Armed with YouTube, troops are putting on a show

Soldiers from the Army's 82d Airborne Division stationed in Afghanistan perform in a remake of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" music video. It has been viewed more than six million times since April.
Soldiers from the Army's 82d Airborne Division stationed in Afghanistan perform in a remake of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" music video. It has been viewed more than six million times since April.
Posted: August 28, 2010

What's become as routine as dirty boots in a battle zone and as entertaining as a USO show?

The answer's all over YouTube, as troops performing choreographed dance numbers - not exactly with military precision - and lip-synching to mega hits have transformed desert bases into music-video sets.

A remake of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" by soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division stationed in Afghanistan has been viewed more than six million times since it was uploaded in April.

Troops in Iraq made news in May when they posted (and quickly took down) a video spoof of gays in the military - with Ke$ha's "Blah, Blah, Blah" blaring in the background - as the Obama administration reconsidered the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

And last month, a video of Israeli soldiers dancing to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" (the troops clearly prefer Ke$ha) while on patrol in the West Bank made its virtual way around the world, and caused a barrage of criticism.

Military forces today aren't just carrying weapons. They are armed and at ease with electronics, steeped in pop culture, and participants in social media.

"The videos reflect what might be called 'new media go to war,' " said T.V. Reed, who studies the relationship between cultural forms and social change at Washington State University.

As with everything pop culture these days, the stage is open to anyone.

Like Capt. Vince Tirri of the New Jersey Army National Guard and his buddies.

The idea hit them one day in Iraq, as they sat around a small table playing yet another game of Spades to pass downtime. Someone suggested: Let's make a video about our favorite card game.

"Why do you climb a mountain? Because it's there," Tirri, now home, explained with a laugh. "We wanted to make it mostly for the guys in our troop. But also, we were going to put it on YouTube for our families to see. . . . I wanted my wife to see it and say, 'Oh, Vince, you're still a clown.' "

Rockeyesque

After that night in Iraq, Tirri, 31, and his buddies spent the next several days coming up with the plot, rehearsing (OK, not much of that), recording on a waterproof, dust-proof video camera, and uploading their work of art to YouTube.

Tirri, a high school social-studies teacher in northern New Jersey when he's not in the National Guard, was happy to find a way to break boredom, have fun, and document his experience.

In the fictional Ace of Spades, Tirri, who was in Iraq from September 2008 to May 2009, gets scorned by his Army buddies for meekly throwing down the winning ace of spades.

He proceeds to train, à la Rocky, to strengthen his arm and turn his throw-down technique into a manly masterpiece.

One of the last scenes, of course, has Tirri, a zealous fan of the Rocky movies, replicating the boxer's victorious climb up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. Since he was in Iraq, he settled for dusty wooden steps as the Rocky soundtrack plays.

Oscar-worthy

It's hard to track the origins of this military music-video genre. A quick review on YouTube shows British soldiers doing a choreographed, lip-synching musical production to a pop song in 2006.

But the Oscar may go to this year's Lady Gaga music-video parody, which quickly catapulted into Internet-sensation status. The video's dance routines mimic Lady Gaga's moves as burly male soldiers sing and dance to the original recording of "Telephone" by Gaga and Beyoncé.

Whereas Gaga's original video has all the trappings of Hollywood, the soldiers' set looks like the scruffy interior of buildings on a base. Costumes include Army camouflage, shirtless male soldiers wearing shorts and boots only, and a man clad in what looks like a Gaga gladiator suit made of yellow tape.

"Although no one has a reliable formula for producing viral videos, it's not surprising that a video featuring big, brawny guys doing female dance moves has caught so many people's attention," said Paul Messaris, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nor is it surprising that these videos sometimes make people wonder how much free time service members at war have.

"I think it's like any other job any other person has," Tirri said. "One day we could be taking mortars, the next is as dull as can be."

Troops always have kept in touch with "what was happening back home in the world of music and entertainment," Messaris said.

They also always have used the latest means to communicate with home, said Morten Ender, a sociology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

During the War of 1812, Ender said, soldiers wrote notes on cards. The Civil War was famous for eloquent letters that soldiers penned to loved ones.

During World War II, the USO helped service members stationed in the United States record a message home on a vinyl record.

"Of course, in their day, vinyl LPs were a relatively recent technology," said Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, whose online collection includes various examples of communication between the home front and battle front.

In what may be the roots of the current music videos, soldiers making those recordings in World War II sometimes sang popular tunes with lyrics they rewrote to fit their situation.

Troops in Vietnam used audio reels and cassettes.

"What is new in these YouTube videos is that now the communication goes both ways," said Messaris, whose research includes studying user comments on YouTube.

"Soldiers' families and the rest of us get to see their performances and share our comments about them." Judging from the comments, he said, "people in this country are just relieved to see troops in Iraq or Afghanistan having a bit of fun."

Not all the reactions have been positive. The United States and other nations have struggled with how much access military personnel should get to Internet social-networking and media sites, where sensitive information could be divulged or a bad image cultivated.

A recent YouTube video of six fully armed Israeli soldiers in a West Bank neighborhood dancing to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" while on foot patrol caused an uproar. Some viewers thought it was funny; others voiced "disdain for the sight of soldiers dancing in an occupied Palestinian street," an Israeli newspaper reported.

"The [Israeli Defense Forces] took disciplinary procedures against the soldiers," said Raslan Abu Rukun, deputy consul general for the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia. "Maybe the young people did some stupid thing. I don't think we can block it 100 percent."

The Pentagon agrees, and this year changed a policy to make it easier for troops abroad to access social-networking websites. Many top officers say such movie merrymaking boosts troop morale.

So now it's easy for soldiers such as New Jersey's Tirri to become Cecil B. DeMilitaries, even though his Ace of Spades hasn't cracked 1,000 hits yet.

Tirri doesn't mind. Just as the photos of his grandfather serving in World War II made a big impression, he sees his video as a wartime memento to pass on to his own family.

He looks forward to the day when his 21/2-year-old daughter, Ava, is able to comprehend it: "She'll either think it's hysterical or roll her eyes and say, 'Oh, Dad.' "


Video Samples

Videos made by service members include:

"The Ace of Spades" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4uw-6Tj95k

"Telephone the

Afghanistan Re-Make"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haHXgFU7qNI

Israeli soldiers dancing

to Kesha's "Tik Tok"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28jRc__tiyQ

"Peanut Butter

Jelly Time in Iraq"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uezJfTG9ELI

"Dance Party in Iraq"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW1toLy_FMQ&feature=related

"This Is Why I'm Hot (Deployed Style)"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q_WDX2Ilhc

"Is this the Way

to Armadillo?"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPaRQ1BYjzU


Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.


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