“If anyone asks us what we’re doing,” said Yu-Pu Wang, a first year graduate student studying chemistry here at MIT, “just tell them the truth.”
The clicking of my heels was temporarily interrupted by Yu-Pu’s instruction before we continued to follow his lead, as he took us through what felt like all corners of the MIT campus.
He paused for a moment to readjust the shoulder-length, platinum-blonde wig which would inevitably slip off the top of his thickly-haired head yet again throughout the remainder of the video shoot.
The wig and denim skirt, acquired only hours before from Cambridge’s legendary Garment District, were to help viewers distinguish between when he played Lady Gaga and Beyoncé in the music video, he explained.
Yu-Pu reminded us that he’d like to be done with filming the shot by midnight so he could go back to lab and check up on his latest chemical reaction: a reaction that was part of a larger-scale organic synthesis needed for his PhD work.
Surely, this was no typical way that most graduate students spent their free-time, we — my friend Leah and I — thought.
After a few seconds’ deliberation, Yu-Pu marched to the center of the makeshift-dance floor: a leveled-off section of the underground tunnel connecting building 26 and the Stata center, which I had suggested for the scene only minutes before.
He looked both ways for passing janitors before firmly setting down his tripod, and gave us the nod of approval to set down our belongings.
It was the stark of night — nearly 11 p.m. — yet we worried that our filming might attract the attention of an unsuspecting onlooker.
“If anyone asks … just tell them about our music,” he said.
Making it to You-Tube: the filming of ‘Telephone’
As the tenth installment of his growing series of videos independently recorded and posted on YouTube, we had been filming a music video for his latest recording of Lady Gaga’s top pop-hit “Telephone.”
Clocking in at four minutes and twenty-eight seconds, the music had been pre-recorded several nights before, sung and arranged entirely by Yu-Pu in the style of a cappella.
As his two back-up dancers — second year undergraduates who had originally heard of Yu-Pu from a friend who attended an Organic Chemistry II review session — we were about to help film the next scene on Yu-Pu’s list.
We were among a group of six undergraduates who had found the Yu-Pu YouTube videos online, and we volunteered to help film future videos, acting as backup dancers in five of his ten music videos so far.
Now in the basement near Stata, we were filming the scene when Lady Gaga dances along the corridors flanking her prison cell, Yu-Pu explained.
The harsh fluorescent lights contrasted with the cold cement walls, irradiating their chill in a prison cell-like fashion, like in the original music video we were hoping to recreate.
“The lighting here should be good,” he approved.
As we set down our things, Yu-Pu began to study his choreography notes taken the night before: a series of abnormally expressive stick figures dancing across the sheets of his notebook, readjusting their poses, beat-by-beat, alongside instructions like “Clap here!” or “Turn counter-clockwise twice.”
Grasping for his audio recorder in the pocket of his black athletic track shorts, he fast-forwarded to the next 16 beats of music that we needed to film.
As we danced and followed his instructions, his blonde wig continued to slip off the top of his head, requiring us to film and re-film this particular scene for nearly two hours.
We needed to re-film just as often due to our uncontrollable laughter, however, which distracted us from performing the appropriate dance moves in-beat. We all agreed we were having fun.
After nearly seven hours of filming to a total of 29 tracks, we were finally finished with his newest video project.
The video was peppered with locations commonly seen around MIT, including the telephone booth on the first floor of the Student Center, the basement of Stata, the local diner The Friendly Toast, and various locations around McCormick Hall. We felt proud to have mastered so many seemingly complex choreography combinations in such a relatively short amount of time.
We all agreed that this was perhaps his most elaborate YouTube video yet.
In less than two days, the video had been edited and posted on Yu-Pu’s YouTube channel, under his username “solobahn,” to be viewed by a global audience and his steadily-growing fan-base.
As his first video to grow so rapidly in popularity in such a short amount of time, the self-made a capella track of “Telephone” had already reached over 2000 hits only one week after premiering on YouTube.
From the perspective of the quirky and strong-minded graduate student who liked to perform his own arrangements of American pop songs in his spare time along with his team of equally enthusiastic undergraduate back-up dancers, the video — now part of a growing MIT viral legacy — had been dubbed another Yu-Pu success.
The completed video can be found online at: http://www.youtube.com/user/solobahn
The makings of ‘Yu-Tube’
Since the fall of 2009, Yu-Pu Wang has self-recorded, directed, and videotaped a total of ten low-budget a capella videos, costing nothing but the cost of the occasional costume expenditures and the price of batteries for his hand-held camcorder.
His music spans such titles as Miley Cyrus’s hit song “Party in the U.S.A” to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” to his most recent recording of “Telephone.”
He produces his recordings in-between working towards a PhD in MIT’s Chemistry Department and TA-ing the undergraduate classes 5.12 and 5.13 (Organic Chemistry I & II).
As a reflection of his growing YouTube presence, his videos have generated over 25,000 views since he created his personal YouTube channel on Feburary 14, 2009.
In the profile section of his YouTube channel, he describes himself as “yu-pu (officially not capitalized), [is] a one-man a cappella band who only does top 40 hits.”
“yu-pu has backup dancers to record music videos for each song he does, instead of the old-school five-box-type one-man a cappella videos commonly seen on YouTube….[He] is a baritone, tenor, and countertenor, but never a bass,” he writes.
His re-arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is currently his most widely viewed video, at over 8,000 views; it also happened to be his first music video to incorporate back-up dancers, he explained.
“I like to pick songs that make me feel … happy … The songs I pick are all almost always danceable songs,” he said. “I don’t listen to sad songs or anything like that. All my favorite songs are happy.”
The bright colors and frequent use of special effects throughout his videos make it apparent that he’s out to grab his viewer’s attention.
“That’s just my personal style,” he said.
Yu-Pu is often found wearing bright-turquoise rimmed glasses, a florescent yellow watch, and sporting three pony-tails in his hair at a time. “I like colorful things, not just in my videos, but even in the way I dress,” he said.
“I like to be different. I’m not afraid of being different … that’s one of the reasons I like Lady Gaga so much.”
When viewing his videos for the first time, however, some people are less receptive to the growing meme.
“For most people, their reaction to his videos has been they really don’t get it,” said Nora O. Hickey, a rising MIT junior and one of his backup dancers.
“Yu-Pu is a misunderstood and under-appreciated artist,” she said.
Hickey was among the group of undergrads who first discovered Yu-Pu through his TA appointment and then stumbled across his YouTube videos and wanted to help with the filming directly.
“Any 24 year old dude that posts videos of himself singing Miley Cyrus on YouTube, is worth getting to know,” she said. “He’s all intense when filming his videos.”
“He’s not afraid to Yu-Pu it up.”
Motivating the hours of preparation, performance, and video editing that it takes to fuel this less-than-common past-time, Yu-Pu said that videos stemmed from a life-long passion for music and a desire to embrace American pop music that is happy and fun.
“Since I was very young, I knew I wanted to be some kind of musician, even if I couldn’t be a scientist,” he said.
“I knew that if I ever wanted to be famous, and if I just study chemical reactions, many people might not know me without taking 5.12 or 5.13,” he said. “But if I do music … well, everybody listens to music.”
He recalled enjoying music as far back as elementary and middle school, when music classes were part of the required curriculum, unlike here at MIT.
“People don’t need to know the theory behind music to enjoy music. This makes it different from being a scientist,” he said.
But that is not to say that he never incorporates his science into his music videos.
Demonstrating his clear passion for chemistry, he even incorporated a drawing of an organic reaction, an electrophilic aromatic substitution, into one of his videos, “Tik Tok,” at the fifty-three second mark.
According to Yu-Pu, making these increasingly popular music videos is also one of his favorite ways to balance the stresses of graduate work and relax outside of lab.
“Sometimes I just want to relax from lab work. I think that’s better for my health,” he said.
Whether or not his fellow lab members follow him on YouTube, however, remains a mystery to him.
“A few students in my recitation know about my music, but I’m actually not sure about my lab members,” he said.
Fusion of Taiwanese and American pop culture
Before he began singing American pop songs as a graduate student, Yu-Pu said that his focus was primarily on the pop he listened to in his home-country, Taiwan—even while in college.
He immigrated to the U.S. roughly four years ago in order to complete his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Rice University, which he completed in only three years. He said he still visits his family in Taiwan frequently, but that he has become more engaged in American culture the longer he stays here.
It wasn’t until grad school that he started listening to American pop music, he said.
“Back in Taiwan, I listened to a lot of pop singers. They had mostly the same quality. Their music was sort of cute, kind of like it’d make you want to dance,” said Yu-Pu.
Among his favorite Taiwanese bands was the all-girls group “S.H.E.,” he said.
“I really liked [Taiwanese pop] in middle school, and I didn’t listen to much American music in college. In college, I mostly still listened to Chinese songs.”
The main reason he made the transition from Chinese to American pop, he said, is because of the Karaoke night offered every Thursday at the “Thirsty Ear,” a bar in the graduate dorm Ashdown (now NW35).
“I love to sing karaoke, but none of the songs are Chinese. It’s not like in Chinatown; they only have English songs,” he said. “I wanted to be able to sing something that everyone knows, so I started listening to pop music from the states.”
The first American pop video that he ever posted on YouTube, “Party in the USA,” remains his all-time favorite, largely because he can relate to the content of the song, he said.
He said that he can especially relate when Miley Cyrus sings about the anxiety of relocating to the other side of the country yet can still remain happy, having transitioned to entirely new culture — the other side of the world — himself.
“The lyrics, if you listen to them, are about how Miley goes to LA, how she goes to Hollywood, and gets very nervous. Everything is so new to her — she’s from Nashville — yet she is still able to think that it’s not really a very big deal. She’s like ‘It will be OK. It’s like a party.’”
“It’s exactly like my situation,” he said.
Regardless of being immersed in an entirely new culture, “I still have a personality that is pretty strong,” he said. “I don’t want to abandon it, even after entering a new culture.”
Making music videos is a way for him to hold onto his bright and cheerful personality, he said.
According to Yu-Pu, making these music videos also gives him insight to American culture, otherwise foreign to him.
“If you want to know the culture of the states, probably you should listen to their music,” he said.
“It’s hard to write a song that’s completely imaginary, unless you’re writing a song for a science fiction movie or something.”
“In most cases, music at least partially reflects what goes on in the world around you. When people sing, they sing about personal life or the world or a special place or something like that,” he said.
Although he says he would love to arrange and perform his own original music, Yu-Pu said that he currently does not feel confident enough in either his native language, Chinese, or his new language, English, to write his own lyrics.
Making re-arrangements of famous American pops songs, he says, is his current compromise.
Someday, however, he said that he hopes to attempt the challenge of creating his own entirely original musical work.
Preparing a video, behind the scenes
What makes his videos unique, Yu-Pu said, is that he re-arranges the music himself instead of making a basic dance or slide show with lyrics, which is the most common way that music videos are re-made on YouTube.
“These aren’t the videos that use original music and just kind of make a music video out of it, which is what most people do,” he said.
“I try to make the videos interesting, so that it’s not just music to a video or something else that’s boring. The music is not the original music; it’s the same song, but I rearrange it and do it myself.”
According to Yu-Pu, rearranging the music is the most time-intensive portion of the process, taking around three nights for two to three hours each. Recording music takes a relatively shorter time, a night or two of two to three hours each, while mixing music often takes a whole morning, from around 9 a.m. to around one in the afternoon, he said.
“I tend to do mixing on Saturday or Sunday, when I have more time,” Yu-Pu said. “For the dancing, I don’t really prepare much. I just watch music videos several times and write notes about the moves, which takes about an hour. I practice very briefly, which takes about another hour.”
Sometimes, he said that he doesn’t even have locations in mind for various scenes of the videos until he actually shoots them.
“I sometimes like doing it this way because it feels like a scavenger hunt,” he said.
As his finals steps, editing videos takes usually around three or four hours, and uploading the video to YouTube takes around half an hour, he said.
Search for a band name
Yu-Pu is currently unsure of what his next musical recording will be.
“Maybe another Lady Gaga,” he said.
He said that eventually, he may want to create a website and feature his musical recordings, but for now, he plans on just making more music videos with the help of his back-up dancers.
He is, however, on the hunt for a name for his band — a new name to highlight both himself and his dancers, he said.
“I don’t want to be known alone as ‘Yu-Pu,’” he said. “That’s only me, and I want it to include my other group members.”
“I want [the new band name] to be nerdy, something to do with chemistry…something that you would have to had taken 5.12 or 5.13 to understand” he said. “Currently, I’d be happy to take suggestions.”