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A complete history of “This Could Be Us But You Playin,” the meme that inspired an unlikely Prince song

The artist formerly/currently known as Prince has long despised the Internet. He called it “completely over” in a 2010 interview. He’s attacked sites that post his picture and YouTube babies that dance to his songs. And yet, as if to prove that he’s still #hip and #relevant in 2014, the pop star told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last weekend that his next album will contain a song called “This Could Be Us.” As in, #thiscouldbeusbutyouplayin. As in, an Internet meme.

A meme that could melt even Prince’s cold, anti-Internet heart must be quite a meme, indeed. And sure, #thiscouldbeusbutyouplayin is pretty funny — when deployed with the appropriate level of eyebrow-arching irony. Taken literally, the catchphrase would seem to indicate a great, even enviable, couple. (As in, “our relationship could also be ~this amazing~, if you stopped messing around.”) But in practice, it’s typically used to caption weird, unattractive, nonsensical or otherwise unenviable images. As in this one, of two naked people posing with their strategically placed cats. Or — my personal favorite — a bunny with a pancake on its head.

So when did all of this start? The hashtag #thiscouldbeus — and an older variant, #thatcouldbeus, possibly inspired by the Maino song of the same name — has been in casual, unironic use for years. But on January 18, a prolific tweeter named @baeElectronica slapped the full hashtag, #thiscouldbeusbutyouplayin, on a weirdly too-close photo of a canoodling couple. She was promptly retweeted 19 times. And within a matter of hours, a meme was born.

Since then, #thiscouldbeusbutyouplayin has been trotted out more than 4 million times to mock bad wedding photos, unfortunate animals, and many an iconic scene from the pop culture canon. Prince seems to have spotted his own iteration: A photo of him and his “Purple Rain” costar Apollonia, riding a motorcycle.

But just because Prince saw and appreciated the meme doesn’t, regrettably, mean he understood it, rather like the thousands of unfortunate, earnest people who have contorted the original meme into things like “this could be us, but you’re going to jail” or “this could be us, but you cheated.” (Awkward!) To be clear, #thiscouldbeus is an inherently ironic meme. You can’t actually feel that “this” could be you and your significant other — that commits the cardinal social media sin of TMI. Also, it’s not very funny.

The Star-Tribune did not, alas, share any details about the content of Prince’s “This Could Be Us,” aside from noting that it’s “a joyful ballad with some ecstatic Prince vocalizing.” We’ll give Prince the benefit of the doubt, of course, but neither “joyful” nor “ecstatic” seem to capture the spirit of a sneering, largely cynical Internet meme.

Prince, we’re glad you no longer despite the Internet — but the next step is actually, you know, endeavoring to understand it.