Monday, June 01, 2009

Angry Gorillas and Democratic Fame

Andrew O’Hagan begins a recent short piece in the London Review of Books with this:
Was there a time when people didn’t know what other people were thinking? I can vouch for the fact that there was: it lasted, roughly speaking, from the dawn of man until the launch of YouTube.
He goes on to make a few good points, but I think he contradicts his final argument. Comparing it to traditional TV, which still sets its programming from the top down, O’Hagan makes the obvious point that YouTube puts the means of production in the hands of a much greater number of people. He then lists a few talents who have used clips on YouTube to gain some kind of traction for a career. Then near the end, he writes:
And that’s the golden ticket: from YouTube fame to ‘mainstream success’. There are plenty of goofs on YouTube getting hundreds of thousands of hits for doing variably talented stuff, but the big league is still the big league. . . . The only people making money out of [YouTube’s] success are the three billionaire clever-clogs who invented it, but it would be nice, in a No Logo kind of way, to imagine that YouTube might represent a democratisation of the fame process. But I doubt it does.
Wait a second. He was the one who had just listed people who became recognized for their work through YouTube. And then there are people like Susan Boyle, who became a star through TV, but became a mammoth star (and will presumably earn a lot more money) because of YouTube. The fact that it makes the fame process more democratic seems beyond dispute.

The truly terrible or talentless on YouTube send their clips to a few friends and no one feels inspired to pass it on. Millions of these clips sit out there with 15 views, 32 views, 140 views. But when something hits a nerve, it blows up. This is what’s been happening with “Auto-Tune the News,” a hilarious series of clips by The Gregory Brothers. (For certain of my readers, i.e., my parents: Auto-Tune is a tech tool used by music producers to artificially correct the pitch in a singer’s voice. But it’s also used very widely, especially in hip-hop, to just add random distortion to the vocals, as it does to Katie Couric et al. below. Its most prominent early use for distortion was on Cher’s hit “Believe.”)

Just Auto-Tuning the voices of news anchors would be pretty funny itself. The original content they add raises it to another level of creative brilliance. In the first video below, the split-screen with Sean Hannity and his guest (“I’m an angry gorilla, I heard you needed me.”) is a more concise (and accurate) parody of cable news than anything else I’ve seen. If I were a producer for Conan O’Brien or Jon Stewart, I’d throw some money at these guys to make these for me. Almost 1.5 million people have viewed the first of these (the second one is newer, but I'm sure it will get there). Democracy!


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