[11 min read + 50 min media]
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 by several media outliers and in both corporate and academic contexts, the viral metaphors fail to describe accurately the active role of users in assessing and spreading contents on the Internet. As Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green stress in Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (2013), 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 widely known as “memes”. The term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a cultural version of biological genes: meme’s self-replication is supposed to be epidemiologic, disseminating from one consumer’s mind to another’s via mimesis. 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.
Although widely used by several media outliers and in both corporate and academic contexts, the viral metaphors fail to describe accurately the active role of users in assessing and spreading contents on the Internet.
The online popularity of the videography by the North-American indie rock group Ok Go has often been referred to as a typical example of “viral media”. A closer look to their most popular music videos demonstrates that they rather follow a strict communication formula which arguably does a much better job at explaining its diffusion than the stale viral metaphors.
The first thing we must acknowledge is that the videomusical odyssey of Ok Go on the web 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. Ok Go members are not only considered mavericks who dodged the collapse of corporate music industry, but also pioneers in exploring the sheer potential of social media (and they keep testing new ways of disseminating their work: see their surprising decision to premiere their last two videos on Facebook instead of YouTube). Nowadays, “Ok Go” has become a grassroots brand whose association to any audiovisual content guarantees per se millions of views on the Internet. Before Ok Go, music videos tended to be financed by record labels as a promotional tool to boost record sales of a chosen few through music television (mostly MTV). Ok Go was the first band not only to fully assume a consistent 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.
The videomusical odyssey of Ok Go on the web forms a highly spread and readable counterpower narrative.
A closer look at Ok Go’s music videos might allow us to identify that all of them follow a generic formula, which can be divided by a series of features common to all their music videos and an array of conceptual elements singular to each one of them. The dual structure of this formula allows Ok Go’s music videography to be both coherent and non-repetitive (i.e., an œuvre).
Almost all music videos by Ok Go can be accurately described as a self-produced one-take dance video performed by non-professional dancers (the band members). All these correlated features (amateurish choreography, lip synching, the predominance of a single fixed or a sequence shot and the scarcity of visual effects) are not only typical of the vernacular aesthetic 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.
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: on “A Million Ways” (2005), 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” (2006) one of the members has a remote control that starts the playbacked music; and on “The Writing’s On The Wall” (2014) 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, 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 precisely the case of “This Too Shall Pass” (2010) and “The Writing’s On The Wall” (2014). At the end of “Needing/Getting” (2012), we get to hear the following dialogue: [a band member aks:] “We did it?”; [off-screen answer:] “You got it!”.
Ok Go must 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.
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 a product of fandom and the fact that they have been protagonists, (co)directors and (co)producers in all of them only reinforces this perception. The already thin line that separated their official videos to fan-made ones was definitely blurred when the band promoted in 2013 a video directed by a fan (Nelson de Castro) for the track “I’m Not Through”.
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 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, fail/win, pet, optical illusion and other music videos) and to new audiovisual special effects that had started to become accessible to the average consumer (such as chroma-key, time-lapse photography, open-source programming languages and drone footage) or, more recently, the fascinating possibilities and effects of high-technology (self-balancing compact electric scooters and zero-gravity simulation). 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.
The popularity of Ok Go’s music videos on the web has nothing “viral” or anaesthetic to it, but rather follows an elaborate communication formula whose creative application aims to trigger its active diffusion by users.
Another tool can be used to underpin our brief analysis. Google Trends 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 F1 to F4 display four world-wide Google Trends comparison results relative to five of Ok Go’s music videos (blue and orange lines) and their respective conceptual source (in red):
The first thing these results show us is that all conceptual sources (red lines) are high-trending search-terms simply because they are visible in a comparison with music videos that have millions of views each on YouTube. Secondly, two of the graphs show that both music videos (in blue) were released when the conceptual sources (in red) either started to trend (F2) or right at the time when the trend was reaching its peak (F4). Finally, the remaining graphs show that the music videos (in blue and orange) were successful at capitalizing the strong conceptual trends (in red) either coming close to (F1) or surpassing (F3) the volume of the entered search-terms.
The popularity of Ok Go’s music videos on the web has nothing “viral” or anaesthetic to it, but rather follows an elaborate communication formula 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 conceptual 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 two of their recent music video productions (2012’s “Needing/Getting” and 2016’s “Upside Down & Inside Out“) not only sponsored by top American corporations but also aired during the most expensive broadcasting airspace in the world (Super Bowl TV slot).
One of Ok Go’s biggest achievements in the last decade has been to be pioneers in gradually rescuing a medium that had become completely controlled by gatekeepers and to demonstrate that it could be used as a resourceful media for any musician to express, spread and share their own creativity.
Finally, the communication aesthetic of Ok Go’s music videography should also be assessed as a strong political stance. In 1996, Jack Banks described in Monopoly Television: MTV’s Quest to Control the Music 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 in the following terms:
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.
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. By following a do-it-yourself ethos and aesthetic, one of Ok Go’s biggest achievements in the last decade has been to assume the role of pioneers in gradually rescuing a medium that had become completely controlled by gatekeepers (music television and major record labels) and to demonstrate that it could be used as a resourceful media 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.