It’s a truism of course that, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”: the type of distribution system for particular media not only affects the content of the media, but actually determines it in some sense. There’s an echo of a “vulgar Marxist” political economy in this aphorism (content is determined by who’s paying), although McLuhan himself was happier quoting Finnegan’s Wake and consulting for businesses than brandishing the ol’ hammer-n-sickle.
Anyway, I have no interest in dredging up the corpse of a Woody Allen cameo. My interest lies in music, which seems to undergo a revolution in distribution methods every three years or so. And hip hop proves to be the avant-garde of capitalist realist pop yet again. It was first on the ringtone bandwagon, and the spacious high-and-low-frequency productions characteristic of snap music was nothing less than the perfect ringtone. D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” is probably the quintessential ringtone track; with its poor quality Casio production and mostly incompetent rapping, it’s suited much better for a 15-second loop than a 3:30 pop song (although it went to #1 regardless). According to Wikipedia, The Source hailed it as the worst hip hop beat of all time.
Ringtones are passe now (you heard it here first); after the novelty wore off, people realized that hearing the same 15 second snippet of whatever was hot two weeks ago wears thin rather quickly. The new hot distribution method for music is YouTube.
That’s right, just as MTV and MTV2 had all but done away with music videos, the form rears its oft-ugly-but-done-up head yet again. Funny, really; I’ve read plenty of music video scholarship from the 1980s, and most of its bandwagony predictions for new forms of postmodern Ur-art were hilariously off-base. Lauding “experimental” videos like Madonna’s “Material Girl” rings rather hollowly when you realize that music videos only got worse and less imaginative as the 1990s wore on, i.e. when making videos became an integral facet of music promotion instead of a weird niche for film students. Videos, despite predictions from TV scholars talking out of their asses, never became the predominant mode of music distribution — people still bought records after all, in ever-increasing (until 2001) number, even though Madonna records suck compared to her videos. When you have the recording, you can control the song that’s on; you can’t control what MTV shows (although TRL, MTV’s last hurrah, inserted an element of pseudo-control via voting).
YouTube offers instant (and free and legal) access to practically any recording through its catalog of videos, making it one of the best places to listen to music when you’re online — better than the Java-choked ad-catastrophe of MySpace. And it’s not only label-commissioned promotional music videos, either — anybody can upload their own videos using their new favorite song as a soundtrack.
What exactly is this doing to music? We’ve had rumblings, but no one to my knowledge has hit the nail on the head. They cheered when OKGo went from corporate-indie never-weres to YouTube stars on the back of some choreographed dancing. Kelefa Sanneh noted that despite everyone still getting their panties in a bunch over those evil rappers, “[h]ip-hop radio is full of cheerful dance tracks.” Not just dance tracks, but literally tracks about how to do specific dance moves. It’s like dozens of little Electric Slides all over your FM dial. Sanneh’s article implies that increased policing and censorship of hip hop has lead it to abandon controversial lyrical content in favor of tricking out the beats, and I think that’s partially the case. But the real story is the medium: because people listen to new music through YouTube, and are encouraged to participate in its distribution (if not in its production — important to note, all you fandom apologist Henry Jenkins followers) through their own videos, the natural — indeed, ancient — form of particpation in music is through dance. And the music is meeting the medium.
Think about this: if you’re an aspiring hip hop star, you want as many people as possible to watch your video on YouTube, and then go out and make their own video tributes to your song. The easiest way to do that is to promote a new dance (usually with some sort of regional roots), sit back, and watch as teenagers across the country record and upload their best attempts. And this is way, way bigger than the Hustle — because it doesn’t have to rely on Soul Train or Saturday Night Fever to spread the moves, a new dance can come out every week. Hell, every day.
Here’s a sampling of dance-rap tracks to make it big on the charts in the past year or so:
- Dem Franchize Boys – Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It
- Fat Joe – Lean Back
- Huey – Pop Lock and Drop It
- Crime Mob – Rock Yo Hips
- DJ Unk – Walk It Out
- DJ Unk – 2 Step
- Ciara – 1-2 Step
- Lil Jon – Snap Ya Fingers
- Young Dro – Shoulder Lean
- Young Leek – Shake and Jiggle It
- Cupid – Cupid Shuffle
I considered listing Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” too, since that’s a dance move (also prominent on Daddy Yankee’s “Impacto”) but it sucks a little too hard.
Search any of those songs on YouTube and you’ll get not only the official video (itself little more than a demonstration of dance moves), but dozens of fans doing their best 2-step on crappy webcams and cell phone cameras. My favorite manifestation of this trend so far is Chicago-native (holla!) Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat Superman.” The video acknowledges not only the YouTube distribution method, but also the crucial demographic of young children.
If you didn’t catch how to do the dance, here’s an instructional video. Soula Boy seems to really understand how to tap the YouTube market.
Now competing dances have sprung up on YouTube, DC Comics copyrights be damned. Here’s the Spiderman, which is my personal favorite:
And the Robocop of course:
And the Batman:
The peculiar democracy of dirt-cheap keyboards is in full effect — anyone with a Casio can make their own version and get in on the fun. And Soulja Boy can count on plenty of homegrown promotion for his upcoming album. Not bad for a 17-year-old.
Oh, and one little side note: YouTube dance got at least one guy a record deal: Bamabounce AKA Dj Taj, a young Baltimore club fan from Alabama, got the attention of hipster booty DJs Tittsworth and Ayres with the Wu Tang Slide, a mashup of “The Percolator,” “Moments In Love,” and that Bmore shuffle. He’s now released several records on their T&A label. Do how you do it, slow it up, do the Matrix:
All you ghetto dance producers take note: if you want to break into the mainstream, this is probably the best way to do it.