Web video offers street cred, social commentary

The Baltimore Sun

People endlessly complain that Hollywood is full of dopey, superficial films bereft of anything new to say. And they're right. Anyone looking for art that is edgy or relevant - and inspires comment - is turning to Internet video, which has become the true engine driving our pop culture.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the viral success of Alanis Morissette's "My Humps," which surfaced a few weeks ago on YouTube and quickly became the most popular video on the channel, attracting 5.5 million views, easily outdistancing such rivals as "Otters Holding Hands."

At first glance, it simply looks like another pass-along parody, a takeoff on the original "My Humps" hit by the Black Eyed Peas. But Morissette's video is armed with a provocative subtext that has people abuzz with debate. It's a fascinating piece of video art, an inspired combination of satire, social criticism and career reinvention.

On one level, "My Humps" is a commentary on dim-bulb pop. The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," although a huge smash, was widely mocked for its vapid, suggestive lyrics. (Sample: "The boys they wanna sex me, they always standing next to me, always dancing next to me, tryin' a feel my hump, hump.") The video, featuring lead singer Fergie, was, if possible, even tawdrier.

Dressing with baubles, Morissette retained the original's visual tawdriness but replaced the Peas' thumping rhythm track with a pensive solo piano. By removing the intoxicating bass line and clearly enunciating the crass lyrics, she gave the song's sexpot swagger a new tone of sadness and desperation while simultaneously parodying her own artistic tendencies toward self-absorbed angst.

It's a striking performance, functioning as both social criticism and self-criticism. It also has given an instant shot of street cred to Morissette, whose career slid downhill after her incandescent debut in 1995 with Jagged Little Pill.

As Mark Blankenship put it in his ITotallyHearThat blog, "Remember when I was saying Pink didn't manage to criticize the objectification of female sexuality in 'Stupid Girls' without becoming the very thing she supposedly opposed? Well, Alanis found a way. If that kind of wit, intelligence and humility is in her next album, I'm buying it."

This is what gives YouTube its real power. It is a forum not just for amateur pranks but also for career reinvention. For Morissette, this video - made at her home on digital video for roughly $2,000 - may transform her persona as much as taking a part in Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta.

"It absolutely helps her career," says Bob Lefsetz, whose Lefsetz Letter is a leading blog in the music business. Morissette has greeted all "My Humps" interview requests with a vow of silence.

As Lefsetz put it: "The less she does, the bigger the story is."

Patrick Goldstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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