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.
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.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In