Theses Doctoral

Unmute This: Circulation, Sociality, and Sound in Viral Media

Harper, Paula Clare

Cats at keyboards. Dancing hamsters. Giggling babies and dancing flashmobs. A bi-colored dress. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video. Over the final decade of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first, these and countless other examples of digital audiovisual phenomena have been collectively adjectivally described through a biological metaphor that suggests the speed and ubiquity of their circulation—“viral.” This circulation has been facilitated by the internet, and has often been understood as a product of the web’s celebrated capacities for democratic amateur creation, its facilitation of unmediated connection and sharing practices. In this dissertation, I suggest that participation in such phenomena—the production, watching, listening to, circulation, or “sharing” of such objects—has constituted a significant site of twenty-first-century musical practice. Borrowing and adapting Christopher Small’s influential 1998 coinage, I theorize these strands of practice as viral musicking. While scholarship on viral media has tended to center on visual parameters, rendering such phenomena silent, the term “viral musicking” seeks to draw media theory metaphors of voice and listening into dialogue with musicology, precisely at the intersection of audiovisual objects which are played, heard, listened to.
The project’s methodology comprises a sonically attuned media archeology, grounded in close readings of internet artifacts and practices; this sonic attunement is afforded through musicological methods, including analyses of genre, aesthetics, and style, discourse analysis, and twenty-first-century reception (micro)histories across a dynamic media assemblage. By analyzing particular ecosystems of platforms, behavior, and devices across the first decades of the twenty-first century, I chart a trajectory in which unpredictable virtual landscapes were tamed into entrenched channels and pathways, enabling a capacious “virality” comprising disparate phenomena from simple looping animations to the surprise release of Beyoncé’s 2013 album. Alongside this narrative, I challenge utopian claims of Web 2.0’s digital democratization by explicating the iterative processes through which material, work, and labor were co-opted from amateur content creators and leveraged for the profit of established media and corporate entities.
“Unmute This” articulates two main arguments. First, that virality reified as a concept and set of dynamic-but-predictable processes over the course of the first decades of the twenty-first century; this dissertation charts a cartography of chaos to control, a heterogeneous digital landscape funneled into predictable channels and pathways etched ever more firmly and deeply across the 2010s. Second, that analyzing the musicality of viral objects, attending to the musical and sonic parameters of virally-circulating phenomena, and thinking of viral participation as an extension of musical behavior provide a productive framework for understanding the affective, generic, and social aspects of twenty-first-century virality.
The five chapters of the dissertation present analyses of a series of viral objects, arranged roughly chronologically from the turn of the twenty-first century to the middle of the 2010s. The first chapter examines the loops of animated phenomena from The Dancing Baby to Hampster Dance and the Badgers animation; the second moves from loops to musicalization, considering remixing approaches to the so-called “Bus Uncle” and “Bed Intruder” videos. The third chapter also deals with viral remixing, centering around Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, while the fourth chapter analyzes “unmute this” video posts in the context of the mid-2010s social media platform assemblage. The final chapter presents the 2013 surprise release of Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album as an apotheosis to the viral narratives that precede it—a claim that is briefly interrogated in the dissertation’s epilogue.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Hisama, Ellie M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 28, 2019