Notes on Remixing the Presidential Election and the Influence of Vidding

It has been a couple months now since I released my latest political remix “So You Think You Can be President?” (SYTYCBP). In that time it has been viewed around 20,000 times via various video-sharing sites and has been linked to and discussed on blogs about remix culture, politics and humor. Not bad for a politically transgressive and critical video, especially considering its nine minutes long and has a relatively slow narrative build which does not exactly follow the formula for political humor on YouTube. So a week before Obama’s inauguration I wanted to write this wrap-up post to share some of my creative process, motivations and influences for that project.

Over the past two years we saw a flood of remix videos on the topic of the 2008 US presidential elections. Some were creative, entertaining or down right hilarious but ultimately, for me, many ended up feeling a bit like amateur commercials eerily similar to the candidate’s own nationwide television-advertising campaigns. I had hoped this torrent of politically inspired mash-up activity would yield more videos critical of the election process, of the presidency as an institution or of the candidates’ strikingly similar policies on key issues. I had for the most part been avoiding participating in this remix frenzy but as November 4th drew closer I was still disappointed with most of the remixed messages created thus far. So I decided to throw my own remixed perspective into the ring.

The first seeds for my SYTYCBP remix were planted this summer in Chicago during a pair of trips to facilitate a youth workshop focusing on critical media literacy using political remix video (PRV) as a tool. Mindy Faber and I spend two weeks co-teaching at the Fair Use Remix Institute and on a number of occasions had dinner with her family in front of the television watching the US presidential race heat up. Intermittently we would catch an episode of Colbert, Daily Show or the competition reality show So You Think You Can Dance on Fox. Since I watch TV in much the same way that a hacker might look at code so anytime I spend in front of the tube inevitably turns into a remix brainstorm session. We found it particularly humorous to imagine the political candidates (at this point McCain, Obama and Clinton) having to face tough questions and critiques similar to those from the surprisingly sincere and sometimes harsh panel of choreographer judges instead of the softball approach taken by the mainstream news. These nightly re-imaginings eventually became the roots of my most involved and complex détournement style remix project – a glimpse of an alternate reality where media personalities are not afraid to honestly and critically confront the powerful.

Over all I was attempting to construct a deeper, more subtle argument using the remix form. Something that is relatively rare in the PRV genre, which leads itself to quick, blunt and obvious points rather than nuanced messages. I was obviously concerned with showing how the US elections are treated much like reality television but more specifically I wanted to expose the mainstream corporate news media for not challenging candidates on major policy issues. In SYTYCBP I highlighted two major policy positions shared by both candidates. First their support for increased offshore oil drilling, new nuclear power plants and so called clean coal, which is anything but clean.  And second their shared determination to use military force to greatly expand the disastrous war and occupation in Afghanistan. I wanted to approach this critique with some subtlety, understanding that Obama and McCain are not exactly the same nor are many of their other social policies. For this reason I re-mixed the judges reactions to treat each candidate differently so they start by acknowledging the historical and hopeful significance of Obama but at the same time challenge him on his less than progressive positions. This meant that the remix had a bit of a slow build and ended up longer than I would have liked but I felt it was important.

In addition to the policy positions mentioned above, another motivation for this remix was the issue of gender and the absence of female voices. All three presidential debates were moderated by men and both the final party contenders were obviously male (as has been the case throughout the history of the American political system). With this in mind, I consciously re-created the judging process to make women’s voices deliver the sharpest, most insightful and humorous critiques of the candidates. This was partly a reflection of the original show’s content as the best lines are indeed consistently offered by Mia Michaels and Mary Murphy which was one of my reason for choosing So You Think You Can Dance and not another reality competition show like American Idol.

Followers of television shows, including those of the competition reality variety, naturally develop emotional relationships with the characters, judges or contestants. This was certainly true for me as I watched the 4th season of So You Think You Can Dance and rooted for my favorite dancers and choreographers. In fact I’m not sure I could have finished the tedious cataloging and remixing process if I have not become a fan of the show.  This fan based approach is new for me in my political video work though curtain not a novel or unique remixing idea.

Earlier this year while curating a showing of political remix works for the 24/7 DYI Video Summit at USC, two of the other curators Laura Shapiro and Francesca Coppa introduced me to another remix form called vidding. Though new to me this self-conscious community had been skillfully re-mixing, re-interpreting and re-framing mass media entertainment since the 70s starting with still slides shows and than tape-to-tape VCR editing. Vidding like PRV is an analytical process though not necessarily always an overtly political one. I was impressed by many aspects of this work, specifically the precise editing techniques, the careful attention to gender and sexuality, the sympathetic treatment of beloved pop culture television characters, the extensive knowledge and use of the source footage, and the subtle manipulation of narratives and subtext.

It was the sympathetic (fannish) quality with which these vidders played with their characters and narratives that caught my attention and partially inspired my SYTYCBP election remix. With that in mind I set about creating this latest remix consciously attempting to play with the celebrity judges and studio audience in a sympathetic fashion re-purposing their voices to carry subversive political messages. Their words are re-framed to reflect the fact that in study after study the American population is consistently to the left of both parties on most issues.

Previously my only attempt at creating a character that viewers could sympathize with was in my remixed TV ad for the US Army called “Go Army: Bad Guys“. (A video which, ironically, was recently flagged as “not suitable for minors” by an anonymous YouTube user). In it a young American boy articulates his excitement about the US military’s use of torture to his school guidance councilor. Expressing a desire to join the Army so that he might participate in these horrible acts when he grows up. The councilor is visually and understandably horrified and it was my intention that the audience would identify and sympathize with her reaction. This was a departure from my previous videos, which were almost universally critical of the characters and institutions in the source material.

Beyond speaking truth to power one of the core objectives of PRV work is to help build popular support for positive change in social norms.  Hopefully the vidding practice of transforming beloved pop culture characters will become a strategy more often explored by political remixers to deliver alternative ideas and critiques.

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Below is a quick round-up of a few of the blog posts that discuss my “So You Think You Can Be President?” Remix:

Center for Social Media Blog
Henry Jenkins Blog
Youthradio.org Article
Washington Independent Blog
Its Getting Hot in Here Blog

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