Remix This Article
Immediately after the first presidential debate, pundits predicted that, although Barack Obama had seemed listless and Mitt Romney energetic, there would be little movement in the polls since neither candidate had committed any actual gaffes or emitted any embarrassing soundbites. They were completely wrong; the polls swung substantially in Romney’s favor, raising the chances of a Republican victory from 13% to 39%, according to FiveThirtyEight, and erasing the gains Obama had posted after the three-day $55-million spectacle of the Democratic National Convention. What gives?
The pundits were acting as though we still lived in a soundbite culture, where short attention spans and endless, brainless media coverage gave short but memorable utterances a disproportionate power to change the world. In the past, the impact of debates could be measured largely in terms of the soundbites they produced, most famously such gems as “I’m paying for this microphone,” “There you go again,” “I’m not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”—and those are just the Reaganisms. Political soundbites today still make news, especially when they’re vivid or entertaining enough to survive adaptation to nonpolitical contexts, but they’re not the only type of political ephemera that catches the national attention.
Today we live in a remix culture, and what gives an event or an utterance the power to drive the news cycle (not to mention record sales, box office receipts, and so on) is whether it provides grist for the informal industry of internet content-mixers. The debate did that; here are a couple examples. Few of these adaptations are themselves memorable, and even the best ones have a shelf life no longer than a classic soundbite, usually shorter. What differentiates remixes from soundbites, in terms of staying power, is that the remixes just keep coming—several generations per week, evolving through artificial selection towards whatever makes you chuckle enough to hit Forward or Share.
So what is this new age of media and politics we’ve entered? What is remix culture? Greg Gillis, better known as the remix artist Girl Talk, described it in an interview with law professor Lawrence Lessig as “this appropriation time where any grade-school kid has a copy of Photoshop and can download a picture of George Bush and manipulate his face how they want and send it to their friends.” Not all of us have become that grade-school kid, of course. Many of us are still mostly passive consumers of news, music, images, and entertainment. But a lot of us have become part-time producers too, or at least occasional editors, and even a passive consumer invariably takes in some of their output. What sort of material attracts the attention of remixers, GIFmakers, video editors, editorial cartoonists, satirists, and other artists of pastiche and collage, therefore, has a huge impact on what we’re all talking about in public and private.
For example, let’s look at two of the biggest surprise pop music hits of the last year. The second-best-selling single of 2012, “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, started off in obscurity, released only in Canada by a former Canadian Idol runner-up. The story of Jepsen’s hit is by now familiar—the amateur lip-synced video that Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and their friends recorded and posted on YouTube; the meteoric rise fueled by word of mouth and an onslaught of fan-produced music videos in the mold of Bieber and Gomez’s; and finally, the cultural ubiquity that led to covers by such musical artists as the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, Cookie Monster, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. When was the last time a single sold 9.1 million copies with so little help from the recording industry and so much help from music listeners? Not that the grassroots videos were the sole source of the song’s success; remix institutions like Saturday Night Live, Glee, CollegeHumor, and Funny or Die contributed too.
An even unlikelier hit, “Gangnam Style” by Psy, emerged from South Korea this summer and became the first K-Pop song to enter the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. The early popularizers of “Gangnam Style” didn’t have Justin Bieber’s starpower, but the catchy refrain and outlandish images of the accompanying music video helped the song overcome the language barrier to chart in the huge Anglophone markets. On July 23, a Canadian couple living in Seoul, Simon and Martina Stawski, uploaded a parody video to their K-Pop blog, nabbing the song a modicum of attention that quickly snowballed. Further parody videos have followed, performed by everyone from officers in the Royal Thai Navy to the staff of the Houston Independent School District. Even the North Korean government released a “parody video” (although…see for yourself). Other derivative works have crossed Psy’s song with the fondly-recalled Bill Nye the Science Guy intro and the betrayal scene from The Empire Strikes Back.
Is there any one aspect of “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style” that can explain why viewers were so driven to become remakers—why their audio tracks and particularly their music videos took root so quickly in the fertile soil of the internet? It’s hard to say. The official video for “Call Me Maybe” is cute but standard, and I haven’t seen a single reshoot of it. Most of the derivative YouTube videos seem to take their cues from the youthful improv excitement of the Bieber-Gomez video, which is anything but standard yet entirely relatable and easily reenactable. The tongue-in-cheek frenzy of Psy’s music video, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to reshoot, with constant cuts between a stable full of horses, various garage and industrial settings, a men’s sauna, and a spinning carousel, among other settings—and yet it’s been reshot numerous times, presumably because the imagery is so fascinating and fun to play with.
The adaptability of “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style” is the open secret of their success, what’s allowed them to compete with the latest hits by Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, and Taylor Swift, which have the entire machinery of the multi-billion-dollar American recording industry behind them. It seemed, then, to be a case of life imitating art, or at least entertainment foreshadowing politics, when the first presidential debate this month managed to negate the polling effects of two entire political conventions. An hour and a half of intense unscripted audiovisual raw material, it turns out, provides much better input for remixes than a three-night highly-scripted pageant.
Indeed, the party conventions seemed to be over as soon as they’d finished happening; Obama’s polling bounce may have lingered, but almost no images, videos, or symbols from the predictable, staid political recitals entered the cultural vernacular. The one exception was Clint Eastwood’s surprise speech at the Republican convention, in which he held an imaginary dialogue with an empty chair representing President Obama; Eastwood’s advanced age, the incongruity of his sudden conservatism (he’d endorsed gay marriage less than a year before), and the apparent senility of conversing with a chair combined potently enough to produce a meme that lasted several weeks and was referenced on the cover of last week’s New Yorker. But Eastwood isn’t on the ballot, and the poll movement after both conventions was undersized by historical standards, while the first debate’s effect was larger than average. It may not have produced any memorable one-liners, but it captured enough attention and inspired enough remixes for more subtle factors—Romney’s aggressive confidence, sudden lurch to the center, and trampling of the moderator, Obama’s apparent fatigue and failure to challenge Romney’s questionable claims—to sink into the electorate.
To some extent this is circular, as is everything having to do with the national discourse. What’s in our remixes is on our lips, and what’s on our lips is in our remixes. We talk about things because we hear about them, and we hear about them because we talk about them. In fact, the increasing importance of remixes actually strengthens this circular process. When we received our culture mostly through the one-way media of periodicals, television, and radio, a given subject could only sustain popular interest for so long before becoming played out. But now that popular interest results in derivative works and a constant intermingling of terms from the current cultural vocabulary, any given media phenomenon can stay fresh and interesting for longer.
Public attention is the primary currency of both entertainment and politics, so a fundamental shift in the duration and power of that attention is worth taking note of. The democratizing power of free networks and cheap software not only gives the audience a more active role in writing the play, it just about brings it onstage. This shift is evident not just in politics and music, but also in publishing, where fanfics posted online now get reissued in high-profile book deals; in advertising, where Tropicana’s latest marketing campaign has plastered random people’s tweets about their bad mornings all over the New York subway; and in other industries that have figured out how to incorporate content that’s increasingly flowing from the bottom up. Before the goal was to attract consumers; now you need to inspire them. And at least for the moment, it’s a cultural item’s potential as raw material that counts in the battle for the public eye.