Can Viral Videos Be Art?

by Shawn O'Rourke

31 May 2011

Is there such a thing as a highbrow viral video? We'll Never Know the Difference.

On Thursday of last week I received one of those emails that usually cause me to wince. A colleague had sent me a link to a YouTube video that he wanted me to watch. I was all set to hate it because it was going to be political, or about 2012, or have some kitten frolicking in a cardboard box. But, since I knew he would ask me about it later I clicked on the link. Apparently I did the same thing as almost three quarter of a million people have since.

I will freely confess that initially I thought my associate had sent me the wrong link. The video, made by a fan of the indie music group Bad Lamps, had a bunch of close up shots of what seemed to be TV or movie actresses that looked like they were pulled from some VHS tape circa 1987. I didn’t understand what the big deal was until I started reading the comments. Those hadn’t been actresses I was watching. They were adult film stars.
So of course I watched it again. This time with a new realization of irony. Instead of showing anything lascivious, in what must have been a moment of artistic inspiration the video’s author edited out all the naughty parts. The selected sections seemed to partially reflect what was going on in the song and partially to emphasize a type of innocent flirtation that the “actresses” could never have intended (knowing what was coming next): the smiles, caresses, the longing looks, etc.

Without prior knowledge as to what they were the images have a restrained 80s feel like something that would play during the montage sequence of a romantic comedy. However, even despite my renewed interest I was somewhat flummoxed as to what could have caused this video to have captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people: an hour after I had first listened to the song I came back and refreshed the screen to find that 20,000 additional people had checked it out.

Yet as with many viral sensations I figured where there is smoke there must be fire. I decided to forgo my knee-jerk reaction and watch the video with an open mind. I am pleased to report that I actually really like the song, Never Know the Difference, quite a bit. It’s obvious why this fan was moved to make a video for it. The subject matter and song lyrics match perfectly. Also, the musicians are clearly competent at what they do, and it makes you want to sing along. Additionally, there is something interesting about the use of editing and repetition that is effective and charming. It had the feel of a loving version of propaganda to it.

I’m happy to say that instead of the “Please don’t send me this shit,” e-mail I was going to mail to my colleague, I instead replied with a, “Thanks. Enjoyed the link.”

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