There are other ways to think of virality besides the biological. The other day I asked myself what makes entertainment media go viral, in particular music videos such as PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” that when they explode for a time seem like they are everywhere. These motion picture productions do something to us, often in less than five minutes. They connect with some ideal, or fantasy, or unconscious identification with others. These videos call up some feeling of want or remembrance and then millions of people (or perhaps billions) reach for them on YouTube again. They sing , chant, share, dance to these videos, and write about them. Looking at what are said to be the most popular music videos ever, there are discernible patterns, motifs, and tropes that make us want to tune in again and again.
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The most enthralling videos subtly imply that celebrities are like the rest of us, and thus, they suggest that we too might be celebrities one day. For example, Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailando” video starts out with Iglesias in an apartment just having fun with his boys: one is playing guitar, two of them are dancing; he plays with a soccer ball. (Iglesias teamed up here with musicians Descemer Bueno, and Gente De Zona.) They go outside, and the fun extends to the city. The view shifts and they appear on a stage, singing and dancing; choreography blossoms everywhere. Women in long formal gowns dance a hybrid sequence of steps that seems to have elements of the tango, as people in street clothes also dance a complex series of movements, as if battling. Like most videos these days, there are several scene changes, but the camera often returns to images of a dark-haired woman who is beautiful in the traditional sense: curvaceous with symmetrical features, and flawless skin. Every so often, an extra enjoys a few seconds of exclusive camera time and they become a star for a moment.
Very much the same thing happens with the current most popular music video in the world, “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, featuring Daddy Yankee, at 6.7 billion views. One difference though is the environments Fonsi leads the viewer through — magnificently colorful and displayed in sweeping shots taken from an airplane or drone hovering above the landscape of Puerto Rico (where Fonsi and Yankee are both from). And in this video, there is a good deal more attention paid to a mysterious woman (who, again, by standard measures, is striking). She stares seductively into the camera as she strolls through an urban district, innocently plays with a little boy she encounters, and exchanges gazes with the lead singer. The song is essentially a masculinist, heteronormative seduction (sample translated lyric: “Let me trespass your danger zones until I make you scream and you forget your last name”) in which the woman is an object to be “won.” So, it follows that the woman, who never speaks or sings, is gazed at longingly. Teams of heterosexual couples dance suggestively and sensually (lots of hips and bums popping and arching) around her.
She is positioned as the catalyst for a sexual chain reaction, amplified by the music. But the men who have more screen time are the real protagonists of the drama, Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, who, like Enrique Iglesias are traditionally handsome and framed as seductive. It is Fonsi’s desire for her that sets off a scene in which (heterosexual) sexuality and seduction are performed in an atmosphere of competition to achieve a moment in the camera’s focus.
I suspect that what makes the videos so powerfully attractive to popular imagination is that combination of aspirational and heterosexual play, the idea that the public presentation of our desire can ignite the wick of desire in other people. In other words, that we can be consequential by giving voice and elegant motion to a courtship ritual, and if do it well enough we might achieve not only the desired person, but also a kind of stardom. One can see this play out in Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of you” video in which the singer stars as a boxer in training who (again) meets an alluring woman. Here the ritual is different — it’s about physical training rather than courtship — but the desired object serves a similar function in compelling the real focal point of the story a similar romantic dynamic drives Sheeran’s character to become better than himself, to become someone who can change his world.
Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” featuring Bruno Mars also uses the concept of a man hanging with his male friends as a story or feeling. In this case though, women are only fleeting objects, visible solely as legs and torsos (no faces). The camera focuses almost exclusively on the musicians who eventually move from the street to the stage where their status as stars is affirmed.
Both “Shape of You” and “Uptown Funk” have elements that are meant to be funny and absurd, such as Sheeran’s character being placed in a “fat” suit to fight a sumo wrestler in the former, and Ronson and Mars singing with their hair done up in rollers in a beauty salon. But the absurdity reaches its peak in Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” where the status and lifestyle of wealthy inhabitants of Seoul’s Gangnam district is ruthlessly mocked. Psy wears a suit while dancing in a pen of horses, and then a tuxedo while dancing in a tornado of trash; he dances with various people on a merry-go-round, on a boat, even in an elevator. The visual gags are many and include scenes where he appears to be sunning himself while almost fully clothed on a beach, which is then revealed to be a playground.
But while the ridiculousness of Psy’s frolicking make the video hilariously amusing, there is a way in which Psy says something more profound about wealth. He suggests the notion that if one is a wealthy male, there may be no place that can’t be made your stage to perform.
In contrast, the most popular videos starring women tell very different stories. Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” don’t engage in courtship rituals or begin with a group of friends hanging out. The first starts with Perry in a scene in which she and her boyfriend have crashed in a remote jungle. After the boyfriend is hauled off by a tiger, Perry sings as she makes a home for herself, fashioning hunting tools, making clothing and constructing a shelter. The lyrics of the song echo the care she shows herself with her actions: “You held me down, but I got up / Get ready ’cause I had enough / I see it all, I see it now / I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter.” Essentially, Perry takes on the persona of a tiger and in the ultimate showdown with the animal her roar obliterates him. The visual effects are sophisticated and alluring, but the story of the song is one of self-actualization through meeting the challenge of a romantic relationship.
Similarly Swift’s video, both the song lyrics and the action of the video convey a narrative of self-realization. Swift is shown among ballet dancers, hip-hop dancers, underwear models, and gymnasts. In each clique she plays up her not quite belonging. She moves awkwardly, at one point gazing in amazement at the syncopated rear-ends of a troupe of women dancers who are bopping to the music. And she finds self-empowerment in accepting that she can’t quite do what these professionals can: “I’m dancing on my own (dancing on my own), I’ll make the moves up as I go (moves up as I go) / And that’s what they don’t know mmm mmm, that’s what they don’t know mmm mmm”
For both of these songs the message is one of women’s empowerment (albeit modeled by white, straight women), through realizing their own powers despite the pressure to belong to a particular group or be with a particular romantic partner. This is to say that these are songs and stories about women becoming aware of and fulfilling their potentials as full human beings.
So it is disheartening to find that what makes these particular videos go viral has everything to do with the gendered roles that we imagine we must play. (The women do point to a way out, but it’s a rather solipsistic route). These aren’t necessarily representative of the only ways we think of ourselves in the world, but they are representative of some of the most popular ways of looking at ourselves. I imagined before I began my research that these music videos might serve as spaces for adventure (like this video from the late 1990s) where the combined energy of singers, writers, producers and their behind-the-scenes workers could be harnessed to make a place where we can act for free, instead of acting out inherited patriarchal scripts. Especially in popular culture where we come together to watch each other and we learn to imitate each other, we need to learn to act for free.