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Now and Then: Why We Love GIFs, from Taylor Swift to Goats (VIDEO)

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! April 2, 2013 at 3:49PM

Disclaimer: this will not be your usual romance. It involves Taylor Swift, a goat, and a lemon among its cast of thousands. It has no clear "meet cute," and may not reach a happy ending. In one sense at least, it has no beginning or ending at all. But somewhere along the way we fell in love with the GIF. This is one man's attempt to explain why.
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Will Sasso, creator of "Taylor Swift Goat Remix Re-Mix" on Vine
Will Sasso, creator of "Taylor Swift Goat Remix Re-Mix" on Vine

The "video" (what to call it?) is divided into three parts: an excerpt from Taylor Swift's music video for "I Knew You Were Trouble," in which she sings first in a club and then on some desolate hillscape; a braying goat; and Sasso screaming while spitting a lemon and a large amount of water or saliva out of his mouth (see below). There is, speaking of the asylum, no way to pause the video on Vine, only a mute button. In this sense, though Vine posts are nominally different from GIFs, they are are actually GIFs par excellence: the ultimate unending loop, Nietzche's "eternal return" boiled down to six bizarre, cute, funny, banal, impenetrable seconds.


In fact, the reason that Sasso's interpretation gained traction may be that it combines so many of the elements many of us love about GIFs. Bringing together the lemon vomit, the loud goat, and the famed singer, it doubly lampoons Swift's own descent into the confessional and the overly-sensitive, turning the plaintive quality of her music into an annoying whine. It also reveals the work that goes into this new form of cultural criticism, a layering of each contributor's addition to the whole, from the blurry screen-capture of the music video to the clear sight of liquid pouring down Sasso's black shirt. In fact, it makes its maker(s) into arbiters of culture almost as powerful as Swift herself: I had never seen (or much wanted to see) the original music video until some guy tacked on the weird lemon thing to the only-slightly-less-weird goat thing.

GIFs are, then, the ultimate form of reappropriation, because they inevitably slice up the original into minuscule segments, or otherwise place it in a context divorced from its initial form and meaning. In this, GIFs may be the foremost emblem of the media culture in which we live, composing fan fiction about Harry Potter and levying death threats at action-movie critics, commenting on web pages and building our own, blogging, sharing, re-posting, re-formatting, re-making. GIFs allow us all, with no money and little time, to become filmmakers and critics, pundits and professionals, visually and textually describing the landscape we browse around in. GIFs, like all the rest of these media, are a form of power over the sandbox in which we play -- except they're the only medium by which we can so easily build our castles out of moving images.

As the breadth and depth of the Internet increases, becoming a bottomless pit of content in which it is possible to shout without ever hearing an echo, the GIF holds out the same possibility that the silver screen's "mirror" once did, affirming that we're here, visible, and at least minimally in control. With a GIF of me, a goat, and Taylor Swift, I may be saying something about mammals and grating pop artists, but mostly I'm saying something about myself. This, more than the shortness or repetitiveness of the form, is why the GIF remains so attractive even to those who don't make them. It's the bridge between the individual and the mass, however ephemeral; it's the promise that, somewhere among these tubes and wires, I think, and therefore I am.

This is, you see, a very long love story, and at some level it involves all of us. I love the GIF, too, in part because I've realized in the process of writing this essay that the motivation behind GIF-making and GIF-viewing has been around almost as long as moving pictures themselves. We might consider the medium a modern descendant of nickelodeons, the storefront theaters and penny arcades exhibiting film shorts, peep shows, and other cinematic curiosities that proliferated in the first decade of the twentieth century. In those, some of the first people to witness photographs moving, like magic before their eyes, seemed to understand how powerful it is for us to see other people embracing, butting heads, robbing banks, riding horses, having sex, tiring of pop stars, or otherwise trying to live, and trying simultaneously to make other people understand that we're alive. 

Andy Warhol was almost right. In the future that is our present, we can all enjoy not fifteen minutes but six seconds of fame, circling back on ourselves somewhere in the ether we call the Internet. Whether we choose to make GIFs or only to consume them, they're a reminder -- a form of visible evidence not unlike the documentary -- that there's still something real out there, even if it's attenuated, spliced, bizarre, impenetrable. I see you, therefore I am.


This article is related to: Now and Then, Web/Tech, Critics, Video, Shorts, Short Film, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.