Altered States

Tactics for defeating YouTube’s anti-privacy detection system have spawned genres of their own

YouTube is not only a Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos for the internet age. It’s not only a This Old House or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It’s also a sketchbook, a jukebox, a cutting-room floor, and more. The proliferation of free, cheap, and pirated software online has facilitated an influx of techniques from experimental composition — from genres like Chopped and Screwed of Houston and cumbias rebajadas of Monterrey as well as from other forms of music both analog and electronic — into the terrain of web video. They use similar modes of postproduction as creation, borrowing not only techniques from their musical counterparts but some of their political implications.

An origin myth bonds cumbias rebajadas and Chopped and Screwed. It involves boomboxes. In the mid- to late-1980s, when the party would run long, the batteries would wear out, and the music would distort and slow until it finally ended. This point of the night was a beloved time, and DJs would eventually come to purposely play records at the slower speed to rock the party. DJ Michael Price made a boombox that achieved this effect deliberately, and Robert “DJ Screw” Davis Jr. heard this and used that sound as the dominant element on hundreds of “chopped and screwed” mixtapes and albums, with rappers like Big Moe, Lil Flip, Lil Keke, Fat Pat, and South Park Mexican.

Coded language can allow one to evade an oppressive force. Saboteurs don’t merely destroy the machine; they are intimate with its mechanisms

A similar mechanical failure spawned the Sonido Dueñez, of Monterrey, Mexico’s Independencia neighborhood. One day, the motor of DJ Gabriel Dueñez’s sound system began overheating, and the Colombian cumbia records he played — sent to him by his brother in Houston — began to slow and crawl. But the crowd loved it: hence the dawn of the rebajada style. Today, many cumbias rebajadas mixes in online videos will include a reference to being “screwed” or even draw tongue-in-cheek visual parallels between the purple chicha morado drink and that of “lean,” the codeine-syrup beverage made iconic by DJ Screw and others, also known as purple drank, among other names.

Among early YouTube videos that paralleled the Chopped and Screwed approach was the subculture known as YouTube Poop. It stems, according to Know Your Meme, from a video called  “I’D SAY HE’S HOT ON OUR TAIL,” which appeared on YouTube not long after Google bought the site in 2006. It features clips of the Super Mario Brothers cartoon cut up, rearranged, scrambled, and modified, including the slowing down and pitching down of particular moments, for emphasis or surreal, psychedelic effect. Why make what could be seen as subpar, nonlinear gibberish content like YouTube Poop? The reasons range from post-ironic appreciation to displays of virtuosity to the search for a new aesthetic and a community with whom it resonates. It also is a pre-emptive dump on an emerging platform’s utopian rhetoric, an incipient form of subversion.

Popular user-generated content like YouTube Poop has been constantly threatened, demonetized, or shut down because of copyright infringement, yet it has also always attracted more users to the network, who inevitably end up on the conventional monetized content. Some content makers are given a ramp to reach a platform; others have to jump, or even fling themselves with no guarantee of landing safely.

Four years after YouTube Poop, in 2010, we see a slowed-down and distorted version of “Gimme Pizza,” a rap song from a Full House-era Olsen Twins video, giving the lyrics new and, for some, “creepy” metaphorical connotations. That same year, Nick Pittsinger released an audio version of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile” slowed down 800 percent, which found its way to YouTube, often with purple imagery or text — likely a reference to purple drank. Pittsinger made his track with software created by Paul Nasca, but his approach has a predecessor in the work of indigenous musician and composer Jim Wilson. His “God’s Cricket Chorus” (1992) consists of two tracks of audio, one of crickets chirping at regular speed and another slowed down to “the human lifespan,” supposedly based on a cricket’s average lifespan. True or embellished, Wilson’s claim about the speed of a lifespan points to esoteric knowledge, the idea that locked within existing phenomena is information that can be accessed through special techniques, as in gnostic mysticism or in earlier avant-garde methods like John Giorno’s cut-up method. It points to how meanings may be intentionally hidden in the process of altered “encodings,” a tactic that would take on practical use as YouTube became popular as a depository for full-length albums, movies, and other copyrighted material. On several occasions, I have watched material slowed down to bypass YouTube’s take-down algorithms. In the description box would be a note: Play at 1.25x speed.

Coded language can allow one to evade or survive under an oppressive force. Saboteurs don’t merely destroy the machine; they are intimate with its mechanisms. It isn’t a wrench hurled into the machinery so much as a way, as its etymology suggests, of “walking noisily.”

As algorithms have become better at detecting copyrighted content, more elaborate YouTube countermeasures have been improvised: cutting a thing into small pieces, adding watermarks or silence at the beginning or end.

The videos strain toward esotericism, new ways of working, the production of new culture with subversion built in

But then speed changes were cued to a particular trigger — usually recurring elements of the content, akin to a drinking game: “Migos — ‘Bad And Boujee’ but every ‘yeah’ makes the video more distorted.” At this point, the cat-and-mouse element becomes more of an afterthought, and the videos strain toward esotericism, new ways of working, the production of new culture with subversion built in. Sabotage, innovation, and evasive maneuvers blend. Rather than introduce subversion lyrically, now it can also be done through pre-existing material. The platform’s limits encourage it.

These tactics also have a heritage: John Oswald’s arrhythmic experiments in “plunderphonics,” as he described them in a 1985 essay “Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.” In 1988, he released a track with a sample of Dolly Parton’s “The Great Pretender” getting progressively slower. That same year (as John McDonnell recounted in a 2008 post at the Guardian), Moortje, a DJ from Curaçao, played a 33 RPM dancehall record at 45 RPM, and the “bubbling” genre began. He would later make music with the MCs Pester and Pret, whose political lyrics made them a target of police censorship.

Vaporwave appeared in 2011 — building off of James Ferraro, Ramona Xavier, Chuck Person, and Ariel Pink, but also using DJ Screw’s techniques — mutating corporate muzak intended to create docile consumers into a new genre. The question remains though: What’s next? What’s left? New codes and strategies must be continually produced as the powers that be catch on.

In the party setting, embracing the slowness caused by mechanical failures may be a refusal to give up the space of celebration, expression, and intimacy. In the online media space, the manipulation of speed and sequence is a rejection of the traditional modes of viewership, traditional ways of making content. If, because of data mining, our use of platforms like YouTube collapses work and leisure, then producing content that is anathema to its intended use could be resistance, despite its inevitable recuperation? Is there a relationship between these processed and manipulated media examples and the workers’ slowdown or the enslaved person’s breaking of tools, albeit without a particular goal in mind and couched in privilege?

What’s clear is that as long as there is a way to do something, there will be a “wrong” way, and that may be embraced by those who are told they are wrong, or that they don’t deserve rights because of factors beyond their control, sometimes at the expense of those who created the restrictions.

Devin Kenny is an artist, educator, writer, and musician based in Houston Texas. He received his MFA in 2013 from the New Genres department at UCLA and is an alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program, SOMA Mexico, and is currently a fellow at the MFAH Core Program.