If you've been anywhere near a computer for over the past week, you've probably caught a glimpse of the "Telephone" video created by military members stationed in Afghanistan. What first looks like goofing off by two bored soldiers is later revealed to be a big production, complete with costumes, elaborate choreography, and not-bad editing.
As the Los Angeles Times points out, this is not the first music video made by servicemen and -women overseas. Military life is characterized by long periods of boredom punctuated by either intense fighting or necessary military procedures, and there are only so many ways to pass the time. Big musical productions, captured on film and given a postproduction treatment, have a short but lively history.
The reigning royalty when it comes to goofy military videos are the Sun Kings, a Navy squadron whose sendup of the Black Eyed Peas's "Pump It" has received 2.8 million hits on YouTube since it was posted three years ago. (though "Telephone" has racked up more than a million views in just a few days, and likely will outdo the Navy video.) Shot on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the middle of the ocean, the Sun Kings' video is a combination of break-dancing, lip-syncing, play-acting, and badass military maneuvers:
The video came about much the same way we imagine the others did. "Boredom," says Cmdr. Dan Harwood, who edited the film while aboard an aircraft carrier in 2006. After all, when you’re out on a ship—or, even worse, trapped on a sub—there's a lot of downtime with which to put on a show. And, it must be said, lots of cool props and scenery to use. He says his roommate, Bryant Medeiros, came up with the idea and shot most of the footage over the course of about three weeks. Every two months, says Harwood, the entire ship would convene for awards, announcements, and skits or songs by the various squadrons. The Sun Kings showed their video to great success, which lead to a many other videos, only a few of which were suitable for YouTube.
John Hanson, a spokesperson for the USO, says his organization has provided thousands of video cameras to troops overseas. "For 100 years people have talked about combat being boredom interrupted by a few moments of sheer terror," he says, but notes that soldiers in the current wars have both less downtime and fewer outlets for entertainment—unlike in Vietnam, you can't mosey downtown for a beer. Even for those not stuck at sea, entertainment is often barracks-based, whether it's playing Guitar Hero in a USO tent or making a goofy video with your fellow servicemen. Though the military and the USO try to keep soldiers occupied, there's always downtime. "People fill time, and they tend to fill it creatively," says Hanson.
Both the Navy and the Army have a deeper tradition of video making and elaborate performances; witness the "spirit videos" that play during the annual Army-Navy football game each year. Cadets and midshipman spend time prior to the game coming up with elaborate skits and dance routines, the best of which are shown during breaks in the game on the stadium's JumboTron.
Scantily clad midshipmen thrusting along to a techno song may seem strange to civilians, but as some of the YouTube comments point out, when you're a bunch of young adults living a very structured, contained lifestyle, you do what you can to make one another laugh and break up the days. And when you can't goof around, get drunk, or waste time the way regular college kids do, good old-fashioned skits and humiliation work just as well: dance routines seem to be a popular punishment when plebes lose a bet—they perform in the halls while classmates watch and cameras roll.
Hanson says video plays an even more important role for servicemen overseas. Thanks to the accessibility of quality cameras and the ability to send videos over the Net, enlisted men and women are using video to stay closer to home, not just to entertain themselves. The USO has partnered with a group called United Through Reading that records servicemembers reading a book aloud, then sends a copy of the book and the video back to his or her family, where children can read along with their overseas parent.
While the music videos that make their way to YouTube and the Today show may entertain family back home—as well as strangers who catch them on Gawker or via a friend's Facebook page—they're mostly for the enjoyment of the men and women making them. As the Smoking Gun notes, the soldiers singing Gaga did not intend for the video to become a viral sensation, and are slightly unhappy that it has. But it probably won't stop future servicemembers from messing around with a video camera as a way to stay entertained. "They see music videos, they know a lot of the dance moves, and it's a great way to blow off steam," says Hanson.
Or, says Harwood, "It was humorous. It was just silliness, but it's not really an indication of what life is normally like on the ship."
Military members aren't the only to make it big on the internet. Check out our gallery of celebs who found fame online.
Do you have a favorite military music video? Post it in the comments below.