Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

Was there a time when people didn’t know what other people were thinking? I can vouch for the fact that there was: it lasted, roughly speaking, from the dawn of man until the launch of YouTube. In the 1970s, if you wanted to know what other people were thinking you might read a novel, but to do that you would have to make a journey to a bookshop or a library or borrow it from another human being. This involved walking. If you wanted to know what they were thinking in Budapest you could try watching a film from the Hungarian underground. This involved getting a train to London and being quite bored. You could have a pen pal, of course, but this meant stamps and stamps meant money. Having a pen pal also required you to pretend your life was less interesting than it was: you had to talk about school and pets and holidays and the endless possibility of meeting one day. All the good stuff was left out and the sense of one’s foreignness merely confirmed and underlined. Every form of communication seemed to enlarge the distance between one’s own daily life and the lives of people who lived in places one could barely spell.

Sharing, like so much else in those days, was a straightforward matter of the means of production. Of course there were TV programmes we all seemed be watching at the same time, at least in Britain: the 1977 Morecambe & Wise Show Christmas special was watched by 28 million people, and this was considered both a technological wonder and evidence of prodigious cultural togetherness. We talked about the programme at work or school the next day and felt that we had been involved in some strange communion. But the means of production were clearly in the hands of The Broadcasters – the people who generally confected and managed a great, cumbersome system of both making and making available. The means of production was happily married to the means of dissemination, and the only power held by the public was to watch or not to watch, to turn over or to turn off. And nobody did.

Things are largely unchanged on television: the idea of broadcasters presenting a menu prevails. Programmes are available now in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of times, but YouTube has changed for ever the way people communicate about what they’ve seen. It has also changed the means of production by placing it, in the most vivid cases, in the hands of amateurs, but amateurs now with access to a universal audience. Susan Boyle, a 48-year-old spinster from West Lothian, appeared a few weeks ago on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. ‘I’ve always wanted to perform in front of a large audience,’ she said to the presenters. The programme nets an audience of 11.9 million people, so as the lady approached the front of the stage – a lady undeniably frumpy, gauche, and dowdy – she was already in the process of achieving her dream. The judges were smirking, the audience was baying for blood, and everybody was giggling. When she sang ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the musical Les Misérables, and sang it nicely, the audience went mad. Since then, on various clips on YouTube, the best part of a hundred million people have watched Susan Boyle. They have even watched videos of people watching the original video. Every media outlet in America wants her. That single performance has already been seen by more human beings than saw the fruits of the entire working lives of Sarah Bernhardt, Maria Callas and Ellen Terry combined.

YouTube can make stars out of nobody: it can make them cheap and can make them without permission. The morning after Boyle appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, three people sent me the link to her performance on YouTube. This was happening all over the world. Her success is not difficult to understand: we love to imagine that talent is hidden, and it lives among our deepest fantasies that the least prepossessing, the least styled, the most innocent among us may carry the power to amaze the world. That notion lies at the sentimental heart of showbusiness. Turning defeat to triumph, jeers to cheers, is a piece of schmaltz fans of transformation find irresistible, and most people with an interest in the wiles of human talent are connoisseurs of transformation. Susan Boyle’s journey from heffalump to heroine was instantaneous: it came not merely via her good singing voice, but via the audience’s strong sense of its unlikelihood. The powerful voice came like the uplifting last paragraph of an old-fashioned novel. If you surprise an audience by giving them something they really want they will love you for ever. They will also cry, which is why YouTube shows nearly a quarter of a million lachrymose messages under the footage of Boyle’s triumph.

YouTube, you could say, is the depot for international self-realisation. Danny MacAskill, a young guy in Edinburgh who can do brilliant tricks on his mountain bike, gets himself filmed and somebody sticks it up on YouTube. Three million views. The young guy’s a legend. Andy McKee, a man who picks and slaps his guitar with style, is filmed one evening in his front room and put on YouTube. Twenty-one million views and a record deal. Graduate student Adam Bahner sings a weirdly repetitive song in a preternaturally deep voice: 36 million views, the voice of Dr Pepper, the cover of the LA Times, spoofed on South Park, he has now changed his name to Tay Zonday.

And that’s the golden ticket: from YouTube fame to ‘mainstream success’. There are plenty of goofs on YouTube getting hundreds of thousands of hits for doing variably talented stuff, but the big league is still the big league. People understand YouTube to be, at the same time, the springiest springboard and the largest carboot sale for talent in the known universe. The only people making money out of its success are the three billionaire clever-clogs who invented it, but it would be nice, in a No Logo kind of way, to imagine that YouTube might represent a democratisation of the fame process. But I doubt it does. Yes, it hands the old means of production to everybody with a camera and a broadband connection, but the old hunger survives: what Hannibal Lecter once called the ‘dream of getting out … getting anywhere … getting all the way to the FBI’.