The dark side of the rainbow

By NICK SYLVESTER  |  August 29, 2007

If amateurs don’t aspire to the creative possibilities of easy AV mash-ups, they at least have incentive in the firecracker fame these videos tend to achieve. Some of YouTube’s most-clicked videos are meticulously edited remixes of disparate song and show. A reel of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pop-rock tour footage was rejiggered for a hardcore song by Throwdown. Charlie Brown and friends perform OutKast’s “Hey Ya.” A Pulp Fiction trailer is redone with the faces of Samuel Jackson and John Travolta replaced by Muppets, and a fan video of Brooklyn disco band Escort’s song “All Through the Night” consists entirely of Muppets dancing and lip-synching along. Anime also serves as AV mash-up fodder, since many fans cannot understand the Japanese dialogue and compensate by soundtracking the clips themselves. Remixers have set dancing avatars from the video game World of Warcraft to pretty much everything from “Toxic” to “The Electric Slide” and directly incorporated them into sequences from Napoleon Dynamite and Saturday Night Fever.

Short on smarts, these videos are often massive technical feats. The footage first must be acquired, which can be tough, and then manipulated in order to match — for example, the lyrics of a song to the facial contortions of its new speaker. The program that eases both these burdens is likely to become the most popular and, with more users, drive more content to itself. Because they have the biggest content pools, the Adobe engine YouTube and Photobucket offer is relatively slow and unstable, and YouTube doesn’t even allow its users to clone other users’ content, possibly because owner Google is still settling its case with Viacom. Flektor, which Fox Interactive Media bought in one fell swoop with Photobucket, can import media from both YouTube and Photobucket and has faster and more intuitive editing tools. Google/YouTube’s deal with EMI and Fox/Photobucket’s partnership with alt-distributor Pump Audio mean their respective users could have legal access to thousands of songs for their mash-ups — a possibility that has the double effect of driving traffic and easing copyright concerns.

Whichever one takes off, its real functional worth will be memetic — that is, the rapid, hyperviral way in which the Internet can turn its accidental oddities into international in-jokes. One recent meme came out of deep-throated singer-songwriter Tay Zonday’s karaoke performances of “Never Gonna Give You Up” and an original he called “Chocolate Rain.” Soon after he’d uploaded the video onto YouTube, others were ripping the audio from it and incorporating it into remixes: “Chocolate Rain” performed by Darth Vader; an eight-bit remix that used footage from the Nintendo game Mega Man.

As far as copyright is concerned, most of these remixes seem to fall under the safeguard of transformative use, though already a number of people are making “remixes” that consist of one single still image set to the music of a new song on the radio — an elaborate work-around for the threat of RIAA piracy lawsuits. (Search YouTube for “Kanye West” and you’ll see what I mean.) But there’s a more substantial issue here. Most people making remixes have no creative vision and no skills to operate the programs beyond matching audio to video — yet they upload all the same. YouTube is becoming a mess of so-called tribute reels, a composition of small clips and photos featuring specific sports franchises, pro wrestlers, or animal attacks set (all too frequently) to Korn and Nickelback. And yet some of these clips achieve considerable Internet fame! Does the simple fusion of audio to video count as high-quality entertainment?

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