As President Obama makes a last-minute push for the youth vote before the election, one of the splash hits in the viral video world is all about him. A hip-hop parody video called “Head of the State” has racked more than a million views since Thursday.
But many polls show that the hope and optimism of the critical 2008 youth voting bloc has morphed into apathy and disappointment in 2010. It's not yet clear whether this 3-1/2 minute online video is an antidote or an anti-valentine.
Over an insistent hip-hop beat, an Obama look-alike grooves through a tough neighborhood spilling expletives, racial epithets, and vulgarity about everything from his wife Michelle to one of his biggest fans, Oprah Winfrey. The video is a slick, professional job, created as a mock version of a video from Atlanta-based hip hop performer "Wacka Flocka Flames."
In an interview in the New York Times Tuesday, the stand-up comic who portrays the President as "Baracka Flacka," an off-hours crude-mouthed gangster, says he hopes the portrayal will help loosen up the image of a president often rapped for his stiff persona.
Not everyone agrees. “It’s hard to see this as supportive of Obama,” says Brendan Kownacki, a Washington-based digital strategist. He suggests that the video reveals rather a frustration and anger beneath the surface about promises that have not been fulfilled by the Obama administration.
Indeed, even the rapper whose song is being re-imagined has distanced himself from the Obama parody, his management reportedly requesting "Head of the State” be removed from the popular video site worldstarhiphop.com, suggesting it was not the presidential image it wished to support.
Despite the traffic the production has drawn, political commentator and blogger Adam Hanft downplays the video’s potential impact, calling it “artless and adolescent.”
But viral videos and satire – and parody in particular – work on more levels than straight advertising or political image management do, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“This video came out of the wild west frontier of anything goes on the Internet,” he says, and “people look for and support the subversive imagery of this kind of work.” However, now that The New York Times has picked it up, he points out, this video will begin to play in all sorts of venues as it is commented upon and analyzed.
“It will play across all kinds of interpretive communities with very different assumptions and expectations,” he says. “One person’s wildly funny send-up will become another’s offensive and disrespectful screed.”
As for what might mobilize the youth vote, participation in social media of all sorts is the very essence of democracy, says new media expert Paul Levinson of Fordham University. “Negative publicity is better than no publicity,” he says. “Going too far in a democracy is not a problem,” he says – "shutting down voices is a far bigger problem.”
Funny videos, outrageous videos, good ones and bad ones about the president are far more likely to move younger voters to political action, he adds, for the simple reason that participation is more likely to lead to action come November, he says.
[Editor's note: Because of the profanity and the content of the video, we have chosen not to link to it.]