Dance Like Somebody’s Watching: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Forms of Digital Expression

Screenshot from a Lisztomania / Brat Pack mashup video uploaded to YouTube

As a Boston University undergraduate, “Sandy” Ocasio-Cortez joined other students in making a “Lisztomania Brat Pack mashup” video, a short film that was locally used as a promotional video for the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground (and, according to its director, broadcast on TVs across campus) but also uploaded to YouTube in September 2010, joining many other professional and homemade variations of a mashup between Phoenix and The Breakfast Club that was posted by “AvoidantConsumer” in 2009. This video resurfaced on Twitter less than one day into Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tenure, dug up from the past in an odd and ultimately ineffective attempt at shaming the popular progressive politician (though there are certainly vocal users of social media who believe that the film is a record of her limitations and flaws).

As far as digital records of college behavior go, it’s extremely innocuous. But it is an interesting object of analysis for folks interested in media history and archaeology, as Parker Higgins effectively documented on Twitter on the same day the video resurfaced. And the reception to the video in 2019 offers an interesting glimpse at where and how the long histories of social media, viral content, remix culture, and the professionalization of the web are going to be studied, remembered, and archived. I wanted to think out loud about some of these implications here.

Some basic questions about this video were quickly answered, not just through contextual clues in the video itself (the initial tweet that began the smear campaign noted that Ocasio-Cortez was in high school, when it’s clear that she and her co-stars are wearing BU gear for a reason) but via the detailed metadata provided on the video’s YouTube upload. Thanks to the uploader or uploaders, we can trace the video’s origins and see other videos that were made and circulated in 2009-10. Although strangely, I’m not entirely sure how much credit for metadata goes to Julian Jensen (the name attached to the YouTube account), since video director Eric Baker told Boston Magazine that he was the one who turned comments on this particular video off (smartly anticipating a rise in trolls that corresponded with Ocasio-Cortez’s growing prominence).

“Julian” may have been inspired by the detailed approach to metadata taken by the “Brooklyn” mashup. But the amount of information provided on its upload page is not necessarily a sign that these users were thinking about archival futures. It’s instead a document of an unfolding present, with several updates about the spread and positive reception of its remix. YouTube pages had more readers at a time when videos were shared as links rather than easily played (or annoyingly autoplayed) without having to leave Facebook or Twitter. Ten years later, we’re viewing this past from a point in the present where we’re encouraged to like and share and spend as much time as possible within individual social media sites and apps. Earlier today, Ocasio-Cortez responded to the video non-controversy by starring in a new dance video posted to her Twitter page: while she has an official YouTube page, the clip was not posted there.

Despite the fact that many of these videos (especially the more professionally-made ones) were viral by design, we don’t see the reminders to like and share or the records of self-promotion that you’d find surrounding (and often embedded within) a piece of aspirational viral media in 2019. I don’t mean to suggest that this moment in internet culture was less interested in economies of attention, only that the forms of currency and the opportunities for monetization took on different forms. It’s useful to remember, for example, that Facebook only introduced the “Like” button in February of 2009 (go back and check your timeline: it’s true!) and that comment threads were more the encouraged sites of reception, engagement, feedback (Twitter seems to have been one of the earliest Web 2.0 social media sites interested in the “Favorite” mechanism and metric).

It’s also worth noting the distance between the metrics of a “viral” success story and the reception of memes by media coverage, scholars, and aggregators. Due to the copyright issues documented by Higgins in his thread, we don’t have access to metrics for the original Phoenix / Breakfast Club mashup. We do, however, have the metrics for the Brooklyn iteration: over ten years, the video has been viewed over half a million times. By comparison, the BU video is approaching two million views in the wake of yesterday’s spread and media coverage. The first video to hit a million views on YouTube was a November 2005 Nike upload of an ad starring Ronaldinho; the most popular YouTube video of 2009, the year the mashup first appeared, was likely OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” synchronized dance video.

Viewer metrics don’t take into account copies and edits circulating elsewhere, and even access to a precise set of analytics doesn’t tell the whole story about virality. I’d argue that a few factors combined to result in this particular mashup’s viral status: media interest in “viral” content at this point in time, the documenting of a network of mashup makers by the makers themselves, the uses of this mashup (and others) by Lawrence Lessig and other public figures interested in internet culture, and the copyright disputes (documented extensively by Higgins) that emerged after Lessig highlighted the mashup in his work. So even if the views pale in comparison to, say, a “Lazy Sunday,” this project seems to have earned its page on Know Your Meme.

The new attention paid to this mashup has led to new viral content: I’ve seen a lot of remixed clips of Ocasio-Cortez’s BU dance moves to a range of songs. Given the corners of Twitter I prefer, I’m seeing more clips like this one, which makes use of the music from the 1990 Super Nintendo game Super Mario World. Ocasio-Cortez’s own response has already been viewed over four million times in less than five hours.

Despite my interest in viral content and my appreciation of Ocasio-Cortez’s ongoing work, I haven’t shared this video, though it’s popped up a few times in my feed. I don’t know if I have a particular sound-bite-sized answer for why I haven’t done so, though I’d be curious about how and why other people have changed their reading and sharing habits over the last ten years. If I share viral content these days it’s either because I want to describe, contextualize, or analyze it, or because I’m making something indebted to a particular meme template, or because I’m sharing something relatively obscure or weird in hopes of making my Twitter page feel less like a more annoying extension of LinkedIn (I do need a more permanent job tho, if you have one).

Looking back on my 2009 Facebook page for signs of sharing video content, I was amused to find that I had shared a bunch of things in December alone: “In The City” by The Eagles (possibly for nostalgia reasons: it’s the song at the close of The Warriors, set in Brooklyn), a country music song my brother Brian and I listened to a lot that Christmas in South Carolina, a Bill Hicks rant on marketing (oof), David Bowie’s video for “China Girl” (unclear why), a collection of commercials for Pachinko starring Nicholas Cage (shared for obvious reasons). The frequency of music videos is a sign of pre-Spotify days (Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011), combined with residue from earlier music-sharing social media habits (MySpace profile page songs, anyone?) and the role listening to particular kinds of music played in the identity I was broadcasting online at the time. I do still share videos like that Nick Cage one, but moreso on private backchannels I have with small groups of friends on Instagram or WhatsApp. I’ve given up on male stand-up comedy, for reasons that are probably obvious.

It was amusing to type words like “mashup” and “remix” in 2019 (as a New Yorker of a certain age, I can’t think of the word “remix” without hearing someone, possibly Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex, loudly yell “REEE-MIX”). There’s a long history documenting the material realities of mashing up and remixing, the amazing work that came out of technological limitations, the economic factors serving as gatekeepers and limiters of the spread of culture, the complicated relationships between labor, identity, aesthetics, commerce. “Mash-up” sounds old-fashioned to my ears, but the online spaces I prefer to inhabit are almost all defined by tendencies to collapse, juxtapose, entangle, and even curate concoctions of culture from a variety of contexts. We don’t go out of our way to congratulate one another for committing to these ways of re-shaping the worlds around us: things happen at an accelerated and constantly-mutating pace. We understand that these forms of expression are under constant threat, which might be why so much of the work I gravitate to in these spaces has a kind of disposable or ephemeral aesthetic baked into it.

Beyond the personal introspection, this particular viral incident has me thinking a lot about how quickly we go from too much context to gaps in the historical records of internet culture. Viral content continues to get incessantly covered by media sites, dissected by social media pundits, analyzed by scholars of media and public history. I’d love to do a deeper dive on this particular moment in the shaping of viral content and its reception, and the speed with which desires for attention led these and other assemblages of individuals, institutions, and cultural objects to be linked. But so much of this stuff lives a precarious life on commercial sites, as the particulars of this mashup’s history demonstrates to us in 2019.

Some remaining traces of context remind us of the people starring in, making, and responding to this content and the ways they change and transform over time. The top comment on a mashup attributed to Winnipeg was posted two months ago, from someone noting that “girl with purple boots” in the 2010 video “is my mom.” The descriptive metadata here is endearingly apologetic: “This was the first video assignment in our TV class (which means we can only get better!) and a very amateur tribute to this awesome video.” There are so many unanswered questions here: who is “we” and did they get better? What was this class like, and how did the decision to make this video come about? Was the teacher cool, or nah?

The parts of me with archival leanings wants to document the presence of this video as a cultural object and possibly even follow up on some of these thoughts. But as we saw yesterday, even though this particular attempt at weaponizing the past stumbled out of the gate, we’re living in a moment where we view expressions of online identities as pieces of evidence, part of an ever-growing permanent record, the kind some of us used to joke about in high school. Would these students keep trying to get better at expressing themselves if they knew what 2019 looked like? As a teacher interested in public contexts for classroom work, how do I work in this present reality, one where dancing is read as a demerit? As a person generally interested in forms of online expression that at times have little or nothing to do with the imperatives and interests of my current employer, how do I balance desires to protect myself with insisting that I am not defined and constrained by my job? I’m glad that this particular chapter in the never-ending story of viral content had a happy ending, but the story seems far from over.

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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