I rarely intend to turn this space into a media studies seminar, but I have to say that I’m intrigued by how the culture of YouTube has upped the ante on homemade parody and satire, especially when it comes to music videos.
The idea that you can watch a television show, movie, or music video and then grab a video camera and film your own version has been around longer than the world wide web. When I was in junior high school, my friends and I would commandeer my parents’ video camera (one of those huge cameras that held a full-sized VHS tape) and make funny videos of us lip-synching to certain songs or pretending to be in movies or on talk shows (we had one recurring thing that was a parody of Geraldo where the guests would always get into fights).
If YouTube existed back then, I’m sure we would have posted at least one or two videos, although remembering what those videos were like, we would have definitely had to perfect our craft in order to get noticed at all. The idea of copying a professional’s work and making fun of it/paying tribute to it is a craft all its own and just as the people who are creating videos on sites like YouTube have gotten better over the last few years, the audience has definitely gotten more discerning.
Which begs me to ask: is there a benchmark for homemade quality? Have we become so flooded with homemade videos that our home movies now have to have production value?
To examine this, I want to take a look at what’s been a parody meme of sorts (if that is even the right term–I’m not an academic, so most of this really is talking out of my ass) in the last year or so, which is videos that parody, or re-appropriate the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hit, “Empire State of Mind.”
Now, as with all hip-hop in my life, I came to this particular song pretty late after it was released. I was never much of a Jay-Z fan to begin with and I don’t listen to Top 40 radio, so I completely missed out on “Empire State of Mind” when it was originally on the charts. In fact, the first time I heard about it was when my younger cousin, Liz, quoted it in her Facebook status. And even then, I didn’t catch on to the song until So You Think You Can Dance used the all-Alicia “Part 2” (which I friggin’ LOVE, btw) and I downloaded both of them.
I’m glad I did, too. Both songs have a “Here is New York” feel to them, the same feeling I previously got from songs like the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” and much of Simon & Garfunkel’s catalogue. In the main version, Jay-Z, amidst all of his usual boasting about sitting courtside at Knicks and Nets games (although, honestly, those teams suck so bad I don’t see why that would be boasting, but whatever …), really paints a thorough portrait of the city, not afraid to back down from acknowledging what could be the seedier side of NYC and featuring the places and people that make the city what it is:
Like I said, it more or less stands on its own. But like any good piece of art, there is imitation, and like any suburb, Long Island strives to be as good as the city it feeds day in and day out.
If you’re unfamiliar with Long Island geography, you need to basically know two names, and those are Nassau and Suffolk. These are the two counties that comprise Long Island (or the real Long Island, which is that giant strip mall between Queens and The Hamptons), and each has its own personality. Nassau, being closer to the city, is more densely populated and older, with Suffolk still having its fair share of farms. If Nassau is a symbol of the original suburban development of the postwar era (aka Levittown), parts of Suffolk could be endemic of the suburban sprawl plague that ravaged so much of the rest of the country in the last decade.
And since development began, ran down the parkways and expressways and turned potato farms into subdivisions, Nassau and Suffolk have seemingly engaged in a turf war. Yeah, to those who are not familiar with Long Island, a guido from Nassau might as well be a guido from Suffolk (kind of in the way that north, south, east, or west, Jersey is still Jersey), but I don’t know very many people from my hometown of Sayville who would want to be associated with a gum-clacking frizzy-haired mall chick from Bellmore.
Nowhere is this more evident than in two parodies/tributes of “Empire State of Mind”: “Nassau County State of Mind” and “Suffolk County State of Mind.” I’ll pick on Nassau first because I believe that one was produced and released first:
Here we’ve got a crew of guys who take an angle similar to Jay-Z’s in that they brag about how awesome they are while talking about where they’re from, but whereas Jay-Z comes off as cool when he does it, these guys seem like obnoxious douchebags. And I guess it’s meant to be over-the-top satire, especially when they bust out prescription bottles of pills, and sing in front of the fantabulous guido mansion with their luxury cars, but honestly, whatever might be tongue-in-cheek, is kind of flat because the lyrics are thin, the singing is thin, and honestly, they act too genuine to be making fun of all that.
Their opponents in Suffolk were less overtly over-the-top and seemed to want to talk less about how awesomely rich they were, instead going for a mash-up of places and experiences that are exclusive to Suffolk County (last Roy Rogers on LI! Holla!). Plus, the video is actually a little more faithful to its source material with a duplicate of the opening shot (although the whiny “Do a song about Suffolk” voice I could do without) and an actual woman singing the Alicia Keys part (who doesn’t have that bad of a voice):
I mean, it’s authentic enough that when she comes on the screen and starts singing you can smell the Marlboro Lights and Exclamation perfume. They even call out Nassau, describing Suffolk’s superiority (and yes, I’m biased here, but Suffolk kicks Nassau’s ass and none of the people in this video are wearing a friggin’ Islanders shirt), which was a nice touch.
This isn’t the only “Suffolk County State of Mind” video out there; heck, it’s not the only Long Island “State of Mind” video. People from different towns have picked up the torch and shot what amount to tourism videos, including one for my own hometown of Sayville, done by two guys who represent the town very well, even if they used autotune for the chorus and couldn’t get the audio synched up quite right (although, look for an Amazing Comics shout out):
All in all, I have to say that Jay-Z’s job is pretty much safe. Although they’re all imitating “Empire State of Mind”, the approach here seems to be more “We Didn’t Start the Fire” because they don’t have the edge that Jay-Z brings and the sexiness of Alicia Keys, who anchored the original song with her refrain, giving it all something to come back to (and note, none of the parodies include the bridge in the original version). Simply listing things makes it an A/V meme, no bigger than email forwards like “You Know You’re From Long Island When …” and “Signs You Are From Sayville” (an old, unavailable forward started by yours truly … not to toot my own horn or anything).
Of course, that may be all it’s meant to be. I mean, if you look at all of the people who create their own versions of videos for websites like YouTube, they’re kids. Oh sure, half of them are probably in their twenties, but as many cool ideas I or my friends and I would have for something like this, I don’t think that we could pull off doing it because we’re simply, well, too old. It would be like we’re trying too hard or something, which is why we stick to passing “Sayville State of Mind” on to one another instead of creating a response video.
Besides, for my money, this is the only “state of mind” I’d like to be in: