March 1, 2005

Ma-ia-hii, Ma-ia-huu, Ma-ia-hoo, Ma-ia-haha

by Nick Montfort · , 1:34 am

Numa Numa Dance Striking a blow for chair dancing and Romanian techno, Gary Brolsma’s Numa Numa Dance (recently written up in the New York Times) already seems to have eclipsed the fame of the Star Wars Kid, Badger Badger Badger, and their contemporary kin, and now seems poised to challenge that uncanny boss monster of moving pictures on the Web: The Dancing Baby.

The Times and other parties are puzzled about the popularity of this video, done by someone with (as The New York Daily News puts it) “the lip-synching talent of Ashlee Simpson and the physique of the Pillsbury Doughboy.” Why is this Flash file so compelling? Brolsma himself seems to have no idea, and commentators have done little more than note that it is amusing, makes for a convenient distraction, and is set to a catchy song.

Let us briefly consider the sublime qualities of Numa Numa Dance and its relevance to our cultural moment.

While this video has some degenerate relationship to music videos and home videos, the stronger connection seems to be to quotidian webcam footage. For the past decade, low-quality, computer-mounted cameras have most often afforded public access to a private but ordinary activity, sitting in front of the computer and working. Obviously, there are seedier uses for webcams, and the devices have come to be associated recently with personal conversation, as video conferencing has reached larger numbers of people through iChat AV, GnomeMeeting, and other systems. Overseeing the uninteresting, and indicating that the computer is attended, is still the webcam’s main function, though. The webcam is a self-surveillance camera that, whether monitored or not (Foucault explains that it doesn’t matter, of course), watches the modern corporation’s cash register, its store of value: the knowledge worker.

STFU Another singing webcam video, STFU, shows even more clearly that the tedium of office (or home office) life is what we typically see through this particular camera’s lens.

Brolsma’s video, which lacks the downbeat conclusion of STFU, shows how to flail in rapturous freedom while confined before an information appliance, how to fashion one’s own expression while following a pre-existing sound track, aided by consumer electronics and commercial software. If we’re going to dance at all these days, we’d better learn to do it in our chairs. The more interesting story behind Numa Numa Dance is not some parable of inadvertent self-humiliation. It lies in how this video, incredibly uncool as it is, gestures toward ways that we might be able to find play in the machine.