenting his creative process,” one fan on Reddit, 27-year-old Flayshon, tells me in a message. “Some of his more meaningful posts on the questions page had that same impact too, and suddenly you start putting all the puzzle pieces together and his content starts making more sense. It’s not really so random as it seems at first.”
Wurtz’s content stretches back to the early internet of 2002, and looking at the breadth and depth of his work highlights exactly how ahead of his time he was—and continues to be. Wurtz has become a massive success by melding bipolar shitposts, philosophical reflections on existence and legitimately exciting music with whiplash-inducing animation. It’s exactly what the democratizing force of the internet, and platforms like YouTube, was intended to nurture.
“It’s funny because some of the people who become most famous on the internet aren’t the ones trying to capture that popularity, but ignore it. That’s Bill,” says Taylor Lorenz, who writes about digital culture for The Atlantic. “Absurdist, quirky, lo-fi humor is very mainstream now, but the internet kind of caught up to Bill in a sense. I see him having a long-term dedicated fanbase when the trends pass, too. When you do something so consistently for so long, you create diehard fans. And he’s been true to his art for a long time.”
The very first thing Wurtz ever published on the internet, on June 17, 2002, was a 20-second theme song dubbed “Late Nite Lounge with Loud Lenny,” a riff on cheesy musical introductions for talk show hosts. In June 2004, he dropped an eight-minute instrumental. Abstract, poetry-like notes begin to collect at this point, too, giving shape to how he felt about the music he was making (including the sobering “ALL I HAD TO REMEMBER WAS NOT TO TYPE GARBAGE”). You hear his singing for the first time in “stuck in a rut,” in March 2005.
Then there’s a dead period until 2009, when the creativity seems to ramp up around basic things—many of his posts are simple photos of common objects like pencils and keys. The songs flow forth in rapid succession in 2010. He opens a YouTube channel in September 2013, delivering material that dabbles in the depressive, as with the two-second “die” and “i write stupid music.” He makes his first appearance on camera with “i wanna go home.”
Though he had a bunch of material at this point, he didn’t have much of an audience until he took his music and animations to Vine, where his edits of pre-existing material into the six-second chunks the format demanded drew 60,000 followers in a matter of months over the summer of 2014. That boosted his subscriber base on YouTube, too, setting the stage for his first major project. It was a nine-minute animated history of Japan, a country he knew nothing about but decided to research anyway.
The video took more than three months to make, but the work paid off in the form of millions of views seemingly overnight (today, it’s at nearly 43 million). Then, Wurtz disappeared. Fans wondered if he’d quit, before finding clues he’d dropped in notes. Apparently, the history of a single country wasn’t ambitious enough: He spent close to a year on his biggest-ever project, “history of the entire world, i guess,” a staggering 20-minute video that’s hypnotic in its pace, detail and musicality.
It was an instant hit when it dropped in May 2017, hitting the front page of Reddit and the top trending spot in YouTube, inspiring dozens of “reaction” videos from other YouTubers watching it, and countless quotable lines and snippets of music (with earworms like “the sun is a deadly lazer” and “Is loving Jesus legal yet?”). Between those two historical videos, Wurtz’s presence on YouTube skyrocketed, breaking the one-million subscriber mark last year.
But to focus on that 53-million-view centerpiece is to ignore a huge catalogue of work that together fits into a truly batshit universe of content. Wurtz refuses to mimic anyone else’s animation or musical style, but it’s not weird for weirdness’ sake alone. You can see overlaps with him and artists like Thundercat (who created a song about his cat, with an insane video to match) or pop-jazz wunderkind Louis Cole. All of them lacquer pretty pop melodies in layers of rhythm and drunken chords that are hard to anticipate, and Wurtz’s slippery, stream-of-consciousness flow is disorienting in the same way an optical illusion is. As Ed Trotsky, member of London electronic music trio Zkeletonz, observed on the group’s podcast POSTPOP: “Once you really look into it, you think, I’ve lost my grip on what’s happening.”
“He uses these jazz stings in his music, strange harmonizations that kind of punctuate everything he does… For me, it sounds kind of like an ersatz, weird, dark mirror version of, like, Crowded House,” Trotsky continued. “He takes what you would consider common [musical] forms and standard sounds that you think you’re used to, and creates something very strange. It’s got a great quality that all good post-modern music has: It’s recognizable but feels like a puzzle for the brain. There’s so much stuff going on.”
Major brands have taken note of his genius, or at least his traffic. He receives “offers on a regular basis from companies offering ridiculous sums of money, up front, to buy ad rights from me.” Yet he’s also refused to monetize his YouTube videos, even though Wurtz admitted last year the pressure is “enormous,” because he believes he can “never rent out” his audience to advertisers. He’s also repeatedly talked about why he refuses to collaborate with other creatives after the disappointment of trying to find like minds.
“The bad news is, society told me it is wrong and sad to work alone. So I tried again to collaborate. It still didn’t work. I started wondering if maybe I could do this alone. Society says ‘no,’” he wrote to one fan. “So I searched up and down, left and right, for collaborative partners. No one even understood what I was doing. No one was interested in going anywhere near the direction I was going.”
Today, this is part of Wurtz’s mythology. As 25-year-old fan Lisa tells me via Facebook, Wurtz has an intense purity that seems both admirable and suicidal. “It’s weird, it’s meme-friendly, it’s funny and it’s complicated,” she says of his art. “He’s doing what a lot of artists wish they could do—making bizarro shit on their own terms.”
Given that Wurtz can be interpreted as a piece of performance art, I wonder if he saw my requests and ignored them, stretching the enigma around him ever closer. Or maybe he was just too busy in the throes of a creative run to waste his attention on answering questions for a reporter. I’m mostly just glad that something as confusing and addictive as Wurtz can thrive on the internet without the crutches that so many YouTubers thrive on: personal notoriety, public showmanship and a thirst for influence on advertisers and fans. As the redditor Flayshon told me, “He puts an absurd amount of work toward making the songs sound as good as possible, and it pays off. Making a great product and letting that speak by itself is actually a great way to market himself.”
What I really wanted to ask Wurtz was where he sees this massive project going, and whether his creative process feels sustainable. I don’t even know whether he can keep up this workaholic pace—Wurtz has told fans that he wants to make “hundreds” more history and music videos, with an emphasis on intensive projects. “I do realize relaxing is important, but at this point in my life the amount of content that I ‘need to make’ (and have already written, in the case of songs) has grown to severely exceed the expected human lifespan in terms of how long it would take to complete,” he wrote in February 2016.
It reminds me of one of Wurtz’s audio entries from 2013, recorded off-the-cuff while driving in a car—his voice certain and confident. “I refuse to fail. I refuse to let perfectionism get the better of me. The point of this operation is not to be like, ‘ehhhhh it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough,’ and then die.”
This is the duality of Wurtz: an artist who thrives on nonsequiturs and randomness yet constantly grapples with what he’s trying to say and accomplish. For the rest of us, it’s just a bizarre thrill to watch him figure it out.