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

Jun 1, 2011

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.

(Soundbite of song, "American Pie")

Unidentified People: (Singing) I started singing bye, bye Ms. American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry...

That's Don McLean's song "American Pie," and it figures prominently in our next story. A Michigan city is trying to put a positive spin on a negative story published by Newsweek earlier this year.

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: It was late in January when Newsweek published a seemingly innocuous article listing America's top ten dying cities. The list was based on total population loss and the loss of those residents younger than 18.

It's really no surprise that three of those cities were in Michigan, which was hammered hard by the recession. Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids all made the list.

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

Unidentified Man #1: If you're a featured extra or a featured character, stay where you are. Otherwise, I need extras in Rosa Parks Circle, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Mr. 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: Joe and Paul are two of the nearly 5,000 people who took part in the Grand Rapids lip dub video. Just imagine a whole lot of people singing karaoke to the same song at the same time.

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.

Mr. 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.

Mayor GEORGE HEARTWELL (Grand Rapids, Michigan): My name is George Heartwell. I'm the mayor of Grand Rapids, the greatest city in the galaxy. And my roll in lip-dub is to ride in the back of this car.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible).

Mayor HEARTWELL and Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

Mayor 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

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.

Mr. ROB BLISS (Community Organizer): 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: Bliss and his buddy Scott Erikson had to raise close to $40,000 to pull off the lip dub video. When it was released late last week, fans plastered the lip dup all over Newsweek's Facebook page.

Newsweek quickly issue a statement on their page asking people to spread the word that the magazine loves Grand Rapids, their editorial staff doesn't agree with the dying cities list, that they didn't even create it, only published it through a content-sharing deal with another website.

Considering the video has over a million views, Erikson says they don't even care Newsweek hasn't said the words we're sorry.

Don McLean is the original singer-songwriter of "American Pie." The rock-folk song topped the charts for a month in 1971. Now, 40 years later, film critic Roger Ebert is calling the Grand Rapids music video the best ever made.

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 National Public Radio.