There’s a funny and almost disturbing video on YouTube that shows a couple apparently dancing to the angular beats of Autechre. The video is funny and strangely compelling because of its unlikely pairing. On the one hand, the video looks to be from the 1970s or 80s–some kind of European (Greek?) television program featuring a couple demonstrating basic “disco” dance moves. The couple glide in easy unison around the stage, even going into slow-motion at times (1:02), and are eventually joined by a bunch of other dancers near the end of the three-minute clip. The music, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage: specifically, it’s the track “Cfern” from Autechre’s album Confield (2001). So of course, the couple never actually heard Autechre and certainly weren’t dancing to it. Yet somehow the dancing and the music work well together. Who ever thought about assembling such a video? (Oh the weird intelligences YouTube catches in its net . . .)
The YouTube viewer comments include this one: “movements are perfectly congruent to the music, AE themselves couldn’t dance better to their own stuff. Just psychedelic trance disco.”
What we’re laughing at, I think, is the same thing as what keeps us watching. First, there’s the odd contrast between the dated video and the cold, digital sounds. Notice too the moving gaze of the camera (focusing on the woman’s face at 2:45 and the man’s feet at 2:56) that makes us feel like voyeurs, the close-ups and the music working to reveal what feels like the inner lives of the dancers. Next, there’s all those smooth synchronies where footwork glides perfectly into marked beats: it looks like so much fun! Finally, but equally important, are the strange ruptures between the dance moves and the music. The ruptures are those spaces where body and sound don’t quite match up–those points where you wonder “How did they come up with that move to this sound?” And this is precisely what gets you thinking about how strangely dance and music mutually reinforce one another: one a visible trajectory in space that requires a soundtrack to add emotion to its narrative, the other a presence heard but always in need of bodily representation.
Sometimes audio-video remixes allow us to glimpse juxtapositions that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience. And if we let them, pastiche videos like this one spur us to imagine alternative–and yet unrealized–worlds where the collision of music and body sensibilities make for new ways of dancing free and strange.
“That self-organizing living force is what we’re having to ride. What we’re doing with the web is making a very large-scale global organism that in a few decades or so we will be able to identify as an organism in every sense of the word.”
– Kevin Kelly on the Technium
One of the most watched videos on YouTube right now is that of an eight-year old English girl named Sophia Grace Brownlee doing a musical impression of the song “Super Bass” by Trinidadian-American rapper and singer Nicki Minaj. Here is Minaj’s video for “Super Bass” (which has been viewed an astonishing 183 million times):
It’s understandable that Minaj’s video has been watched by so many people. The song hits all the right pop notes–musical and otherwise: infectious rapping alternating with sung melodic hook, an upbeat, 120-126 bpm tempo, a beat that switches from a half time feel on the verses to a full-steam ahead, four-on-the-floor feel on the choruses (making the song perfect for remixing), a simple four chord harmonic structure, and a video that telegraphs desire through its depiction of lots of pretty bodies.
Now here is Brownlee’s version (viewed an impressive 20 million times):
Brownlee’s clip has been watched so much because she’s such an exuberant and charismatic performer who uncannily gets the details of Minaj’s lyrics and phrasing just right.
But what I find fascinating about Brownlee’s take on “Super Bass”, though, is how well it demonstrates the ability of music to spread virus-like from one host to another, transcending differences of place, age and ethnicity to keep reproducing itself through oral tradition. Indeed, Brownlee performs Minaj’s song as if in an exuberant trance–like she can’t help the fact that she’s the new host for this musical virus.
And while music scholars today agree that music is neither a language nor a universal language that transcends boundaries of culture, the online ecosystem and global culture repository that is YouTube suggests that it is nevertheless still a powerful contagion of pleasure.
Is the Internet and all manner of digital media really doing something substantial to our consciousness, to how we think? Is my attention span not getting worse exactly but maybe becoming fractured? This is the subject of at least a few articles I’ve read lately, including this one in the Times which is part of a series called “Your Brain On Computers.” My guess is that it’s going to be a while before we have overwhelming evidence that our minds are being ruined by our technology. But it’s undeniable that computers have changed the rhythms of learning.
Here’s an interesting take on the matter from visual artist Keegan McHargue. In the Nov/Dec. issue of The Believer, McHargue discusses his blog, Mauve Deep, which seems to be a kind off the cuff repository of images the artist finds compelling. When asked if he “curates” his blog in any way, McHargue made some interesting observations about the effect of the Internet on how we absorb information:
“I like that the Internet allows information to pour to me indiscriminately. From high fashion to design to obscure music, sites about art history and theory to blogs about cakes and pastries. It just comes to me now. I’m not looking at visual information with specific intent anymore. I’m taking it in as a steady stream. That’s how information currently feels. It’s certainly very different from seeking things out as we used to have to…It’s funny that people try to fight it, because it feels easier than ever before to learn and grow.
How did I not see the world this way before? I’m an information fiend…It’s too much work to have an opinion of own’s own, and with the steady flow of information coming at us now–maybe we’ll transcend the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness as a whole” (p.84).
What I find interesting here is how McHargue articulates the dynamics of idea discovery on the Internet: the idea of that we can tap into a “steady stream” of pure information, including text, images, sounds on every topic under the sun (including cakes and pastries). And while it’s easy to dismiss McHargue’s not bothering “to have an opinion of [his] own”, we understand where he’s coming from as an artist: he’s just swimming in a sea of data.
What does all this have to do with musical experience? Well, I’m thinking about how it feels to explore YouTube: you begin with the goal of “finding” a particular clip on this or that music and soon enough you’re on an adventure in places you never expected to be. Maybe this is what McHargue is referring to when he speaks of transcending “the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness…” That is certainly what it can feel like when your YouTube search leads you astray and into something unexpected and interesting that may have little to do with what you wanted.