On June 26, Todrick Hall, a former Arlington resident, posted a video called Beauty and the BEAT! on YouTube. By the time you read this, it will probably have surpassed 4 million views. It's a wicked, politically incorrect parody of the opening scene of Disney's Beauty and the Beast in which American Idol grad Katie Stevens plays Belle, the only Anglo in a mostly black neighborhood. (You can watch it in the video embed, below.)
Stevens, dressed like the original Belle, walks through the 'hood, singing in a classic theatrical style while reading Ebony magazine; the other people in the video sing in Ebonics, with the women torn between sneering mystification and the men hitting on her. Detractors (and some fans) have criticized the video as being racist, a charge Hall deflects by saying that he has known people like the stereotypical characters in the video, and that he's not saying that they are representative of his entire race.
I've followed Hall since he was on American Idol in 2010, during the same season that featured North Texans Casey James, Tim Urban and Alex Lambert. I wish these guys well, and I'm especially glad to see that James, who lived in Fort Worth at the time, is having some level of success in Nashville. But to me, Hall is the most interesting of the bunch -- and a lot more interesting than many of the Idols who won.
By his own admission, Hall is a relentless self-promoter. He and Lambert were eliminated in the third week of that season, but Hall was on long enough for anti- Idol website Vote for the Worst to report that parents who had paid to have their children appear in Oz, the Musical, which Hall had co-produced, were upset when productions were canceled and their money was not refunded. (Post- Idol, Hall has continued to do productions of the musical, which he wrote and directed, without any evident problems, although you can still find parental complaints about earlier productions on the "I Love 'Oz the Musical'" Facebook page.) In the Idol world, a controversy like that combined with an early elimination usually means you're quickly forgotten, but Hall was not going to go quietly.
Hall appeared in stage productions in New York and Los Angeles, but it's on YouTube where he has become a star. He has done it earnestly, with It Gets Better, a song and video inspired by Dan Savage's anti-bullying/pro-tolerance campaign. He has done it cheekily, with I Wanna Be on Glee, a video that featured visuals that would fit right in on the TV show. Mostly, though, he has done it as a flash-mob prankster, singing his orders at Chipotle, Starbucks and McDonald's, and most famously leading a group of dancers doing Beyoncé's End of Time in a Target. That video has surpassed 6 million views, and even earned a thank you from Beyoncé herself.
YouTube stardom is a weird thing, and 4 million or 6 million views is still paltry compared with a hit by an established artist like Kelly Clarkson (speaking of North Texan Idols), whose official Mr. Know It All video, for example, is approaching 20 million views. But Beauty's popularity is largely organic, a stunt by a guy who recruited several other YouTube stars and managed to grab the attention of Tosh.0, The Huffington Post, Gawker and other websites. Hall says that Beauty has also helped him score meetings with movie and TV companies in Hollywood, but he declines to share specifics.
Hall is irrepressible, and I have a feeling that someday, he'll break through to a level of celebrity that's beyond the stage or YouTube. It's what keeps me paying attention to him, and it's what also concerns me. He might just find out that fame, once he finally snags it, isn't all it's cracked up to be. (UPDATE: Here's a Huffington Post interview with Hall that gives some other background on the video.)