I was scrolling through TikTok this week, and I saw a video. Very shocking, I know. It’s a video of a classroom full of high school students, clearly recorded pre-COVID in Snapchat and uploaded to TikTok as a nostalgic memory. It was posted this past August. The caption is “thinking about that one time a substitute teacher never showed up to my AP History class.” There are three distinct shots in the clips, all of them showing the students sitting at their desks in the relative dark. In high school, if you have forgotten, it was a big deal to turn the lights off?
In the first clip, we see a student on the front of the class, his computer hooked up to the projector. The students are watching him play slither.io, a browser-based time-waster game. Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” is playing.
In the second clip, the students are softly singing a song I did not recognize. The Snapchat caption on it says, “How we karaoke.”
In the third clip, the students are singing along to “The Duck Song.” The Duck is constantly asking for grapes, and he appears in a famous trio of videos from 2009 and 2010. To learn more about the duck, please visit — I can’t believe it exists — this wiki devoted to The Duck Song trilogy.
I guess what I appreciate about this TikTok is that it feels authentic. I think that regardless of one’s age, it more accurately reflects the experience of not having a sub than what we might like to imagine. Nobody’s going nuts or doing something reckless; everyone’s just chilling out and enjoying some free time. And as always, there’s one kid at the front, sitting at the teacher’s desk, gamely serving as the ringmaster, and in this case, video jockey.
But it’s the middle section of the TikTok that has really captivated me. I couldn’t quite make out what the song was the first time I watched this clip, and given the Celine Dion in the preceding shot, I assumed it was another popular song. Maybe a subdued indie ballad. For a split-second, based on the delivery and tone, I thought it was Radiohead? (I am not well-versed in Radiohead.) It also had the feel of those Scala & Kolacny Brothers covers that were popular at roughly the same time as the Duck Song series.
This second shot in the triptych of clips is, I would say, captivating? I had to know what it was, so after a couple more video loops, I figured out that what I was listening to was not a professionally produced song by a talented musical artist, but the “The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” by Emerson Foo and Wong Yann, first uploaded to YouTube in 2007 and only available there.
“The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” is a mnemonic song for memorizing the seven types of radiation. These types of teaching devices are often used in class, and they can be highly effective. Even half a lifetime later, I can still recall the parody of Akon’s “Don’t Matter” that my science teacher sang to us, replacing “Nobody wants to see us together/But it don’t matter, no” with “Temperature, volume, and pressure/That’s what we need to know” to explain gas laws. Actually, that one line is all I remember.
But “The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” is an original tune and it is honestly incredible. I feel absolutely ridiculous admitting this but I have listened to this song at least 20 times in the last couple of days. The chorus is an earworm!
…and so on.
In my research I was extremely relieved to find that I was not the only one inexplicably obsessed with a 13-year-old song illustrated by the stock effects of Windows Movie Maker, which I still recognize. (Windows Movie Maker is pivotal, formative software for a cohort of early web video producers and I will never forgive Microsoft for killing it.) Across the globe, “The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” has touched the lives of millions of students — a sleeper hit that I am only just now learning about.
On Twitter, a lot of maybe-joking-but-actually-serious tweets of affections.
The YouTube comments for the original video are still active and people are still popping in to say thanks.
“The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” wasn’t even meant for worldwide distribution. “All public teachers in Singapore go through a centralized training programme, and Emerson and I were classmates training to be Physics teachers in 2007 at the National Institute of Education in Singapore,” Yann Wong recalled when I emailed him earlier this week (Emerson Foo told me Wong did most of the work). “As part of our requirements for passing the Physics teaching course, all students had to pair up and produce a ‘teaching resource’ for teaching something within the Singapore Physics national curriculum.”
Originally, Wong, who currently works at a church but hopes to return to teaching next year, wrote only a short jingle, but the teacher told him to expand it into a full song. The result was this enduring song, which was “recorded at Emerson's house, using his iPod. We placed the iPod on his upright piano in his living room, and recorded music (I played the piano, Emerson played the drums) and voice separately. I think we just recorded two takes each for the music and the voice.”
Wong didn’t even upload the video to YouTube himself. A former student did so in an effort to pool teacher resources. For the most part, the initial reception was tepid, and most of Wong’s student’s don’t know about their teacher’s international acclaim. “My students would occasionally be amused, but it wasn't such a big hit like it was in other countries. Possibly because here in Asia our students are more intensely focused on examination achievements, and move on quickly after they have already processed a learning objective. Most of my students were totally unaware of how popular my video was in other countries,” he said. He later added that, “The primary reason why this song lasted so long was that other high school Physics teachers (particularly those in America) really took to this video, and showed [it to] multiple generations of students. American students also really took to this video in a way that Asian students don't, which is an interesting phenomenon by itself to investigate.”
And American students have really taken to the video. Search for it on YouTube and you’ll find a teacher performing it on ukulele, a rock covers full of crunchy riffs, a performance by a concert choir (Emerson Foo called it a “fantastic arrangement”), a capella covers, punk covers, students performing it in class, and plenty of others. One rude version of the song is called “‘The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song’ but every time he's off key it gets 50% faster.” It’s 19 seconds long.
Part of what fascinates me about this song is how it has persisted despite the very specific context in which most people encounter it. The song only has 2.3 million views over 13 years, while The Duck Song — the other song in the TikTok that sent me down this rabbit hole — has 447 million views over a slightly shorter period of time. And yet they both ended up as go-tos for bored high school students goofing off in class.
An interesting wrinkle in all of this is that “The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” was removed by YouTube for two years, due to what Wong described as a metadata issue, and only came back online this past May. This suggests that 1) the TikTok I first saw it in was filmed in 2018, and 2) the original video managed to survived a two-year total absence without losing any relevance. “In some ways I am still a bit surprised that the popularity of the song never lost momentum despite the original video being unavailable for 2 years,” Wong said. Plug the URL into Google and you’ll find it on dozens of syllabi.
I would non-scientifically estimate that 90 percent of YouTube is composed of videos with about 14 views that are song parodies made for high-school class projects. The education sector of YouTube is packed with charming, homespun creations that can teach you everything from the Bill of Rights to the Pythagorean theorem. I suspect that “The Electromagnetic Spectrum Song” is the most famous of these works. An immortal contribution to the educational canon that will never go out of style. “The electromagnetic spectrum might be “just a name,” but the song is an entire lifestyle. I’m gonna go listen to it on a few more times.
lmao, at this point I have to believe Mark is doing a bit?
the mysteries of twitter…
elaborately produced, well-executed fifth iteration of a running gag about the 21st of September: 81,000+ likes
“Bruh I’m sorry, but there is not a single situation where a Baby can where Jeans & I won’t laugh. The fuck is that kid wearing such a serious fabric for Lmao. Baby Legs in jeans look funny as hell, it’s literally inches of Denim. Idk why it’s so funny”: 229,000+ likes