Crank that, techie

Cool jerks
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  October 12, 2007

In the summer of 2006, DeAndre Way, then 16, combated summer boredom in Batesville, Mississippi, by writing songs with Fruity Loops digital-audio software. He borrowed a cousin’s video camera and filmed dances to accompany the music. Thanks to YouTube, Way’s choreography quickly turned into a Southern dance craze — particularly centered around a steel-pan-drum-fueled number called “Crank That (Soulja Boy).”

Last May, the Interscope-owned Collipark Music label (Ying Yang Twins, Young Jeezy) signed Way, who now records under the name Soulja Boy Tellem. Over the summer, before Soulja Boy even released an album, the “Crank That” infection spread dramatically via Way’s instructional videos for his “Superman” dance, garnering the song radio airplay. Remixes were rampant on sites such as imeem.com. On YouTube, fans synched the song with cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh and SpongeBob SquarePants, and posted their attempts at mastering the dance. Beyoncé did the “Superman” at her concerts, and Travis Barker crafted a drum-heavy remix. At press time, “Crank That” was atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the fourth nonconsecutive week, above Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” and Kanye West’s “Stronger.”

This past Wednesday, a day after the release of Soulja Boy’s debut album, Souljaboytellem.com, a dozen or so MIT grad students and professors gathered on a circular lawn beside Building 54 at 5:30 pm, blasting “Crank That” from a small gray CD player set on repeat. Some of the group were clad in lab coats and thick glasses as they repeated (and videotaped) the dance — a crisscrossed jump in place, followed by a few shakes and stomps, a breast stroke–like arm spread, and four jumps to the left and right. “This will single-handedly transform the coolness factor for MIT,” commented Henry Jenkins, co-founder of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program, as he observed nearby.

The meeting of Soulja enthusiasts was organized by students — including Kevin Driscoll, a/k/a Lone Wolf, a local DJ and former computer-science teacher — from a CMS graduate course in media theory. Driscoll’s lawn-dance party was more than just a way to add a video to the vast library of “Crank That” tributes. He hypothesizes that “Crank That” is a unique bullet point on the dance-craze timeline, symbolic of a shift in dances’ virility and how they spread.

“It’s by the power of the dance craze that [Soulja Boy] was picked up by a major label,” says Driscoll. “It demonstrates how resources like YouTube and MySpace can be these enabling technologies, even for kids, really.” The MIT Soulja Boy videos are now on YouTube (and up to about 400 views each, at press time) making them perpetuators of the very trend the participants are studying. At least it’s not the Macarena.

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