The Leading Authority on Cat Culture Explains Bongo Cat's Boundless Appeal

It's drumming the beat of our hearts.

bongo cat

The internet’s love of all things feline has once again spawned something so pure, adorable, and wholesome that even the most ardent cat haters will have trouble looking away. Its name is Bongo Cat, and it is drumming the beat of our hearts.

In May, web artist Rogue, tweeted a GIF of a pudgy, white kitten stoically slapping a table with its paws. It was cute, but video creator Ditzy Flama was the one who took it to its final form by adding bongos into the mix. Bongo Cat was created and it has taken the internet by storm. The viral meme has been remixed to include the furry creature playing the guitar, a xylophone, and rubber chickens to various online anthems like Toto’s “Africa” or Darude’s “Sandstorm.”

People are obsessed with Bongo Cat, and Abigail Tucker, the author of best-selling The Lion in the Living Room — which chronicles how cats dominated nature and our hearts — explains that Bongo Cat’s virality has everything to do with evolution, nostalgia, and human’s egocentric tendencies.

“Most of my book was about cats’ take-over of the physical world, and I thought it was so interesting that their performance was continuing in the virtual world,” she tells Inverse. “They [are] also conquerors online.”

bongo cat cymbals
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Bongo Cat’s Internet Dominance: Evolutionary Factors

Bongo Cat’s allure has evolutionary roots, Tucker explains. It all begins with how big cats move through the savannah, stray cats navigate through alleyways, and friendly house kitties maneuver around apartments. All of these felines are natural carnivores and the solitary hunting instincts of lions and tigers are still present in our pets.

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If given the opportunity, many domesticated cats will hunt down rodents, birds, and insects. Even when they aren’t outdoors or hungry, they will still carry out hunting routines, like prowling through the kitchen or pouncing on a pillow. These feral actions are both ripe for meme making and make domesticated cats a one-man show that transfix humans.

“Similar things that propel cats online also propel them in nature,” explains Tucker. “Cats perform really well in the environment of the internet, partly because of the way they hunt and move. Many hit cat memes are displaying key feline hunting behaviors. The really sudden explosions from under couches and ambushes.”

There are plenty of examples of memes that appropriate a cat’s hunter instinct, for example the “Sail Cat” video that has been viewed over 21 million times. It features a cat lurking through hanging laundry that then dives off of a balcony like a base jumper, just as the chorus to “Sail” by AWOLNATION begins to play.

Bongo Cat doesn’t exactly exhibit any hunting tendencies — if anything he seems pretty pacifistic — but it’s precisely because of the fact that cats are so unpredictable that we find them so captivating.

What are they thinking? What are they plotting? Is my cat going to attack me in my sleep or does it just want more catnip?

“Because they’re self-contained animals — they aren’t very chatty like dogs — we like to watch them go about their business and do whatever it is they’re into doing, in this case, that happens to be playing the bongos,” says Tucker.

Bongo Cat’s Internet Dominance: Nostalgia

Another potential contributing factor to Bongo Cat’s ascent was its similarity to the legendary Keyboard Cat meme. Recursiveness, after all, is yet another important ingredient to any meme because that repetition is what makes them endlessly customizable and linkable to our own past. In other words, memes are inherently nostalgic.

“Bongo cat is kind of the latest iteration of this long-standing trend of cats taking over the internet and I think one of its most compelling features is the retro appeal,” Tucker explains. “It harkens back to what many people consider the first blockbuster, internet cat meme — Keyboard Cat. For those that are sort of steeped in internet cat culture, it’s a clear and satisfying call out to this cat from yesteryear.”

Lots of Bongo Cat memes allude to Keyboard Cat, for example the one where it’s tapping its paws on colorful pianos keys, playing the Nintendo Wii theme music. It’s a throwback to the ‘80s footage of that beloved orange tabby cat gracing the internet with its funky keyboard tunes. You can’t help but recall the times you and your friend keeled over laughing at keyboard cat.

People arguably need nostalgia, or at least we constantly seek it out. Some of the research suggests this may have to do with the fact that when we’re feeling nostalgic, we’re less likely to experience loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. But revisiting the past is also an opportunity to rehash bad memories, the word nostalgia is derived in part from the Greek word for suffering. Memes anesthetize that pain, allowing us a vessel for revisiting the past in an innocuous way.

Bongo Cat’s Internet Dominance: Human’s Egocentric Tendencies

A final ingredient to Bongo Cat’s appeal is its appeal to the human ego. Tucker also points out that Bongo Cat shares similarities to the classic Japanese cartoon, Hello Kitty. While this can definitely trigger feelings of nostalgia, she says its minimalistic style entices humans to project themselves onto the drawing.

“You can also see parallels with another global blockbuster kitty, Hello Kitty. With sort of the very streamlined, minimized face and the eyes that are basically just dots,” says Tucker. “It’s using this blueprint of a human-like face for us to pour our feelings and ideas into and use it as a vehicle because of this happy accident of the fact that they look like us.”

This aspect of Hello Kitty’s success has been widely reported by Japanese culture publications and even studied as a psychological phenomenon. Bongo Cat uses an extremely similar design and it’s made even clearer that people want to impose themselves onto the original drawing based on how many varieties of the feline the internet has created. It turns us into literal cat people.

Psychological projection like this is a subconscious coping mechanism that humans exhibit to deal with unwanted emotions and feelings. But in this case it was meant to mirror the consumer, so that they make the cartoon meaningful to them in personal ways.

It remains to be seen if Bongo Cat has the staying power of Hello Kitty, but one thing is certain: It’s likely struck a bongo with the the meme-lovers of the internet for some very subtly powerful ways.