On the Epic Rap Battles – Lennon vs. O’ Reilly

Find below a paper written for a course on Visual Rhetoric.

For the Powerpoint Presentation used, click here: Final Presentation

On September 26th, 2010, inspired by a conversation with comedian and actor Lloyd Leonard Ahlquist, Peter Alexander Shukoff published the first episode of the online web series Epic Rap Battles of History, a live-action music comedy series where historical characters settle their differences through rap battles. The premise of the show was to pit two characters based on famous fictional, historical, or contemporary public figures engaging in a rap battle. Created partially with the intent to entertain and partly to create a successful serial for steady revenue, the first episode, created with a $50.00 budget, featured Lloyd Ahlquist as Bill O’ Reilly and Peter Shukoff as John Lennon. The show’s use of satire and parody to portray their characters quickly earned it a dedicated following of over four million subscribers, while their views have collectively scored over half a billion views.  In a 2011 inverview for Forbes Magazine, Shukoff suggested that the main influence over his work resides with the fans. He stated that “The whole series is based around an ongoing conversation with the audience. […] We say and do and make whatever we want, because we only answer to our audience and we have a pretty solid relationship with them” (Humphrey 3).

Certainly, audience interaction is an important consideration that artists must think about during their creative process. True to a rhetorical tradition, Shukoff would possibly argue that it is the most important authorial consideration when creating any type of text. However, Epic Rap Battles are known for pushing against “the fine line between gross and rad” (Humphrey 2). In order to do this, Shukoff and Ahlquist engage in extensive research regarding their characters. Ahlquist admits that “part of what has made the battles successful is the accuracy and depth of the lyrics” (Humphrey 3). He further states that “we try to find niche pockets of information that the average person might not see but a super fan would certainly be well aware of” so that “someone who isn’t as familiar with that character will enjoy most of the battle and super fans enjoy the time we took to get specific and deep” (Humphrey 3). Shukoff echoed this sentiment when he said that he wants” the English Literature professor to watch Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare and say “good show”” (Humphrey 3).

Because ” signs are never arbitrary, and ‘motivation’ should be formulated in relation to the sign-maker and the context in which the sign is produced”, when using their concept of the application of semiotic studies to the rhetorical analysis of visual instruments by considering sign-making and motivation in visual contexts, it becomes obvious by reading the interview that the interest of the sign-maker is to create an engaging product for the audience (Kress & Von Leewuen 8). However, it is important to note that “the meanings expressed by speakers, writers, printmakers, photographers, designers, painters and sculptors are first and foremost social meanings” (Kress & Von Leewuen 20),and with the kind of in-depth research that Shukoff’s and Ahlquist’s team does, and with characters like Joseph Stalin, Ben Franklyn, and Sarah Palin on their roster, it becomes nearly impossible to fathom that such a heavily researched show would have no meaning or purpose beyond that of entertaining an audience. As Kress and Von Leewuen stated, it is important to “read between the lines in order to get a sense of what discursive/ideological position, what ‘interest’, may have given rise to a particular text” (14), and an astute viewer of the Epic Rap Battles will quickly realize that this kind of inquiry might result in an enhanced understanding of the Epic Rap Battles, its creators, and its audience. At the very least, their episodes encourage intellectual curiosity through tangential learning (Floyd & Portnov), although it is more likely that the videos themselves are a form of cultural criticism presented through the reflection of certain ideological representations demonstrated through the visual aesthetics used in each episode. It is important to note that when engaging in the analysis of a primarily visual text, when the text incorporates elements language-based communication, such as speech or text, “the visual, actional and spatial modes, rather than speech, seem to be the central representational and cognitive resources” (39). With this in mind, in order to unlock any meaning behind the battles it becomes of utmost importance to focus on the interaction of visual elements in the Rap Battles, rather than on the words spoken by the characters.  In this paper, I will attempt to unlock the rhetoric behind the Epic Rap Battles in hopes of addressing issues of representations of ideology – namely the question of the meaning behind the Rap Battles – through an analysis of the visual aesthetics presented in the series. To do this, I will select video samples and analyze the way in which they use visual representation to make arguments by interpreting characters as representative of political, social, and religious paradigms whose ultimate dominance against The Other is best demonstrated not by the winner of the verbal exchange or the audience vote, but by the way in which visuals constantly shift and are rearranged into different configurations.

And, if that fails, maybe we can at least figure out who won.

For better analysis of the data represented in these videos, it might be prudent to dissect each video into six distinct sections. The first section is the introduction to the video. In this section, the authors present the main characters for each video. Although this section will be described, it will not be fully integrated into the analysis of the videos, as they exist only to serve the function of introducing the rappers and not to set up any of the rhetorical values exposed by the four major segments of the video where the characters are actually interacting with each other. The following four sections – the ones that hold the core of the rhetorical values expressed by the authors through the characters – are twenty to forty second segments in which each character battles using verse. The final section is the consummation of the video in which the narrator enthusiastically enunciates “Who won? Who’s next? You decide! Epic Rap Battles of History!” while the two characters engage in choreographic progression. Unless there is some form of discrepancy in this section – such as one character taking up a larger section of the screen than another character – this section will not be included in the analysis of the videos. This formulaic procedure of introduction, four verbal exchanges, and a concluding segment, was used on the first Epic Rap Battle of History and has since served as the blueprint for the structure of all future Rap Battles of History, with the exception of the episode featuring Cleopatra and Marilyn Monroe, which gives Marilyn an additional segment at the end, the second episode featuring Darth Vader and Adolph Hitler, which only gives one segment to each rapper, and the episodes that feature outside intervention, like the one where the rap battle between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs is interrupted by Hal 9000, a supercomputer from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

In order to address the previously stated questions regarding ideological representation, I have selected the episode featuring John Lennon and Bill O’Reilly.      This episode was selected for being the first one in the series, but also because each of the characters are clearly representative of specific ideologies. This is only partially true in episodes that include fictional characters such as Napoleon Dynamite and Gandalf; and while it is certainly true that unique insight into the ideologies represented in the series could be acquired through the analysis of an episode where a historical figure that clearly represents an ideology, like Hitler, battles against a fictional figure like Darth Vader, it seems more pertinent to the research questions to address episodes where all of the characters represented are representative of historical or real figures.

Epic Rap Battle 1: John Lennon versus Bill O’ Reilly

The first episode in the series opens with a mint-green logo prominently displaying the title: Epic Rap Battles of History. This display of the title of the series would later become a staple throughout the entire series, although they would change the color from episode to episode. The video then shows Peter Alexis Shukoff – more commonly known by his Youtube pseudonym “Nice Peter” – dressed as iconic musician John Lennon. Peter’s representation of Lennon is wearing a red and yellow coat and sunglasses. The video is edited to show two representations simultaneously – one a medium-close framed shot, as defined by Van Leeuwen and Kress (124), to the right side of the screen, the other a long range frame shot to the left of the screen. The same effect is used to represent the character played by Lloyd Ahlquist, better known by his Youtube pseudonym Epic Lloyd, famous Fox News host Bill O’ Reilly. To portray Epic Lloyd’s character, however, the creators of the video decided to use an extreme close-up shot and a medium-close shot. This kind of technique places the character at ” the distance at which ‘one can hold or grasp the other person’ and therefore also the distance between people who have an intimate relation with each other” (Van Leeuwen and Kress 124). This kind of close-up shot has the rhetorical purpose of creating a sense of familiarity between the viewer and the character, which might make the viewer develop a certain bias in favor of  O’ Reilly even before the battle has begun. This kind of assumption can also be seen in Kress  and Van Leeuwen analysis of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961). They write that “cclearly, the viewer is meant to be most centrally involved with Karin, and with her mental turmoil” (175). The same is true of the Rap Battles.

When the rap battle begins, Lennon begins rapping. The background becomes a well-lit swirling weave of pink roses. I will call this Lennon-Space. At times, a small television set featuring O’ Reilly’s image frowning will appear floating in mid-space. Behind O’ Reilly, the background can be seen as a dark space. In their analysis of a Rembrandt’s painting, Kress and Von Leeuwen make the observation that light is seen as a positive attribute. They even go as far as suggesting that the light is meant to provide an element of the divine to those bathed within it (193). If we are to apply the same schema to the Epic Rap Battles, then it would stand to reason that, despite the authors having placed O’ Reilly in a more favorable position for the viewer to identify with him, it is, in fact, John Lennon who has the light of the creators divinely shining down on him.

Another aesthetic used in this segment of the video emulates the visual style of late news pundit shows, with the Fox News logo at the lower left of the screen, the O’ Reilly Factor logo at the lower right side of the screen, a split window with two split frames featuring O’ Reilly on the left and John Lennon on the right, and a scrolling news bar at the bottom  which reads “California passes bill legalizing crime if it ‘looks cool enough'”. This scene utilizes several frames to keep the two characters in separate spaces. As it has been suggested, when an author utilizes frames in a visual text, it is done with the purpose of creating a disconnect between two individual spaces or elements. Frames show that things are meant to be kept separate (Kress and Von Leewuen 177). This means that O’ Reilly and Lennon are not meant to coexist in the same space. It is worth observing that during this scene, O’ Reilly appears to be relatively calm, while Lennon appears a bit agitated.

Kress and Von Leewuen note that “mot only the elements on the individual pages, but also the pages themselves must be brought in relation to each other” (27). This relationship of different visual spaces can be seen in the scene following the heavy use of frames. This scene features Lennon rapping in the Lennon-Space, but this time with a close-up shot of O’ Reilly ‘s face covering half of the screen, as if he were imposing himself into the opponent’s space. This visual, however, does not indicate a merger of both participating characters in a single space, as much as a representative view into the domain of the Other. It is a juxtaposition of a visual representation from an element originating in one aesthetic space into another, but does not simulate an actual physical invasion of space. It’s not a meeting of the two participants – as we previously established through consideration of the use of frames these must be kept separate, as they don’t belong in the same space – it is simply putting them in relation to each other. Curiously, while O’ Reilly is placed in a close-up shot, Lennon is placed on a medium-long shot. This is meant to emphasize the fact that the viewer should feel a certain level of personal identification with O’ Reilly, while the relationship with Lennon should be at informal or, at best, social (Kress and Von Leewuen 148).

A third visual style represented in this section is a visualization of the Lennon-Space from O’ Reilly ‘s perspective. This shot, shown twenty seconds into the video, is taken from behind O’ Reilly. He is sitting at his desk in what appears to be a blue void – from now on referred to as the O’ Reilly Void. Once again, the space natural to O’ Reilly is a dark space devoid of light. Floating in mid-air in the O’ Reilly Void, viewers will observe a window into a well-lit Lennon-Space, where John Lenin is  still rapping. This is meant to emphasize, once again, that Lennon is the character favored by the ‘divinity’ of the creators. More importantly, if the window into Lennon-space is read as a frame, this scene reinforces the fact that the two participants, despite being able to interact with and make visual contact with each other, are meant to be displaced in separate spaces. Despite the fact that O’ Reilly is closer to the viewer than Lennon, representations of John Lennon during this shot seem proportionally larger than O’ Reilly. Lennon is being made salient in the representation through exaggerated size and through being especially well lit (Kress and Von Leewuen 105). If we consider size as a symbolic attribute of power, then it is in this moment when the viewer realizes that Lennon is in a more favorable position than O’ Reilly.

During the third segment of the video – O’ Reilly’s first attempt to rhyme – similar visual techniques are used. O’ Reilly offers a discourse on why he is superior to Lennon from the O’ Reilly void while Lennon appears to be unaffected by O’ Reilly’s comments. During this scene, the participants appear livelier than during the other sections. This is specially true of facial features and body gestures. It can be argued that the relationship between an object and a viewer can be signified by methods other than the ones thus far described. The facial expressions of the participants, for example, may play a role in the level of identification which the viewer might feel towards each of the participants. If a participant smiles, the viewer ” is asked to enter into a relation of social affinity with them”, while if a participant stares at the viewer with cold disdain, the viewer ” is asked to relate to them, perhaps, as an inferior relates to a superior” (Kress  and Von Leeuwen 118). These gestures are predominant during this segment. When Lennon gazes at the viewer across the vector, he always does so with a certain level of kindness, which invites the viewer to feel a certain level of empathy. O’ Reilly, however, always displays an angered gaze towards the viewer, which may cause resentment. When the visual aesthetic shifts once again to emulate late night pundit discussions – the second time this technique is used the scrolling news bar says that “65% of Americans would rather not participate in this poll” – O’ Reilly appears far more confident than Lennon. However, Lennon, rather than concerned, appears to be unaffected, almost as if he were engaging at a leisurely activity. This scene, once again, drives the point of displacement of participants away from each other as an imperative.

A curious technique used during this video is that of multiplication. This is when one of the characters multiplies itself, resulting in a multiplicity of the same character rapping. This effect is only used once on Lennon, and only when the viewer can see the Lennon-space, but used multiple times and during multiple scenes on O’ Reilly. If we are to apply methods of chart analysis to this technique, we would need to consider that the measure of power balance between two participants can be measured by representative size of the physical dimensions, as stated above, but also by “the quantity or frequency of aggregates of participants that are taken to be identical” (Kress  and Von Leeuwen 100).

After the first three segments of this Epic Rap Battle, a visual analysis will yield prove comprehensive in regards to the intent of the authors and the text itself, but offer little evidence for answering the question of “who won?”, and – in turn – the question of what ideologies and social norms are favored by the text. O’ Reilly, one of the represented participants, uses close-up shots, larger physical dimensions, and a multiplicity of aggregates to create a personal relationship with the viewer and demonstrate his influence, but Lennon uses warm and affectionate facial features and a welcoming body language in order to attract viewers, and has a well-lit space, as opposed to O’ Reilly, which creates the illusion of the divine.

The most insight into the rhetoric used by the visual elements of the video can arguably be found during the fourth and fifth segments of the video. During the fourth segment of the video, viewers are able to see Lennon performing from O’ Reilly’s perspective, as they gaze into the Lennon-space through the floating window in the O’ Reilly void. The use of frames is meant to emphasize the separation of the participants. It is during this segment, however, that Lennon proceeds to jump through the window in order to verbally assault O’ Reilly. By doing this, Lennon breaks the disconnect created by the frames thus far, and transcends the boundaries set on him by predetermined spatial limits. During this scene, an analysis of angles becomes paramount for rhetorical understanding of the visuals.

It is commonly understood that “if a represented participant is seen from a high angle, then the relation between the interactive participants and the represented participants is depicted as one in which the interactive participant has power over the represented participant” (Kress  and Von Leeuwen 140). The opposite is also true. This means that whoever is at a higher representative physical position – the participant or the viewer – is usually in a position of power, while the one who is at a lower representative position is in a position of having power excreted on them. When both the viewer and the object / participant in the image are found to be at a similar height level, then it can be said that there is no significant influence of power being represented.

During this even, it is more important to consider the angle and the power relation between O’ Reilly and Lennon. Lennon has already crossed over into O’ Reilly space – a symbol of power – and is now looking down at O’ Reilly. Because O’ Reilly is sitting down at a desk, the relationship of power between the two participants is one where Lennon can be considered to be exerting force over O’ Reilly. During this event, O’ Reilly becomes visibly distressed. O’ Reilly then attempts to level the power balance by standing up and offering a retort to Lennon’s verbal assault, but ultimately becomes flustered, fully stands up from his chair, and leaves. During this final scene, Lennon is framed closer to the center of the screen than throughout the rest of the video. As state, “for something to be presented as center means that it is presented as the nucleus of the information to which all the other elements are in some sense subservient”( Kress  and Von Leeuwen 196).

A visual analysis of the Rap Battle will undoubtedly point to Lennon as the winner, thus answering the question of “who won?” However, we have still yet to answer the significance of this victory and its meaning regarding the rhetorical message of the episode. Answering this question does not require another detailed analysis as the one I have thus far presented, but it does require for one to rely on Hocks’ commentary regarding digital rhetoric and Barthes’ use of signification and symbolic meaning in the application of linguistic and semiotic constructs analysis of images. Hocks writes that “digital rhetoric describes a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts, but it focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (632). This means that community feedback will certainly guide authorial decisions. However, it also means that the author’s choices will also influence the community’s collective consciousness. This allows Shukoff and Ahlquist to slowly influence the way in which their audience thinks, acts, and believes in respect to the issues represented in their Epic Rap Battles of History episodes. If we look at Barthes’ comments regarding images, he suggests that images have symbolic meaning (157). In regards to the Epic Rap Battles, it means that the selected participants are not simply empty meaningless constructs that stand for nothing, but that they do, in fact, stand for something. Kress  and Von Leeuwen agree with Barthes, stating that “visual structures point to particular interpretations of experience and forms of social interaction” (2). They clearly state that images “are conventionally associated with symbolic values” (4). Because both of the real versions of these individuals were / are outspoken regarding their views, John Lennon, a well-known liberal and progressive, can be read as an object representation of secular progressive values, while Bill O’ Reilly, a well-known conservative pundit, can be read as an object representation of  traditional religious values and conservative political ideology. This is also true of their Epic Rap Battles representations. As Barthes notes, when images are used as a signifier for an ideology or to represent symbolic meaning in some way, “the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional” (154).

Closing Comments

We have thus far demonstrated that despite the rap battles’ ambiguous open-ended question of “who won?”, when one considers the visual representations and the interaction between the participants, it becomes obvious that there is an ideological battle being waged, and that one party turns out to be the clear victor. In case of the episode featuring O’ Reilly and Lennon, the progressive agenda set forth and advocated by the real Lennon and represented in the Epic Rap Battles version of Lennon is clearly favored over the mainstream conservativism represented by O’ Reilly. Certainly, it can be argued that these conclusions are one interpretation of many. Indeed, in their analysis of Dick Bruna’s On My Walk, Kress  and Van Leeuwen explain that “the world of ‘one image, many different verbal texts’ imposes a new mode of control over meaning, and turns the image […] into a more powerful, but also more rigorously controlled and codified public language” (26). What Kress  and Van Leeuwen are suggesting, then, is that one text can have multiple meanings based on the kind of rhetoric the critic decides to analyze. This is certainly true of the Rap Battles as well. On the verbal level, the ideology of the rap battles is left to the viewer, and either side can be interpreted as the victor. If we consider application of digital rhetoric and viewer interaction, this becomes evident when looking at the comments section, were users are still, three years after the original publication, arguing about who won. But at the visual level, however, it is clear that one ideological representation is clearly victor over another. It is worth mentioning that this study is by no means conclusive, as it considers only one of the thirty two currently existing rap battles. It may be that a visual analysis of Barrack Obama versus Mitt Romney or Abraham Lincoln versus Chuck Norris might yield divergent opinions regarding ideological representations in the Rap Battles. However, that analysis could be another full study.

Works Cited

Ahlquist, Lloyd, Peter Shukoff, and Dave McCary. Internet Chat Interview. 20 06 2012. < http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/vcaaf/hi_iama_wearethe_creators_of_the_epic_rap_battles/&gt;.

Armstrong, J. Scott. “The Natural Learning Project.” Journal of Experiential Learning and Simulation. 1.1 (1979): 5-12. Print.

Buchanan, Richard. “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice.” Design Issues. 2.1 (1985): 4-22. Print.

Editorial Staff. “Epic Rap Battles of History: Hitler vs Vader.” College News. 14 12 2011: n. page. Web. 1 May. 2013. <http://www.collegenews.com/article/video_epic_rap_battles_of_history_hitler_vs_vader&gt;.

Foss, Sonja. “A rhetorical schema for the evaluation of visual imagery.” Communication Studies. 45.3-4 (1994): 213-224. Print.

Hocks, Marry. “Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments.” CCC. 54.4 (2003): 629-656. Print.

Humphrey, Michael. “Epic Rap Battles of History: Talking Brash Wit With A YouTube Hit.” Forbes. 10 26 2011: n. page. Web. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhumphrey/2011/10/26/epic-rap-battles-of-history-talking-brash-wit-with-a-youtube-hit/&gt;.

Kenny, Keith. “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric.” Journal of Visual Literacy. 22.1 (2002): 53-80. Print.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo Van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Portnov, James, and Daniel Floyd. Tangential Learning. 2012. Video. Penny ArcadeWeb. 1 May 2013. <http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/tangential-learning&gt;.

Roland Barthes. Rhetoric of the Image. Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Stroupe, Craig. “Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web.” College English. 62.5 (2000): 607-632. Print.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on May 2, 2013, in Film Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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