Last week, I brought up the phenomenon surrounding Soulja Boy and the "Crank Dat" dance craze that propelled him to success and touched upon a few of the things that drew my attention to this particular case. This week I thought I'd dig in a little further, and try to tease out some of the things that Soulja Boy really embodies for me (as a concept more than as a musician or performer) through a closer examination of his official music video, which touches upon a lot of these themes of production, participation, and distribution in the age of convergence.
Before I can talk about the content of the video, though, I have to talk a little bit about the context in which I'm watching it. I have to admit, I watch television almost exclusively on my computer, so I can't say for certain whether or not this video is getting airtime on MTV. What I do know is that it is on YouTube, uploaded by Soulja Boy himself, and has been viewed there over 15 million times, framed by the thousands of comments and hundreds of response videos. Rather than repurposing the track for (re)distribution within a traditional broadcast model, here we are given Crank That in its natural habitat -- not a discreet media product, but one video within a network of thousands of others that make up the phenomenon.
The video itself is a retelling of Soulja Boy's rise to fame in three acts: Collipark's discovery of Soulja Boy, Collipark's ride to Soulja Boy's house to sign him, and then the signing. In the process of reenactiment, it then dramatizes many of the themes central to the Soulja Boy phenomenon, presenting at the center a dichotomy between the established music industry and its trappings and the ground-up, digitally mediated methods of production, promotion, and distribution that Soulja Boy employes.
In the opening sequence in the video, before the song even starts, Collipark plays the part of the ignorant executive, asking a couple of kids dancing in his office " "Who's Soulja Boy, and what in the heck is that dance?" to which they they respond by reasking the question, incredulous, to each other, as if Collipark's ignorance of Soulja Boy isolates him to the extent that he can no longer be part of the same discourse.
As an answer to the question, the video cuts to a following shot of Soulja Boy, a webcam passing conspicuously in the foreground as he pulls his chair up to a computer and the song begins. But instead of getting up to dance and sing, Soulja Boy instead focuses on his computer screen, where we see images of streaming video of people doing the dance, surrounded by enthusiastic user comments. This is crosscut with shots of Collipark gazing at his own computer screen, and culminates in a shot of a chat client window:
CP: This is Mr. Collipark, I want to sign you to a record deal.
Soulja Boy: Meet me at my crib . . .
The emphasis on cribs, or home turfs, is interesting here, considering the way Soulja Boy's space is populated with devices of digital production and distribution, and Collipark's office is burdened with the structures and divisions of industry -- assistants, paperwork, gold records on the wall, and a huge desk separating him from the kids who are in the know. The video also starts out in letterbox, opening to full-screen only once the song begins, to further delineate the two spaces. And Collipark finally meets Soulja Boy on his own turf in yet another way, by contacting him through a chat client instead of by phone or mail.
The second act, in which Collipark makes good on this request, we see shots of him in the darkened back of a limo as he drives through the streets crosscut with various groups of people -- girls in the park, boys on a bridge, two old men with canes, a man in a superman costume, a traffic cop -- all either watching the video on mobile devices or starting up the dance or some combination thereof. It is only once Collipark finishes watching the video on his own mobile device that he looks out his window, gaping at all the Soulja Boy performances taking place all around him.
The whole sequence comes across like an ad for media convergence. The video and dance is shown spreading through numerous devices and, more importantly, generating discussion, sharing, and participation, quickly establishing itself as a social practice instead of just a media property spread over numerous technologies.
And here again we see the contrast of the record exec isolated in what is visual shorthand for entertainment industry success (riding in the back of a limo in near-darkness), but instead of presenting an image of success, it shows how sealed off he is from what's happening in the world around him, literally kept in the dark about what young people are doing everywhere outside his car. What's interesting here is not only the depiction of the seclusion the record industry versus the mobilization of the audience, but that the internet is repeated collapsed into the physical world. What happens on the videos is what's happening outside, and the internet phenomenon is translated into a real-world phenomenon.
What's more, there are a number of disparate groups represented across gender, age, and location, all of them reinterpreting the dance through their own communities, and linked through their ability to watch the videos across various devices, emphasizing at once a sense of connectivity, but also an urge to represent local communities and groups. In short, Soulja Boy as a phenomenon presents itself as more of a mode than a community, a practice that allows existing communities based on characteristics that are generally thought to be "disappeared" in the digital space (gender, age, race etc.) to foreground themselves.
Then finally, after several performance sequences, we have the culmination of the video, where Soulja Boy gets signed (and here again we see the interjection of digital mediation and online discussion). As I mentioned before, the signing takes place at his house, suggesting that the industry has to come to him. Morever, it is done through the passing of bling, a gesture that's more symbolic than official. The necklace bears a strong resemblance to a medal, and he receives it more like an award than an opportunity. In other words, the record signing is not the start of his career, but rather simply the recognition for the work he's already done and will continue doing. Furthermore, he puts on his sunglasses before the look is complete, suggesting a persona that was crafted prior to industry involvement. And all of this is again framed within networking technologies, with the crucial moment in which Collipark passes the necklace show on a computer screen show only as a streaming video clip, with a chat discussion between two people commenting on the events, suggesting once again the pivotal role of fan participation in the entire ordeal.
An interesting question was brought up by Henry Jenkins regarding some of what has been discussed here: would our reactions to Soulja Boy be the same if we were to find out, some time down the line, that Soulja Boy wasn't real, but rather the next iteration of something like LonelyGirl15?
The answer is yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that we may feel duped, but no in the sense that, in a lot of ways, Soulja Boy already is Lonelygirl15. He has never been shy about his intentions -- from the beginning, he was clear that his goal was to sign a major record deal. There were never pretensions about Youtube and Myspace as merely expressive platforms. For Soulja Boy, it was about promotion from the start, in an effort not to eschew the record industry altogether, but to enter it in untraditional ways. And any discover of disingenuousness of Soulja Boy as an individual would not wholly detract from Soulja Boy as a phenomenon, because what has grown up around him has also grown past him and while he was the beginning, he is no longer the central to what has happened. In other words, we no longer need Soulja Boy in order to Crank That.