Susan Boyle and YouTube: A Symposium

By 3:29 p.m. EDT, on Tuesday, April 21, the YouTube clip of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables had enjoyed 37,001,482 views. Media like YouTube are changing the way we participate in musical culture.

Comment asked regular contributors to answer two questions in response to this phenomenon:

  1. What is your favourite YouTube clip?
  2. How has YouTube or similar media affected your media consumption habits?

—The Editors

 
April 24 th 2009

By 3:29 p.m. EDT, on Tuesday, April 21, the YouTube clip of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables had enjoyed 37,001,482 views. Media like YouTube are changing the way we participate in musical culture.

Comment asked regular contributors to answer two questions in response to this phenomenon:

  1. What is your favourite YouTube clip?
  2. How has YouTube or similar media affected your media consumption habits?

—The Editors


I have so many favorite YouTube clips (I bookmark my favorites, as I like to go back and watch them again periodically or recommend them to friends), that it's hard to pick one that blows all the others away. But since we're talking about technology, how about "Middle Ages Tech Support", one of the first viral YouTube videos I recall ever being sent a link to. I laughed so hard at that one, and have watched it dozens of times. It never ceases to amuse me. It is so true to life—reminds me of some of the stories of "bozo user" calls to Product Support we used to pass around at Microsoft.

YouTube has become a regular fixture in my life, for better or for worse. I have wasted hours surfing around for funny videos, clicking on the "Related Videos" links, watching cute puppies falling asleep and babies saying "Obama." But it has also enabled me to see the most important clips from TV news broadcasts I've missed (I don't have a TV and have always sworn I'd never get one), such as the US presidential and vice presidential debates, and Sarah Palin's infamous interviews with Katie Couric. It has enabled me to participate in popular culture in a way that I've somewhat intentionally avoided, but now I can skim the surface just enough to stay informed. I was taken up and inspired by the global swoon over Susan Boyle. I have followed Matt (of "Where the Hell is Matt?" fame) through his world travels dancing, and been cheered up by him. I have subscribed to the video musings of everyone's favorite Grandad "geriatric1927". I've been able to have 24-hour Monty Python on demand, thanks to tireless fans who have posted clips of most of the best sketches and the generosity of the surviving Pythons who have smiled knowingly (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and looked the other way at this blatant copyright infringement.

But all the humour notwithstanding, I would say the greatest boon of YouTube for my life is that it has made accessible some great documentaries in entirety which might otherwise be very hard to get hold of. One in particular changed my life—"Aspartame: Sweet Misery." Regardless of whether everything in it is 100% true or not (there have been some detractors), it was the wake-up call that finally got me to quit Diet Coke, which I'd been trying to do for years.

The Internet has kind of morphed into TV over the past few years, so I'm finding that my pledge to never get a TV is somewhat irrelevant now. Alas, I've even given up trying to avoid watching anything resembling an actual TV show via my browser now that I've discovered that episodes of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are available online in their entirety. Unfortunately, I have also found myself suckered into caring about and following frivolous news stories on CNN that I would have previously been blissfully ignorant of (such as the Octomom drama). In summary, YouTube and other similar media have affected my media consumption habits in a big way, and not always for the better. For every benefit of technology, there always seems to be a downside. The key is keeping the latter in check so that it doesn't outweigh the former. The jury is still out on whether I'm able to do that.

Rosie Perera is a writer, teacher, photographer, and software engineer in British Columbia.


Susan Boyle is my #3.

Here is my #2: "John Lindo and Stephanie Batista West Coast Swing."

My #1 all-time favourite: "Evolution of Dance."

I use clips in class. I also sometimes watch clips that people send to me.

Everett Worthington is Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.


My fave is Generation We: The Movement Begins.

I never read the paper anymore. I have gone 100% on-demand—mostly audio downloads to mp3 for cartime playback; little video.

Dave Evans is a consultant and mentor in the Silicon Valley, California.


I am always reluctant to offer "favourites" of anything, but: "A Vision of Students Today."

For years now I have offered U2's MTV version of their song, "Numb," as an important finger-to-the-wind about who we are and how we live, as the 20th becomes the 21st-century. If as artists they were feeling the info-glut world for the rest of us—getting there first, as I believe—we are all more aware of the perceptive character of their insight. Now serious books are being written about the same phenomena. One of the lines, "Too much is not enough," captures the addictive quality of our access to information about anything and everything. And their haunting response? "Numb... I feel numb." And so of course we turn the barometers of our hearts down, unable and unwilling to respond, because we cannot.

I think that is the cultural context for the YouTube clip I am offering here. A Kansas State University professor of anthropology has offered several brilliant windows into our contemporary moment, especially of what learning is like in the info-glut culture. It is not all a negative, as he shows—but it is very different from what we have understood historically as the way learning happens in a university context.

So I want to hold the U2 song and the K-State classroom in tension. We live in no other world than ours, technologically sophisticated as it is. In many ways I embrace it gladly, e.g. I am so very happy that my iPhone apps "update" themselves automatically! And yet, I also feel the weight of the numbing character of media consumption, aware that it does affect me, and that it does affect the next generation in ways that we are mostly inattentive to, I'm afraid. How are we to learn to learn about things that matter? As James Billington, the Librarian of Congress for the U.S., in pondering his work as steward of the nation's knowledge, asks, "Does our ablity to know so much make us a wiser people?"

Steven Garber is director of The Washington Institute in Virginia


Number 1 is "the Boy with the Incredible Brain."

Number 2 is the Susan Boyle Clip. (How could it not be?)

In response to the second question: it has simply increased my time with media. That is, I still use the printed press as much as before; services such as YouTube and Twitter have simply caused me to spend more time in gathering information.

Philip Fanara is Professor of Finance at the Howard University School of Business in Washington, D.C.


Daniel Lanois, "The Maker."

In this grainy video of one of the greater songs from Hamilton's own Daniel Lanois, two brothers are playing drums—Brian and Brady Blade learned the drums in their father's Baptist church in the southern US. Brian Blade, in commenting on "sacred and secular", has said, "It's all praise." If you care to browse his extensive musical and YouTube portfolio, you'll see the depth of this statement. This performance, and the live shows I've seen Brian play with Dan Lanois, demonstrate the beauty and worship of good drumming.

Mike Hogeterp is Research and Communications Manager for the Christian Reformed Church in Canada's Committee for Contact with the Government, based in Ontario


Here is my favourite clip so far: "Christ is Risen—Hristos Anesti—Valaam." I'm able to take brief pilgrimages to the Holy Monasteries nearly every day, without leaving my office. A great blessing.

Scott Cairns is a poet and essayist in Missouri


A youth pastor inadvertently says something very inappropriate, and then tries to keep going. Very funny.

I'm somewhat behind the curve in adopting new media like YouTube, into which I primarily dip for entertainment. That may be changing. I find myself watching a lot of TED Talks, and the videos embedded on news sites often add a helpful dimension to the plain text. The fact that just about any body, any moment or any idea can be so broadly accessible is both exhilarating and frightening. On the upside, the opportunities for discovery and the emergence of creativity are immense. On the downside, the overall babble is getting louder and common ground is slipping away. Confusion seems more likely than cohesion. We still need good guides and mentors (and editors).

Doug Koop is editorial director of Fellowship for Print Witness—publishers of ChristianWeek— in Manitoba


My favourite YouTube clip is from Antwerp's Central train station.

I think YouTube has added a new format (short-form, poor quality motion picture) to my "media consumption habits," as you call them. I don't really think it has replaced any media I was consuming previously—with the possible exception of single- or multiple-panel cartoons, which YouTube clips resemble to a degree.

David Greusel is a principal with Populous architectural design firm, in Kansas City, Missouri


Check out "Welcome Table" from the Old Town School Songbook, Volume 4.

Here are some ways that I have thought about using this kind of media:

  1. I can check out tunes to see if I like them—I listened to Eddie Vedder's tracks from Into the Wild, for example.

  2. I would like to see more full lectures from "famous" people; for instance, I saw an interview of Hannah Arendt, which was very revealing.

  3. I will try to incorporate it more into our publicity at Chicago Semester.

  4. Oh, yeah; maybe I will put some of my own acoustic guitar stuff on YouTube to see if I get discovered by anyone (yeah right).

Clinton Stockwell is Executive Director of the Chicago Semester


Today, this is my favourite video: "SOULWAX performing live at HARD Haunted Mansion AMAZING!"

It's a surprisingly well-captured live performance of a rock/electro/nu rave band from Ghent called Soulwax. The video has only had some 1,600 views since last November, but it's a good representation of one of my favourite YouTube genres: concert videos.

A lot of times I go straight to YouTube to surf through a fairly random thread of music videos, comedy videos, concert clips, vintage TV ads and whatever else I stumble across. I often use it in alongside Wikipedia whenever I'm learning about a musician as an index of videos and concerts. I spend much more time on YouTube than watching television or often even simply listening to music; music is even more interesting if someone has been putting a visual interpretation to it. It's also easier to browse for two hours than sit down for a film.

Sean Robinson is a Comment reader in Ontario


You want my favourite YouTube video—for which week? I'll have to break the rules and list three, which is a stretch, I know, but anyway, in no particular order:

YouTube (and all the rest) has saved me a huge amount of time, allowing me to find and view stuff I want to watch but entirely at my convenience. And they have wasted even more untold amounts of time by offering so much that I'm always tempted to watch just one more.

Denis Haack co-directs Ransom Fellowship in Minnesota


Annie Pearlman, "Private Time".

I was emailed about a cupcake brunch complete with live music at a gallery in New York City's Lower East Side. The beauty of YouTube is how I'm immediately able to share in what Brian Belott and his pals of the band Private Time are about. If our world revels in finding talents like Susan Boyle, there is all the more reason to consider sophisticated music that screams naive.

Sam Kho currently curates at All Things Project, affiliated with the Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village, in New York City


I LOVE this clip. It makes me so happy.

Vimeo/YouTube/Hulu has made it possible for me to never have to watch televised events as they're happening; presidential debates, the Daily Show, various gaffes and notable live events are all now available, pre-edited and in bite-sized form, within an hour or so, and I don't have to watch commercials. While McLuhan and Postman might have found this appalling, I tend toward optimism: I'm a more selective cultural consumer, and I hope I'm less susceptible to marketing via dumb commercials.

Alissa Wilkinson is the associate editor for Comment magazine


Among my favourite video clips are the music videos of Celia Cruz, the legendary Cuban salsa diva. Prior to YouTube, I don't recall ever giving a music video more than a passing glance. Now, I am continually discovering video of old songs—it even, at times, replaces iTunes for me. See a video of the now deceased Celia singing "Rie, Llora" (Laugh, Cry).

I use YouTube on an almost-daily basis and have subscribed to various channels that allow me to view programs of interest. 100huntley.com has recently launched its initiative of posting its religious broadcasts in bite-sized chunks of ten-minute segments on YouTube. I am not a typical fan of religious programming, but I have found specific episodes on issues (such as a recent series on heaven and hell) to be very well done. (For example, see "Eternity: Where Do We Go From Here—Hell"). Since these specific items are narrowcast to the viewer, you can deftly wade through the clutter of the fundraising appeals and happy chatty religious programming. I find my preconceived attitudes about Christian TV to be changing.

The most useful feature is the ability to embed YouTube video clips into my blog. On a recent trip to Nepal, I was able to vlog using a simple digital camera. Watch my Kathmandu lunch being prepared!

Mark Petersen is the Executive Director of the Bridgeway Foundation, based in Ontario


A few months ago I came across a four-and-a-half-minute video called "Dancing," on You Tube. The "dancer" was Matt Harding, a doughy-looking fellow in hiking boots performing a goofy and semi-ironic dance jig in 69 different locations across the globe. But the appeal of the video is not Matt's peripatetic chicken-dance; it is the company he keeps. As Matt dances he is joined by bushmen in New Guinea, Bollywood dancers in India, whirling dervishes in Turkey and even a lone officer in the Korean demilitarized zone. It is almost impossible to watch "Dancing" without smiling. There is something tremendously inspirational about this spectacle of diverse peoples of every age and colour dancing along with uninhibited Matt. It makes one realize how many borders and cultures that dancing crosses and reminds us of something we all, as God's image bearers, share in common. Video can also be viewed at: www.wherethehellismatt.com.

YouTube is changing not only the way stories are told, but how we engage these stories. Marshall McLuhan once noted that whenever we discover a new medium, it takes time for us to stop using it like the older ones (like television) and to discover its unique possibilities. As internet video comes into its own, we are discovering a whole new world of not only short bite-sized videos, but viral Talmudic commentary chains that respond, critique and dialogue with the original. My consumption of this new media involves an active weaving through these threads of expansion.

Chris Cuthill is Art Chair at Redeemer University College, Ontario


Perelli, "The Call."

Louis Vuitton, "Where Will Life Take You?"

One cannot watch the Susan Boyle performance on YouTube without tears coming to one's eyes. A mother's dying wish becomes reality before a watching world, an unknown middle-aged women becomes a global phenom. It's the mythic "rags to riches" story of The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Moll Flanders, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield compressed into the confines of a seven-minute YouTube video. Christopher Booker writes in The Seven Basic Plots, "Someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, much more exceptional, self within. Somehow the moment of transformation when this other greater self emerges has a strange power to move us." It is not merely the ubiquitous nature of short-form viral video that gives this story its compelling force, but that it touches the deeper strands of a hidden, universal language. It is the story, not the technology that has power. For it is through story that we connect the contours of our soul to the realities of the heavens.

John Seel is a Senior Fellow with Cardus, publisher of Comment


It strikes me as admirably subversive to invite viewers to isolate a "favourite" YouTube video, and I say this despite being fully aware of the site's own promotion of "favourited" clips and its other means of prioritizing its inventory (most viewed, most discussed, etc.). Here's why it's an odd request, ultimately. Diverse aspects of the YouTube website—nay, the YouTube experience—resist this kind of singling out, this cherishing. Let's begin with the "show it and share it" nonchalance of most content providers, and move quickly to the design of the site itself. Its top row of "Videos being watched right now" constantly turns up new screens, somewhat like a Vegas slot machine with its cherries and dollar signs. Then a viewer scrolls down through that arbitrary assembly of "Spotlight Videos," till that "See More Spotlight Videos" tag tempts one like a digital Lotos Eater—a disarmingly meek invitation to a potential, and perilous, endlessness of Flip clips. What are the overall impressions of the site? Ephemerality, randomness, and above all and increasingly so, quantity. In this last respect, the better word may be an effect of "accumulation," which in the contexts of rhetoric and poetry the Renaissance writer George Puttenham unceremoniously dubbed "the heap." For me, this impression is heightened by that frighteningly exact tally of how many millions or mere hundreds of thousands hits any particular video has warranted. The clips themselves are innumerable, and the number of times we view them seem to be so too . . . except they aren't innumerable, but the opposite—are fastidiously calculated.

I may not sound like a regular YouTube visitor, and in fact I am not. But don't get me wrong—of course I nonetheless have my favourites, too, like everyone else. These days, avoiding YouTube is like avoiding air—neither possible nor particularly advisable. Yet it is rather too easy to hyperventilate, digitally speaking. Although I am a comparative newbie, and a moody one at that, when it comes to viewing YouTube videos, I have already had a sufficient number of pleasant experiences on the site to make choosing a "favourite" difficult. With the excuse that they are different in nature (they aren't, ultimately; they're all videos), let me briefly mention three.

First, a few months ago an old freestyle bicycling friend, from way back during my high-school days, tracked me down and updated me on his exciting, still hardcore life in San Francisco. To use familiar language, he had remained in the biking fold, and was reaching out to an over-the-hill type who had fallen away from that community. Making a wonderful gesture, he also attached some links to a few YouTube videos featuring "new school riders" pulling off "brakeless, pegless" tricks. Another clip, entitled "Lee Musselwhite, Flatland God," soon had me marveling at the displays of invention, exquisite balance, precision, and fluidity there for anyone to witness. No amount of verbal description or even still photos could have showed me, so persuasively and rhapsodically, the current state of that extreme sport that my friend and I had fondly pursued together way back when.

I'm certainly no freestyle bicyclist these days, but am instead a decidedly less rowdy teacher of literature. In this capacity, too, YouTube has delighted me. How much an often overlooked, marginalized practice such as contemporary poetry can benefit from this new media instrument! Check out, for example, a reading by the poet Elizabeth Alexander, not of her recent inaugural poem, which has ensured her ubiquitous presence on YouTube, but other poetic gems that earned her such a high honour on that January afternoon. I recommend her reading of "Ars Poetica #100," where a far more relaxed poet asks, in her eloquent defense of the thoughtful, finally dramatic and social art that is poetry, "Are we not of interest to each other?" Or check out the young poet Todd Boss' wonderful collaborations with videographers and animators, providing a visual dimension (or event?), a canvas sometimes poignant, sometimes whimsical, for the verbal tintinabulations of Boss's spare, sonically pure poems.

My third and final example doesn't even involve me directly, and yet if pressed, I might very well declare it my "most favourite" of all. It was one of the earliest YouTube clips I became aware of, after my family—Harry Potter lovers, the whole lot of 'em—encountered online the Potter Puppet Pals in a musical parody clip called "The Mysterious Ticking Noise." From that day onward, the tune (more so than the video itself) became for our household a regular laugh factory, and a sure bet for indefatigable imitation. ("We loved it because it was so catchy!!" my wife writes, in her email of explanation.) Hearing my five-year-old son sporting a prim British accent, and hearing all three of my loved ones managing a round—a round!—as they each assumed a character and a role in this little syncopated kid-symphony—well, I was grateful for the apparent upside of the encounter, for the simple, unconcerned fun it generated. Later, I eventually saw parts of this beloved video for myself, usually over my son's or daughter's shoulder or as I was passing through the room. Even so, I noticed at once the clearly hard work that had gone into the production, work to bring off a funny idea that had germinated within some other lover of Harry Potter, located who knows where around the globe. Silly? Sure. Of great consequence? Of course not. Yet that clip brought a little laughter and color and song to a shared passion in my family. It encouraged a harmony, one might say, and who wouldn't be grateful for that?

Regarding the second question, about how YouTube has affected media consumption: in short, it hasn't affected my media consumption significantly—yet. I am tempted to make a joke about how YouTube is "supersizing" our media consumption, with all of the fast-food, high-fat, no-nutrition implications and consequences of that phrase quite intended. It's too easy of a joke, and in truth, it doesn't take YouTube for the joke to be . . . not so funny. My increasingly diverse forms of media consumption alarm me, and I say that as a techno-amateur, with no iPhone, no habit of texting, no Skype use, and so on.

Still, I continue to value one form of media consumption above all—the reading of that technology we call the codex, or book—and I must confess that this English professor is harder pressed than ever to maintain a demanding reading regimen—just that. I can skip over quickly those common work demands: awhile ago a student entered my office, peered around at the floor-to-ceiling shelves already overflowing, and declared, "It must be nice . . . just sitting around all day reading all of these books." My fellow teachers will join me in a chorus of rueful chuckles, while students will wonder what is so funny.

What I'm really talking about, though, are those increasingly rare times when I am free and could be reading (be it the Psalms or a new English Renaissance monograph or a few poems or what have you), and instead do otherwise with other kinds of media—library DVDs, audiobooks in Playaway format (not to be confused with Pay to Play—I am writing from Chicago, after all), various Internet sites and blogs, not to mention the many other forms of textual work or diversion that compete with reading as we tend to idealize it—the grading of papers, consulting of various work-related memos and so on, keeping up with local and national newspapers, the editing of our own writing or that of friends, and even that consumption which for me so often substitutes for the reading, of books, that I am always meaning to do; I mean the reading of numerous scholarly journals, literary publications, and periodicals, from Sports Illustrated or Parade (on some Sundays I'm that weak, I admit it) to more serious offerings such as Books & Culture and The New Yorker. The poet and critic Chris Wiman has pointed out that images always exist in a continuous present, and that is both their great strength and radical limitation. Writing, on the other hand, is better able to reflect the complexities of personality and of memory. Of course it depends on what kind of writing, and today, that is where my battle with media consumption is mainly being waged.

But let me end on a note of humility and human familiarity—I predict YouTube will occupy a growing place in the three-ring circus of media stimuli that I have catalogued above. As it will for everyone else, it will increase my media consumption. It will do so pleasantly, with ocular allurements and genuine benefits, but in doing so, my time an attention and thought, too, will be in turn consumed.

Brett Foster is Professor of Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College, Illinois


In my childhood and youth I was an avid listener to shortwave radio. Nothing could quite equal the experience of trying to fine tune at least two dials on the console to bring in the crackly sounds of the BBC World Service, Radio Deutsche Welle and even the constantly shifting frequencies of Radio Moscow, the international voice of the now defunct Soviet Union. These enabled me to keep abreast of happenings around the globe and to hear them from different perspectives, which gave me a leg up on my family and friends, who were limited to following current events via the old Chicago Daily News and the big American television networks.

Needless to say, I rarely listen to shortwave nowadays. A few years ago I read on the internet that the BBC planned to eliminate its broadcasts to North America. I was incensed until I saw that this report was dated four years earlier. The broadcasts had already ceased and I had failed to take notice.

What I have noticed recently is that two twentieth-century media of communications are all but obsolete as far as I'm concerned. Not only do I rarely tune in shortwave, but even television—so much a part of my life when I was growing up—is something I hardly watch anymore. If Stephen Harper or Barack Obama delivers a televised address, I generally wait until I have the time to view it on YouTube. When Sarah Palin gave her notorious interviews to Katie Couric last year, it was on YouTube that I first saw them some days later.

I cannot say that I have a favourite video, but I have found YouTube an invaluable resource for locating, among many other things, performances of some of the world's truly great music. It is not at all difficult to find a favourite Romanian folk song, Nana Mouskouri's rendition of Samiotisa, the Dave Brubeck Quartet's classic Take Five, or Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin played on two guitars. Recently, using YouTube, I was finally able to identify a song I had heard on the radio at age eight, thereby solving a 45-year-old mystery! If in my reading I come across a reference to, say, a scene in a famous film or to one of Mozart's operas, I can almost invariably locate it on YouTube, which I would liken to a huge, sprawling, animated encyclopaedia.

For a decade now I have maintained a website devoted to the Genevan Psalter, the sixteenth-century metrical psalter that formed the heart of the church's liturgy in John Calvin's Geneva. Some weeks ago I added to the links page a section devoted to the Psalms on Video, which contains several performances, of mostly Dutch and Hungarian origin, of the Genevan Psalms. Of course not all of them boast the same aesthetic merits (I much prefer the Hungarian to the Dutch treatments), but they do constitute a powerful testimony to the endurance of these sturdy melodies in at least some countries.

Although it is not exactly my favourite, one of the more intriguing videos I've found on YouTube is of the German-based ensemble, Sarband, performing Psalms 9 and 6—in Turkish! These were versified by one Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a musically-gifted Polish-born Reformed Christian who was kidnapped at age eighteen by Tatars and sold as a slave to the Ottoman Sultan. He became translator, treasurer and court composer for the Sultan, converting (at least publicly) to Islam and changing his name to Ali Ufki. Among his many achievements, he versified the first fourteen Psalms in his adopted language and set them to their proper Genevan melodies. Remarkably, Sarband's performance gives a distinctive Near Eastern flavour to these central European tunes, making for a remarkable, if unlikely, juxtaposition of musical cultures.

Thus far I have yet to draw on the full paedagogical potential of YouTube for my political science courses. While one wouldn't want to make too much of a good thing, it almost certainly contains resources that would in some measure enhance undergraduate learning.

David Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ontario