Just in time for the holidays, a viral-video reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. On Wednesday, Irish fast-rapper Mac Lethal uploaded his pancake-flipping twist on Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now," and 48 hours later, having been noticed by sites from XXL to Boing Boing to Time, he's well over two million views. With ample time to come up with something else to do for next year's cameo on the VMAs.
As we here on the Internet know, every day there are tons of gimmick-rap videos uploaded to YouTube with viral ambitions. Sometimes they go terribly terribly wrong, but sometimes they work, and everyone loves them, and people get record deals. As we speak, someone at a major label is wondering how they, too, can put a little more IHOP in their hip-hop. Because that’s clearly what the people want! It says so right there in the view counter.
It makes me think of this scene from the movie Broadcast News, which I consider the best distillation of the timeless Gimmick vs. Substance debate. When Aaron Altman (played by Albert Brooks) tells the woman he loves that Tom Grunick (played by William Hurt) is the devil, he’s semi-serious. “What do you think the devil’s gonna look like if he’s around? No one’s going to be be taken in by a guy with a long red pointy tail.” he explains. “He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great god-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing, he’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just bit-by-little-bit lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit.”
And so, here we are: Is Mac Lethal’s pancake-rap video the devil? I’m being semi-serious here.
How much does the popularity of gimmicky videos like this, by virtue of their being cute and clicky and inoffensive, slowly chip away at the integrity of the culture (or the artist) behind it? If we had clips of chimpanzees or kangaroos dunking basketballs off a trampoline every couple weeks how long until Blake Griffin seemed less impressive?
Hip hop’s role as a crutch in the meme/viral video “industry” is almost on par with cats (LOLraps?). Except unlike cats, there’s no culture or people associated with the form. This makes these sorts of videos a bit more polarizing when poorly executed because they feel racist and/or uncomfortably exploitative. Which leads to advice like this). In Broadcast News the purist Altman character seeks to preserve the values of TV news journalism, but his nemesis doesn't make anyone cringe. If the devil wanted to undermine hip-hop values he wouldn’t make the horrible videos, he’d make the good ones that serve no other purpose than to slowly reconfigure what we think of as cool.
The argument for the pancake-rap video is that Mac Lethal has skills. This isn't a Rebecca Black situation, or a misguided fraternity project run amok. But this was James L. Brooks accomplishment in his film: He gave the flash-in-the-pan Tom a whole lot of substance. Tom Grunick was a bit shallow, but also attractive, kind, and, most important, self-aware.
In this case Mac Lethal, complying with the rules of clicks and headlines for popularity in the Youtube era, self-deprecatingly titled the clip "nerdy white rapper." This as opposed to pointing out his decade-plus grind as an indie rapper, with a name and a pretty full Wikipedia page for an overnight sensation. It’s a smart move that highlights how, in exchange for exposure, he had to sell himself out, just a little, in the title and lyrics of the song: “I’m never gonna put another piece of music out deliberately if it isn't genuine and grips the heart”.
This is the last line in the video that made Mac Lethal famous, and also just a tiny little bit of a liar.