Ham-handed, self-righteous, unimaginative: that’s what most online amateur videos are. You know the ones: footage of George W. Bush, scenes from Nazi film classics like Triumph of the Will, and U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—all spliced into three of the worst minutes of passionate intensity you’re likely to lay eyes on. It’s a Democrat’s wet dream.
But as Orwell said about books, there are good ones, bad ones and “good-bad” ones. Enter the fan-tribute video, the most enjoyable malarkey available on the Internet today. These videos typically consist of fans reenacting or lip-synching scenes from favourite movies or songs, and they usually include edited clips or scrapbook-style montages of favourite TV shows set to music. Although often just as amateur as the rest, tribute videos are inspired by love and whimsy far more than anger and dissent. They are offerings made at the virtual altars of their love objects—infused with a spirit of generosity and a pleasure in making things.
People respond with comments like “Great!” and “Oh that was a terrif video!!!” and “To all you haters, don’t bash on something when you don’t have anything better. I’d like to see you make a video, it’s hard work so stfu [shut the fuck up].” Despite this last comment, the proliferation of tribute videos makes it clear how easy it is to set a montage of film clips or stills to music. Film editors, beware.
Visit a site such as YouTube.com and, as a demonstra-tion, search for Degrassi: The Next Generation (one of my favourite ongoing shows). You’ll see over two hundred tributes. Most of them feature scenes from the show edited like music videos or movie trailers with favourite songs providing the emotional context. In one video that reworks images from Degrassi, heartthrobs Emma and Sean’s lovers’ arc is set to American Idol alumna Kelly Clarkson’s tune “Since U Been Gone.”
Misery loves digital company. Fan-tribute videos tend to focus on passion, wanting, needing, having, yearning—all the juicy bits. If you watch several clips in rapid succession, it becomes obvious how naturally subject and object intertwine. One can easily imagine the teenagers who made these videos feeling lonely and sorry for themselves. The videos are at once about obsession (whether fictional or real) and the product of obsession.
I have my own obsession to confess. An enduring teenage fascination with my musical idol, Neil Young, had led to my writing a worshipful book about him and brought me into contact with other “Rusties,” as we proudly call ourselves. Rusties, like all hard core fans, are inadvertent archivists: the compilations of bootlegs and live recordings (complete with artwork), made and distributed amongst themselves, were very helpful to my research and, as a fan, personally enriching. I drew my limit, however, at picking up entire collections of inferior cover songs. Who would bother listening to these instead of the originals, you ask? I’ve met a few. The intensity of some fans’ devotion made my interest feel inconsequential and almost dilettantish—like when I met the fan who owned a lock of Young’s hair—but I wasn’t put off by this so much as intrigued.
Hard core fans, as it turns out, are anything but passive receptacles for the makers of hype and merchandise. The stereotype of the crazed fan (devoting their energy and affection to a remote figure, vainly hoping for some reciprocation) is based on a few tragic, high-profile examples. Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, comes to mind; and the Michael Jackson fans who travelled from Europe to a California courthouse to stage a vigil during his trial for child molestation. Most devotees, of course, are regular folk sensible enough to seek and find a response from other fans around them. As with most human activities, hard-core fans share and validate each other’s passion.
The tribute video is an extension of this shared passion (emotional currency, if you will) that makes room for cleverness, imagination, opinion, in-jokes for other fans—and sometimes even a measure of ambivalence. Disappointed fans produced versions of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that edited out the much-reviled minstrel alien, Jar Jar Binks. (Jar Jar is the pop-culture equivalent of a Communist apparatchik who has been banished to the gulag, removed from the literature and retrospectively edited out of official party photos.)
However, most videos on YouTube.com are much more affectionate. One mash-up pays tribute to two animated series, South Park and Yu-Gi-Oh! The clip takes the audio track from a South Park episode in which the show’s resident Falstaff, Eric Cartman, dreams of being in a boy band called Fingerbang. “I’m gonna fingerbang-bang you into my life,” the band sings in unison, “Girl, you like to fingerbang and it’s all right.” The song’s lyrics are roughly synched to scenes from the Japanese anime series so it appears that the Yu-Gi-Oh! characters are singing. The genius of this clip is how it calls attention to the essential strangeness and underlying appeal of both shows: the deeply repressed sexuality of cartoons, which South Park routinely exploits for yuks, and the practice of awkwardly dubbing Japanese-language cartoons in English. This is to say nothing of Japanese anime’s lustfully innocent and generally unfathomable approach to sexuality (you’d need a whole book for that).
The point being: sex always sells. Nowadays, even gay satire is pulling its weight. Parodies of Brokeback Mountain—in which scenes from films like Top Gun, Back to the Future and the macho Heat are edited to appear homoerotic and synched to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack—helped, in large part, turn an art-house film into a cultural touchstone. The vast majority of these videos were produced by aspiring comedy writers hoping to parlay their part in creating a viral video phenomenon into real-world paycheques.
Something less than reverence, if not outright mockery, is the norm in tribute videos. One such subject of mockery is the band Burzum, a Norwegian black metal act of which lead singer Varg Vikernes is currently in prison for murder and arson (he’s done thirteen years so far). Apart from the occasional goth clip of burning churches, the majority of Burzum’s tribute videos feature young men alone in their bedrooms playing Burzum songs on their guitars. But among these clips is one that starts out like an earnest tribute: a long-haired, sexually ambiguous person wearing face makeup plays air guitar in front of a child’s bunk bed. Midway through the video, however, the music shifts to the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” and the headbanger switches to a jaunty, shoulder-swivelling dance. Whether by intention or by accident, the clip cleverly highlights the sexual contradictions of many metal artists: aggressive in their posturing and feminine in their appearance, they come across as hyper-angry and campy at the same time.
On-site reaction to the video is mixed. Daniwiwueyhuis writes, in part, “what the fuck is this? if i ever see you i shall slaughter you and soddomize your feeble corpse.” Grabgewalt adds: “you really suck! you dont deserve your beautiful hair.” Others, like nemrod666, jump to the defense (in equally explicit terms): “Im your fan nummber 1!!!!!! and you have fan community here in germany!!!!! … dont give a shit what the other say ....they are all cocksuckers!!!! fucking cunts!!!! we love you!!!!!”
In another Burzum-tagged video entitled Metal Chef, some British kids combine their love of black metal and cooking. In the second episode, show hosts Kragoth the Barbarian and Lucifera make a “soufflé of eternal winter.” “We’re going to put the raspberries into the churning abyss,” Lucifera explains, before adding the fruit to a blender. Idleness is, indeed, the devil’s work.
But the ultimate are tributes to other Internet tribute videos. Crazy Asian Mother by Erick Liang, a goofy bit of ethnic comedy acted by a seventeen-year-old male from New Jersey, has been viewed (as of mid-November) over 2,735,872 times on YouTube and has resonated with viewers to the far corners of cyberspace. Crazy Asian Mother features a spot-on impression of an Asian mom’s belligerent overreaction to a B+ on her son’s report card. “How you get B+ in English?” Liang screeches. “We come all the way from that far country, China, and we born you here in America, just so you can get a B+?”
It’s pretty hilarious. This tribute to motherly love has now been translated into other fan tributes like Crazy Muslim Mother, Crazy Brazilians Mother By: Saddam and Renan, and a version featuring two blonde white kids speaking in hip-hop parlance. My favourite videos are the ones of white kids closely mimicking Liang’s Chinese accent and twitchy mannerisms. These kids aren’t imitating the way some Asians talk: they’re taking on Liang and his specific insider’s interpretation. I’m reminded less of Mickey Rooney’s racial caricature, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and more of white kids doing routines from the Chappelle’s Show.
Of course, wherever people gather, whether in real places or cyberspace, the salesmen are not far behind. Some artists, no doubt encouraged by their corporate backers, have capitalized on tribute remixes as underground promotional devices. In 2004, David Bowie, always keen to place himself at the edge of new trends, ran a contest for the best remix of one of his older songs combined with a track from his then current album, Reality. Catching on to the number of fan videos of teenagers dancing and lip-synching to favourite songs, performers like Shakira, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jessica Simpson have all released official “fans only” compilations of, well, fans singing along to their favourite tunes—a tribute to the tributes.
Remix culture has some lawyers and moguls worried: while others see the Internet’s interactive destiny being fulfilled, they see a further fracturing of the idea of copyright. Both sides are wrong. The tribute video is no more, or less, than a love letter. Like all declarations of undying devotion, they come with implicit requests for reciprocation, hints of unacknowledged resentment, hidden conditions for prolonging this everlasting passion and subtle suggestions for improvement.