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God Damn America As Much As You Like:
How YouTube is Transforming Elections and Pretty Much Everything Else
Phil West

Remember the Judas Priest classic “Electric Eye?” Sure you do. It’s one of a number of paranoid fantasy metal songs about a Big Brother-like presence spying on you, watching your every move, pretty much throwing a monkey wrench in your ability to party. In other words, it knows exactly where in the glove compartment you stashed that pipe. And if you don’t remember it, don’t worry – you can see Rob Halford in all his leather-clad, OK-now-we-see-he’s-gay glory by typing “judas priest electric eye” into a YouTube search box. You’ll then get a staggering number of versions, including a walkthrough of how to play the song on the expert level of Rock Band, which makes this medium-level Rock Band player feel very puny indeed.

So though I’m sure Judas Priest wasn’t thinking about Zay Tonday and Chris Crocker, let alone a Web platform enabling users to create and post their own content (or just pirate it from TV), when they wrote lyrics such as “You think you’ve private lives/think nothing of the kind.” Yet there’s certainly a prophetic quality to those seemingly paranoid sentiments. YouTube is bringing us one step closer to being randomly captured as a digital image and viewed worldwide. It’s not just that you can be captured on video anywhere you go now – once you’re uploaded, you could potentially go viral, and then, perhaps, go to mainstream media outlets like VH1’s Best Week Ever or, perhaps more alarmingly, to one of the major networks.

Take, for instance, the recent and infantile “Fire in the Hole” pranks, in which teenaged boys ordered sodas from fast-food drive-through workers, threw the sodas back at the workers while yelling “Fire in the Hole,” and recorded the ensuing hilarity for upload. Mainstream media has been only too happy to re-air the footage even after YouTube took down the original videos. (In the case of the “Fire in the Hole” videos, for instance, the Today Show aired a story on the phenomenon that included the videos, and then aired the videos again for a story covering a lawsuit involving one of the victims.) These were victims – victims of relatively harmless Diet Coke missiles, but victims all the same – who were merely doing their thing working a shift at the local Wendy’s, and became unwitting pseudo-celebrities due to enterprising young assholes with cameras.

And God help you and your prospects on YouTube, if you’re trying to attract attention from, say, millions of voters, as we know all too well from the 2008 Presidential primaries, Oh, how I laugh now when I recall a March conversation with my friend across the hall in my office building. We talk a lot about the election, and Obama’s religion came up. He asked me, “What church does he belong to anyway?” And I said, “Church of Christ – so it’s not like that’s going to be a problem.”

Oh, ho ho ho. How I laugh at those simpler times. Not just any Church of Christ, mind you, but Trinity United, home base of Oprah as well as Obama, once led by a passionate and maverick preacher named Rev. Jeremiah Wright who would become as notorious a figure in Presidential campaign politics as Willie Horton, Paula Jones, and John Kerry’s windsurfing board.

So how does YouTube change the equation? For mere consumers, it no longer leaves us beholden to whenever a network chooses to air a clip, it doesn’t necessarily have to be accompanied by whatever explanatory on-air text accompanied that clip initially, and it allows us to choose among whichever versions of the clip exist. We can view it, we can send it to others, we can post it to our own sites – we can be involved with consumption as well as dissemination. In the case of the Rev. Wright video, though, let’s examine the most obvious facet for consumers: once you arrive at the video, you can watch it as many times as you like.

The more and more I watch the video – and certainly, we all saw it enough, taken from grainy video camera footage at Trinity to YouTube to those who stumbled on it and took it viral past the computer screens straight to the TV screens – the more I’m convinced it’s not the words that were really troubling to those offended. If you look at the “God Damn America” text on paper, you can see what Wright’s trying to do rhetorically. But it’s the cadence, it’s the reaction of the crowd, it’s the call-and-response quality and audience reactions that are so unsettling to those unfamiliar with and uneasy with the tropes of the modern American black church.

Forget for a moment that Wright goes farther than many black preachers in some of his most controversial assertions. It seems that what’s really troubling in the “God Damn America” clip is the fervor, the passion, the enthusiasm with which he’s saying it. He follows it, of course, with saying America should be damned for acting in neglectful and careless ways. But the combination of his passion and the seemingly anti-American statement he’s making begs comparison to images dating back to the Iranian hostage situation – Arabs lashing out at Americans, combining a passionate, dare we say religious, intensity with a direct challenge to American authority and superiority.

It doesn’t help, of course, that “God Damn America” are three of the most disquieting words spoken by anyone this political season. Stripped of its context in the framework of the Wright speech, there’s a rhetorical ugliness to it. It goes after patriotism about as directly as anything short of burning an American flag. It’s problematic for Obama, of course, because the very people suspicious of him as a candidate and even as a credible American – the ones most likely to believe Obama is Muslim – are the ones most likely to react viscerally to anyone saying “God Damn America.” And one can’t help but think the messenger and his relationship to Obama only amplifies the level of distaste with which they respond.

Though the Republican brand is damaged enough that the “God Damn America” clip hasn’t yet worked in the context of a pro-GOP ad, North Carolina Republicans have already tried it (in the primary season, no less), I can’t imagine that it won’t be tried again. If you don’t have any hope to offer, of course, you go right to the fear card.

What’s particularly striking about the Wright video is that it didn’t start out as a sermon broadcast directly to mainstream media. It was recorded by people inside the church during a Sunday service, was uploaded to YouTube, and then went viral. Mainstream media helped spread the word, of course, but to get there, an initial online marketing effort, to which most of us were oblivious, took place. Though the Wright videos led Obama – indirectly -- to make a speech on race that has been one of the high points of the race so far, I think Obama supporters like myself would have been happier to not familiarize ourselves with Wright’s sermons. By the same token, I don’t feel richer for seeing Michael Pfleger’s embarrassing Hillary Clinton impersonation in this Trinity guest preaching stint, though I did temporarily amuse myself wondering if the Trinity pulpit has magical powers to make those who stand on it rant helplessly if they fail their saving throw against filtering one’s public speech.

That said, I’m ultimately grateful that YouTube users have been diligent enough to record mainstream media’s best Campaign 2008 moments for posterity. My personal favorite from the primary season was MSNBC’s loud-off between host Chris Matthews and Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe, after the West Virginia Clinton victory speech that McAuliffe hyped earlier in the evening by proclaiming it “would be one of the best speeches ever,” to Keith Olbermann’s endless delight. Basically, McAuliffe was trying to assert that the media wants the race between Clinton and Obama to end and all but says MSNBC is in bed with Obama. Matthews, in turn, actually used the term “strawman,” asserting the media would love nothing more than the Dem race to go all the way to the convention. “When you’re arguing about this,” Matthews yells to McAuliffe, “YOU’RE ARGUING WITH NO ONE!” It’s hilarity on the highest order – at least, since Family Guy’s “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” parody – and describing it as I just did doesn’t do justice to how hilarious the clip is. (I’m not even going to attempt to explain “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” by the way.)

But it’s not just recording mainstream media that makes YouTube an indispensable part of the political landscape circa 2008. YouTube makes us producers as well as consumers, and when we’re pointing to evidence of this in the history books online archives 50 years from now, certainly will.i.am and company’s “Yes We Can” video is going to be what we talk about. It had the production values to be received as a campaign ad, but it had the grassroots quality to be received as a labor of love, made by supporters through impulse of sheer enthusiasm for a candidate. It’s amazing to me that, in 2004, the 527s were seen as the torchbearers for grassroots support. One election cycle later, and the right’s disgust with MoveOn combined with the left’s disgust for the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth has given us a pretty jaundiced view of the 527s. What “Yes We Can” shows us is that it doesn’t require purchasing TV time to disseminate a commercial reaching literally millions of viewers.

Of course, a great number of the eligible voters in the United States will never see “Yes We Can” on YouTube. The video appeals to a specific segment of voters who, if properly motivated, can not only be counted on to vote in great numbers to vote for Obama, but also to volunteer for him with youthful vigor. Which works out great this year, because Obama’s opponent is the exact opposite of youthful vigor.

McCain’s recent revelation that he’s not exactly a wiz with the computer is maybe nothing more than an admission of a generational divide that exists for those in the pre-computer era, but it also might be a secret shout-out to those who are, shall we say, suspicious of computers and what they stand for. It’s that kind of anti-Obamaness in everything McCain embodies that makes me like Public Service Announcement’s “john.he.is” video even more fun than “Yes We Can.”

“john.he.is” is a parody of “Yes We Can,” featuring McCain in approximately the same way Obama’s featured in the “Yes We Can” video – black and white footage of McCain speeches interspersed with a sensitive guitar-playing guy and other commenters. Whereas it’s celebrities on the original (hi, Scarlett!), it’s PSA cast members on the McCain video looking vaguely reminiscent of those celebrities. And whereas “Yes We Can” shows a politically transcendent support on the Obama video, “john.he.is” is designed to poke fun at McCain in a purely partisan way, taking his rather unfortunate “bomb Iran” song, and his taken-out-of-context-but-what-the-hell comment about war in Iraq for 100 years.

If “Yes We Can” shows the high production values and celebrity panache now available in a medium removed from any sort of intermediary controlling forces – that is, no studio head or label head has to sign off on the video before it goes straight to the masses – “john.he.is” shows that YouTube is getting so ubiquitous that a YouTube video can be effectively parodied using the same tropes existing in the original viral video.

The most extreme current example of that is not a political video – but rather, geek-rockers extraordinare Weezer, with their video “Pork and Beans,” who essentially built an entire video out of YouTube clips. But as they did with Happy Days in their “Buddy Holly” video, they go beyond mere static clips of what they’re parodying (or, perhaps celebrating) to actually interact with the cast. In “Buddy Holly,” this meant making eyes at Joanie and cheering Fonzie on during his dance-off tribute to the Cossacks; in “Pork and Beans,” this means having Tay Zonday sing backup in the studio and Rivers Cuomo consoling Chris Crocker. The more encyclopedic your knowledge of viral videos, the more resonant the video for “Pork and Beans.”

And if the song doesn’t have anything to do with YouTube? In a way, it may have more to do with YouTube than “Buddy Holly” did with Happy Days. The use of Fonzie and company with Weezer’s largely Generation X-audience has a lot to do with nostalgia – particularly, the nostalgia that allows us to both remember childhood entertainment fondly while re-glimsping them through a more sarcastic perspective. (Note: The whole appeal for grunge music is based in large part on gathering a new sarcastic perspective on heavy metal riffs for fans who once appreciated those riffs without any ironic positioning whatsoever.)

But “Pork and Beans” and YouTube are alike in that they are placed into the public sphere for immediate consumption, but they also enter into the archive of pop culture circa 2008, perhaps placed for future nostalgia. As I write this on a JetBlue flight where the only channel we’re not getting is ABC and the Euro 2008 Final I desperately want to watch, the person next to me is watching a VH1 retrospective on the year 2000 as part of its I Love the New Millennium series, done in the style of I Love the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s retrospectives. Comedians comment on the fads, movies, and TV shows that shaped the zeitgeist of a particular year, sometimes making the very comments that viewers are simultaneously saying or thinking at home.

Is it too soon to be nostalgic about 2000? Given that 2000 gave us the George W. Bush presidency, I’m not one to chortle appreciatively about those wacky hanging chads. But I do understand, living in an increasingly digital age and an increasingly paperless society, the hint of worry we might be facing about the permanence of what we’re creating. An archive of online information exists, but it relies on electricity and an Internet connection in order to tap into it. Or it relies on memory and the viral power still inherent in talking to friends and colleagues about what exists out there.

Who knows if YouTube’s going to be with us for the long haul? It seems as permanent as permanent gets these days – it’s visual, it combines the active engagement of the viewer to seek and select content with the passivity of watching TV, and it allows each user to locate specific on-demand content. Certainly, it will morph as technologies advance, but the basic principle of a global network of consumers and producers relatively free to program anything is going to remain exhilarating for a while.

It’s not like the need for political discourse will be obliterated with an Obama victory. His recent FISA vote shows the left (particularly the blogger left) will have some moments of dissatisfaction with him the way the left did with Clinton throughout his presidency (albeit for decidedly different reasons too complicated to get into without bifurcating into a whole separate essay). But the means for expressing discontent or endorsement or hanging a candidate by his or her own words have become a lot more interesting since the Clinton Era, in which we would have had to call into local talk radio or make a zine or write a letter to the editor or a protest song. Now, we can be everywhere, like an electric eye, or more precisely, like a video of “Electric Eye” with Rob Halford in a dated yet timelessly amusing studded leather number.