Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Flash Mob? For Whom?

You should read some very important views on some very important topics. I'm No Picasso has summed up what's wrong with the video where two very nasty boys harass a woman, and the way people have been talking about it, pretty well. And everybody should read The Korean's takedown of "The Cockpit Culture Argument" (based on Malcolm Gladwell's chapter of "Outliers" AKA the only thing a lot of people know about Korea, that can be made into a talking point right now), regarding the Asiana crash in San Francisco.

I may have something to say here about culturalism, once I've processed some of the stuff from one of the classes I took this semester. But today... flash mobs. Because why not.

This is a flash mob. This is one of the first flash mobs. The NYC Central Station "Freeze"

I've always liked flash mobs. It seems like a cool thing to have happen, to break the monotony of your day. I love imagining the people who encountered it, going home and telling the story. "And then suddenly, like 300 people in street clothing were dancing along to The Sound of Music in the subway station!

Improv Everywhere did some of the early ones. Another I liked:

Here are probably the two best flash mob videos.
Beethoven's 9th in Spain:

Sound of Music, in an Antwerp subway station:

(The Hallelujah Chorus is a pretty famous one, too)

On Reddit today, I saw a link to a "Flash Mob" where a group of classical instrumentalists played a rendition of "Arirang," and then the Korean national anthem, in a public square in insadong, one of the popular streets in Seoul for tourists to vist, and one of the first four places your new Korean friend will take you if you just got off the airplane.

It was alright. Here it is. It's a great tune.

But I'm having trouble calling it a flash mob. Wikipedia makes a distinction between a "flash mob" and a "smart mob." Here's a working definition of a flash mob I've written, based on the entirely subjective metric of which videos I saw on teh internetz and though "this is described as a flash mob, and it's awesome."

A flash mob is...
1. an organized group action
2. in a public place
3. where ordinary people do something surprising and a little extraordinary
4. that has been planned and maybe coordinated beforehand
5. and then everybody goes about their day.

Bonus points for:
1. People not involved in planning it can join in (watch the Antwerp DoReMi again-  people have jumped in without knowing where to step next)
2. including people under age 13 or above age 45
3. a video shorter than 4, preferably 3 minutes, unless it's friggin' awesome!
4. that "what on earth is going on?"/"wait a minute... I live in a musical?" feeling at the beginning, as apparently random people somehow seem to know the steps, or pull musical instruments out of their jackets.

Negative points for:
1. the number of people involved who appear to be professional performers. Also, music stands.
2. that general stink of being staged by PR people
3. any agenda other than "let's give the people in [this place] something to talk about when they get home from work" ... and the more obvious that agenda is, the more points you lose.
4. having a space cleared out before it starts. Feels like it was planned, and that's anathema for that "what on earth is going on?" feeling I mentioned.
5. Being this. Thanks for ruining flash mobs forever, FOX.

So... flash mobs now:

Wikipedia calls agenda-driven flash mob-like activities a "smart mob" -- if you're too clearly trying to sell me something, if your political demonstration involves apparent passers-by doing a choreographed dance or a freeze (while holding signs and slogans), or if they're clearly professional dancers (again, about the music stands), or if it was run by any business, but especially one larger than a community theater... sorry, kids. I'm not sold, and you're a smart mob, not a flash mob.

I wanted to make rule number 3 there hard and fast... no selling shit... but googling around revealed that the Antwerp Do Re Mi, and the Spanish Beethoven were both sponsored too. With a light hand, in the Antwerp case, but the Beethoven video does kinda finish with a corporate logo... so I realize that this "flash mob" thing has a fuzzier definition than I'd like. But here go those criteria, for the "This Is Arirang" video:

The "This Is Arirang" project was planned by a bunch of Korean student organizations (listed at the end.) According to the video description, "This is Arirang Project was designed with the aim to let foreigners know the Korean folk song, 'Arirang' and the 'Korean national anthem'"

Nothing wrong with that at first pass. Run by students is better than "run by a mobile company"(as slick as the T-mobile liverpool flash mob was)... though I can't help wonder why a bunch of university students care so much that foreigners know about their folk songs. Somehow I would have liked the video more if its purpose were to celebrate a beautiful song (cf Spain's Beethoven, the possible inspiration for it), rather than being to perform a beautiful song for "foreigners." Who cares if foreigners know/like arirang? The way "foreigners" are constructed in Korean promotional efforts is often problematic for various reasons, and the fact Korean culture becomes constructed as a performance of "Korea" for foreigners, bothers me sometimes, when Koreans should be doing the things Koreans do because it's meaningful to them, because it's beautiful, or fun, or connects them to who they believe they are in the world. There's a big difference between that hottie who dresses up because looking nice is nice, and the one who does it to fish for compliments.

Because, to steal from an old riddle, if the Arirang played, and no foreigner heard it, would it still be a beautiful song?

Yes. Yes it would. And it doesn't need foreigners to say "ooh! What a beautiful melody!" before Koreans can celebrate it, love it, and sing it. For their OWN damn benefit.

I was going to do a part of this blog post where I complained that flash mobs never really caught on in Korea -- even though Korea would seem like the perfect breeding ground for an absolute flash mob craze:
a culture of people who like doing things in groups (check)
everyone has a cellphone camera (check)
everybody already knows a set of dance moves and steps because of popular kpop songs (check)
one of the world's most wired populations (check)
a youth population prone to grab onto fads and run them for all they're worth, if so inclined (check)

I was going to complain that given the above, there are surprisingly few flash mobs in Korea.

Except I would have been wrong.

Now, many of these fail my own nitpicky criteria for a flash mob, because they're for a poltical cause,  promoting a Kpop single, they're not in a public space, or they're too obviously staged. But then again... some of my favorite flash mobs fail one or more of those criteria, so I've got to be more forgiving.

The dokdo shuffle in Busan is unaccompanied by English or notKorean text, limiting its effectiveness in swaying world opinion... but whatever (and the dokdo song is awful -- it sounds like one of those songs that politicians blast from their flatbed trucks during election season, or a ghastly revolutionary chant repurposed). However, the airport flashmob is clearly in the true spirit of flash mobs - and I like that it ends with "Sunny" -- because that song has become a cultural touchstone in Korea ('cause of this, great, movie). Shilling for Kpop happens. Meanwhile, the WonderGirls video "Like This" has the feeling of a flash mob, and it worked in this case. This is probably my favorite flash mob that I've found so far.

So... Flash mobs happen in Korea. And they're not all lame (though some are) and I don't know WHAT to make of this.

As for flash mobs in the Korean news: well, they're popular enough to have been made illegal. Hankyoreh on that. And must be registered in advance. Wouldn't have happened if they'd been used for fun instead of for statements. But then again... I'll never begrudge someone giving a damn about the political situation in their country. Even if it means no Do Re Me song when I walk by Chunggyecheon.