Here’s an excerpt of an essay I wrote for Mike Featherstone back in September 2011. (Has it been two years already? I keep forgetting that we’re in 2013. Sometimes it feels like I took a detour through a back alley of 2012 that I chanced upon while cramming a paper at 4 in the morning—i.e. right now).
So two (two?!) years ago, Mike Featherstone spent a semester as Visiting Professor at the NUS Department of Sociology, and taught a special module on Cultures of Consumption. He had one series of readings (for a session that unfortunately didn’t push through) on the archive— specifically, the significance of the archive in producing any kind of global knowledge/history/culture. ‘Global knowledge’ seems like a far cry from my immediate research interests, but I immediately thought of YouTube—how it is the paradigmatic archive of our time. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access this archive. But is it just an innocuous platform for information or does it instead exercise a wholly different kind of politics?
After all, it tells us what’s trending. It lets us know what’s important in the world. It makes stars out of ordinary people. It tells us (by default) who is ordinary (the millions of viewers and commenters) and who is in/famous. Through its virtuality, it gives us a tangible sense of participating in and shaping the world, as a viewer and as a producer of content. And it links up with other practices of media, like reality shows and competitions, talk shows, etc. It hooks up with our current obsession with authenticity and ‘realness’. That was something to think about: how our knowledge of what is relevant, important, beautiful, and GOOD (i.e. real and authentic) etc. in the world is shaped by the very media by which we store and classify data—and create data for. There seems to be an ‘archivising’ dynamic, then, and not just an archive.
I wondered about whether the archive, like any other technological form, is ultimately ‘good’ or ‘bad’—or whether it is devoid of ideology and really just depends on the user. More cool questions.
From then on it was easy to link it to my research on overseas Filipino musicians (OFMs). Though they don’t produce their own copyrighted ‘original’ content, there are of course some obvious and fascinating examples of OFMs utilising (or being utilised by?) the global knowledge-production engine of YouTube:
I wrote this essay before Don’t Stop Believing came out—I’ve had a couple of friends telling me how important it is that I watch it. I’m thinking of expanding this piece a bit more and submitting it to a journal (any suggestions?), so I probably will watch the film and write a final section on that.
- Funny how ‘let’s make this into a movie/documentary’ represents the final stage of legitimation in popular consciousness. I don’t think YouTube will ever topple the hierarchy of visual media either (Movies > TV).
- I use British spelling in this essay, because back in 2011 I was still trying to change my habitual
Americanized AmericanisedAmericanized spelling. I’ve since given up trying to correct 20+ years of writing color instead of colour.)
So, excerpt of the essay below. Please don’t cop stuff without crediting the author, etc. etc.:
In a span of six years, YouTube has transformed from an innocuous online start-up to the primary video-sharing platform on the Web, and the world’s third largest website. It is now a globally recognised brand synonymous with mass user-generated culture, and arguably covers every aspect of human social life on the planet, whether public or private, comedic or tragic, mundane or exceptional. Debates on its status and significance—as a locus of technologies, market imperatives, and cultural forces—have largely followed two lines. In the first, YouTube is positively depicted as a groundbreaking Web 2.0 development, enabling mass access to the consumption and production of video. It is viewed concurrently as unpredictable upstart that threatens to disrupt the flows of commercial cultural consumption, long dominated by major corporate players in the traditional industries of television, film, music, print, etc. The second argument draws critical attention to the website’s corporate identity as YouTube, Inc., particularly in light of the 2006 acquisition of YouTube by Google for 1.65 billion US dollars. Subsequent, aggressive initiatives by the company to monetize YouTube, most notably via advertising partnerships and distribution deals with major media companies, seem to fly in the face of celebratory accounts of YouTube as an effective and authentic platform for public discourse (Snickars and Vonderau, 2009: 10).
How are we to conceptualise and evaluate the ways in which YouTube shapes the global cultural economy? In this essay, I question the either/or binary that has thus far structured the debates on YouTube, and propose that we understand YouTube as operating within a contradictory dynamic. I argue that YouTube is significant precisely because it troubles conceptual and substantive divides between ‘exceptional’ and ‘ordinary’ knowledge, professionals and amateurs, corporate strategy and everyday practice, free access and strict regulation, reinforcing these divides even as it alters them.
As a space of these ambiguous dynamics of knowledge, YouTube may thus be seen as a kind of archive—a site of particular kinds of knowledge, imbued with legitimising power (Featherstone, 2000, 2009). On the one hand, it is true the YouTube does away with the previous archival challenge of storage and selection of exceptional as opposed to ordinary material (Derrida, 1996; Osborne, 1999). But on the other hand, as a contradictory site of knowledge relations, YouTube represents two critical tensions intrinsic to the archive: 1. the tension between administrative control and public access, and 2. the challenge of selectivity in the face of overabundant material. Both issues concern the access to and exercise of power in the production of knowledge.
Thus, while YouTube as an instance of the archive complicates the traditional media divide between consumption and production, by no means does it obliterate this distinction. I underline the need for deeper critical inquiry into the meaning, purpose, and potential of YouTube as an archival space: by what values does (and should) it operate?
This essay proceeds in three sections. First, I compare the concepts of the archive and the database, and explain how YouTube (as a database of cultural content) is shaped by a distinctly archival dynamic of selectivity and regulation. Next, I identify these archival dynamics at work in a problem unique to YouTube: whether its complex consumption/production model is a democratisation of cultural content or a market-driven ‘demoticisation’ (Turner, 2006) that connects back to the mainstream media industries of consumer society. In the final part, I identify how archival contradictions are present in the case study of Filipino rock singer Arnel Pineda, whose high-profile discovery on YouTube led to his selection as the newest member of Journey, an internationally popular American rock band. I conclude by returning to the question of value—what purpose YouTube can and should serve as one of the largest and most significant archives of global knowledge and culture.
3. Arnel Pineda: ‘Journey’s Everyman’ on everyman’s journey
Formed in 1973, American band Journey is one of the longest-running and commercially successful rock acts in the world (Ruhlmann, 2011). The group reached the height of their success from 1981 to 1983, selling over 15 million copies of their two albums, and solidifying the market domination of arena rock in the popular music industry. The band’s success was largely attributed to the soaring tenor vocals of Steve Perry, nicknamed ‘The Voice’: prior to the singer’s entry in 1977, Journey was an instrumental rock fusion outfit whose first two albums were commercial flops. The group attained mainstream popularity after Perry’s inclusion, and his voice would come to be the defining element of the Journey sound, even after Perry himself left in 1996.
In the following decade, Journey embarked on tours that mainly featured their catalogue of reliably lucrative hits, and relied on a succession of singers to fill Perry’s place. By 2006, Jeff Scott Soto, the band’s fifth vocalist, quit the group. Neal Schon, guitarist and founding member, decided to search for the new frontman on YouTube—which, just a year after its launch, was already a vast archive of the material he was in search of:
The thing I liked about YouTube is that it was all live performances. I was really not interested in doing a long, drawn-out audition for singers where you fly them in from all over the world and they send you their packages with their pictures and CDs of songs that they’ve done […]. You never know what’s ‘real’ when you’re getting the package like that because with Pro Tools today and a computer, you can almost make anybody sound good. So, I was very into YouTube for just that reason: I knew that if I was going to hear something that it was absolutely live. [Nerra, 2008]
In the course of his search, Schon came across Arnel Pineda, a 41-year-old Filipino. Pineda was a veteran cover band singer who had been performing for nearly 25 years in American GI-oriented clubs in Hong Kong, Manila, and Olongapo (the site of a US military base in the Philippines). Pineda was flown to San Francisco to audition, whereupon he was quickly judged by the band to be ‘the voice’ they were looking for (BBC, 2011). He debuted as the new Journey frontman in 2007, and immediately began work on a triple-disc album (aptly titled Revelation) of 12 re-recorded hits, 10 new songs, and a concert DVD. Revelation topped record charts in the United States and six other countries, and the subsequent tour brought in over 35 million USD in ticket sales, making it one of the highest-grossing tours of 2008.
With Revelation, Journey successfully drew upon its considerable symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1984), built over decades of touring, to inaugurate the new bearer of the Steve Perry sound. Part of Pineda’s success so far is rightfully attributed to the skill, power, and accuracy with which he revives ‘the Perry sound’ with Journey. In so doing the band not only addresses the expectations of its longstanding fanbase, but also reaches out to an entirely new demographic. One obvious ‘new’ audience are Filipinos, dispersed in transnational migrant communities as well as in the Philippines, who identify with Pineda’s narrative of poverty, migration, and sense of family responsibility (CBS, 2008; Nerres, 2008). Likewise, by dramatising the democratised process of ‘the search’ among thousands of ordinary people (Turner, 2006: 158), Journey entered the contemporary media discourse of staged authenticity and ‘micro-celebrity’ (Thompson, 2008). The selection of Arnel thus strategically re-located Journey from its peripheral position in popular culture to the mythic centre of media space (Couldry, 2003).
Journey’s catalogue of hits is clearly central to their success, but without adapting to the digitised and globalised music industry by offering something new, the band—as a lucrative touring franchise—risked becoming unfashionable and unprofitable, descending into cultural obsolescence.
Journey’s fiercely loyal fanbase likewise had contradictory demands: they wanted someone ‘to keep Journey just the same’ (CBS Morning News, 2008), but were equally suspicious of copycats who would look and sound too much like Perry and lower the group’s status as a singular rock band. Journey’s embrace of new media at a crucial juncture in their career—and the consequent choice of a impressively talented, hardworking unknown1 from an underprivileged country—locked in perfectly with the new market demand for ‘performed ordinariness’ evident in reality TV (Turner, 2006). As Gregg Rolie, ex-Journey vocalist and keyboardist, cannily points out:
I think it’s great. They got a chance to change a guy’s life and his whole family. If you’ve ever been to the Philippines, you would know what I’m saying. It’s amazingly poor. [Finding Pineda on YouTube] is the smartest thing Neal ever did. [He] made a story out of it. It’s a whole resurgence for Journey. [Artisan News Service, 2008, my emphasis]
Another band member, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, alludes to the doubly beneficial consequence of their ‘demotic’ turn: We think Arnel is the future for our franchise… We knew that if we were ever gonna move on, we had to get somebody that was really gonna be our future and sound like Journey is supposed to sound (KNBR, 2008, my emphasis).
The salient issue at hand is not the veracity of Pineda’s story, his abilities as an musician, or even the capitalist motivations of Journey™. Rather, it is the archival logic behind two character narratives, and the central role played by YouTube in creating two recognisable tropes in the age of the demotic turn: the Undiscovered Talent, and the Aging B(r)and In Need Of A Makeover.
YouTube, as both archival resource and archivising dynamic, strategically constructs these narratives in accordance with and in fulfillment of the demands of the commercial music and media industries. In this instance of celebrity-making, the entrenched symbolic hierarchy of the media industries only gets reinforced: Pineda’s triumph is measured in terms of the conventional markers of profitability (tour revenues, television guestings) with a band that is perhaps the epitome of commercial music success.
Yet given Pineda’s crucial role in the band’s comeback, it may be argued that Journey benefits more from his presence than the other way around. The primary reason for this isn’t Pineda’s abilities as a musician, admirable though they may be. After all, the band had already gone through a ‘revolving door’ of Perry-soundalikes for nearly a decade (Liberatore, 2007). Rather, it’s Pineda himself that ushered in Journey’s resurgence. Pineda functions as the ‘authentic’, semiotic embodiment of Journey the brand: triumphant and determined in the midst of hardship (in an ‘amazingly poor’ country halfway across the world—and providentially discovered on the Net). Someone, in short, who doesn’t stop believin’.
The archival dynamic of YouTube did more than just place the singer within Schon’s purview. Rather, it paradoxically reconfigured the reality of Arnel Pineda, previously an ordinary migrant Filipino musician, into the exceptional public figure of the Third-World Everyman, charged with fresh cultural power. In that sense, Pineda has indeed become the future of Journey.