Ten years of music videos: A treadmill, a stanky romance, and a YouTube dream

For this week's music section, SF Weekly scoured the local landscape, asking the people making, producing, DJing, and distributing music about the big ideas affecting the industry in the last decade. Among their answers, one important media development that didn't get mentioned was YouTube. In five short years, the company has picked up MTV's slack and boosted new music to the masses. Thanks to the online video portal, bands can once again rise in popularity by getting in touch with their cinematic side — so long, of course, as the content's kinda funny. Meanwhile, the songs themselves now ripple through the fan world, as amateurs and oddballs upload their audio-visual interpretations of the hits. (I was recently plagued by a GS Boyz earworm after being sent a YouTube link of a random toddler jiggling on the edge of a table to the song “Stanky Legg.”) Sure, the video landscape is a lot more cluttered, but friends and bloggers can direct us to much more music content than simply what MTV execs deem fit.

In the '90s, MTV was a critical avenue for breaking artists. I vividly remember watching Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Headbangers Ball for the first time and keeping lists of new Britpop groups being played on the specialty show 120 Minutes. The cable channel became as important as commercial radio in publicizing bands. That era is over. MTV has given up on videos, instead becoming a clearinghouse for interchangeable reality TV dramas. But now we have something much more untamed, unusual, and democratic in YouTube, our public-access music television with a search function.

YouTube launched in 2005, but its first noticeable music-related impact came a year later, when pop act OK Go released a clip online of the band doing treadmill gymnastics to its song “Here It Goes Again.” The professionally shot video was a perfect combination of viral gold: a clever concept, a quirky dance routine, and great pop songwriting.

“Here It Goes Again” was one of the first videos I can remember receiving in an e-mail. The Chicago act went on to do a live performance of its aerobic feat at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, and won a Grammy in 2007 for the video. The clip has become a high-water mark for YouTube and the music video community, earning over 48 million views at last check.

Almost five years after the birth of YouTube, there are more videos-turned-memes, music and otherwise, than there's space to list them all. If you want an abbreviated look, check out Weezer's 2008 video parody of Internet hits, the visual mashup “Pork and Beans,” which itself rose through the ranks by spoofing YouTube's funniest and most awkward content. “Pork and Beans” sheds light on another of YouTube's advantages in changing the face of the music industry: The site cuts the distance between artist and fan, and makes stars out of the most comedic and/or bizarre music video worshippers out there. Weezer invited a couple of those bedroom celebs, such as Tay Zonday, to perform lip-synching cameos for that song, and the low- and highbrow merged … into one long cultural unibrow.

It's become clear that MTV's broken hold on broadcasting music videos is a positive thing. The cable giant became too narrow in its scope, and the work of too many good artists went to waste. What we don't get through YouTube, however, are as many memorable “serious” videos. The days of “Thriller” or, say, Duran Duran's musical vignettes of the band yachting are long gone, lost under a deluge of songs catering to that America's Funniest Home Videos mentality. Which, I should add, is fine by me. Watching hilarious music clips is the new office smoke break. Professional videos still make it to YouTube, just with smaller budgets and shorter life cycles than during MTV's heyday.

Occasionally, a work of high viral art breaks through and we get, for example, Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance” video. The long tail of that one has more recently led straight to the toilet, however. Last week a fan named Sherry Vine spoofed the song for YouTube, changing the chorus and the concept to “I just shit my pants.” But while poop humor ain't really my bag, I much prefer the art of surprise inherent to YouTube's music video content over following MTV's current crapshoots.

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