It’s not news that junk food rules the Internet. Quick, cheap, bad-for-you-yet-totally-irresistible—kind of like the Internet itself—junk food is the universal constant that connects suburban teens, mommy bloggers, rap stars, and Hollywood celebs. Over the past few years, this truth has become impossible to ignore, as Instagram and Twitter runneth over with GIFs, jokes, and emoji of the most nutritionally empty foods out there. Known as “snackwave,” this phenomenon has been spotted, described, and tagged for observation in the wild by those of us whose job it is to overthink the Internet. But there’s still one question that hasn’t been answered: Of all the junk food in the world, why do we obsess over pizza the most?
In the third-world country that is the Internet, pizza is president for life. While tacos might be a perennial write-in candidate and flavored Oreos are plotting a U.S.-sponsored coup, nothing can beat pizza’s ubiquity and universal adoration from the masses. Sure, Miley Cyrus rode a giant hot dog and Juno had that burger phone, but Katy Perry, Cara Delevigne, and Beyoncé have all stepped out in head-to-toe pizza outfits (oh yeah, and this kid too). The only thing that got more press than Ellen’s epic celebrity selfie at last year’s Oscars? The fact that she also ordered pizza from on stage. Pizza rules.
But it’s not just Reddit threads and Tumblr memes. Pizza is a legit Internet pioneer, one that’s been at the front lines of the medium since the days of Compuserve and that annoying modem noise. The first e-commerce site? Pizza Hut’s hyper-normcore ordering portal, launched way back in 1994. The very first niche food blog? Slice, launched by NYC pizza obsessive Adam Kuban in 2003, the same year Gawker hit the ground. The Totino’s pizza roll account has been part of Weird Twitter since 2012, long before brands saying “bae” was a viable corporate marketing strategy. The more we’re able to do online, the more ways we find to make it all about pizza.
That deep-rooted love of pizza is formed at a specific moment in childhood—the point right before middle school, when you were still a kid but had fully formed opinions and individual tastes. From the mid-’80s onward, pizza has been marketed to kids ages 7-10 as a symbol of independence, mild sassback, and overall cool, both in ads for chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and on television shows. Deciding on a favorite topping was, for many kids, their first opportunity to assert an individual identity; characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and MTV’s Daria hung out with friends over pizza, serving as independent role models for younger kids to look up to.
This “pizza factor” is especially striking in fast-food commercials; compare the obnoxious, viral success of The Noid to milquetoast moralizer Ronald McDonald, or rock ‘n’ roll mouse Chuck E. Cheese—who owned his own arcades!—to the politically correct kids of the Burger King Kids Club. For kids of the ’80s and ’90s, there was no question about which food was the coolest: Pizza.
The more we’re able to do online, the more ways we find to make it all about pizza.
And everyone could get it. No matter who you are, if you were raised in the U.S., there was pizza in your childhood. If your parents were proto-Goop macrobiotic health Nazis, there was a pizza for you. If your childhood was a suburban dream of aerosol cans and Little League, there was a freezer full of Bagel Bites in your garage. If you grew up poor in the city, there were dollar slices after school. More than any other junk food, pizza’s infinite variations make it accessible to everyone, from the runty lactose-intolerant kid, to the picky eater who will only touch white foods.
So why do we still care? Google Trends data shows that searches for “pizza” have increased steadily month-on-month, year-on-year, for the last 11 years. The more time we spend online, the more our pizza roots start to show through the veil of adulthood. It would be easy to blame this phenomenon on a seeping immaturity borne of the anonymity and brain-melting banality of online life, but the real cause is even more banal: Pizza is the Esperanto of the Internet, a universal language that anybody can understand—whether it’s rendered in pixelated 8-bit graphics or beautifully rendered watercolors. If you’re trying to make a joke that’ll have the widest audience, or connect deeply with people’s experience, pizza will get you there.
Its universal appeal also makes pizza the perfect platform for memes that combine elements of pop culture for the ultimate articulation of accessible weirdness. The Pizzaboyz clothing line uses the cultishly freaky Eye of Providence from the dollar bill, replacing the brick pyramid background with a stylized slice of pepperoni pie. Pizza adorns kittens’ heads; it features in endlessly recursive, MC Escher nightmare GIFs; it serves as a stage for Barack Obama doing the Beyonce Single Ladies dance in space. This mashup instinct predates the Internet; the short-lived cartoon show Samurai Pizza Cats was cynically designed to capitalized on the first wave of mainstream anime success, the slapstick comedy of Animaniacs, and the cool-dude action of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Pizza is the Esperanto of the Internet, a universal language that anybody can understand.
For all its superficial variations, pizza’s identity is uniquely stable; unlike other junk foods, the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum are still fundamentally connected. Put a McDonald’s $1 hamburger and the DB foie gras-and-truffle burger next to each other and they barely look like they come from the same planet, let alone the same food group. But even the most precious 48-hour-crust, buffalo-mozzarella-topped Neapolitan masterpiece looks essentially the same as the discount pie Little Caesar’s has been slinging for the last 50 years. Crust, sauce, cheese, circle. You can innovate with pizza—like Pizza Hut is trying to do now, with a desperate zeitgeist grab of Sriracha crust-glaze and balsamic drizzles—but you can never truly change it. In an online world that would have been unthinkable to our seven-year-old selves, pizza’s constancy is a comfort.
It’s also refreshingly genderless. No ad campaign has ever used sex to sell pizza (Carl’s Jr., we’re still mad at you), and both male and female characters on TV and film eat pizza without comment. In a world of outrage policing and SJW taunting, pizza floats above it all. For every #pizzaqueen on Instagram there are #pizzaboyz; for every wannabe d-bag with a spray-on tan or duck-faced chick with a selfie stick, pizza hashtaggers are keeping it so real it’s ugly, embracing pop culture in all its messy, melty glory. Take a closer look at Beyoncé’s pizza outfit—that photorealistic greasy-cheese print, pockmarked with pepperoni, makes it look like she’s got a skin condition. It’s far from her usual perfect Queen Bey image, but because it’s pizza, we love it anyway. We meme it, Kickstart a set of bedsheets to match, and joke about veganism, not her ass. Pizza doesn’t play that game.
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