What Bad Does

Curator's Note

From the opening “A Time of Darkness/A Time of Light/The Crusade Begins” to the closing “Love Has Enemies,” it is hard to turn away from this video. It includes innumerable science-fiction/fantasy clichés, a man seemingly imported from 1986, and a very green guitar, all crammed within four minutes. It seems to pay earnest homage to the Michael Bay-meets-Xena-era summer blockbuster trailer – and, as Owens’s website reports, it was put together from various sets and costumes from the Warner Bros’ studios. Between clips of the Celtic-pirate-explosion extravaganza, Chris Dane Owens sings us a catchy love ballad. Both the song and the video seem old, though; I thought I had been sent a previously undiscovered Michael Bolton single.


He’s left popular critics speechless. Sasha Frere-Jones, writing in The New Yorker, suggests that asking if this video is “bad” doesn’t even matter: “What you need to know is…that you are going to watch this video more times than you can imagine. You may dream of this video, but the dream won’t be as good because it won’t be this video.” There’s something to this review. Chris Dane Owens has made Bad work for him. In late 2008, Chris Dane Owens set out to make music with only a sparkling neon green guitar in hand. By January 2009, this video had gained such incredible popularity through email and YouTube viral-ity that he was able to sign a contract for widespread commercial distribution. “Shine On Me” has had commercial success on iTunes and will supposedly hit retail outlets soon.


It may be possible to brush the video aside and say here, “any publicity is good publicity,” but it seems to me there’s something quite impressive in the ability to create a video so “bad” it sparks its own viral distribution. Owens calls the style “fantasy camp.” Indeed, it lives up to almost every point in Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” This video should be in parentheses; everything in it is “too much.” Chris Dane Owens has made a camp film pastiche of bad films. In so doing, he has launched at least fifteen minutes of consumerist fame. What was once a critique of Hollywood consumerist ideology now has its own market. Viral Bad has earned Chris Dane Owens a record deal and a concert tour – and, in case these four minutes weren’t enough for you, a budget to complete a trilogy of bad movie trailers. You may laugh at this video now, but you’ll replay it later today, and buy it on iTunes later this week.


Daniel-- thanks for providing me with another opportunity to indulge in my drug of choice. Sasha Frere-Jones is not kidding: you will dream of this viral video by Chris Dane Owens (CDO).


This seems so clear an instance of badfilm. It appears to be in deadly earnest (there is nothing quite like CDO's soulful stare). Its narrative and its special effects are far in excess of whatever the song could have plausibly warranted (who the heck is the man in black? and where did that alligator come from?). And I'm not sure which makes it feel more laughably belated in its aesthetic: CDO's Michael Bolton hair or that its attempt to capitalize on the Lord of the Rings fantasy craze came a few years too late.


I think Daniel raises very interesting questions about the effects of YouTube and viral videos on the distribution-- and potential commercialization-- of camp. I would add an additional question: do digital media open up new formal vistas for the badfilm aesthete? To bring our week full circle, how do we account for the formal distance between Herschel Gordon Lewis's fried chicken dance party and CDO's four-minute epic? Where Lewis's camera hunkers down in protracted shots while his actresses pretend to act, CDO's video is filled to the brim with movement and lavish special effects (presumably also some stock footage, unless he hired a helicopter). Do the spartan absurdity of the one and the giddy excess of the other have parallel effects? Or has digital badfilm changed the stakes of the paracinema game?

Thank you, Daniel, for an amazingly good post about an awesomely bad video! I especially like the link you make between “badness” and commercial success. I wonder how this kind of commercial success compares to the successes of unironic or inadvertent badfilms. Interesting, too, how Owen has apparently been able to capitalize upon the video even though its original distribution on the internet was, of course, free. How does this contrast to other viral video stars, like “Wii Fit Girl,” who have gone on to other (usually offline) media venues to seek a profit from free-of-charge fame?

Part of the difficulty in responding to you has been my compulsion to simply watch the video again—there’s so much to take in! Part of the charm of the badness of “Shine on Me” is its lack of any cogent narrative due the sheer volume of its completely unintelligible (and yet generically familiar) settings, actions, and characters. The most comparably voluminous text I can think of is the Victorian novel. But where Dickens can only pull off this sublime density over the space of nine-hundred pages and several years’ serial publication, Chris Dane Owens compresses things down to a mere four minutes and seventeen seconds. Thus, the video is as badly overwhelming as it is overwhelmingly bad. A friend has likened this tactic to that of Infinite Jest (R.I.P. D.F.W.) and I think it’s an apt comparison. To a point, of course. And yet, the density also gives me a kind of pleasure in multiple viewings, and in picking out particular images as my favorites (the numerous facepunches are up there). There’s something here to be said about abundance and the commodity form, but I might not have the Marxist street credit to tackle that question myself.

I also get the sense that part of the pleasure I get from “Shine on Me” is from watching Chris Dane Owens’ performance fulfill his own fantasies. That’s making a few leaps, maybe, but the guy is willfully wearing frilly cuffs in the extra-diegetic “clap and turn” dance sequences. It thus recalls the earnest fantasy-making of earlier viral videos, and especially the infamous “Star Wars Kid.” Yes, it’s “fantasy camp” as Owens tells us, but I can’t help thinking that he’s also getting off on casting himself as the hero of this thorouh fantasy. Is this a fantasy of fantasy itself?

This video seems particularly rich in that it compels the audience to make an evaluation as to both the imagery and the music.  He calls the visual style "fantasy camp" (and thus over the top bad), but what are we to make of the song?  Is it also meant to be a string of cliches, or did he think a campy video would draw attention to his "amazing" music.

Part of the interpretive dilemma issues from the rather peculiar "mismatch" of sound and image.  As Daniel points out, this sounds right out of the Michael Bolton songbook (or perhaps later Bryan Ferry), yet the imagery seems more inspired by the Druid-metal tradition (Iron Maiden, Sabbath, etc.)  Perhaps that's part of the joke?

In any case, it reminds me of the brief career of The Darkness a few years back--a band that was so spot-on in reproducing the cliches of seventies metal-pop that they actually won the admiration of the bands they were making fun of...

Finally, if you enjoy Mr. Owens, check out the same video (basically) done by one performer, in one costume, with one camera:




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