This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we look back at the cultural peak of one of the 21st century’s most interesting music video trends — one that still refuses to totally recede from prominence a decade later.
In April 2007, an email went around to everyone at Connected Ventures, parent company of CollegeHumor, Vimeo, and others, regarding a company-wide event that week. The subject line read “FLAGPOLE SITTA, MOTHERFUCKA”.
The email, written by Jake Lodwick, co-founder of Vimeo, outlined an all-staff lip dub of Harvey Danger’s “Flagpola Sitta,” where participants would lip-sync along to the song on camera and the original track would be dubbed in later. The song beat out a number of other employee suggestions, including Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
“Get an mp3 of this song ASAP and memorize the lyrics completely,” Lodwick wrote. “You might want to practice in the mirror at home to make sure.” Members of Connected Ventures had made solo lip dub videos before, posting the clips on the then-newly launched platform Tumblr. “We were experiencing the very first wave of normal people doing stupid shit and putting it online casually and getting thousands — or in the case of “Flagpole Sitta,” millions — of viewers,” says Lodwick. Turning the in-house lip dub meme into a group activity was a way to promote office bonding, a team-building exercise, really.
The shoot took place on a Thursday evening at the New York office. The participants took turns mouthing along to different verses before coming together for a group chorus, jumping up and down, and collapsing on the floor. The video currently has 2.8 million views on Vimeo.
Lodwick first used the term “lip dub” in the description of a video he uploaded to Vimeo in 2006. The clip, which is no longer available online, showed him mouthing along to a song called “Endless Dream” by the band Apes and Androids. “I was just walking and listening to the song, and I wanted to share with people how I felt in that moment,” he says. He then dubbed in the original track to the footage for a cleaner sound than your typical lip-sync. “There had been video of people lip-syncing online, but they never edited the music in,” Lodwick says. “So viewing those always felt super amateur, and with this it was like, ‘Oh with just a little bit of work, you can elevate this little homemade self video into a larger-than-life music video.’”
The “Flagpole Sitta” video inspired a number of communities across the internet to try their hands at their own lip dubs, from students and celebrities to internet conference attendees and the entire population of Grand Rapids. The Office even got in on the action in 2010, when the first episode of Season 10 began with the cast performing a lip dub of The Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me.”
The song choices over the years varied from video to video, but in 2012, one song arose to unite them all: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” came out in Canada in September 2011 as the first single for her Curiosity EP. But it wasn’t until two assists from Justin Bieber, Jepsen’s eventual labelmate, that the song really took off. “Justin was in the car and heard this song called ‘Call Me Maybe,’ and he kind of fell in love with it,” says Alfredo Flores, Bieber’s friend and videographer. Bieber plugged “Call Me Maybe” on Twitter in December 2011, calling it “possibly the catchiest song” he had ever heard, but he wasn’t done yet. In February 2012, shortly before the track’s international release as the lead single for Jepsen’s album Kiss, Bieber, Selena Gomez, and some of their friends dropped their very own lip dub featuring the song on YouTube.
Flores shot the video over the course of a week in L.A., using the Photo Booth app on his MacBook Pro. “I wasn’t taking it too seriously,” he says. “It was just a quick, fun situation.” Flores and Carlos PenaVega co-edited the video in a few hours, PenaVega uploaded it to YouTube, and it quickly went viral. The clip now has more than 75 million views.
Jepsen’s own music video for the song dropped that March (it now has more than 1 billion views), and the track entered the Hot 100 on March 10 at No. 38. But the Bieber video sparked a lip dub craze surrounding “Call Me Maybe,” and in the months that followed, it seemed like everyone — teachers, students, fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, Miss USA contestants (along with Donald Trump) — was getting in on the trend.
2012 Olympic Swim Team member Kathleen Hersey, along with teammates Caitlin Leverenz and Alyssa Anderson, was a huge fan of the Bieber-and-friends lip dub and saw making one as an opportunity to bring the members of the swim team closer together. “There was a lot of new blood on the team,” says Hersey. “It was a fun merging of the old guard that had been there for at least one or two Olympics and then the new people.”
Another motivating factor for the swim team participants? Boredom. “When you’re at training camp for the Olympics, there’s really not much to do. You’re so bored out of your mind,” says fellow swimmer Natalie Coughlin. “You’re training, and you’re resting, and you’re watching a lot of television and spending a lot of time on the internet, and you need something to do to pass the time.” Coughlin, who had been on Dancing With the Stars, was tasked with choreographing the scenes filmed on the airplane that took the team from its training camp in Vichy, France, to the Games in London.
USA Swimming’s Russell Mark, whose technical skills were usually used to film swimmers for technique analysis, edited the video and presented it to the team on July 26, the night before the Opening Ceremonies. It made it to YouTube the same night, and it now has more than 15 million views. “I think my dad was probably responsible for about a hundred of those hits,” Hersey says.
One of the most popular versions — clocking in at 25 million views to date — was made by the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders in May 2012 while they were in the Dominican Republic shooting their 2013 calendar. The opening shot features an extremely close close-up of cheerleader Amy Merletti mouthing the first verse. “I remember saying, ‘You’re really close to me right now. I don’t know how I feel about this,’” Merletti says. “I kept getting it wrong, and I was so nervous.” Eventually she and the rest of the team nailed it and posted the results on YouTube in June 2012. It caught the eyes of military service members in Afghanistan, who made their own scene-by-scene spoof. The cheerleaders met them on a tour that fall and heard “how it helped them pass the time and how it really meant a lot to them,” Merletti says.
“Call Me Maybe” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 on June 23 and remained at the top for nine weeks, and though the song has faded, lip dubs have not. They’re not going quite as viral as they once did, but these videos still get made in 2018, mostly by high school students — and occasionally by law enforcement. Fire and police departments across the country are cranking them out as part of a 2018 Lip Sync Challenge, but don’t be fooled: These are all lip dubs.
“If you do a search on Google News for ‘lip dub,’ every week, there’s like another small town where they’re trying to break the world record or a high school class and they’re trying to get the whole school into it,” says Lodwick. “It’s kind of the only way to make a cool video with hundreds of thousands of people because it’s just so easy to coordinate.”
Another bonus benefit to lip dubs, and one of the reasons loads of people are willing to participate, is that they make a group look, maybe not cool, but definitely fun. In fact, Connected Ventures looked like so much fun in the “Flagpole Sitta” video that it saw a spike in job applications after the release. “I knew Connected Ventures would be an excellent fit when I saw the video of your staff lip-syncing to ‘Flagpole Sitta,’” read one query letter. “I have been looking for a company with a youthful staff and non-corporate culture that works hard and puts out a high-quality, well-known product. For me, Connected Ventures is that company.”
Without trying to, Lodwick and his team created not only the mother of all icebreakers, but an everlasting meme. “Through randomly iterating, we ended up arriving at this way for groups to make a musical, visual self-portrait,” he says. “It’s a pretty corny thing, but hey, we’re all doing it.”