In the bid to become the song of the summer, pop artists are using the hashtag symbol to title their songs — from Mariah Carey and Miguel's "#Beautiful" to Busta Rhymes's "#TWERKIT" to Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull's "#LiveItUp." Will.I.Am even used a hashtag to name his whole album "#willpower," which includes a single titled "#thatpower."
"Seems to me as if the hashtag has finally broken free of its Twitter role as a topic marker and set itself up as a free-standing typographic ornament," Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information, says in an email.
"It's a way of adopting something that everybody recognizes, changing the functionality a little bit, and being creative in the process — making it your own — but showing that you still know what's going on in popular culture," says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and author the upcoming "Words on a Screen: The Fate of Reading in an Online World."
The hashtag's origin is credited to tech forefather Chris Messina, who suggested (appropriately, in a tweet) using the # key to classify tweets about groups, events and subjects on Twitter. But it has evolved to inject an extra layer of meaning within each 140 character statement.
"Used in many creative ways, the hashtag ends up being used in jokes, for various memes, for self effacing commentary — a kind of meta-commentary on one's message," says Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and a language columnist for the Boston Globe. "It was a very sort of simple straight forward convention that developed on Twitter that people invested with all sorts of special uses."
In a nod to its growing relevance outside it original usage, the American Dialect Society chose the term as its 2012 word of the year (its predecessors include "occupy" and "app"). "Hashtag was emerging from strictly Twitter use to a more cultural use," says Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society. No longer just a social media tool, the # symbol is appearing in text messages and on T-shirts. The term "hashtag" is being said in everyday spoken language.
Linguists now ponder whether the use of the # sign as well as term "hashtag" can sustain its relevancy outside the mode of communication that forged it – particularly as the tide of technology dictates Twitter will go the way of the telegraph or even MySpace in terms of its ubiquity.
"It's possible that the hashtag could outlive the life cycle of Twitter." says Zimmer. "Sometimes the vestiges of technology can outlive the technology itself in our languages."
The artists that have elected to include the hashtag in their song titles may not have put much though into its permanence (or lack thereof), but they are certainly hoping to capitalize on its momentum. Ironically, some wonder if Will.I.Am's "#willpower" is "the death knell of the hashtag." But in interviews, the artist's defense of his hashtag use at least references its categorical origins.
Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull's "#LiveItUp" appears to be shooting for Twitter's hashtag slogan mining. Perhaps they hope #LiveItUp will be the #YOLO of the Summer of 2013, and thus their song becomes this summer's anthem. ("YOLO" stands for "You Only Live Once" and is an abbreviation popularized by musicians like Drake and Rick Ross).
Busta Rhymes may be the most self-aware about his hashtag usage. Hashtag aside, "Twerk It" refers to another meme-y term, meaning a certain type of dirty dancing. He has been employing the #TWERKIT hashtag on almost a daily basis on his own Twitter account and even refers to Instagram in his song,
"#Beautiful" however seems to the most arbitrary in its hashtag usage. As a marketing tool "#Beautiful" is a horrible hashtag, generic to the point that it can refer to almost anything. The song itself does not use the term in some sort of referential, categorical or ironic manner – everything Mariah Carey describes is just meant to be understood as literally — and plainly — beautiful.
With the exception Miguel (who is only featured in "#Beautiful") none of the artists using the hashtag are up-and-comers. Mariah Carey, Busta Rhymes, Jennifer Lopez and Will.I.Am have been making music for decades.
"There's an air of desperation about it in terms of trying to latch on to the latest trend," says Zimmer, adding it reminds him of the hashtag abuse by LL Cool J – another middle aged musician — at this year's Grammys. "It's a double edge sword which we see all the time with youth slang and other forms of language that are associated with young people."
And it appears that the ironic and humorous undertones of the hashtag that helped it infiltrate pop culture have been left by the wayside.
"What slang often needs is a kind of oppositional sense to it — that this is opposing the standard way of speaking — and so once it becomes mainstream it may be time to move on to the next thing," says Zimmer. All of the titles appear to be employing the hashtag earnestly (or at least as earnest as one can be about "twerking").
"That kind of overuse for marketing purposes probably doesn't do much to help the longterm fortune of the hashtag itself and the word 'hashtag' to label it," says Zimmer.
However, the hashtag becoming less "cool" courtesy of its use by aging pop stars may not be its death sentence. One only needs to look at the evolution of "cool" itself. Taking root in the 1940s Jazz scene and becoming the slang of 1950s teen generation, by 1960s the word lost much of its edgy appeal only to find new life in the '50s nostalgia of the 1970s. It has now matured to permanent, albeit less inventive, fixture in the English language.
"Often these relics have a staying power, even if they have an ironic use. By the time the hashtag becomes retro then it has a new appeal, a new basis for calling back a previous era," says Zimmer. With technology evolving at exponential speed, he adds, "The time when the hashtag seems retro might come quite quickly."