“Mob” Mentality: Cultural Phenomenon, or “Flash” in the Pan?

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized, Webisodes

Courage Campaign Flash Mob Protesting Michele Bachmann, September 16th, 2011, Los Angeles

Just like flagpole-sitting in the 1920s or marathon dancing in the 1930s, cultural fads will usually enter a stage where they appear to be everywhere, but like many phenomena will fade away and only be remembered as a historical blip. The latest cultural fad which seems to have been popping up within the last two seasons is that of the “flash mob,” in which a large group of people appear at a location as if from nowhere, usually breaking out into song and dance, sometimes for purposes of political protest but also for entertainment. Improv Everywhere became one of the first-known creators of the flash-mob phenomena, when they staged a spontaneous musical that burst forth at the food court in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills Mall in early 2008 which went viral after placement on YouTube, and since that time they’ve staged both musical and non-musical flash mobs in cities all over the world (a notable one was when Grand Central Station froze in place, and the reconstruction of a scene from Star Wars on a New York City subway).

Since that time, the “flash mob” craze has extended itself to political causes, such as a spontaneous musical event to boycott Target stores for their support of anti-gay political candidates, and earlier this week on September 16th in Los Angeles, when a flash mob from Courage Campaign protested Michele Bachmann’s support of gay reparative therapies (among her other disturbances) by executing a high-energy group routine to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” There was also one to remind everybody of the importance of the holiday spirit, set once again in a food court. The beauty of it seems to be the surprise element; even Oprah was the recipient of a major flash mob scene when she hosted a Black-Eyed Peas concert on her 24th Season Kickoff, in which the outdoor crowd broke out into a choreographed routine with perceived spontaneity during the song “I Gotta Feeling,” to Winfrey’s visible delight and amazement. This was, without a doubt, the modern flash mob’s highest moment of visibility since the craze began.

But is it just a craze? Has it been around longer than we realize and is only just getting recognition as such because communication is so much more heightened? And will this really go the way of flagpole-sitting and marathon dancing and just disappear as a thing of the past? Or is it possible that it will continue on and on as long as there are participants and an audience?

Devoted "Flash-Mobster" Amada Anderson

Amada Anderson has been a devoted “flash mobster” since 2009. A critically-acclaimed and highly-visible actress, singer, poet and performance artist on the current Off-Off-Broadway scene in downtown New York, she fell backwards into the movement. “I’m not normally a ‘dancer’ dancer, I just like to dance,” she explains, “and that January I ordered a DVD that showed me how to dance ‘Thriller’ in the comfort of my own home. I then learned that in addition to learning this dance, it was part of a worldwide event called Thrill the World that started in ’08. Mobs from other countries were organizing to be part of it, with everybody dancing to the song at the exact same time all over the globe. And I wanted to be part of that; I figured I’d get a group of people together and register it as an event in New York and host it in a park somewhere. Then, that June, Michael Jackson died.  It was very sad to find out that this huge awesome tribute, which he actually knew about and watched from his helicopter in LA the first time, was going to be even bigger and better and he wouldn’t get to witness it. I found out online that there were other people who had the same passion about it that I did, and through the online MJ Community, I reached out to the leaders of the Halloween Parade people who teach ‘Thriller’ to the crowd every year. We decided to join forces and promote Thrill The World NYC with a combination of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ all over mid-town. So I created this flash mob event; I basically used my networking skills and charismatic charm to get others to join me. After we danced, we all celebrated at Webster Hall, and it was just a lot of fun.”

What does Anderson consider the most important requirements for someone wanting to begin “flash mobbing,” and how to get started? “I personally feel that it’s just like going swimming,” she says. “You have to sometimes just jump in, to get over the cold-water syndrome. Or even doing karaoke for that matter. If you’re shy, it’s OK, but after you realize that everyone is dancing the same movements you are and backing you up, it feels really freeing. If someone wants to try a flash mob-like feeling, I suggest joining the mailing list of Improv Everywhere. I’ve personally volunteered more than once with them, and it’s a lot of fun. And you’re with hundreds, if not thousands, of participants just in New York City alone. Since my first time, I teach ‘Thriller’ every weekend and I’m always looking for people to join me to help promote Thrill The World NYC, which this year will take place on October 29th at 10 AM at IS52  in Inwood and 10pm on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. You can check here for a schedule of classes, and the entire thing is a benefit for my favorite charity, The Pajama Program.”

Which begs the question, are there any downsides to “flash mobbing,” either as organizer or participant and whether it’s for politics or strictly entertainment? “It’s funny you ask that, ” Anderson responds, “but yes. In New York you have to have a sound permit to blare music, or have large numbers of people just show up somewhere and do something. But when I have my flash mobs, which happens every Saturday at 1pm before my ‘Thriller’ Class, I always advise people that our idea is to promote the event and entertain. So what happens is we show up, get into costume, I bring my boombox already cued up to dance the short version of ‘Thriller,’ and then I tell them to look for cops. If we see them, we don’t go dance in front of them; in fact, we will find another spot to dance altogether if I don’t have  the sound permit. But I tell them that if a cop does come over and ask us to stop, we STOP, hand them a flyer, and move on.  But it’s usually is over very quickly, in three minutes or less, and people really get entertained and motivated or inspired. I’ve had people follow me all the way to class because they were so excited to learn the dance. Again, it’s fun!”

Cultural phenomenon? Unquestionably. Momentary craze? Anyone’s guess. But as long as even one person out there is coming up with new and inventive ideas for the flash mob that can easily be executed, it’s a fair guess that fans of the movement will very happily continue tuning in to watch the fun and enjoy what they see. Ditto those who love to participate and organize. (Note to self: the local mall does have a food court with pretty good acoustics…)

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