Bad Romance: Five Years of YouTube and the Apolitical White Noise

2010 marked the fifth anniversary of YouTube, the video-sharing site set up in February 2005 by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim. To commemorate the occasion, YouTube enlisted media heavyweights such as Conan O’Brien, Katie Couric and Pedro Almodovar to list their favourite videos. Couric was particularly earnest in her depiction of YouTube as the new people’s medium, where citizen journalists ‘raise awareness of human rights abuses and provide first-hand accounts of conflicts and catastrophes, moments after they strike’ first.[1] Did we miss something here? Was she talking about WikiLeaks?[2] Because as far as I can remember, YouTube has always been known more for its sneezing pandas and afro ninjas than for its cutting-edge political content.

I have long been a fan of YouTube. Recently, though, I have started to ask questions. Where are all these citizen journalists Couric mentions? If, as she claims, they are such a vital part of YouTube’s history, then why are they not promoted in YouTube’s ‘spotlight’ or ‘featured’ video sections? Why, given YouTube’s promotion as a medium for the people, am I suddenly getting Kit-Kat ads at the top of the page? And most importantly: how, given all the videos uploaded to YouTube, has Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance become the second-most-viewed YouTube video?

At the time of writing, Bad Romance had been watched more than 312 million times (there have been suggestions this rating has been hacked; it was the first video in YouTube history to reach more than 200 million hits). To put this figure into perspective, Bad Romance has been watched on YouTube more than the World Trade Centre attacks and the Kennedy assassination.

The first thing worth mentioning about Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance film clip (aside from the extensive product placement) is some seriously shoddy gender representation. Gaga has suggested the clip was a feminist project. She is quoted as saying: ‘That tough female spirit is something that I want to project. It’s meant to be, ‘This is my shield, this is my weapon, this is my inner sense of fame, this is my monster.” ’[3]

It is difficult to discover any female spirit when watching the clip. Indeed, most of the images seem to focus on Gaga being pulled out of a bath by women who force vodka down her throat, strip her and then have her dance to a room full of naked men. Which part of that was feminist? The wearing of razor-blade sunglasses? The use of a portable MP3 player? If, as has been suggested, the ending gestures towards feminism (it features a man on a bed spontaneously combusting as Gaga walks towards him), then it seems that feminism has been beefed up, Hollywood style, for the MTV generation.

Gaga’s success is made all the more depressing by the fact that genuine feminist bands such as Le Tigre and Poison Girls get barely one percent of the traffic Lady Gaga receives  on YouTube. Feminism, it seems, can be as easily appropriated for commercial purposes as any other movement if it suits the corporation and their targeting of particular demographics. In Lady Gaga, the music industry found its muse: a commercial and ideological juggernaut that refuses closer examination.

Music artists have their own official YouTube pages, featuring promos for their current singles and albums. They feature ads on the same page and should you watch one of their clips, you’re invited to buy the song on iTunes.

From here it gets more complicated. YouTube has divided its regional reach so that as a viewer you’re given recommendations and even most-viewed lists from an Australian perspective rather than a global one. Should you click on ‘Most viewed’ channels, you will get an Australian list, not an international one. And why would this be a problem? Because YouTube now has fifty Australian corporate sponsors, each of which has its own channel. This level of sponsorship makes YouTube akin to an episode of Bewitched that just happens to feature Westinghouse products.

No longer a space for the uploading of legal and not-so-legal content, YouTube is fast becoming the new television. Previously a democratic microcosm of the internet’s various users and interest groups, it is now another corporate marketplace where media companies ‘go viral’ in pursuit of ever-increasing profits.

You Have to See This

Until recently, the most viewed videos on YouTube were user-generated. That is, they were amateur films of accidents, re-enactments and people generally acting the fool. In the last two years, however, professionally made music videos and commercials have eclipsed the amateurs to easily become the most viewed content on YouTube. What was once the realm of the amateur now amounts to little more than a commercial entertainment channel. Those in any doubt should consider their favourite commercial of the year. Most likely it’s not one they saw on television but a viral monster known simply as Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like was a television commercial created by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy for Old Spice. It featured actor Isaiah Mustafa reciting a quick monologue about how ‘anything is possible’ if a man uses Old Spice. Mustafa was filmed during a single uninterrupted take featuring transitions, using minimal CGI, from a bathroom to a sailboat to Mustafa riding a horse.

The ad first showed on television in February during the 2010 NFL Super Bowl. It soon went viral on YouTube, where it has reached more than 28 million views. And that was just the beginning. Here media ownership creates interesting juxtapositions. An ad that began on television becomes viral online and is then talked about on television shows. The ad spawned several follow-ups, became omnipresent on video-sharing sites and countless people soon parodied it. Prior to The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, most copycatting occurred in homage to popular amateur videos. Here an advertiser took this phenomenon and turned it to their own advantage: it’s less about the brand than a narrative created from it. The star, Isaiah Mustafa, was a former NFL practice player turned actor, an everyman rather than a big name. The clip was easily quotable: it’s most notable line, the parting ‘I’m on a horse’ became a catchcry. Above all, the ad was funny, in a way that broke down the resistance of typically vigilant net users.

YouTube had originally featured a broad stream of unlicensed comedy content, featuring excerpts from comedy staples such as South Park, The Family Guy, and The Simpsons, as uploaded by end users. In more recent times, such excerpts have been systematically removed. Licensed excerpts have been reduced due to region specifications. Given such reductions, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like came at exactly the right time for a YouTube audience fast losing its sense of humour.

Such humour buoyed the Old Spice promotion but eventually left the company limited in an increasingly blurred media environment. While the Old Spice ad’s main character was engaging, all future narratives were both defined and restricted by the product being spruiked. However funny the commercials were, they were not able to convince net users they were viewing anything other than a commercial in style and content. Major record labels were already planning their first big move into YouTube with ready-to-view promotional content. Music videos had long been blurring the boundaries between artistic endeavour and commercial enterprise.

In December 2009 the Universal Music Group, the Sony Music Group and the Abu Dhabi Media Group formed Vevo, a music video website hosted and streamed by YouTube. EMI music licensed content soon after without taking an ownership stake in the company. The only major music conglomerate not involved was Warner, which has since formed a rival alliance with entertainment provider MTV.

It wasn’t long before banner ads from the three Vevo companies started appearing at the top of the YouTube home page. All Vevo clips already feature ten-second ads for a featured Vevo artist before the actual clip begins. Vevo also censors any number of its video clips to fall in line with values espoused by advertising partners such as McDonald’s and offers in-video links to purchase songs from Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

This brings us back to Lady Gaga, an artist signed to Interscope, which is owned by the Universal Music Group. Vevo already had a flagship performer in Lady Gaga. Indeed, she performed her song ‘Speechless’ at the Vevo launch party, only a fortnight after the debut of Bad Romance on YouTube. In Lady Gaga, Vevo had everything they needed: a popular artist already known for her ability to generate sales and controversy.

Add in her willingness to engage in phenomenal product placement (eight brands are featured in the clip’s five-minute running time including Parrot by Phillipe Stark, Nemiroff vodka, an HP laptop and a Wii controller) and you have the ultimate modern artist: one interested in artistic endeavour but happy to spruik product.

The only thing more dazzling than Bad Romance’s unprecedented success is that it is not even the most viewed clip on YouTube. That honour goes to Justin Bieber’s Baby, which at the time of writing has clocked more than 397 million hits since its release in February 2010. And it’s not just Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber who are benefitting. In Read Write Web’s most recent relaying of the Top 10 videos of all time on YouTube,[4] there are six music videos on the list. Of those six, five are from Vevo artists and all five were released after the Vevo site was launched.

Government-approved Democracy

In July 2010, ElectionWire took banner space on YouTube for Australian users accessing the channel. ElectionWire is a partnership between the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, Express Media, LeftRight Think Tank, Curious Works and the Centre for Policy Development.

At first sight, ElectionWire appeared to have been a youth-driven push towards greater accountability for politicians, an alternative space for young people to express their opinion and delve deeper into politics.

You might have been led to think that democracy was well and truly alive in Australia and that once again user-generated contact would help young people analyse the machinations of government and make an informed choice. Had this happened, it wouldn’t necessarily have been the initiative’s plan, because behind the project’s visible partners was an even larger one—the federal government.

All the training and information videos posted on Youthscape’s channel (the channel hosting ElectionWire) were funded by the Youth Development and Support Program, which is managed by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. While this funding doesn’t inherently mean the channel itself will be biased, it is obviously in their interests to support a party that is currently funding their project.

The various Electionwire teams spread around Australia may be impartial, but the question remains. Which party is more likely to benefit from a youth perspective on an election? Which party in 2007 was elected to government by a web-based strategy, including Kevin Rudd’s own Facebook page, which at the time tapped into a disillusioned generation Y? Given that politicians rarely contact young people unless they’re searching for a majority, you could forgive the generation for being more than a little disillusioned.

Global Meets Local

Yet, in what’s fast becoming a commercially designed space, there is still the potential for user-generated content to break through into the mainstream. One such case is Natalie Tran, a video blogger based in Sydney. Using the name communitychannel, Tran has built a solid audience through quirky, humorous Vlogs dealing with observational and self-deprecating humour, as well as social issues such as internet etiquette and the art of giving good directions. Since its inception in 2006, Tran’s channel has grown from a small following to become the twenty-second most popular channel of all-time on YouTube, with more than 800,000 subscribers worldwide.[5]

Such popularity has also brought financial rewards. Under YouTube’s partner program, the most popular content creators on the site take in half of the advertising revenue derived from their clips: the more popular they are, the more money they make. In Tran’s case, the partner program has netted her an estimated $100,000 in the last twelve months.

Tran can’t remember exactly when she went from being popular to becoming a global phenomenon, but one particular piece of fortune may have been partly responsible. At an early point, YouTube posted one of her Vlogs as a ‘featured video’. Suddenly her potential audience grew exponentially and her subscriber numbers started rising accordingly.

For most users, such popularity is a pipedream. Success on a scale like Tran’s requires not only great commitment and time in producing regular content. Far more important is the discovery of such content by any number of search engines, blogs and other aggregators that broadcast the content to end users. No longer is promotion in the hands of the creator; popularity now rests in the hands of the aggregators. And given such wide reach, they are able, to a certain extent, to pick and choose the next big thing without leaving it up to chance.

Why then was communitychannel selected for such special treatment? Tran’s success has been due to humorous content and the transcending of social, gender and racial boundaries as much as anything else. Indeed, her content is fresh, funny and far more intelligent than the majority of Vlogs. Yet her channel may still have remained undiscovered were it not for YouTube’s promotion at an important time in the channel’s history.

Tran is to be lauded for providing something new in what’s becoming a stale medium. It’s clear, however, that YouTube’s relationship with its content creators is far from altruistic. Tran is currently promoted because the results are profitable for YouTube. Tran’s estimated 305 million uploads of her videos translates to phenomenal traffic for the ads placed alongside and the profits are divided fifty-fifty between Tran and YouTube. As the company increases its stronghold over online visual content, YouTube may choose to streamline their partnership program, most likely seeking greater financial reward for their investment. And, with so many channels already hosted on their servers, they may just find someone who is willing to do what Tran does, while taking a much smaller share.

The modern YouTube now barely resembles its humble beginnings. What was once a self-guided journey through a cornucopia of amateur content is fast becoming a slickly run journey into corporate America. This shift is less about the origins of the company and more about technology when put to commercial use. I used to log on to seek videos to my liking. I now get personalised video recommendations every time I log in. Then there are the sidebar ads selling me the Avatar 3 disc Blu-ray collection and promoting mindless Hollywood films and you’ll excuse me if I’m left longing for the days of ‘Charlie bit my finger’.[6]

Instead, we have the classic dysfunctional relationship: a disillusioned end user searches for the site they used to know. A once chaotic platform, a little rough around the edges but always focused on community, is now little more than a spot for corporations to spruik their wares without programming getting in the way. In such a space, political debate becomes white noise, conversations around the water cooler are the ultimate act of viral marketing and we’re left with the cultural refuse: an artist promoted as the next Madonna, companies shilling for sub-standard products and a gaping cultural hole instead of an online community.

Notes

[1] Katie Couric’s Top Citizen Journalism Moments on YouTube, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySEIK-I8I-Q>, accessed 30 November 2010.

[2] WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation that provides a secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to WikiLeaks journalists. It has released a number of controversial documents pertaining to both the Iraq war and to treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, and claims to have video footage of a massacre of civilians in Afghanistan by US forces that it plans to release.

[3] Jocelyn Vena, ‘Lady Gaga Says “Bad Romance” Video Is about “Tough Female Spirit” ’, interview at <http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1625848/20091109/lady_gaga.jhtml>, accessed 5 October 2010.

[4] Richard McManus, ‘Top 10 YouTube Videos of All Time’, article at <http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/top_10_youtube_videos_of_all_time.php>, accessed 7 November 2010.

[5] Neil McMahon, ‘Riding the Tube’, interview at <http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/riding-the-tube-20101113-17rzy.html>, accessed 7 November 2010.

[6] ‘Charlie bit my finger’ is an internet viral video famous for formerly being the most viewed YouTube video of all time with more than 245 million hits as of November 2010. The clip features two English brothers, aged three and one. In the video, the younger brother, Charlie, bites the finger of his older brother, Harry.

This article originally appeared in Meanjin Volume 70, Number 1 in March 2011. The aforementioned issue is potentially available directly from Meanjin, although you'll need to check availability prior to ordering at Meanjin's website

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