ImageWe hear it all the time from marketers, product developers, promoters and publicists: "We're going viral with it."

What they mean, of course, is that they'll be injecting some offering (video trailer, cartoon widget, etc.) into the online info stream and encouraging consumers to re-post, forward and otherwise disseminate it as promiscuously as possible.

These marketing folk aren't fools; they scrutinize the habits of Facebook and other social-media users and fully grasp the power of leveraging fans' content-sharing tendencies. But all their metrics, market calculations and clever lures cannot guarantee the result they seek: a bona fide Internet phenomenon. It's easy to forget this fundamental fact until you witness a genuine viral explosion.

Which brings us to a little ditty called "F**k You." (The asterisks are there to indulge those of you who may be scarred by profanity.)

I was doing some crucially important, work-related research on Facebook recently when I saw a friend had posted a link for the song, performed by soul-pop mischief-maker Cee Lo Green (whose spookily beautiful pipes helped turn Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" into a megahit). One listen to the bouncy, Motown-flavored tune, a merry diatribe directed at a materialistic ex-lover, made it clear this song was going to cut through the clutter. The link was actually to a video consisting only of the song's lyrics — and though the words are arrayed with style and energy on the screen, that's usually not enough to earn three million views in a matter of days.


WARNING: This video contains naughty words.

Was it the profane title that got people to click the link? Maybe. But a larger contributing factor may have been the multiple impressions. Like an ad that wears down your resistance with repeated iterations, the myriad re-postings of the song by assorted friends turned "Oh, another link" into "I wonder what that is" to "I guess I'll check it out" and finally to "Everyone I know must hear this now."

That's the power of viral distribution when it works: It creates a mega-huge sensation at blinding speed and virtually no cost. But you can't achieve this kind of instant ubiquity for a random media product simply by putting it online; if you could, the entertainment industry would be bailing out the rest of the economy. In this respect, little has changed since the days of Tin Pan Alley sheet-music sales; what distinguishes a smash from a dud isn't reducible to a formula or a technology. You need the magic.

That's the power of viral distribution when it works: It creates a mega-huge sensation at blinding speed and virtually no cost.
Getting from "What the heck, I'll take a look" to "Cancel my appointments; I need to share this with the world" is the tricky part. "F**k You," written by Cee Lo with hitmakers Bruno Mars and Ari Levine, is a killer song with hugely relatable lyrics and inextricable hooks. What's more, pairing that controversial title phrase with the tune's buoyant, sing-along melody and "ooo ooo ooo" backup vocals produces a singular frisson.

Cee Lo's performance, meanwhile, is masterful — whether he's hitting stratospheric high notes with clarion power, fluttering into falsetto, tossing off a bit of recitative with expert comic timing or sobbing "Why?" in a bridge section that reveals the hurt behind the anger. And, of course, the lyrics-only video guarantees listeners will know the song by heart that much sooner and appreciate its wit that much more.

The URL CeeLoGreen.com appears at the end of the video. Fans can buy an MP3 of the song for $1.29 or "bundled" with a striking "Cee Lo Says F**k You" T-shirt for $20. But many listeners may forsake that first clip for the fully produced narrative video now viewable online. The handsomely art-directed new clip comically portrays its protagonist's romantic life from adolescence onward:

Although Cee Lo (or is it Cee-Lo? He and his team don't seem to have decided yet) won't be unleashing his new album, The Lady Killer, until December, he looks set to keep interest high in the interim. Think of all the fan-generated mashups, tributes and parodies to come.

There is a broadcast-friendly (and, frankly, far less potent) version of the song, titled "Forget You," taking the heat off radio stations who are, as I write this, likely being inundated with requests for a song they can't possibly play — unbleeped, in any case — without running afoul of the FCC and every self-styled moralist within earshot. Spinning the bowdlerized version will get them off the hook and drive listeners online in search of the uncensored original, playing further into Cee Lo's hands.

Needless to say, labels are already looking for their own foul-mouthed sensation. And at least a few doubtless believe they can "go viral" by following the Cee Lo model. But if they don't have the bottled lightning that electrifies a true hit, they'll be f**ked.