The charitable efficacy of cats on the Internet | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The charitable efficacy of cats on the Internet 

In less than 12 hours, more than $65,000 will flood the bank account of Sly Jones, a Phoenix, Arizona, music blogger who makes about one-third of that per year at his job in a Nike customer service phone bank. Right now, he doesn't know what he's going to do with the money.

"I just found out that I'm going to get hit with taxes on it," says Jones, 30, during a day off from work. "It's going to end up being about $9,900. I work for $12 an hour, so there's no way I can afford that. I don't really know what's going to happen, but if I have to take the hit, I have to take it."

Jones accrued the sum in only 41 days through a Kickstarter campaign called "Meow the Jewels," a whimsical endeavor generated by an earlier joke from the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. The funds, Jones hopes, will eventually go to the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other recent victims of police brutality.

But he's not yet sure how it will work: Which charity will get the money? Can it go directly to the families? Should he use it to start his own nonprofit fund? Who will pay the taxes on it? How much will Kickstarter and credit card fees consume before he's able to begin splitting the sum?

Jones doesn't know the answers in large part because he never expected any of this to happen—that is, for the past two months of his life to revolve around cats on the Internet.

In September, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and New York rapper and producer El-P unveiled pre-order options for their second album, the vicious, lascivious and righteous Run the Jewels 2. Most of the options were simple enough. You could buy a CD for $12, a download and a T-shirt for $30 or a T-shirt and a double-LP for $56.

But some of the choices were intentionally ridiculous. For $25,000, for instance, you'd not only get the music, but the emcees vowed to fly to your child's school for show-and-tell and "answer any questions the children have about marijuana, rap music and global politics." For $10 million, Run the Jewels would quit music altogether and record only one track per year, in perpetuity, for the person footing the bill. "Every song title will be your name with a number next to it," the advertisement read. No one has accepted either offer.

One outlandish package caught Jones' eye: For $40,000, Run the Jewels would re-record the new album using only cat sounds as beats, scratches and keys. Jones is extremely allergic to cats, but the idea seemed too absurd to ignore. He didn't have $40,000, but he did have access to the Internet, where Japan's Maru the cat has become an international celebrity for laying in boxes and the 2-year-old Grumpy Cat has accrued more Facebook fans than many rock stars. So why not crowdsource the funding, Jones wondered, and see if, yet again, the Internet would go crazy for cats?

"I was completely stoned out of my mind when I wrote that," remembers El-P, laughing about the feline price tag for Run the Jewels 2. "I thought it was hilarious that someone was starting a campaign until it dawned on me that, if there was actual money to be had, we could do something for a good cause. And I am a big supporter of being involved in anything uniquely stupid. I want to be part of landmark stupidity."

Now, he is: Meow the Jewels generated $65,783, moving in fits and starts past its initial fundraising goal of $45,100 with nearly two weeks to spare. El-P and Killer Mike deferred the money, choosing instead to donate every dollar from the call for cats to people who needed it more. The decision to give the proceeds away seemed inevitable for El-P, as Run the Jewels 2 is a politically urgent powerhouse. Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha adds a hook and a verse, while "Early" is a powerful narrative of petty, barbaric police injustice.

Endorsements for the project powered the donations. Rappers and producers signed on to create one track each for the album, including classic hip-hop beatmaker Prince Paul, '00s hitmaker Just Blaze and gothic pop singer Zola Jesus. Those artists will be responsible for obtaining their own cat samples.

"At first, it looked like I was having to do the whole thing, which was daunting. But I've got a lot of friends who are going to take a crack at a song," El-P says. "Everyone who is down connected with Meow the Jewels because it's for a good cause."

Meow the Jewels succeeded, in large part, because El-P unwittingly tapped into what you might call the cat-powered consciousness of the Internet. During the last decade, cats have become synonymous with online cuddles and chuckles. In 2006, the website began turning hundreds of cats in ridiculous situations or compromised poses into memes, with large and mostly misspelled text stripped across the top and the bottom of each photo.

For Buzzfeed editorial director Jack Shepherd, online cat humor culture has hit an exponential curve that doesn't seem to slump. In fact, thanks to social media and the ability of people to share their own cat candids, it's growing. After working at PETA as a writer and marketer, Shepherd joined the staff of Buzzfeed in 2008 and began penning high-traffic posts about cats, particularly Maru, whom he calls "the master of his craft ... and the greatest Internet cat of all time."

In 2009, Shepherd compiled a list of the most important online cats of the year, which he's done every year since. He's now penned two books about cats, and his newsletter, "This Week in Cats," claims 60,000 subscribers. Shepherd admits that he writes less about cats now than he used to, but that's only because he has a staff to do it for him.

"The Internet has just gotten more and more full of cats. Everyone knows what you mean when you say 'cat videos,'" he says. "It's a catchall for everything that's fun on the Internet."

El-P is the cat-owning half of Run the Jewels. He's had three cats in his life—Fluffy, who belonged to his older sister; Murphy, who El-P had from the third grade until the pet died 18 years later; and Mini Beast, whom he says was his best friend until she died earlier this year, also at the age of 18. Charity work and the sight of cute cats on the Internet exploit similar feelings of hopefulness and survival, El-P insists.

"We've tapped into something in humanity that we didn't quite know before the Internet: Seeing a cat doing something goofy and cute is one of the greatest things that can happen to you during the course of a day," he says. "Cat owners knew that, but I don't think the world knew that. Seeing a cat make an adorable face is now maybe changing lives."

There is a science, Shepherd says, to the way that online cats have become surrogates for the postcards of tropical scenes that cubicle workers hang above their desks or use as the wallpaper of their work computers. The Internet has become a de facto cat park, where people who can't take their felines to dog parks come to experience and share the joy of other people's pets.

"There are several studies that show that the things that people share, as opposed to just look at, are things that inspire a visceral, positive emotion. If something makes you really happy, you are likely to share that experience of joy with your friends," says Shepherd. "Our response and feelings for animals are one of the strongest we have in common and want to share with each other. Cat videos and pictures are particularly powerful for that."

  • Illustration by Chris Williams

Very few people understand this better than Mike Bridavsky, a recording engineer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Bridavsky already owned four cats in 2011, when a friend sent him a photo of an animal he should adopt. Another friend's mother had found a litter of ferals in her backyard and fostered them for a while. One bounced from home to home, with no one taking permanent ownership.

"She was completely wild-looking, extremely small, unhealthy. I didn't expect her to live very long, based on her size. She had no teeth, and she had this scab on her lip from bumping her long, weird face into things," Bridavsky remembers. "I don't think people were ready to commit. It's a lot to take on. But we clicked immediately."

Lil BUB, as Bridavsky soon named her, clicked immediately with the Internet. The first photo of BUB that Bridavsky shared went viral. He created a Tumblr account of BUB photos, and it, too, became wildly popular. The cat's tongue began to stick out, making her look like a tiny, tabby Boston Terrier that's constantly panting. Managers and merchandisers began to call, hoping to license the cat's image and send her on meet-and-greet tours around the world. Shepherd even named BUB the second "most important cat of 2012."

But just before her first birthday, BUB's health began to disintegrate rapidly. Finally, a doctor diagnosed her with osteopetrosis, a rare hereditary condition in which the bones become simultaneously dense and weak.

"As a kitten, she was super playful, but as she got older, I noticed that she was having a harder time moving. Her bones were growing more deformed," Bridavsky says. "When it got so bad that she could barely walk at all, one specialist told us that it was only going to get worse, that we'd have to put her down soon. It sucked."

But her fans started recommending alternative cures. One suggested reiki, an Asian practice of spiritual energy healing. It helped. And another fan that met Lil BUB at a meet-and-greet said that her veterinarian neighbor had treated an elderly dog with arthritis with the help of an Assisi Loop, a ring that produces a targeted electromagnetic field. It's used to reduce swelling and pain.

For Lil BUB, that remains the remedy. Her leg began to twitch from increased blood flow after 15 minutes with the Assisi Loop. After being unable to walk or move much at all, BUB, who Bridavsky refers to as "a magical space cat" and "the most amazing cat on the planet," now jumps on and off his couch. As it turns out, another of BUB's fans is an osteopetrosis researcher who insists that BUB's symptoms can be reversed with continued electromagnetic therapy.

"I have theories that this is all her doing. If it weren't for her fame, we wouldn't have found a treatment for her bone condition," he says. "The only way she could learn to survive is by reaching every corner of the Internet and finding a cure for her bone condition. Her method of survival is different than other cats'."

BUB has since recorded a song with Andrew W.K. and served as the acting CEO of the ASPCA, and Bridavsky is now in talks for BUB to appear as a celebrity guest with Meow the Jewels. Bridavsky has funneled that star power into an effort to save other cats with special needs.

He pays himself $36,000 each year, which he considers "a reasonable Midwestern salary." But most of what BUB makes goes straight to other cats. To date, Lil BUB's Big FUND for the ASPCA has raised more than $200,000 by allocating merchandise and meet-and-greet profits to small animal shelters across the country. In June, to celebrate BUB's third birthday, Bridavsky set a $50,000, one-month fundraising goal for the charity. The final tally surpassed $60,000.

"That's the magic of BUB: You set a goal that high, and people are going to do whatever they can to meet it. They are rooting for BUB, and it's all for charity," Bridavsky says. "She's an underdog, and despite her differences, she's a superhero. She can do more than humans."

She can, perhaps in the coming months, even meow the jewels.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Good kitty"

  • Cats, hip-hop and the internet combine to raise $65,000 for Michael Brown


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