By Bret Yates
What does it mean that the music video for “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth is now the most viewed YouTube clip of all time?
First of all, given the initial conception of YouTube as a repository for user-created (or at least user-uploaded) video, it’s kind of disappointing—although deeply unsurprising—that the most viewed clip is a big-budget music video made by Warner Music Group for a summer blockbuster by Universal Pictures; it reflects what appears to be a permanent victory for top-down content production, seeing as how the last amateur clip to hold the coveted title was “Charlie Bit My Finger” back in 2007, which was preceded by “The Evolution of Dance” in 2006. Both were crudely shot home movies featuring non-celebrities, but when Lady Gaga and her glamorous “Bad Romance” video unseated the precociously British lament of a cheeky malingering child, that brief moment in which it seemed suddenly possible for the likes of you and me to climb higher than the stars passed. “See You Again” feels even more corporate than “Bad Romance,” which at least bore the mark of some individual artistry.
“Bad Romance” was actually a pretty fun song at the time, but “See You Again,” a syrupy paean to male friendship, is such a forgettable ballad that, when I came across headlines in July that it had reached Number 1 on YouTube, the tune that popped into my head upon seeing the title was in fact the superior 2007 Miley Cyrus hit of the same name. The success of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again”—which was allegedly written in 10 minutes by a 23-year-old vocalist and keyboardist of minor note, Charlie Puth, only two days after he’d moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career—may owe less to the quality of the song than to its sentimental connection to actor Paul Walker’s 2013 car accident death.
Walker had been the star of the long-running “Fast and Furious” action franchise but had passed away during the filming of “Furious 7.” The movie was finished anyway, and in post-production the studio embarked on a quest to locate the perfect Paul Walker Death Anthem for the closing credits; Puth’s submission was one of many. When the execs took to it, they hired Wiz Khalifa to add two of the laziest rap verses in hip-hop history (the latter of which contains not a single actual rhyme), plus an auto-tuned refrain: “How can we not talk about family when family’s all that we got?”
The treacly song is unambiguously bad, but the music video, shot inside a perpetual sunset of slick melancholy, with interspersed clips from the “Fast and Furious” series, comprised mostly of handsome men staring meaningfully at each other, is remarkably good at distilling the homoerotic emotional underpinning of this action series, isolating nearly every purely “human” moment that had occurred within a franchise where the stars had previously been thought to play second fiddle to a menagerie of high-tech sports cars.
Paul Walker’s untimely death was, perhaps, the moment when fans realized that they didn’t really care that much about car chases; they were buying tickets to witness the interpersonal relationships that were clumsily asserted around the edges of the movies’ action sequences by Vin Diesel’s frequent, if somewhat faltering, assertions of the importance of “family,” which, for him and his Furious brethren, included not only blood relatives but a wide-ranging multi-ethnic crew of friends and partners.
In the early 2010s, critics began to notice that the universe of “Fast and Furious”—whose key players, besides Diesel and Walker, have been Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Gal Gadot, Sung Kang, Jason Statham, Eva Mendes, and Dwayne Johnson—looked a lot like the post-racial utopia we’d all been imagining during Obama’s 2008 election, when we temporarily forgot that a black president couldn’t suddenly reverse the vast disparity in wealth and power between white and non-white Americans. Yet to “Fast and Furious” fans, the movies weren’t received as some Bizarro World of tolerance. On the contrary, from a demographic perspective, they looked more like real life than other Hollywood movies did, and seeing non-white people (with the occasional white person mixed in) interacting in a positive, intimate, unselfconscious manner didn’t seem weird.
The mostly banal nature of their relationships—which seemed to consist, by and large, of kicking back with a few beers at a backyard barbecue after another job well done—seemed, equally, to hit home.
The “See You Again” music video delineated the emotional imprint of these scenes, alongside its recognition of the covertly steamy nature of the Walker-Diesel bond, in which car races and adrenaline-fueled heists took the place of physical intimacy in a way that must have made sense for some of the repressed, hypermasculine dudes in the films’ audience. The overall message of the video is that the power of a true bromance can transcend the bounds of this mortal coil (but it’s still sad when someone dies), and it’s fittingly communicated with all the creativity and nuance typical of the Hollywood machinery responsible for our dispiriting summer entertainment landscape.
The reigning music video that “See You Again” vanquished, with its nearly three billion views, was Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style,” another glossy, professional production. But as a Korean rap song with a weird video that sparked an even weirder dance craze, “Gangnam Style” registered as a discovery of the internet, where truly strange content can flourish; “See You Again” feels like something that, 15 years ago, would have been fed to us by MTV, and its YouTube triumph proves that mainstream culture has defeated internet culture on its own turf. Commentators predict that the next record-holder will be Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” which is already creeping up in views; it is, at least, a better pop song than “See You Again.”