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YOLO: You only live once (so get a better motto)

YOLO has become the – irritating – phrase of a generation. But the fightback has begun
  • @gillian_orr

At the end of last year, YOLO (an acronym for ‘you only live once’; seriously, where have you been?) was shortlisted for English Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary. It was also widely agreed to be one of the most annoying words of the year, as young people adopted the simple motivational phrase and turned it into an excuse to engage in reckless behaviour without thinking about the consequences.

Not since Robin Williams showed his class some old, dusty pictures of dead students and implored them to “carpe diem” have so many lessons been skived in favour of joyriding parents’ cars and buying expensive trainers. YOLO!

Now comedy music troupe The Lonely Island – graduates of Saturday Night Live including Cuckoo star Andy Samberg – have subverted its meaning by turning YOLO into a cautionary tale. With a little help from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and rapper-of-the-moment, Kendrick Lamar, their song “YOLO” (which has accrued more than 10 million hits on YouTube in just three days) begins by telling the audience, “You only live once/ This life is a precious gift/ So don’t get too crazy/ It’s not worth the risk”. The group then dishes out hilarious warnings about drugs, clubbing, not cooking meat properly, and taking the stairs. (Watch it at: bit.ly/lonelyyolo).

Particularly amusing is Lamar’s guest rap. Although his lyrics are usually preoccupied with how much he likes to have sex (although he never phrases it quite so politely) here he replaces his usual bravado with some sensible financial tips such as “stop freelancin’” and “renting is for suckers right now”. The song ends by reimagining YOLO as “you oughta look out”.

The skit is an interesting next step in the life cycle of a word trend. Although the phrase “you only live once” has previously been attributed to Mae West, as well as a 2006 song by The Strokes, the acronym’s current popularity is down to Canadian rapper Drake and his 2011 single “The Motto”.

Young people ran with it, using it as an excuse to make bad brash decisions (perhaps most pertinently seen when the actor Zac Efron had YOLO tattooed on his right hand). The current cast of fly-on-the-wall series What Happens In Kavos… seem to use it to justify sleeping with perfect strangers. But by the end of last year, hipsters had adopted it ironically and YOLO could be found alongside Twitter updates about drinking milk two days past its sell-by-date and leaving the house without an umbrella.

Now The Lonely Island have changed YOLO’s meaning yet again and completely removed any sense of danger it once had by turning it into an over-the-top motto for staying safe and being cautious. If their reason for the song was to try to put an end to YOLO by stopping kids from thinking it was cool, they might just have succeeded.