A little while back, Kevin, one of my colleagues here at MIT, brought the Soulja Boy YouTube phenomenon to my attention while we were discussing an upcoming project.
Fast forward to October: Soulja Boy is fending off Britney Spears and Kanye West on the Billboard Top 100, and you can now watch a rag-tag team of MIT grad students, researchers, affiliates, and Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Movement, crank that:
(CMS program director Henry Jenkins even joined in the learn the dance, but sadly had to run off to something undoubtedly important before the video was shot.)
A little bit of context for those who have somehow managed to miss this craze: Soulja Boy produced his own tracks and uploaded videos of himself performing the dance onto MySpace and YouTube. People everywhere started doing their own versions and putting up their own videos, and the whole thing snowballed until people like Beyonce started incorporating the dance into her stage show. By that point, everyone from underground rap magazines to The Atlantic was talking about Soulja Boy.
Beyond the novelty of seeing everyone from Winnie the Pooh to a bunch of vaguely coordinated MIT students doing the "Crank That" dance, the rise of Soulja boy is an interesting exploration of self-promotion in the digital landscape.
Many groups have taken to social networks and video sharing as a means to self-promote, but, as anyone who has ignored dozens of friends requests from bands on myspace.com knows, the effectiveness of all these efforts is inconsistent, at best.
Part of the problem is that there isn't a significant shift in the way in which the content is presented. Bands produce the same types of videos and promotional materials, except now they're accessible through YouTube instead of MTV. There's little consideration of the unique expectations and practices within these spaces.
In that way, Soulja Boy, who has described computer access as the turning point in the development of his career, was far better equipped to handle his own online promotion than any major label executive. In a move that was described on Artist Direct as "Hustling 2.0," Soulja took advantage of the fact that people were already downloading material from other artists, renaming his files as popular songs in order to spread his content. He also has a number of videos which use the particular video blogging aesthetic of YouTube to help brand him as a personality.
This gap in understanding between major media and cultural practices of user-generated content channels is mirrored in the official music video for "Crank That," wherein rap impresario Collipark good-naturedly mocks his own ignorance of the flourishing Web 2.0 phenomenon around Soulja Boy. The whole video, in fact, runs almost like an advertisement for the age of convergence culture, as the dance propagates over multiple channels of distribution, morphing and evolving from streaming video to mobile devices and ultimately ending up in the "real," physical world, and Soulja Boy steps away from his Webcam and chat windows to accept his record deal.
As Kevin pointed out in his blog, he takes the sign of major label recognition more like an award instead of an opportunity, payment for a job already well-done. On that note, it's interesting how the spelling varies between "Crank Dat" on many of the fan produced videos and some of the marketing on Souljaboytellem.com and "Crank That" on the official record, like a linguistic marker to differentiate the D-I-Y phenomenon from the standardization of the song and its incorporation into the established entertainment industry.
I hope next week to do a closer examination of the video itself in the context of convergence, as well as the implications this phenomenon has had as an affinity space and a community. In the meantime, check out the range of videos in the Soulja Boy universe:
Soulja Boy's YouTube channel, where you can see the original dance video, the official video, and the instructional video, in addition to a number of fan videos and clips of celebrities doing their own versions of "Crank That."
A fairly comprehensive collection of all the audio variations on the song that have appeared. My favorite might be the Folgers Coffee version.
A blog devoted solely to videos of the many, many versions of the dance. Note how the spellings vary from video to video.