Last week I prodigally returned to the barren wasteland of northwest Ohio to participate in the latest, most excellent installment of Bowling Green’s Battleground States Conference. Yes, although I was merely a humble presenter (repping independent scholarship), I would have to say I thought this conference was better than the ones I had a hand in planning. Maybe hotel parties make all the difference.
I delivered a paper on Soulja Boy that was well received, and at the prompting of colleagues, I will make this paper available below. I had entertained thoughts of trying to get an expanded version published somewhere, but who knows when I’ll do that? Independent scholarship is a tough game. Paper below (I don’t particularly like the title; I was originally going to do something more general on YouTube dances)…
If anything marked the rather lackluster year in popular music in 2007, it was the ubiquitous “Crank That Soulja Boy,” a catchy low-budget slice of southern rap that spent seven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts and seemingly much longer on continuous loop on radio, as well as through my head. “Crank That” was much more than a pop hit – it was an multimedia phenomenon encompassing an entire subgenre of independently produced music, dance, and video, all stemming from the computer of Mississippi teenager DeAndre Way, AKA Soulja Boy. Unlike other pop hits by Kanye and Fergie, backed with high production values and concentrated marketing schemes involving dozens of record label employees, “Crank That” caught flame through the small-scale efforts of internet-savvy teens spreading their homemade work through MySpace and YouTube, eventually riding to the top of the charts on the output of legions of fans who not only learned the song and the accompanying dance, but in turn contributed their own homespun versions and remixes to the internet mediasphere. The amateurs beat the professionals on every level, a process satirized in the song’s official video, which came out long after Soulja Boy became an internet phenomenon: as blogger Kevin Driscoll points out, “Once upon a time, videos broke songs via MTV/BET but this… is an official acknowledgement and certification of a song that’s already a hit. Instead of preceding the takeoff of a hit record, this video arrives near the end of its pop hit lifecycle.”
I would argue that “Crank That Soulja Boy,” while undeniably a novelty hit (one that I enjoy), also represents deeper changes in media production and consumption, with implications that extend into the sphere of the political. I hope to demonstrate how “Crank That” is not merely a pop phenomenon or even the triumph of DIY marketing, but actually reveals contours of how contemporary media structures culture through interactive surveillance according to the dictates of flexible capital.
“Crank That Soulja Boy,” while undeniably catchy, is hardly a breakthrough in musical innovation. It draws its power from extant subgenres in dirty south rap, particularly Atlanta snap music, with its emphasis on simple melodies, heaps of 808 bass, and accompanying dance moves: notable snap records include Dem Franchize Boys’ “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” and Huey’s “Pop Lock and Drop It.” What makes Crank That stand out is how the larger marketing process, which subsumes even the structure of the song. At its base, the lyrics of the song simply spell out the moves for the accompanying dance, no different from other dance craze records like Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” from 1960. But while Checker exhorts “everybody [to] clap [their] hands,” including the entire audience as “round n round and up and down we go again,” Soulja Boy’s lyrics are firmly in the realm of voyeurism. “Watch me” he continually repeats, even taunting those joining in with “Nope, you can’t do it like me / So, don’t try to do it like me / Folks, I see you trying to do it like me / Man that dance was ugly.” The song points not to the dance, but to the video of the dance – and indeed, if you want to master the moves, I have found Soulja Boy’s instructional video on YouTube to be essential. The song, while structurally self-referential – its repetitive cadences are one of the keys to its catchiness – continually gestures to a larger multimedia universe, a process indicative of what media scholar Henry Jenkins dubs “convergence culture” in which cultural expression (referred to somewhat reductively as “content”) increasingly extends across a variety of both media and brands. As Jenkins’ Convergence Culture Consortium promises to “connect researchers and thinkers from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program with companies looking to understand new strategies for doing business in a converging media environment,” it is no surprise that he and his students are fans of Soulja Boy’s apparent mastery of cutting-edge internet marketing, and have dutifully, if a bit amateurishly, followed suit in the trend.
Such copycat videos by “participatory” fans propelled Soulja Boy to stardom. What interests me about Soulja Boy’s dance itself is how it rearticulates established black vernacular codes of dance within the context of new media marketing and commodification. Crank That dances borrow from established black vernacular dances such as Atlanta snap dancing and collegiate step dancing to create a choreographed line dance often (but not always) performed in a group or duo. The goal is not courtship, or even social interaction, but spectacle and exhibition, what Jonathan David Jackson dubs “individuation” which “involves asserting such a pronounced sense of style that the black vernacular dancer’s actions invite a charged, voyeuristic attention from the community at the ritual event.” Jackson’s “ritual event” refers to social gatherings at dance clubs, a context which does not apply to the Crank That phenomenon, even though Crank That dances can be performed in clubs. Indeed, the dance itself was the basis of forming a “community” (a word I use with some trepidation when it refers to parasocial mediated networks of relationships that occur on the internet), although identities tied to regional and local communities inflect many of the dances. Here the vaunted spontaneity and improvisation inherent to black vernacular dance, as described by Jacqui Malone, John Roberts, Tricia Rose and others, has been subjected to a kind of division of labor, with dispersed groups inventing their own variations of the Soulja Boy theme through remixing more than live improvisation. In a remix, as in improvisation, initial dance elements are recombined and rearranged, and new dance moves are added. However, the process is mystified in the grand tradition of commodity fetishism: we are alienated from the mode of production. All we see is the finished product, as rough and lo-fi as it so often is – Crank That Spiderman, Crank That Aquaman, or, the latest with a record deal, Crank That Batman.
This remixability was instrumental in Soulja Boy’s success and designed into both the dance and the song. The dance boils down to half a dozen moves that can be recombined with little effort. The song is structured, as one acquaintance put it, “like a Fruity Loops demo.” Fruity Loops is a popular, frequently pirated, software sequencer used by Soulja Boy and countless other PC producers to make hip hop and dance beats. “Crank That Soulja Boy” not only uses preset sounds – such as deep 808 kicks and the instantly recognizable steel pan drums, but also the default preset tempo of 70 beats per minute. The melody starts on middle C, the default note for programming melodies. In short, the beat is about as simple a Fruity Loops production can get, although that does not detract from its quality. This simplicity makes producing remixes on par with the original a snap – pun not intended. Previous efforts at generating fan remixes have come from successful groups with high production values, such as Public Enemy and Nine Inch Nails, and were pitched at amateur producers somewhat more technically proficient than your average teenager fiddling with pirated software. Needless to say, they all but fizzled.
Soulja Boy supplemented the remixability of his output with a grassroots marketing campaign based on deception and mass bombardment – in a word, spam. “People don’t really buy CDs anymore, they download music for free. So I took whatever the number one song was, say it was 50 Cent ‘In Da Club’. I’d rename ‘Crank That’ to that and send it out, and everybody would download it for free. But when they’d get it, it’d be my song. Then the Google searches and Myspace searches came through wondering who I was.” This is viral marketing at its most viral. Not only does it propagate itself, it can do so surreptitiously, and even mutate into new strains. And Mr. Collipark, the impresario who gave Soulja Boy a $600,000 deal, lays out the obvious advantages on his end: “I think he’s the future of the way music’s going. Coming into the game, he’s done all the work for the record company who’s trying to find an artist with substance and an existing fan base.”
Media scholar Mark Andrejevic anticipated this kind of unwaged labor would be an instrumental part of “Web 2.0” in his work on reality TV and surveillance. Andrejevic notes that in the same way that “the commercialization of the mass media modeled the centralized and abstracted forms of production associated with mass society… the advent of interactive media both embodies and facilitates the emergence of flexible capital,” where capital is no longer bound by constraints of place or space. Mass customization, of which remixing is one highly creative aspect, is a cultural mode of the political economy that results from such postmodern finance. Major labels, built on commercial mass media and monopolies over distribution, are rapidly crumbling in the face of music based on this kind of grassroots customization, of which Soulja Boy is the latest greatest incarnation. Flexible capital collapses the spaces that were part of the mass production division of labor. The contraction of the divide between production and consumption, between artist and viewer, accompanies the destruction of the discrete worlds of home and office, of work and leisure – notice how most of the fan videos (and indeed, the original Crank That video) take place in living rooms and kitchens. The engine of this process is the personal computer.
Andrejevic is also prescient in describing how surveillance is crucial to this emerging economic system of mass participation and interactivity. “Interactivity allows formerly passive and anonymous viewers to make their viewing and consumption decisions known to marketers in advance. The labor that goes into these decisions – formerly decommodified and unproductive from the point of view of capital – can then be used to generate customized and individualized marketing strategies.” On the web, no piece of information goes unparsed. Social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace cultivate “communities” which function as incredibly data-rich focus groups for new products – products often generated by users themselves. Surveillance – in the form of voluntary self-disclosure – generates this valuable information. We should remember Foucault’s insight that rather than purely repressive, surveillance is actually productive – the gaze interpellates and impels the subject to increase the value of their activities, a phenomenon well known to anyone who has jockeyed a cash register under the watchful eye of a security camera or whose work-time internet browsing has been monitored by the company that employs them (here I speak from experience).
It should come as no surprise that the bodies of black youth, subject to the most penetrating of gazes in American culture, are the most productive of this system. “Crank That Soulja Boy” is hip hop morphed by the external concerns of the various parties that monitor, tailored to established concerns of not only fans, but critics and marketers as well. Soulja Boy has turned an environment where rappers continue to face stern criticism for lyrics that pale in comparison with the radically offensive rhymes of NWA, where black-controlled media outlets like BET and urban radio impose the strictest censorship, where new teenage stars can get more promotion than artists with established careers, to his advantage. In the grand tradition of hip hop, marketing forces are detourned and manipulated, and thus revolutionized, through DIY creative action. In “Crank That Soulja Boy” we don’t see something as cut-and-dry as “resistance” or “collusion” – we see the very edge, the avant-garde if you will, of late capitalist media production. Only incorporating larger critiques of political economy into our analyses can we hope to understand these developments and begin to work on strategies to respond to them.