The Grand Rapids Lip Dub: A Giant Street Party Set To Music

Jun 1, 2011
Originally published on June 1, 2011 10:23 pm

If you were online over the Memorial Day weekend, you may well have seen The Grand Rapids Lip Dub.

Maybe you saw it after Roger Ebert called it "the greatest music video ever made." Maybe someone you know posted it to Facebook. Maybe someone e-mailed you the link. But by whatever channel, there's a decent chance you've stumbled on it: posted last Thursday, the video has already racked up over 1.3 million views, and that's over a holiday weekend.

Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio has followed the story of the video for a while, and as she reports on today's All Things Considered, it's what Grand Rapids, Mich., came up with in response to Newsweek, which included it on a list of "America's Dying Cities" — subtitled, in case anyone missed the emphasis, "Cities With Bleak Futures Ahead." (Newsweek's editorial staff has since pointed out that the piece appeared at Newsweek pursuant to a content-sharing agreement with a site called Main Street, and that the magazine didn't produce it.)

The city begs to differ with the "dying" distinction, to say the least. And with that in mind, director Rob Bliss and his friend Scott Erickson raised nearly $40,000 themselves to make the video.

So what's a lip dub? A lip dub, in theory, isn't much more than people lip sync-ing to recorded music, but it's fair to say YouTube has transformed it into something of a competitive sport with groups trying to top each other. High schools and universities have done many of the best-known lip dubs, including this one — currently at 1.7 million views — that was shot backwards.

But even for a large-scale lip dub, Grand Rapids, working with a live version of Don McLean's "American Pie," went all out, with thousands of people involved. The Grand Rapids Press has provided a list of some of the featured cast members that's well worth seeking out; you'll learn who's a local business owner, who's a city official, who's a DJ, and who's the chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV.

Participation went all the way to the top of local government: Mayor George Heartwell, who's been protesting the city's inclusion in the Newsweek list since it happened, cruises down the street in the back of a white convertible alongside one of the city commissioners: There we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, he sings along. There's a procession of fire trucks and police cars. People wave handkerchiefs from balconies. There's a pillow fight and a concert; there's a wedding and a couple gently grinning from the back of a pickup. There are news vans. There are too many guitars to count. There's a ukulele. There are cheerleaders and football players and a mascot, and yes, at the words "marching band," you can probably guess what happens.

There are Nerf guns, of course. What's a group activity without Nerf guns?

Oh — and it's one ten-minute continuous shot, primarily from the back of a constantly moving John Deere Gator as it drives the streets of Grand Rapids.

It's certainly a technical accomplishment, and it's great fun, and it's a project that did many, many things right, down to the choice of the lesser-known live version of "American Pie," which includes an almost ghostly audience singalong at the first chorus that's just right for the moment when it appears.

But as much as it's a pure treat to watch, it's also quite moving, and very effective as a response to a list of cities that are allegedly dying. More than perhaps anything else Grand Rapids could have done, the video is a highly watchable, good-natured reminder that including "Grand Rapids, Mich." on a list of dying cities is unavoidably a comment on the futures of the people who live there: kids doing gymnastics, guys with guitars, couples getting married, women in shorts and flip-flops, men with big beards, people who love swing dancing whether they're great at it or not.

It's a little counterintuitive, but a massive crowd ballet that specifically identifies no one turns out to be a surprisingly powerful translation of a impersonal economic projection to a story about individual people.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.


NORRIS: As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, the people of Grand Rapids have put together a remarkable music video set to "American Pie," and it's getting rave reviews.

LINDSEY SMITH: So what can you do to refute that your city isn't really dying? Here's what these guys in Grand Rapids did.

NORRIS: If you're a featured extra or a featured character, stay where you are. Otherwise, I need extras in Rosa Parks Circle, thank you.


JOE PIESZ: Hi, my name's Joe Piesz.

PAUL LONGUSKI: I'm Paul Longuski. We're definitely trying to get used to how fast we have to go to keep up with the camera today.

SMITH: The hard part is shooting a video of them lip-syncing the song in a continuous shot: one take, no edits. It's kind of the holy grail of videos, and it's not easy.

NICK LAVEL: I'm Nick Lavel. We're all a part of the crew. And it's our job to manage and organize our separate event areas. We have a section with the fire department, a section with pillow-fighters, a section with zombie fighters. All of these different events need to be organized across Grand Rapids.

SMITH: There's also a section of the lip dub with kayakers, Nerf-gun shooters, marching bands, explosions, even a helicopter take-off.

GEORGE HEARTWELL: Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible).

HEARTWELL: (Singing) Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again.


HEARTWELL: Fortunately this is a lip-dub, and Don Mclean will be singing it instead of us.


SMITH: Heartwell has been railing on Newsweek ever since it published the dying cities list. Here he is in his State of the City speech.

HEARTWELL: Just last July, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce awarded Grand Rapids its Siemens Award for the most sustainable midsized city in America. Now, put that in your pipe, Newsweek, and smoke it.


SMITH: Grand Rapids' population did decline over the past 10 years, by about two percent. But the lip dub video's director Rob Bliss says that certainly doesn't mean Grand Rapids is dying, though in making his point, he insults another Michigan city.

ROB BLISS: Its culture is growing so rapidly that I think that's what just surprised people. I mean, I think Flint was like, nine or something like that. So to think we're just like a step away from Flint just I think was ridiculous.

SMITH: For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith in Grand Rapids.

SIEGEL: And you can see the Grand Rapids lip dub video at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.