On 2 January 2019, “some anonymous dummy,” per New York magazine reporting, shared a 30-second clip of then-U.S. Rep-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing barefoot on a rooftop.1 “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is,” the account AnonymousQ1776 tweeted.2 The leak was timed, but not timely; the freshly elected Democratic Congresswoman representing New York’s 14th district would be sworn in to her post the next day and she was, without a hitch. If she or her district was embarrassed by this heavily viewed compilation of her shuffling and shimmying in broad daylight, that could hardly be ascertained from evidence of her in-person demeanor. Another video, also posted to Twitter, shows Ocasio-Cortez walking the halls of the Capitol with a sunny smile, hugging an unidentified employee who pulls her close saying, “She’s a New Yorker. That’s how we are.”3 While IRL Ocasio-Cortez was being sworn in as the youngest woman to serve in Congress, wearing a white pantsuit, hoops and red lipstick—a pairing noted for its dual allegiance to (white) suffragettes and (brown) girls back home in the Bronx—online she was going viral.4
The “leak,” as it so happens, wasn’t a leak at all. The full-length video had been published to YouTube in 2010 on behalf of the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. The full-length four-minute and twenty-seconds long version, entitled “Phoenix - Lisztomania - Boston University Brat Pack Mashup,” features fourteen other performers besides Ocasio-Cortez, all dancing whimsically on the roof of the College of Arts and Sciences, dressed in the colors and logos of Boston University, to the song “Lisztonmania” by the French band Phoenix.5 Per the press release out of the university’s news and information website BU Today, the video was “the brainchild” of the center’s assistant director Raúl Fernandez who saw an opportunity to exhibit the multicultural values of the university, “getting people from across the country and across the world to come together to share ideas and work together.”6 The final shots of the music video of sorts follows the adeptly diversified group on to Marsh Plaza as they circle around the stone and bronze seal bearing the university motto, “Learning, Virtue, Piety.”
Some additional context is needed. Though “Phoenix - Lisztomania - Boston University Brat Pack Mashup” would become exceptional for being excavated by the 2019 internet, in its time it was merely one of many such regionally themed romps to the same song. While “Lisztomania” did spend 51 weeks on Billboard Hot Rock Songs during the greater part of 2010—peaking at number 5 the week of 14 August—its use in these videos follows from a popular YouTube video, a homemade compilation of dancing scenes from The Breakfast Club and other Brat Pack selections set to that song. This “mashup” begot a sea of imitations, groups of people reenacting the idiosyncratic body movements of the original upload. Fernandez’s original idea was thus the fairly unoriginal idea to tap into a viral sensation. Only viewed among these other mashups can “Phoenix - Lisztomania - Boston University Brat Pack Mashup” be appreciated for its mimicry: in one moment, a kneeling Ocasio-Cortez pumps her arms keeling down to the floor, much as the character Allison Reynolds does on the floor of the high school library. The video description for “Phoenix - Lisztomania - Boston University Brat Pack Mashup” cites its predecessors, including links to “the original,” another filmed in Brooklyn, and eleven others named by filming site: San Francisco, Paris, São Paulo, Long Island, and the Philippines.7
The Boston University mashup is a “history lesson in miniature,” write Brock Read and Andy Thomason, “a reminder of an era when video mash-ups not only ruled the earth (and college campuses), but also struck both wonks and cultural critics as a big deal.”8 It is also a historical artifact, evidence of an internet that is no longer—“going viral” is old enough to be quaint. Going viral seems no longer the switch that is flicked “on,” as the name suggests, but a threshold in a sweeping scale from humorous tweets mined for content on other platforms to historians with hundreds of thousands of followers to words like “covfefe” flung into lexicon because of the proofing incompetence of the sitting American president. Between 2010 and 2019, between Antoine Dodson and Bird Box, we should speak in terms of relative virality, close to an oxymoron. To borrow language from an animated villain: when everyone’s viral, no one will be.
Popularity on the internet still exists, rabidly—after all, given the newly acquired significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s association, viewership on the rediscovered mashup spiked dramatically.9 TikTok, the latest social app to take root in popular culture—the descendant of aging giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat—seems explicitly designed with viral purpose in mind. The app was integral to success of Lil Nas X, who harnessed the übercontemporary alchemy of memes, three- to fifteen-second mashups, streaming, and the black aesthetic shorthand of the “yeehaw agenda” to reach and sustain the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 with his 2018 single “Old Town Road.”10 Negative virality, “negative” for being inspired by or inspiring bad feeling, remains as well, per the summer 2018 slew of alliterative monikers attached to afore anonymous white people filmed calling emergency services or threatening to call emergency services on black people swimming, shopping, and grilling, among other activities. This is the sort of virality AnonymousQ1776, the 1776 in pointed reference to the nation, likely hoped would happen with the clip of Ocasio-Cortez.
Everything that happens on Twitter happens for the first time. The video of Ocasio-Cortez, an unremarkable repetition in its own historical context, was re-memeified in the giddiness of the historical present. In the meanwhile of her “making history,” per the meme-ish girl power vernacular of the times, Twitter appropriated an ancient mashup for the digital language of now. The clip was thus set to a variety of soundtracks, replacing the audio with songs like David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” Taylor Swift’s “Delicate,” Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round,” Boney M’s “Rasputin,” and “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. A user called leftistthot420 created the account @aoc_dances, which was dedicated to circulating popular and obscure renditions of the meme.11
The leak that never was couldn’t have happened to a public figure with a fan base more primed to mitigate scandal with memes. Ocasio-Cortez is a millennial after all. The next next day, the day after swearing in, the congresswoman responded in the tongue of someone fluent in internet culture: “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!” she tweeted, inserting an emoji of a brown-skinned dancing woman.12 “Have a great weekend everyone :)” In the attached video, Ocasio-Cortez does a spin, moonwalking and lipsyncing to the first words of “War” by Edwin Starr beside the plaque denoting her Washington office. Just before the eleven-second clip ends, she breaks, running back to the door with a laugh, ending the saga. Until next time.