Before you read this post, go watch the music video for Weezer’s Pork and Beans, if you haven’t already. While you watch, you can play Count the Meme, or just check out the video’s Wikipedia entry, which catalogs every meme reference with links to the originals. Warning: You may lose several hours tracking down all the videos that Weezer used and watching them, watching them again, then watching the Weezer video again. Or at least I did. I’ve done my best to embed or link to the videos I’m talking about so you don’t have to go searching.
For those of you who don’t know what a meme is (Hi, Mom!), here’s a quick definition from Wikipedia: “A meme consists of any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” In Web-speak, it generally refers to a goofy video or image that becomes insanely popular and spawns a series of imitations and parodies, like cat pictures with silly captions, or home movies of babies laughing.
One common characteristic of web memes is that they frequently include pieces of copyrighted popular culture, sometimes remixed or adapted, and sometimes simply copied and added to. Fan scholar Henry Jenkins calls this “convergence culture,” by which he means “complex interactions and collaborations between corporate and grassroots media.” Corporate media companies sometimes fret over these grassroots appropriations/infringements and sometimes turn a blind eye, but there is no denying that these fan works are highly creative, and they’re already shaping and defining the culture of the early 21st century.
Which brings me to Weezer. The “Pork and Beans” video references and incorporates no fewer than 29 different memes (if Wikipedia is to be believed), and many of the memes’ originators also appear in the video. It’s a delightful reversal, in which a mainstream band copies and references the work of ordinary people, work that has no commercial backer and only ever appeared on YouTube. “Pork and Beans” is a joyful celebration of democratized creativity, and also one hell of an entertaining mash-up.
What makes it all the more interesting, from a copyright-and-creativity-and-the-Internet perspective, is how many of the memes that Weezer copies are themselves copies. There’s the Numa Numa guy, who lip synchs to a popular Romanian dance tune, Ryan vs. Dorkman, the outrageously well-executed light saber battle acted and edited by a pair of high schoolers, and the kids who recorded one of the many many many homemade Souljah Boy dance videos (the original of which has its own references both to previous generations of copyrighted pop culture and to homemade web video). It’s a tangled web of reference and counter reference, one in which controlling and protectionist attitudes toward copyright have no place.
Just for fun, here’s one thread of the Pork and Beans Creative Influence Goose Chase that I particularly enjoyed:
Daft Punk is a band. They make electronic music, and their lyrics are often simple and repetitive. They like to dress up as robots. Some of their videos, like this one, feature a distinctive style of dancing.
Some guy decided to make a video called “Daft Hands,” in which he displays all of the lyrics to Daft Punk’s song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” written on his hands.
A pair of college students saw the “Daft Hands” video and were inspired to go one better. They made “Daft Bodies,” with all of the words to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” written on various body parts, and then they took it a step further by including Daft Punk-style robot costumes and dance moves.
Then Weezer decided to include both the “Daft Hands” guy and the “Daft Bodies” girls in their video, with Weezer’s lyrics written on the hands and bodies. So many layers of reference! So many questionable yet awesome uses of copyrighted material! That Weezer included both Daft Hands and Daft Bodies highlights a key element of web memes: the instant a video achieves a modicum of popularity, people start posting responses, parodies, and imitations. Daft Hands spawned dozens of videos for all kinds of songs featuring lyrics written on hands, and it also spawned Daft Bodies, which spawned dozens of videos of people dancing in their underwear with lyrics written on their bodies. And it’s all happening in a space – YouTube – that makes it incredibly easy both to credit and track influences, even as copyright is studiously ignored.
It’s just so darn cool. And while the Framers could never in their wildest dreams have imagined the phenomenon that is the Dramatic Prairie Dog, I think this kind of sharing, adapting, and building was just what they had in mind when they wrote about promoting the progress of Science and useful Arts. The content holders who rail against the Internet as hostile to copyright, or a haven for pirates, are missing the boat. The Internet is not hostile to copyright. Copyright law is hostile to the Internet, and much of the creativity that happens there. The sort of freewheeling adaptive culture you find on YouTube doesn’t have to be at odds with copyright law, or even with the interests of copyright holders, but that’s how our broken system currently works.
Lucky for us that doesn’t stop kids with basic video editing software and a passion for Harry Potter from making stuff like this:
[Hat tip to Jason for showing me the video and suggesting the idea for this post.]
Update: Here’s a page that links to most of the videos that appear in “Pork and Beans”