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MEGHAN DAUM

It's dancing -- not the key to world peace

August 02, 2008|MEGHAN DAUM

As you may have noticed, I've been on leave from this column for the last month or so (hoping you noticed is part of my new "visualize and you will manifest" regime). During this time, many important events occurred. None, however, were as difficult for me to hold my tongue about as the sudden ubiquity of an Internet video called "Dancing."

For those who haven't been e-mailed the link under subject headings like "OMG, most amazing video ever!" "Dancing," which appeared on the Web on June 20, is a 4 1/2 -minute montage of a man named performing a joyfully spasmodic jig in various locations around the globe. The video is the third installment of a project that began when a friend videotaped Harding dancing during a trip to Vietnam in 2003. Though Harding posted the first video for the benefit of friends and family, it gathered enough steam that Stride chewing gum offered to sponsor a second set of travels. The result of that sojourn shows Harding hoofing it in dozens of more locations, with the Stride logo making an occasional, surreptitious appearance in the corner of the screen.

If the first two videos earned Harding a cultish, low-key fame, the latest "Dancing" is threatening to turn him into a bona fide (minor) celebrity. Aided by better video equipment and a bounce in his step that suggests he's now the beneficiary of slightly more luxurious hotel accommodations than on his first trip, Harding now dances -- to joyous effect -- not just alone but with thousands of others in 42 countries. Unencumbered by logos of any kind -- but still underwritten by Stride -- the footage features jubilant schoolchildren in Madagascar, rosy-cheeked Dubliners, university students in Austin, Huli Wigmen in Papua New Guinea and a guard (not dancing, at least not outwardly) in the Korean demilitarized zone.

As I write this, "Dancing" has been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube alone (it's also available on Harding's website and other places on the Internet). The nearly 29,000 comments appear in several languages and range from worshipful encomiums addressed to Harding ("You are an incredible human being. I think the video says something really poignant about humanity as a whole") to a sort of Burning Man-flavored evangelism ("People would more respect each other and nature if EVERYONE ON EARTH would/could view this once a day -- better twice a day"). The music that accompanies the video, a Bengali poem set to music by Garry Schyman, a friend of Harding, and performed by a 17-year-old emigre from Bangladesh whom Harding's girlfriend discovered on YouTube, has become popular as an MP3 download and a ring tone.

The video is undeniably moving. What's more, it manages to hit the sweet spot between slick commercialism and documentary-style "realness" in a way that appeals to jaded coolsters and more literal, sentimental types too. But let's understand something: "Dancing" (and its predecessors) is not an instrument of world peace. Nor is it, as one person I ran across exuberantly suggested, "a commercial for happiness."

What it is, I dare say, is a commercial for the power of commercials themselves. Leave aside the Stride component for the moment. Harding's latest is a pitch-perfect example of the kind of earthy-hipster-global-enviro chic that's become the advertising style du jour.

If you don't know what I mean, take a look at "Dancing" and then take a look at those ads for BP (also known as Beyond Petroleum and, ahem, formerly known as British Petroleum) that show regular folks talking about alternative energy until they are interrupted by a ponderous crescendo of world music. Granted, the former is an eye-pleasing and presumably agenda-free travelogue and the latter is Big Oil propaganda brilliantly and appallingly disguised as homemade videos of ordinary folks musing about sustainability. But both are testaments to the awesome, manipulative magic that can come from the savvy combination of music and image. Moreover, both appear to capture a big idea when they're really just employing certain aesthetic signposts of big ideas (world music, "real people," hand-held cameras).

Still don't believe me? Watch "Dancing" with the sound turned off and then tell me it says something "really poignant about humanity as a whole." Or download the ring tone or the music only. Is that a better world you're hearing? Or just the next generation's answer to Enya?

Look, I know: Compared with most of the offerings on YouTube, Harding's complete videos -- which, according to his website, he edits himself -- are a sensorial tonic. But remember: Even though it's well established that images have replaced words as our main communication currency, I think we're less aware of the way that adding music can trick us into thinking we're experiencing something deeper than we really are.

In other words, let's assign praise where it belongs. Harding's not a prophet, but a skilled multimedia editor. And kudos for that.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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