YOLO is an acronym for "you only live once". Similar to carpe diem or memento mori, it implies that one should enjoy life, even if that entails taking risks. The phrase and acronym are both used in youth culture and music, and were both popularized by the 2011 song "The Motto" by Canadian rapper Drake.
The phrase "you only live once" is commonly attributed to Mae West, but variations of the phrase have been in use for over 100 years, including as far back as (the German equivalent of) "one lives but once in the world" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his 1774 play Clavigo and as the title of a waltz, "Man lebt nur einmal!" ("You Only Live Once!") by Johann Strauss II in 1855.
Use in music and usage chronology
The phrase has been used many times in music over the years. It was used by The Strokes in the form of their song "You Only Live Once" which was released on their album First Impressions of Earth on January 3, 2006. The motto was used by pop duo Unsolved Mysteries as their song titled "You Only Live Once," which premiered on Episode 7 of American television show Skins (Episode 7 premiered on February 28, 2011). It was also used by American deathcore band Suicide Silence with their song "You Only Live Once," which appeared on their album The Black Crown on July 26, 2011. It was later popularized by rapper Drake, who planned to release a joint mixtape entitled YOLO along with Rick Ross. To promote this mixtape, "YOLO" was mentioned prominently on several of their tracks such as "The Motto," released on November 29, 2011, with the aim of promoting the tape. This use has elevated the word into prominence and common colloquial use. In late 2012, Drake expressed a desire to obtain royalties for use of "YOLO" due to the proliferation of merchandise bearing the phrase and lyrics from his song, which have been commonly seen at stores such as Walgreens and Macys, but he does not own a trademark on the word.
The popular comedy band The Lonely Island released a song titled "YOLO" parodying the phrase and the people who say it. "YOLO" features singer Adam Levine and rapper Kendrick Lamar. The song has charted in many countries including #60 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In youth culture
The phrase has achieved currency in youth culture. For example, a high school prank in Chicago, Illinois involved high school students chanting "YOLO". Some people have graffitied "YOLO" on walls. It has become a popular Twitter hashtag. Some youth have said that it is their motto, and actor Zac Efron has a tattoo with the acronym. The phrase and acronym are used in merchandise worn by teenagers such as hats and t-shirts.
Online media including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post describe YOLO as the "newest acronym you'll love to hate" and "dumb." The word has been criticized for its use in conjunction with reckless behavior, most notably in a Twitter post by aspiring rapper Ervin McKinness just prior to his death that described driving drunk at 120 mph (193 km/h): "Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #FuckIt YOLO."
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