JOÃO PEDRO DA COSTA*
F0 – Pastiche of the cover art of Sex Pistols
classic debut (Virgin, 1977).
I. Viral metaphors vs. (trans)textual analysis
The popularity of music videos in the emerging digital media landscape has long been dismissed by the use of the rather nebulous and misleading argument of them being “viral”.
Although widely used in both corporate and academic contexts, the viral metaphors fail to describe accurately the active role of users in assessing and spreading media texts on the Internet. Users are not simply “hosts” or “carriers” of alien ideas, but rather grassroots advocates for materials which are personally and socially meaningful to them: they filter out content which they think has little relevance to their community, while focusing attention and disseminating material, which they think has a special salience in the new contexts they interact. On the contrary, a notion of media as virus implies that systems of cultural distribution act like biological systems: once “attached” in the mind of users, these viral media self-replicate into the datastream not as genes, but as conceptual equivalents known as “memes” (Rushkoff 1994: 9-10)1. The problem is that any conception of a self-replicating culture will always be oxymoronic, since culture is a human product and replicates through human agency (Jenkins et al. 2013: 19).
The online popularity of the music videography of the North-American indie rock group Ok Go has often been referred to as a typical example of “viral media”2. A transtextual analysis of a corpus formed by their 10 most viewed music videos on YouTube (V1) demonstrates that these music videos follow a rather strict architextual communication formula which arguably does a much better job of explaining its diffusion than the stale viral metaphors.
II. Decoding Ok Go’s music videos
V1 – Playlist of Ok Go’s 10 most viewed music videos.
The first thing that a transtextual analysis provides is the acknowledgment that the videomusical odyssey of Ok Go forms a highly spread and readable counterpower narrative. A Million Ways (2005) was not only home-made due to the refusal of their record label to finance its production, as it became the first music video to ever be diffused in such a high-scale without being broadcasted by music television: 9 million downloads via an emailed link (Kot 2009: 214). Ok Go members are not only considered mavericks who predicted the collapse of corporate music industry, but also pioneers in exploring the sheer potential of social media. Nowadays, “Ok Go” has become a grassroots brand whose association to any audiovisual content guarantees millions of views on the Internet (T1).
Before Ok Go, music videos tended to be financed by record labels as a promotional tool to boost record sales through music television (mostly MTV). Ok Go was the first band not only to fully assume a role as protagonists, directors and producers of their own music videos, but also to demonstrate that the Internet could function as a successful distribution channel to turn the format into a viable source of income.
T1 – Official YouTube views of Ok Go’s music videos.
A textual analysis also allows us to identify that Ok Go music videography follows a rather strict architextual (Genette 1982) formula, which can be divided by (i) a series of hypertextual features common to all their music videos and (ii) a conceptual element singular to each one of them (T2). The dual nature of this formula allows Ok Go’s music videography to be both coherent and non-repetitive (i.e., an œuvre).
T2 – Hypertextual features and conceptual hypotexts of Ok Go’s music videos.
Regarding the hypertextual features shared by Ok Go’s music videography, almost all their music videos can be accurately described as a self-produced one-take dance video3 performed by non-professional dancers (the band members). All these hypertextual features (amateurish choreography, lip synching, the predominance of a single fixed or a sequence shot and the absence of visual effects) are not only typical of the vernacular aesthetic (Burgess 2007) of user-generated contents as they are quite effective in creating a potential empathy on the majority of the prosumers that populate the web: Ok Go’s counterpower narrative empowers them with the possibility of also becoming successful outsiders.
F1 – Selection of six topological frames from Ok Go’s
music videography with two superimposed subtitles.
The band also uses other mechanisms to reinforce this identification between their videos and other vernacular creations (or user-generated contents). Two of these, nevertheless, stand out due to their topological proprieties:
- The first one is the inclusion, at the beginning of some of their music videos, of footage of the band members getting ready to shoot (top row of frames displayed on F1): on A Million Ways, one of the members is off-screen giving the idea that he was the one who turned the camera on; on Here It Goes Again one of the members has a remote control that starts the playbacked music; and on The Writing’s On The Wall we get to hear the director saying “Rotate and one and two and three and four and five and music and go!”;
- The second one is the inclusion, at the end of some of their music videos (bottom row of frames displayed on F1), of footage of the band members and/or the team responsible for its production congratulating themselves for being able to pull out their one-take stunt (which is the case of This Too Shall Pass and The Writing’s On The Wall). At the end of Needing/Getting, we get to hear the following dialogue: [a band member aks:] “We did it?”; [off-screen answer:] “You got it!”.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that YouTube has been flooded in the last decade by thousands of fan-made videos that emulate their music videography: the majority of their own official music videos pretty much look and feel as fan-made video themselves and the fact that they have been protagonists, (co)directors and (co)producers in all of them only reinforces this perception.
If we focus on the different conceptual elements featured in Ok Go’s music videography, it can be defended that what makes every music video of the band singular is the fact that each one of them always includes a creative take of a different conceptual element (hypotext) whose popularity has already been tested and certified on the web. Their sources vary from Rube Goldberg machines to popular video sub-genres (such as home dance, win/fail, pet, optical illusion and music videos) and to new audiovisual special effects that had started to become accessible to the average consumer (such as time-lapse photography, open-source programming languages4 or drone footage)5. Ok Go, therefore, must also be acknowledged as genuine digital ethnographers who seek within YouTube community trending sources of inspiration in order to obtain additional traction for their music video pastiches or parodies.
Another analytic tool can be used to underpin this transtextual analysis. Google Trends is a public web facility that allow users to compare the number of searches of two or more particular search-terms during a pre-defined period of time and geographical area. Figures F2.1 to F2.4 display four world-wide Google Trends comparison results relative to five of Ok Go’s music videos (blue and orange lines) and their respective hypotexts (in red):
- White Knuckles vs. pet videos;
- End Love vs. time-lapse photography;
- This Too Shall Pass and Needing/Getting vs. Rube Goldberg machines; and
- I Won’t Let You Down vs. drone footage.
F2.1 – Google Trends comparison between
“Ok Go White Knuckles” and “Pet Video” search-terms.
F2.2 – Google Trends comparison between
“Ok Go White Knuckles” and “Time-Lapse photography” search-terms.
F2.3 – Google Trends comparison between “Ok Go This Too Shall Pass”,
“Ok Go Needing Getting” and “Rube Goldberg machine” search-terms.
F2.4 – Google Trends comparison between
“Ok Go I Wont Let You Down” and “Drone Footage” search-terms.
The first thing that jumps in our eyes is that all hypotexts (red lines) are high-trending search-terms simply because they are visible in a comparison with music videos that have, as we’ve seen, at least 10 million views each on YouTube (T1). Secondly, two of the graphs show that both music videos (in blue) were released when the hypotext (in red) either started to trend (F2.2) or right at the time when the trend was reaching its peak (F2.4). Finally, the remaining graphs show that the music videos (in blue and orange) were successful at capitalizing the strong hypotexts trends (in red) either coming close to (F2.1) or surpassing (F2.3) the volume of the entered search-terms.
III. Conclusion: from aesthetics to politics
The popularity of Ok Go’s music videos on the web has nothing “viral” or anaesthetic (Sherman 2008: 163) to it, but instead follows an elaborate communication formula (F3) whose creative application aims to trigger its active diffusion by users. It’s this rare combination of an acute vernacular sensibility with an eye for top-notch hypertextual references (plus, of course, an intangible creativity factor) that made possible for an indie rock band to go from a low-budget home-made dance music video (2005’s A Million Ways) to having one of their recent music video productions (2012’s Needing/Getting) not only sponsored by a top American corporation but also aired during the most expensive broadcasting airspace in the world (Super Bowl TV slot).
F3 – Architextual formula of Ok Go’s music videos.
Finally, the transtextual aesthetic of Ok Go’s music videography should also be assessed as a strong political stance. In 1996, Jack Banks described in the following terms the status quo of the “golden era” of music videos as a multi-millionaire business lead by music television and the main players of the recording music industry:
The […] distribution of music videos is largely controlled by MTV Networks, which acts as a gatekeeper limiting public access to clips. Further, most funding for music videos comes from the major record labels, which insist on making videos that do not express ideas or creativity but instead primarily seek to sell their wares in related media markets. The challenge for society is to provide opportunities for production, distribution and exhibition of clips outside of this market-driven conglomerate colossus, which may unlock the potential of music video and enhance rather than diminish a robust cultural democracy. Banks 1996: 206
Amongst many other things, contemporary capitalism (or, to use an infamous word, neoliberalism) can be defined as the belief that markets are the only lens through which to run or to assess the value of anything, which means that people can only express their creativity through choices within the existing market, which is hardly self-expression at all (Couldry 2010: vi)6. By following a do-it-yourself ethos and aesthetic, one of Ok Go’s biggest achievements in the last decade was to gradually rescue a medium that had become completely controlled by gatekeepers and to demonstrate that it could be used as a format for any musician to express, spread and share their own creativity.
Therefore, the undeniable market value of the popularity of Ok Go’s music videography has to be taken as a side-effect that, under no circumstances, should obfuscate its truest and most important meaning: that, under the sun of today’s emerging digital media landscape, lies the seed that may allow us to shift from a “sit back and be told” culture towards a “making and connecting” one (Gauntlett 2011: 244-5).
* Originally presented at the Intertextuality in Music since 1900 international conference, jointly organised by CESEM/FCSH (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and Institut für Musikwissenschaft (Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck) and held at the Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon (Portugal), on March, 6th and 7th 2015.
1 The conceptual origin of the subliminal messages referred by Douglas Rushkoff as “memes” goes back to Richard Dawkins who coined the term as a cultural version of biological genes: their self-replication is supposed to be epidemiologic, disseminating from one consumer’s mind to another’s via mimesis (2006: 1992).
2 Adam Sadowsky Engineers a Viral Music Video is the (enlightening) title given by the University of Southern California to the video footage of the most popular talk of TEDxUSC 2010 (about the making of This Too Shall Pass).
3 Not only are dance videos the most popular sub-genre of fan-made music videos, but also is dancing the most common artifice used by music videos to create a synesthetic effect: «dancing […] attempt[s] to visualize music […] [and] lyrics may also be illustrated by dance (Goodwin 1992: 68-69).
4 It is significant that the only post-production visual effect featured in a Ok Go’s music video (WTF – cf. T2) is an open-source programming (Protocol) easily accessible to any amateur video producer.
5 The band’s latest music video, I Won’t Let You Down, is the first that uses a technology unavailable to the average consumer: though designed for extensive use in barrier-free indoor environments, the Honda UNI-CUB self-balancing compact electric scooter is still in testing phase and has not been launched on the market.
6 The most eloquent appropriation of the viral media metaphors by contemporary capitalism is the proliferation of (the so-called) “viral” marketing techniques to increase brand awareness and product sales (Rayport 1996).
CORPUS (OK GO’s MUSIC VIDEOS)
A Million Ways (directed by Trish Sie and Ok Go, 2005)
Here It Goes Again (directed by Trish Sie and Ok Go, 2006)
WTF (directed by Tim Nackashi and Ok Go, 2010a)
This Too Shall Pass (directed by James Frost and Ok Go, 2010b)
End Love (directed by Jeff Liebermann, Eric Gunther and Ok Go, 2010c)
White Knuckles (directed by Trish Sie and Ok Go, 2010d)
All Is Not Lost (directed by Trish Sie, Pilobus and Ok Go, 2011)
Needing/Getting (directed by Brian L. Perkins and Ok Go, 2012)
The Writing’s On The Wall (directed by Aaron Duffy, Bob Partington and Ok Go, 2014a)
I Won’t Let You Down (directed by Kazuaki Seki and Ok Go, 2014b)
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João Pedro da Costa é música, lavoura e corridas.