On June 14, 2015, Brandon Moore, better known to the Internet as Young Busco, approached an on-duty police officer, and told him he had just one question to ask him. Pointing his camera at the officer’s chunky, black military boots, he uttered three now-famous words: “What are those?!” The video, which questioned the cop’s footwear choice, instantly went viral. Pranksters across the world co-opted the phrase to call people out for wearing awful shoes and it found its way onto TV, movies, and embedded in the national conscious. Over four years later, the meme lives on, although its creator, Moore, passed away this past weekend at the age of 31 due to unknown causes.
Sneaker culture, as it’s called now, existed before there was the internet. Kids in New York City had rituals in the ‘70s and ‘80s with their Puma Clydes, Nike Blazers, and Air Force 1s long before Michael Jordan played in the NBA and signed his deal with Nike. Bobbtio Garcia chronicled it all in his 2003 anthology, Where’d You Get Those?, which, somewhat ironically, shares a similar name to the aforementioned meme. He also had a TV show on ESPN2, It’s The Shoes, that was the first iteration of what we now call Sneaker YouTube. But many can argue that sneaker collecting, wearing, and reselling didn’t become mainstream until it caught on online.
It’s been spoken about ad nauseam that internet forums such as NikeTalk and Sole Collector, formerly ISS, were the advent of people talking about and making fun of sneakers on the web. From there, there were the blogs that would chronicle it all, including Complex, Hypebeast, Highsnobiety, and Sneaker Freaker. The birth of Sneaker Twitter, where people would chat shit about their favorite or least-favorite shoes and personalities, helped the fascination with shoes spill over to the mainstream. And it snowballed from there.
The first time I heard the “What are those!?” meme I thought it was corny. It was so instantly adopted by people who weren’t into shoes, who would obnoxiously run up to those who had awful or not-so-awful sneakers, that it made me hate it. When people started questioning someone in a pair of Asics Gel-Lyte Vs, simply because they wanted to get a joke off, I knew I wasn’t into it. It said a lot more about the person asking the question than the one who was being questioned.
“What are those?!” hit its peak, or jumped the shark, when a kid at Michael Jordan’s youth basketball camp, during a Q&A session, asked the greatest basketball player ever and godfather of basketball shoes the phrase. Stunned, not knowing what was being asked of him, Jordan needed a second to figure out what was going on. After a moment of counseling, he responded, “These are XX9 Lows,” in which he let everyone know what he was wearing shoes that weren’t even out yet.
Jimmy Butler—who probably wouldn’t be wearing cool stuff if he didn’t play in the NBA, just a hunch—even tried to make fun of a sales associate during his Sneaker Shopping appearance at St. Alfred in Chicago for wearing Visvim shoes. Then admitting, “I’ve never heard of those.”
Like all memes, “What are those?!” needed to be put in timeout, or at least go away for a bit. It had reached the point where your parents were making the joke, and that wasn’t funny. But somehow, someway, the meme has endured. It made its way into Black Panther, and even Dave Chappelle, someone who is actually funny, was able to use the phrase in part of his material, in an open way, saying, “Them some ugly ass boots you’ve got on. As the white boys say on the Internet, ‘What are those?’”
The theme song from Jurassic Park was even manipulated to say the phrase, as a pack of brontosauruses walk by in Yeezys.
Memes, as infantile as they may seem, play an important role in our society. They allow large communities of people, often from different backgrounds and walks of life, to instantly connect through a quick laugh. They can sway political elections and divide folks as well, but at their core, memes are how we understand each other on the Internet. They’ll let you know that you and someone else are into the same thing, share the same sense of humor, or ultimately let you know that someone is lame as fuck, which makes life a little bit easier.
The “What are those!?” meme, however, was able capture something that sneaker aficionados, or anyone with an opinion on shoes, had felt for a long time: “Man, what the fuck are you wearing on your feet?” Not a feeling that your sneakers were better than the next person’s, but questioning their existence for wearing something so lame. And that’s why it succeeded and will continue on. Rest in peace, Brandon, I’ll make sure to get this joke off for you.