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Watch Me

September 03, 2006|Dan Neil

I missed the recent Teen Choice awards--such are the scheduling conflicts when one holds a valid driver's license. However, I had no trouble catching the webcast rerun of the night's most exciting moment: The world premiere of Kevin Federline's career-ending single "Lose Control." Having seen it, I would like now to publicly take back all the mean things I ever said about Vanilla Ice.

I watched Mr. Britney Spears' performance on YouTube.com, which recently surpassed MySpace.com as the most popular video sharing community on the Internet. In July, YouTube reportedly logged an astonishing 3.9% share of global Internet visits a day compared with 3.35% for MySpace. This prairie-fire-of-the-web phenomenon is even more extraordinary when you consider that much of YouTube's video content is not exactly earthshaking--cats using the toilet, kids racking themselves on BMX bikes and people making Mentos-and-Diet-Coke fountains in their mouths. YouTube is "America's Funniest Videos" on a global, 24/7 basis.

But back to K-Fed for a moment. One of the pleasures of YouTube is the viewer comments, which pile up at the feet of the featured video. It's instructive, during this summer of critics' discontent--some studios are declining to show advanced screenings, perhaps to blunt negative buzz--to see what unvarnished criticism by the public would look like. About 80% of the K-Fed commentary is repetitive and lame--"LOL" and "LMAO" and so on--and other words that don't pass mainstream media's standards of decorum. Like "butt munch." One longs for more thoughtful opinion.

If you're older than, say, 40, you probably don't know much about YouTube, and if you have visited, you probably haven't stayed long (for some reason it can be very fatiguing). But I encourage you to explore its offerings. For anyone looking for an unmediated window into pop culture, here it is, and it's like drinking from a fire hose. This video palimpsest of the eternal Now comes at you in a torrent--home movies, dubs off broadcast TV, accidents caught on tape, police surveillance footage, anarchist short films, traumatic webcam confessions made to no one and anyone. Sometimes this stuff involves famous people--the video of Britney Spears, apparently stoned out of her tiny mind, turned up here. A lot of it is simply repackaged from major networks or viral promotions from record labels. You'll find the "making of" video of Paris Hilton's single, which is precisely as candid as you might expect from the Queen of Synthetics. You'll also find the wonderful, exuberant OK Go video, featuring the rock band dancing on moving treadmills. Brilliant.

But the most interesting stuff is the work of anonymous volunteers riffing with powerful new video cameras and computers for their own amusement and, without quite knowing it, falling into the permanent record of the 21st century. It's also a pinhole camera-view of the world as teenagers see it and feel it. No matter the traumas and reverses of adulthood, you'll be very glad you're not a teenager anymore.

As I'm writing this, the most popular video of the day is, not surprisingly, the K-Fed performance--the latest comment posted: "Sounds like my dad after a few drinks at a wedding." The next most popular, with more than 146,000 viewings, is the latest chapter in a teen melodrama involving lonelygirl15 and Danielbeast. These two kids have been arguing via posted video confessions--something to do with lonelygirl15's religious summer camp and how lame Danielbeast thinks it is. Why this exchange should be so fascinating is not quite clear, but it would seem teenagers scour YouTube looking for homemade "Gilmore Girls" programming. A video of a girl getting ready for her prom drew 40,000 viewings in a day.

There are stranger and more unpleasant corners of YouTube. There's a whole section devoted to cars, planes and helicopter crashes, which is a little too "Faces of Death" for my taste. There is a collection of monster explosions, which I suppose could have some civic purpose. There's nothing like seeing whole city blocks vaporized by an industrial accident to encourage stricter zoning laws. Once fully down the YouTube rabbit hole, you'll find thousands of throwaway moments that their subjects must wish had remained thrown away. There's the clip of a news reporter stomping grapes, Lucy-and-Ethel style, only to take a header off a raised platform and, well, break something. YouTube is as much schadenfreude as bandwidth.

The most popular video ever posted on YouTube? You might think Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," but no. It's actually a video by "inspirational" comedian Judson Laipply, whose "The Evolution of Dance" routine proceeds from Elvis Presley to hip-hop. Laipply, built more like a gridiron star than a dancer, has become YouTube's signature breakthrough artist. It's pleasant to think that a century from now, Shakira will be a wiggly footnote. But when cultural anthropologists want to know what our time was like, Laipply's silly dance will tell them all they need to know about the Golden Age of Amateurism.

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