02.04.11

The Gregory Brothers and the Rise of the Remix Video

The funky State of the Union remix is burning up YouTube, while the reworked viral smash “Bed Intruder” charted on Billboard. Jackie Snow on the skyrocketing genre and its powerhouse, the Gregory Brothers.

The Gregory Brothers, of "Auto-Tune the News" and "Bed Intruder" viral video fame, didn’t set out to remix some patriotism into their large Internet following. But with their latest clip, a “songified” State of the Union with view counts about to surpass those of the real speech, they might have stumbled upon the power of remix video.

Gallery: The Gregory Brothers’ 11 Best Auto-Tunes

Traditional content providers might be losing their grip on their audience as more and more options become available, but the little guy has never had such a big, hungry audience. The video market is skyrocketing, with 172 million Americans watching videos online in December, averaging more than 14 hours per person. And the avenue many of these new providers are taking is remix. The Gregory Brothers’ video, edited to make President Obama look as if he’s singing to Iyaz’s single “Replay,” preserves the original message of unity and cooperation while making it catchy. The Brothers say they remix such clips regardless of their political message, knowing that both the left and right could use some help.

“I wouldn’t say we are political junkies,” said Evan Gregory, who along with brothers Andrew and Michael and Evan’s wife, Sarah, make up the group. “But we’ve been watching the news and political coverage and it seems that it’s the media most lacking in bass lines and melodies.”

The Gregory Brothers are a remix powerhouse. Beyond having one of the most subscribed-to channels on YouTube, with more than 50 videos, and working on a pilot for Comedy Central, they also are responsible for one of the most watched videos of 2010, the now legendary “Bed Intruder Song”.

A local news station’s report on a woman waking up with a stranger in her bed quickly became something bigger when the Gregory Brothers saw a clip of Antoine Dodson, the woman’s brother, raging against the attacker. Subjecting the video to what they call “songification,” or making music out of unexpected material, the Brothers found a catchy tune in Dodson’s angry rhetoric.

With the instant hook “hide your kids, hide your wife,” plus Dodson’s mesmerizing character, the song was a hit with YouTube users, who then looked for ways to purchase it. The Brothers made a deal to split the profits with Dodson and released “Bed Intruder” on iTunes; it then promptly broke into the Billboard Top 100. The video has had more than 70 million views on YouTube in less than six months, as well as 400 video responses, and Dodson is in talks to get his own reality show. You know you’ve arrived when people dress their dog up as your meme for Halloween.

Remix video can be a lot of things: a political statement, a call and response, the Internet version of “Marco! Polo!”;  a 21st-century letter to the editor.

Blake Whitman, director of community and product at Vimeo, notes that remix video doesn’t want to be defined. So while a video montage of Top Gun scenes cut to make the film look like a gay love story is a remix, so is new material shot to look like old, familiar footage. And then there are the remixes of remixes, an endless rabbit hole of evolving video memes.

One of the most popular incarnations of the remix of a remix started with clips from ’80s Brat Pack movies cut to the recent Phoenix hit “Lisztomania.” A Brooklyn video group then shot similar-looking footage of young people dancing around looking pretty and happy as a tribute to the Brat Pack tribute, and also cut it to “Lisztomania.” Now with 250,000 views and 17 tributes to the Brooklyn tribute from groups from places like Israel to San Francisco, the remix is sort of its own club, with a still growing membership. (Full disclosure: I am friends with the creator of the Brooklyn version and appear briefly in it. Very briefly.)

While most of these remixes are short, Internet-friendly lengths, Casey Pugh remixed a movie length amount— Star Wars IV: A New Hope length, to be exact. For his “Star Wars Uncut” project, Pugh had hundreds of people film 15-second increments of A New Hope and then stitched the clips together. There were no boundaries on what the participants did during those 15 seconds, giving creative control for every creator.

“Initially with the first videos that were coming in, I was little worried because it was a lot of amateurs,” Pugh said. “But then I was so impressed by the unique and interpretive ideas people were able to come up with.”

Pugh ended up including almost every medium imaginable at least once in “Star Wars Uncut”—papier-mâché stop-motion, digitally rendered footage, Pez dispensers actors, and more. There were so many submissions that Pugh had people vote on clips to see what to include.

“Star Wars Uncut” underscored people’s eagerness to contribute their own take on a beloved film like Star Wars. Far from a daunting task like writing, shooting, and editing all new work, remix lets people jump right in.

“People are interested in expressing themselves,” Whitman said. “You can learn to edit by watching a tutorial. You can’t teach yourself to make a short film or shoot well with a camera by watching a tutorial.”

The built-in audiences that come with familiar material also helps. For newcomers with no Internet following trying to gain views and fans, using cues and symbols from popular culture bypasses a lot of hurdles.

One major hurdle remains, however. Remixing can be simple, but the laws around it are not. While Fair Use makes allowances for parody and transformative work, it is an exception to the copyright laws, not an affirmative right. Sites often play it safe and remove a video if a takedown request comes in from a copyright holder. Google has implemented a system to help challenge takedowns on YouTube, but there are risks involved. Providing information during the challenge makes it much easier for the copyright owner to track remixers down and sue.

"Very often, you're looking the giant in the eye,” Anthony Falzone, lecturer in law and the executive director of the Fair Use project at Stanford University, said of challenging takedowns. “It can be very intimidating." Falzone and others helped the Center for Social Media at American University create a Fair Use Best Practices Guide for online video to try to set a standard for use, even as the laws are susceptible to differing interpretations.

While the Gregory Brothers haven’t had any major issues and the notoriously protective Lucasfilm ended up giving its blessing to Pugh’s project, takedowns are still commonplace. The original Brat Pack-“Lisztomania” mashup that spawned its own subgenre was taken down, likely because of the movie clips, as Daniel Glass, founder of Phoenix’s record label, Glassnote Records, says he is a fan of all the remixes.

Remix videos haven’t attracted the kind of negative attention that surrounds downloading music, and most of the people being remixed seem to recognize the benefit of having their work gaining more exposure, but it is still a lot of uncharted territory. Eventually standardized practices will define what Internet remix videos can and can’t do, but in the meantime, the genre will have some awkward growing up to do.

“Internet video is 10 years old, so it’s like a fourth-grader that no longer wets its pants or needs to be breastfed,” Whitman said. “But it still hasn’t matured to take care of itself and definitely hasn’t lost its virginity yet.”

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Jackie is a freelance photographer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Village Voice, Sundance Channel's Full Frontal Fashion Blog, New York Observer, Aol News, WWD and does video projects with the incomparable Goddamn Cobras collective.