YouTube has its own logic and its own idiosyncratic style. The monster video depot now attracts a stratospherically bigger audience than any newspaper or TV network. So it's natural that this week a video about Mitt Romney—"Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?"—attracted far, far more attention than reams of text-only articles about the candidate, even as he seemed to sew up the nomination. The video has already reaped over a million views.
"The Real Mitt Romney" is brilliantly funny. But it's hardly a call to arms, either for or against the former Massachusetts governor. Voters who spend time on YouTube—that's just about everybody, whether you know it or not, thanks to the ubiquity of the site's embed code—will recognize this video as delivering neither news about the real world (as Barack Obama's speech videos did) nor a tight polemic (as traditional campaign ads do) nor a goad to anger or fear (like George Bush's 1988 ads attacking Michael Dukakis did). Funny will get you laughs, but it doesn't get you votes. And it doesn't win you elections.
Both "The Real Mitt Romney" video and the Etch-A-Sketch comment made Wednesday by a Romney aide—construed by critics to suggest his boss could wipe his conservative primary slate clean and appeal to a more centrist electorate come November—play tangentially to caricatures of Romney as inconsistent and inauthentic. But to Internet users neither the comment nor the parody video really lands the point. If Romney keeps refusing to come into focus as a candidate, so too does the case against him. Romney's many foes in the media have been quick to claim "The Real Mitt Romney" video as a user-generated K.O. of the candidate—but that's not exactly how the video plays. In fact, the video itself flip-flops, because, as should be crystal-clear to another who watches "auto-tune the news" and other quasi-political stuff on YouTube, it's not an act of searing satire as much as a goofy, if charming, experiment with Final Cut Pro.
In this way, "The Real Mitt Romney" is much different from the hugely popular videos that defined Obama's digital presence back in the day. In 2007 and 2008, Obama supporters discovered near-delirious devotion to their man in videos like "I've Got A Crush on Obama" (24 million views) and will.i.am's "Yes We Can" (23.8 million views). The mad popular Obama campaign videos—especially bespoke footage of Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia, and his "Yes We Can" speech in Nashua, NH—went a long way to making the president's election feel like an actual movement. Gaffe videos, like that "Bomb Iran" beaut starring John McCain, practically took the place of gotcha interviews (unless John Edwards and a baby were involved) and made voters feel like they were able to pierce the campaign bunting and see through to candidates' souls.
Instead of packing an emotional punch, "The Real Mitt Romney" aims for that gentle "neato" effect refined by online videographers who are long on Final Cut Pro skills and short on conviction. The recut, which mashes up archival images of Obama and Romney and others, is not meant to lock in a victory for its title character, or to deal him a fatal blow. As a piece of rhetoric, it's nothing more or less than a precise act of noticing. Formally impeccable, it's careless with content. The most it can be said to do, philosophically, is call attention to droll repetitions and cultural ironies, in the mild and yet surefire way that Jerry Seinfeld used to do. It's Gen-X noodling using Millennials technology.
It's amusing, then. It's neato. It's just not rousing.
But maybe that's to be expected, given that the creator, Hugh Atkin, is an Australian studying law at Oxford and presumably can't vote in American elections.
Yesterday Frank Rich valiantly argued in New York Magazine that the video "shows exactly what Romney is incapable of learning: humor, any fluency with the pop culture devoured by his fellow citizens." Rich's was a fair effort to treat the video as hard-hitting. But Obama appears in the video too, saying "please stand up" over and over, and his "stand ups" at times seem hilariously forced, as when he seems to be awkwardly motioning aside a diminutive Greek Orthodox priest at some church-state affair or another. The video focuses on Obama's body language that suggests he has trouble mustering authority, somehow, like a substitute teacher. Sure, Obama may be out as a sometime Eminem fan, but the video doesn't depict the president as any more authentic or clued in to pop culture than Romney is.
How's that analysis for ruining a joke?
It's hard to find the point of "The Real Mitt Romney"—just like it's hard to find the point of Jerry Seinfeld, Eminem or mashups themselves. But having a point is not the point of this kind of rhetoric. Pure comic pleasure is more like it, as I'm sure Mr. Atkin would attest. Sure, the phrase "the real Mitt Romney" has been kicked around a little bit on TV, as critics try to create a story around the idea that Romney's somehow a phony. But the reason the video plays that phrase over and over again is not to drive home Romney's insubstantial nature, but to groove on a childlike diversion: the syllabic similarity of "Mitt Romney" to "Slim Shady." My name is. My name is. My name is Mitt Romney.
Rhyme without reason may not save lives, or make Presidents, but it does have its charms. After watching the video, I didn't double-check Romney's voting history. I didn't try to nail down his position on energy dependence, the debt or the Supreme Court. I just wasn't thinking about Romney—or politics at all. Instead, I watched, for the third or fourth time, Eminem perform "The Real Slim Shady" at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. On YouTube. It was great.