"Crush on Obama." A Case Study on the Impact of YouTube-Videos on Political Campaigning
Table of Contents
2. The YouTube-ification of Politics
2.1 YouTube - Development of an Online Phenomenon
2.2 YouTube’s Influence in Politics
3. Case Study
3.1 Obama Girl’s “Crush on Obama”: Amateur Cult at its Best
3.2 Official Reactions
3.3 Reactions on the YouTube Message Board
3.4 Viral Reactions
4. YouTube as a Factor of Change in Political Campaigning
In the year 2000, Keith V. Erickson stated that “presidential rhetoric has taken a visual turn” (139). In his description of this visual turn he mostly referred to photos and images on TV as propaganda tools, not anticipating the enormous changes that the internet would bring along in the following years. Nine years later, Lister et al. wrote: “The YouTube clip has become the dominant form of early twenty-first- century videography” (Lister et al. 2009: 227). Statements of this kind can now be found in any recent academic publication on new media and the development of internet culture. The video sharing website YouTube has become a phenomenon that is part of an increasing number of people’s lives and also a part of the presidential rhetoric mentioned above. Before the launch of YouTube in 2005, the enormous effects of this online phenomenon on all aspects of society could hardly be foreseen.
Today, in the year 2011, however, it is obvious that YouTube and other online media affect every day life, including political decision making, in many ways. The 2004 US presidential election is often referred to as the first internet election as the candidates (Howard Dean in particular1 ) started to use blogs and websites to raise money and convince voters online (Zielmann, Röttger 2009: 77). By 2008, the internet had become even more diverse and complex and offered a lot of new online functions like social networking sites (Facebook) and video sharing sites (YouTube). These new opportunities were used by most of the candidates in the 2008 presidential election. The later US President Barack Obama as well as his internal opponent Hillary Clinton made use of the internet to spread their political messages and address especially the younger voters. A study that was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project during the 2008 election campaign proved that 40% of all adults accessed information about politics on the internet. It also showed that “viewers of politically relevant YouTube videos ha[d] become a key part of at least some campaign events” (Rainie, Smith 2008).
In 2008, the online world was not new to most people, but it was used as a major propaganda tool by most politicians and their campaign teams for the first time. In the Democratic primary elections several candidates did not announce their candidacy in the traditional press but online. On July 23, 2007, the first ever political debate took place on YouTube. CNN had invited eight different candidates participating in the Democratic primary election who answered the questions of YouTube users in an online debate (Jenkins 2009: 187). Although this YouTube event caused some debates about the appropriateness of such forms of political discussion (Jenkins 2009: 188-194), it was the start of the so called YouTube- ification (English, Sweetser, Ancu 2011: 733) of politics in the US. Politicians as well as citizens started to use the video sharing website for campaigning and political activism. Candidates tried to establish closer relationships to their voters via online videos while the voters created their own form of grassroots activism by producing videos dealing with the election.
As Barack Obama was strongly represented online (Ordeix, Ginesta 2011: 685), many people believe that he won the 2008 election because of his clever use of the internet which was largely neglected by his opponent, the Republican John McCain2. In the age of new mass media and internet culture, the systematic use of online tools has become an essential part of political propaganda. Rainer Gries emphasizes the fact that propaganda is multidimensional and ambiguous (2005: 14). The addressees of propagandistic messages can be activists at the same time (16), which is reinforced in the world of YouTube where the recipients of political messages can reply to and comment on these messages by creating their own videos. This new form of interactivity in political discourse is a very complex phenomenon, but in the past few years scholars have begun to investigate the internet’s influence on politics. Henry Jenkins is one of the pioneers in this field of study. In his book Convergence Culture (2006), he examines the effects of the multiple new media platforms in general, and focuses on politics in the age of YouTube (271-294). Other publications dealing with new media, new technologies, online networks and their influence on different aspects of life include Lister et al.’s New Media. A Critical Introduction (2009) and Mark Tremayne’s Blogging, Citizenship, and the Future of Media (2007) . These publications point out that the online world and the world of new media in general are very complex and impossible to be understood and analyzed in simple terms and theories.
Therefore, the following text will be concerned with specific questions related to the use of the internet in politics. The following chapters will explore how online videos influence and change political campaigning. Because the US politicians are pioneers in this field (Zielmann, Röttger 2009: 76) the focus will be on the 2008 presidential election in the USA. The first chapter will explain how YouTube evolved into the online phenomenon it is today in order to make its influence on political life in the US more comprehensible. As there is such a vast number of online videos that could serve as examples of the role of the internet in political campaigning, a case study examining one YouTube video in detail will be conducted. Using the example of the popular video “Crush on Obama”3, different reactions to this form of entertainment will be analyzed in order to draw conclusions about the effects of YouTube videos and the use of online tools in general on political campaigns. It will be discussed whether these new media are factors of radical change or only additions to the existing more traditional propaganda machine.
2. The YouTube-ification of US Politics
2.1 YouTube - Development of an Online Phenomenon
The video sharing website YouTube, which will be in the focus of this study, was developed in 2005 by three ex-employees of the company Pay Pal. Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen decided to create a video sharing site to make footage of certain TV moments available to everyone at any time. The platform YouTube was officially launched in December 2005. In 2006, it was sold to Google for $ 1.65 billion (Lister 2009: 226). Within the first months after the website’s launch it maintained about 20 million users every month. In 2008, about ten hours of new video were uploaded every minute (English, Sweetser, Ancu 2011: 735). As more and more people used YouTube, celebrities, politicians and influential institutions like the Vatican became aware of the potential of this online tool and launched their own channels on YouTube. By May 2010, more than 2 billion people per day viewed the website, and 24 hours of video were uploaded every minute. Some of the uploaded videos do not attract any attention while others are viewed millions of times all over the world. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” was the most popular video on YouTube by 2010 with 185.39 million views (“YouTube Facts”)4. The YouTube player is embedded in millions of other websites, and video links are frequently posted on various social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace. On Facebook, 46.2 years of YouTube videos are watched every day (“YouTube Facts”). These facts prove that YouTube is not just a temporary fashion, but a new technology that will influence future societies in many ways. Achim Beißwenger explains why online videos will become more and more important to all social classes. First of all, audiovisual media provide a sense of security and orientation within the internet, the medium of unlimited opportunities. While most aspects of the online world remain incomprehensible to the average user, people tend to better understand and trust what they can see with their own eyes. Also, videos allow internet users to express themselves in public in order to reach recognition and fame. Since Barack Obama strategically used the internet in his 2008 election campaign, the term Video Democracy has been used to describe the potential of online videos to activate masses of people (Beißwenger 2010: 21).
2.2 YouTube’s Influence in US Politics
While Beißwenger focuses on the application of online videos in economical contexts, other experts emphasize the huge potential of this medium for the purposes of politicians. Political campaigning on the web offers new options for politicians and their supporters. The interactive tools provided by the internet can lead to improved interaction among candidates and voters and increased political participation (Baringhorst 2009: 24). The 2004 US presidential election is often regarded as the first election to be influenced by the internet because many voters accessed political information online (Tedesco 2011: 696). By the election season in 2008, the internet had become the main source of political information and election news, mainly for young voters (Tedesco 2011: 697). According to English, Sweetser and Ancu, voters mentioned watching political videos on YouTube among the top three most popular online political activities during the 2008 election campaign (2011: 733).
In this context, one has to distinguish candidate-produced content and citizen- produced content or, according to Flam and Rost, bottom-up and top-down activism (2010: 208). This text will mainly be concerned with citizen-produced videos although a lot of videos produced by politicians and their teams can be found on the internet as well.5 In his book Convergence Culture (2006), Henry Jenkins examines the potentials of new methods of communication such as YouTube. He argues that average citizens now have more opportunities to express their ideas, spread their opinions in public and participate in political debates (Jenkins 2006: 273). YouTube enables everyone to produce grassroots media, publish them on a shared site which makes the amateur contents visible to a wide audience, and spread them through social networks such as Facebook and MySpace (Jenkins 2006: 275). Although video-sharing makes grassroots activism easier, experts are still unsure about how democratic and participatory the new media really are. As Jenkins puts it: “[a]ll involved in contemporary media recognize that our future culture will be more participatory, but there is widespread disagreement about the terms of our participation” (2006: 279).
Currently, there can be no doubt that politicians have discovered the internet as a medium of campaigning. Candidates realize that blogs are more spreadable than newspaper articles and YouTube videos are a lot cheaper than ads on TV (Lister et al. 2009: 198). During the 2008 presidential election, self-parodies were an important part of campaign tactics. In some cases, politicians initiated parody videos themselves, e.g. Hillary and Bill Clinton making fun of themselves by re-enacting The Sopranos in 2007 (Tpmtv). In most cases, however, parodies were created by average citizens6. Videos that were initially created just for fun or to express individuals’ political opinions were taken up by the official campaigns. Particularly the Obama campaign recognized the potential of internet and music to reach a large amount of voters, particularly young adults who are usually difficult to mobilize in elections (Flam, Rost 2010: 208-209). Obama profited from a large number of amateur videos that had been published online before the primary election and the presidential election in 2008 started. A lot of these videos are music videos featuring songs about Obama or his political opponents. The YouTube channel “Obama Songs” features 1556 songs by Obama supporters, including several videos in Spanish (e.g. “Viva Obama 2008” by NuevaVista70).
While the majority of so called bottom-up music videos produced in support of Barack Obama are amateur videos, there are also some productions by well- known celebrities that were placed on YouTube during the 2008 election campaign. According to Travis L. Gosa, “[r]ap songs about election year politics were a highly visible aspect of the election’’ (2010: 389). Gosa argues that a whole new Obama- Hop movement developed as ‘‘[i]t became possible to record one’s own rhymes about the importance of voting, mix it with the hottest beats, and distribute it to millions. As is apparent in the explosion of Obama-themed content on the internet, anyone with a cell phone or webcamera could broadcast themselves dancing, rapping, and singing about election politics’’ (2010: 394). These amateur productions were complemented by songs produced by famous hip hop stars such as Jay-Z (’’My President is Black’’), Ludacris, Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes (Nielson 2009: 344).
The song ‘‘Yes We Can’’ by the famous rapper Will.I.Am is probably the most famous and most appraised song in support of Barack Obama. The song, which won an Emmy Award in June 2008, features excerpts from a speech held by Barack Obama in New Hampshire in January 2008. Right before the democratic primary elections on Super Tuesday in February 2008, Will.I.Am’s song was shown on ABC news and published online on YouTube. ‘‘Yes We Can’’ emphasizes the multicultural character of the US society, and shows more than 30 well-known actors, singers and sportspersons like Scarlett Johansson and Nicole Scherzinger. In interviews, Will.I.Am, a member of the popular band Black Eyed Peas, said that Obama’s New Hampshire speech affected him emotionally and led him to producing a song praising Obama (Flam, Rost 2010: 225). Due to the song’s online success, the expression “Yes We Can” became Obama’s inofficial election campaign slogan.
Will.I.Am’s music video is a good example of the great importance of music and the internet in political campaigning. In this and many other cases, the video sharing website YouTube played a major role in spreading and popularizing a song about a politician. It is impossible to have a closer look at all the online parodies, cartoons7 and songs dealing with the 2008 presidential election. This is why the following chapter will present a case study focussing on one example of a YouTube video about Barack Obama that had an influence on the election campaign.8
3. Case Study
3.1 Obama Girl’s “Crush On Obama”: Amateur Cult at its Best
One of the most popular and well-known citizen-produced YouTube videos referring to Barack Obama and his election campaign is Obama Girl’s “Crush on Obama.” This video was uploaded on YouTube in June 2007 and immediately became popular among internet users. The video features a song called “Crush on Obama” performed by a very attractive woman called Obama Girl. Obama Girl was embodied by Amber Lee Ettinger, a model and student of fashion design from New York (Flam, Rost 2010: 224). Ettinger played Obama Girl in the video and lip-synched the song, which was sung by Leah Kauffman. Ben Relles, a 32-year-old political satirist, invented Obama Girl and created a YouTube channel called barelypolitical.com, which became immensely popular after the upload of “Crush on Obama.” According to Ettinger and Relles, the video and the YouTube channel were originally meant to be satires of American politics and not connected to Obama’s election campaign (Flam, Rost 2010: 224). While Hillary Clinton was holding a campaign song contest on her website, Relles just wanted to publish a funny song dealing with Hillary’s opponent Barack Obama (Tapper 2007). However, the video which shows Obama Girl adoring and flirting with Barack Obama, was viewed by millions of users after its publication on YouTube. By now, September 20, 2011, the video has been viewed 23,249,210 times and it is said to have helped Barack Obama in his race for the US presidency9. In order to understand the video “Crush on Obama”, one has to analyze its musical, textual and visual characteristics.
On the level of music, the song ‘‘Crush on Obama’’ sounds like one of the mainstream R&B-songs which are regularly successful in the charts and featured on music channels like MTV (Flam, Rost 2010: 221-222). This conveys the impression that the video is produced by professionals and not by amateurs. Yet, the music does not attract much attention as the focus is more on the lyrics and the images. Leah Kauffman’s voice is accompanied by rhythmic and repetitive beats, which stay in the background most of the time. Overall, “Crush on Obama” sounds like an average pop song without any special musical features. This shows that the video producers probably wanted to emphasize the lyrics and the visual techniques rather than the music.
At a first glance, the lyrics of the song ‘‘Crush on Obama’’ seem to be completely unpolitical. However, they contain some references to politics. The song starts with a very short excerpt from Obama’s speech of January 16, 2007 when he announced that he would create a presidential exploratory committee (‘‘Barack Obama Announces’’ 2007). In this excerpt, Barack Obama tells his supporters that he would like to continue a conversation with them in the next few months. In the following lines, Obama Girl takes up this statement and pretends to be calling Obama. She addresses him in a very informal way (‘‘Hey B., it’s me.’’10 ), which implies that she is very close to the senator. She says she has just seen Barack Obama on C-SPAN (a cable TV network covering government proceedings and political events), and also refers to the 2004 Democratic Convention where Obama seemed ‘‘to float on to the floor.’’ Obama Girl says she used to support John Kerry, but now she changed her mind, because she thinks Obama is ‘‘so black and sexy’’, and she ‘‘never wanted anybody more.’’ In this first stanza, Obama Girl refers to politics several times (C-SPAN, Democratic Convention, Kerry). Yet, it is difficult to take these references seriously. They seem implausible due to a number of sexual allusions which are obviously more important to Obama Girl than political aspects.
This impression is confirmed in the next stanza which contains more outspoken sexual references like ‘‘I like it when you get hard’’ (which sounds more harmless in combination with the next line ‘‘On Hillary in debate’’) and ‘‘You’ll get your head of state’’ (which can be interpreted as an allusion to oral sex). Obama Girl declares that Barack Obama is the best candidate for the new oval office. This statement is clearly not based on political considerations but on sexual desires.
The third stanza again combines these feelings of (supposed) love with political references. Phrases like ‘‘You’re into border security, let’s break this border between you and me’’ and ‘‘Universal health care reform, it makes me warm’’ sound odd or even absurd, because controversial political topics are used to describe a woman’s feelings of love towards Barack Obama. The line ‘‘You tell the truth unlike the right’’ openly refers to the Republicans as liars, but ‘‘You can Barack me tonight’’, which has become a well-known slogan in the US, is completely unpolitical again. All in all, on the textual level, the song ‘‘Crush on Obama’’ sounds like a mixture of a love song full of sexual implications and references to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party’s political strengths. As mentioned before, this mixture seems quite unusual to the listener and exposes the song as a satire.
1 For more information on Howard Dean’s pioneering role in online campaigning see: Julia Vetter. “Dean for America.” 2006.
2 For instance, Barack Obama had more than 2 million supporters on Facebook while JohnMcCain only had 600,000 fans. On YouTube, Obama had about 115,000 subscribers who viewed the videos on his channel more than 97 million times. McCain only had 28,000 subscribers and about 25 million video views (Fraser and Dutta. “Barack Obama and the Facebook Election.” 2008. For more general information on Obama’s communication tools see: Efe Sevin, Spencer Kimball, and Mohammed Khalil. “Listening to President Obama.” 2011.
3 Following Henry Jenkins’s example (Jenkins 2006: 295), all the YouTube videos mentioned in the text are listed in a YouTubeOlogy at the end of this work (page 25).
4 Now, on September 20, 2011, the video has been viewed even 414,787,821 times.
5 For example, Barack Obama created his own channel on YouTube (BarackObama.com) on September 5, 2006 and uploaded the first video nine days later. The videos on his channel include Obama’s appearances in TV shows, excerpts from speeches or other public appearances, from the news and messages to the public.
6 For a selection of YouTube videos satirizing or referring to different politicians from the US and the UK, see: Ben Walter. “The Online Stump.” 2007.
7 Probably the most famous animated TV clip referring to the election is “Homer Simpsons Tries to Vote for Obama.”
8 For an essay on amateur videos on YouTube see: Nick Salvato. “Out of Hand.” 2009.
9 The German online magazine Spiegel Online called Amber Lee Ettinger Barack Obama’s most successful campaign volunteer (“YouTube-Wahlhelferin” 2008)
10 This and the following quotes from the song are taken from the lyrics of the song “Crush on Obama”, which can be found in the appendix on page 30.