Most outlets have been content to cover the ObamaGirl phenomenon for what it is: A spoofy, sexed-up song about a presidential candidate. But the video wasn't commissioned by the Obama campaign, and it's purpose wasn't even to drum up support for the candidate. In fact, as surprisingly few outlets noted, the team behind ObamaGirl was also the team behind another viral video sensation, "Box In A Box" (the response to SNL's wildly popular "Dick In A Box"). The formula was the same — breathy, catchy pop song featuring a fetching young lass being sexy-but-coy within an inherently absurd framework — and, the motive was the same: Get noticed.
Well, they have — so much so that the trailer for their latest video, featuring Obama Girl squaring off against — wait for it — "Giuliani Girl," in a sequence that's half "Beat It" and half "Bootylicious," has already received 32,000 views after being released on a late Friday afternoon in July, plus at least two dutiful teasers on FoxNews. That's the trailer. For a YouTube video. Who are these guys?Why, they're the team at Barely Political, heard of them? It's the internet's "Red-And-Blue Light District!" Right now the site is all-Obama Girl all the time, but behind that blaring noise they are building, quietly, solidifying themselves in what seems to be the fastest-growing space on the internet: Political humor. There's the HBO/AOL launched "This Just In," the recently-launched Onion News Network, and the soon-to-be-launched 23/6 from IAC and — disclosure — the Huffington Post. In the meantime, Comedy Central launched it's "Indecision 2008" blog a full year early, caught off-guard by the rapacious hunger for all things presidential — and one of the biggest viral videos of the campaign was an official campaign video by that knee-slapper, Hillary Clinton, with at least a million views for her Sopranos spoof.
"I want BarelyPolitical to be the source for political humor this election year," says Ben Relles, 32, the prime mover behind Team Obama Girl. "I am building a team of really talented people that I think will make that happen." Relles, a Wharton graduate and self-described "digital strategist," is speaking of the core of BarelyPolitical's team: Directors Larry Strong and Kevin Arbouet, whom Relles found on Craigslist inside three hours the day of the first shoot; singer Leah Kauffman, 21, the voice behind Team ObamaGirl and a co-songwriter; music producer Rick Friedrich, who also co-wrote the songs; and ObamaGirl herself, actress/model Amber Lee Ettinger, 24.
Relles also found Ettinger randomly, via an Internet models site, but she, like Arbouet and Strong, is now committed to the ride. Relles won't disclose how Ettinger is paid — or if that structure changed after the first ObamaGirl video was a hit — he will say that she is "a big part of the site" — and she has the reel to prove it. Ettinger is by now well-acquainted with the various green rooms at Fox, CNN and MSNBC (and Headline News with Glenn Beck, wherein he is unsurprisingly skeezy). Indeed, you may even have seen her across the dial today thanks to the second installment of the OG series.
So far, it's working for everyone — especially Relles, who dreamed up "Box in a Box" on a lark after chatting with Kauffman (his cousin's girlfriend) about a possible collaboration, but didn't think any further — at least not immediately. But when "Box in a Box" took off, it didn't take Relles long to figure that there was something in this viral video thing, and that they had hit on a winning formula. When the idea for ObamaGirl hit, he ran it by Kauffman, who was only too thrilled to record another song. Did he know it would be such a runaway success? Actually, yes: "I wouldn't have thrown a few thousand dollars into it if I didn't think it would work."
Sure, but what does that mean, exactly? Well, so far a few things: A record contract with Rock Ridge Music, for one — indie, but respected, and it got "Box in a Box" on iTunes with the other tunes to follow (the deal is for Kauffman, Relles and Friedrich). They've made some quick cash selling Obama Girl gear on eBay — the original shirt worn in the video went for $1,000 — but that went to a Philadelphia charity. However, imitations are available at the Barely Political store, natch — for the bargain price of $20.99.Relles the Wharton grad doesn't want to talk about the business plan, other than saying that, sure, it would be great to earn big bucks consulting or be bought out by a Barry Diller (he remains in his current job, and has no official plans to leave; but also, his wife is expecting twins). For now, he is confident that all of that will follow — right now, he's caught up in the moment. "Being part of the political conversation is fun," he says. "What's exciting about this is not cashing out" — here he invokes that other profit-eschewing enigma, Craig Newmark — "what's exciting is that we're making these videos and campaigns are paying attention." He cites Phil de Vellis of Hillary 1984 fame, and recalls how when that video came out he bonked his head against the wall in frustration, thinking his moment had passed. It was his wife — who had announced her pregnancy by writing on a "Box in a Box" T-shirt that said "My Box Is Just For You" by crossing out the word "Box" and writing "Baby" — who made him see the big picture. "She told me, 'Of course you can still do it,'" he says, making him realize that this was part of something way bigger. According to Relles, it still is: "The most rewarding part of this experience has been being part of a change in the way individuals contribute to the political dialogue."
Highfalutin words about a video featuring bodacious babes in various stages of undress. But Relles (who, by this time, it should be obvious is something of an idealist, Wharton cred notwithstanding) thinks that's just the nature of political humor: "How is this different from what "The Daily Show" or "SNL" does?" He's game to make fun of the entire process, too, not just the candidates: His team is plotting ways to mock people like Ann Coulter, and he doesn't appear to be joking when he says that Obama Girl's going to publish a book entitled simply "Leadership." ("Every candidate's gotta have a book, it's ridiculous," he explains).
(Another note on Relles' idealism: For the Giuliani Girl video, there is a quick shot of Amber dancing in a fireman's hat in front of a fire truck (pictured). Turns out they had shot footage of Amber dancing with firemen — a move obviously meant to reference the opposition Giuliani has faced by fireman in the wake of 9/11. Great zinger, except for one thing: They had told the firefighters about the Obama part, but, he realized, not the Giuliani part. "We introduced the firefighters to Obama Girl and told them that we were doing another Obama Girl You Tube video where they could cameo," says Relles. "[But] in the end we decided to not put them in the video with Amber (even with release forms), knowing we have no control over where a video like this ends up.")
So can Barely Political make it aside form Obama Girl? Signs actually point to yes. For starters, the humor is smart, not just sexy — people are watching the clips for Amber but they are staying for the sight gags and they are humming along for the pithy lyrics. And it extends beyond the CandiateGirl gag (though spare a thought for the sadly overlooked but critically-acclaimed Kucinich Girl); comedienne Jenn Themelis, a friend of the team's and a bit player in the videos, did a bit responding to Joy Behar on "The View," who commented that since Amber had declared herself (as herself, not ObamaGirl) undecided at the polls, that she must be from "hookerville."(Joy! What about the sistahood?). Themelis' piece is called "Welcome to Hookerville" and shows a number of decidedly un-hookerlike people demurring on who they were voting for with 18 months to go until the election. ("You don't know who you're voting for?...What kind of slut are you?") It's a tart and funny piece — something that Relles was willing to pay for, throwing $400 at her to make the clip work. Plus, they've got revolving taglines that are pretty funny; or at least we guffawed at this one "Barely Political: Amber Waves Of...Um...Amber"). So the raw material is there (with or without Amber's, er, raw material).
That should be obvious by now, anyway, given the hoopla ObamaGirl has created (not to mention an imitator with the rarefied pedigree of American Idol). "I don't know if there's ever been pre-buzz for a YouTube video," says Relles (who, it should be said, did sort of explicitly manufacture it — and those outtakes didn't just cut themselves). But gunning for web hype doesn't crash your servers (as the traffic for the new video has done today), and it doesn't prompt profiles in the Washington Post or teasers on Fox — or 34,000+ views five hours after launch. The video, which features model Adelina Kristina as Giuliani Girl (and, incidentally, WWE wrestler Rebecca DiPietro as one of her sidekicks), is already getting some criticial buzz ("Fantastic lyrics! Great job! I do think you need a 'Ron Paul Girl' next," says YouTube commenter NewWorld99; "Lots more underwear!" says Lisa Tozzi at the NYT's Caucus blog; "Less cringe-worthy!" raves The Politico's Ben Smith). But whatever the reviews, they are all writing about it.
Which, in the world of viral video, means something — it means that "Box in a Box" wasn't a fluke, that "Crush on Obama" wasn't just T&A, and that BarelyPolitical — with its no-name founders outside the NY comedy scene (SuperDeluxe; This Just In) or the LA entertainment-mecca (check out the credits on "Hott4Hill" — directed by "Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo" writer David Garrett) might actually be a player in the competitive world of online political comedy. Which just happens to be an area that everyone wants to get into right now — even if they're already in it (see "Indecision 2008" blog above).
So — does Relles think that will get his candidate elected? He laughs — he's not going to fall into that trap. "This is not a site for the left," he says (even though one of the aforementioned taglines on BarelyPolitical reads simply "George Bush Is A Dingbat"). Still, he stays on message: "We want people who are for Republicans on board, too. The goal here is humor, not to put a Democrat in the White House." Oh, really — we'll just see what Kucinich Girl has to say about that.
Getting A WonkySexy Groove On [WaPo]
Obama Girl, Hillary 1984, Bill Richardson: Today's Lesson In YouTube [ETP]
Hillary Clinton, Viral Vid Success Story [ETP]
Related, for cuteness:
Little Obama Girl [ObamaGirl Blog]
NB: ObamaGirl makes an interesting statement about YouTube's primacy in the video sphere: Though the vid was loaded on MySpace and Revver on June 11, 2007, and onto YouTube on June 13th, at which point it took about 2.5 seconds to go completely viral. So no matter what is coming up the curve, YouTube is still far and away the web-vid gold standard, and where the eyeballs are.
Photos/Clips, from top: "Obama Girl vs. Giuliani Girl"; "Crush on Obama"; Amber Lee Ettinger with John Bolton at Fox News (via); "My Box In A Box"; Obama Girl; and Kucinich Girl. Correction: ETP incorrectly identified Kucinich Girl as Jenn Themelis; it is in fact an actress Relles found on Craigslist whose name he can't recall. Poor Kucinich, that somehow seems personal.