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“WHAT ARE THOSE?”: a subversive sneaker meme, explained for the Olds

In a YouTube video shot by a friend, Bryce Lyle celebrates after asking Michael Jordan (standing in back) the timeless question: “WHAT ARE THOOOOSE?” (YouTube)
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What the heck is “What are those?” and why are we hearing about it now?

Like all the most impenetrable Internet memes, this traces back to The Teens, somehow.

On Tuesday, a 17-year-old named Bryce Lyle — “people tell me I look like John Legend & Obama,” his Twitter bio reads — stood up during a Q&A session at Michael Jordan’s California basketball camp with “one question” for the 52-year-old NBA star.

“What are THOOOOOOSE?” He yells across the gymnasium — to the complete, knee-slapping, guffawing mirth of every teenager within hearing distance.

“HE DID IT TO MJ,” one of Lyle’s friends tweeted, with six — count them, six — crying-face emoji. “MY MAN IS CRAZY!!!!!!!!”

But what did Lyle do? Why are these three words SO hilarious? Never fear: We have some answers for the Olds in the audience.

What is “What Are Those”?

“What Are Those is a month-old video meme that’s steadily conquered teen Instagram and Vine. It all started on June 14, when the Snapchat-famous Brandon Moore — he goes by the moniker “Young Busco” — uploaded an Instagram video of a woman  getting arrested in Berkeley, Calif.

Given the gravity of the situation, it’s a little jarring when Moore pans his camera to the officer’s clunky black shoes and shouts — much to the officer’s chagrin — “WHAT ARE THOSE?” (“To be honest,” Moore later told Complex, “I thought he was going to slap me with his night stick.”)

From there, of course, the phrase was ripe for reappropriation. In a Vine that’s been watched more than 18 million times, a man on a church pulpit jumps offstage to confront the inadvisable socks-and-sandals combo of a parishioner. A series of classic movies and cartoons have been excerpted and edited to include the shouted tagline. On Twitter, the writer Alex Hancock even posted a painting of Jesus — with a cropped shot of his sandals.

Cool, it’s about sneakers. Why do we care?

… Because this particular meme, contrary to the opinions of many Olds, is actually not just about footwear!

Consider, for a minute, the types of people who have gotten the “What are those?” treatment: a cop, a middle-aged sports icon, a classic children’s cartoon character — even Jesus. At its core, “What are those?” is less about shoes, and more about giving the finger to representations of tradition and authority.

Sure, it is — as the Huffington Post put it — “a sort of litmus test for whether you are young and hip or old and like me.” But there’s an edge of subversion to the question, too. The asker never actually wants to know the brand of his victim’s shoes; he wants to publicly call out and/or humiliate him on a platform where his power is reduced.

In real life, for instance, Brandon Moore has absolutely no power or influence over Berkeley police. (You don’t hear people talking about the videos he shot immediately before or after the one that launched “What are those?” in which he watches an officer handcuff the woman and then chants “black lives matter” as the officers pack up and leave.) But, thanks to a meme, he’s managed to subvert that power structure — if only for a minute, and if only on Instagram.

Moore himself was recently arrested, and he’s had a friend film a series of funny, subversive Instagram videos of him from jail.

Er, so — what happened with Michael Jordan?

Well, after Lyle asks the question, he completely loses it: You can hear him and his friends laughing “Let’s go” and “He don’t get it” over and over again.

After consulting a kid on the edge of the crowd, Jordan admits that, “Hey, look man, I’m lost on that Vine stuff.” But his shoes, he adds, are XX9 Lows — which haven’t even been released yet.

Ironically, in the ensuing hubbub, Lyle has really lobbied to score a pair: He points out on Twitter that Nike is getting a lot of good free press from his little dare.

Authority subverted? Eh, in this case, not entirely. But we’re certainly living in a brave new memetastic world when a kid can prank an athletic hero — and then credulously demand a pair of $200 sneakers in a follow-up tweet.

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