YouTube Parody as Politics: How The World Made Pharrell Cry

Remixes from around the world show that what brings us together is more important than what divides us.
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Pharrell Williams (Reuters)

Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying.

He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy,” has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy.” The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes featuring people—at workplaces, business schools, college dorms—who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fan-vid to the next. There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes.” 

The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people, and spirit—and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.

Here's Pharrell on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar:

In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier, and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea—film yourself being happy—as it spreads around the world.

* * *

“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind” by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)

Here's the original Empire State of Mind

And here's Newport State of Mind

The georemix dates back to at least as early as 2005, when "Lazy Sunday," a digital short produced by The Lonely Island (and starring Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like "Lazy Muncie," showing Midwest pride, and "Lazy Ramadi," which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.

The "Lazy Sunday" georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits.

While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s "Gangnam Style" video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style,” a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies.”) 

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too.

In remixing "Gangnam Style," Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the U.S., not just from the U.S. and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled "Grass Mud Horse Style," moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs, certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly.

Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written—the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon—simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are “Happy” remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.

Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1,682 videos from 143 countries.

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell as of about a month ago, Fontaine told me he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes. He also said he believes it will survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion, and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the project was receiving 20 to 40 video submissions a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced "Happy" videos as campaign materials—We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of "Happy" with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script).

But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue—it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.

The 1,600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political.” When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy,” they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy—intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran, to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention.

Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country, and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.

 

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Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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