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How We Got the Mob

Zach Campbell



Like the word mob, the collective noun audience threatens to erase differences by collapsing distinct individuals into a single entity.

– John H. Muse (1)

  1. John H. Muse, ‘Flash Mobs and the Diffusion of Audience’, Theater, Vol. 40 No. 3 (2010), p. 15.

Attention, Please

Spectatorship is the corollary of performance. In films explicitly about performance, information about spectatorial attention, reaction and interaction often seems to slip under the radar. What happens to the figures in the story-world who witness the performance as it unfolds before them (and us) over time? There are many possible ways to convey attention being requested, captured, granted, stolen or resisted. A film might focus heavily on what has been dubbed the ‘Spielberg face’. (2) Or it could shift registers so that a diegetic address to the audience comes to feel uncomfortably close to breaching the fourth wall – as in Maureen O’Hara’s powerful harangue at the climax of Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940). This sole topic could inspire a life’s critical work. What I seek to do here is more modest.


The Step Up franchise, as it progresses from the first installment in 2006 to the fourth in 2012 (with a fifth announced for 2014), demonstrates a problem that will continue to press ever more insistently upon future considerations of the politics in and of popular cinema. It is a problem of the attention of crowds, of spectatorship and spectacle. The most recent release in the series and also the most ostensibly ‘political’, Step Up Revolution (2012), produces an incidental treatise on the multitudinous mob as a kind of audience. The film follows a crew, the Mob, who orient a roughly hip-hop dance/performance aesthetic toward the looming political menace of big-money land redevelopment. Thus, I read the symptoms on display as an index of changing circumstances in and outside of pop film aesthetics.

  2. See Matt Patches, ‘The Spielberg Face: A Legacy’,, Dec. 14, 2011 and Kevin B. Lee, ‘Esssential Viewing: The Spielberg Face’, Fandor, Dec. 13, 2011. For a prescient general discussion of the representation of spectatorship, see Philip Brophy [1987], ‘The Audience You Want: The Audience in Rock and Pop Video Clips’.

But it will not do to treat Step Up either as a low-genre, masscult whipping boy, or to elevate – in a ‘poptimist’ polemic – the series’ pleasures above all else. The purpose of my undertaking here is not to disrupt the myriad pleasures Step Up might provide, but to look askance – critically, philosophically, politically – at their conditions.


Situating Step Up

The first Step Up inaugurated a loosely connected sequence of films about young hip-hop dancers. It is a rather daunting intertext to describe briefly, but the intertexuality is yet another part of the pleasure. (3) The first two entries are set in Baltimore, Maryland. Channing Tatum plays the initial protagonist, Tyler Gage, before handing over the story to his young friend and protégé, Andie (Briana Evigan), at the beginning of Step Up 2: The Streets (2008). Tyler and Andie respectively play working class hip-hop dance kids given chances to learn and dance through the middle-class institutional framework of the fictional Maryland School of the Arts (MSA). The third film, Step Up 3D (2010), follows a supporting character from the second, Moose (Adam G. Sevani), as he begins his freshman year at New York University. He is meant to study engineering but his desire instead to dance, dance, dance lands him in an elite street dance crew, the Pirates. Step Up Revolution features an entirely new setting (Miami) and begins with mainly new characters, save for one, very minor person in the Mob crew who calls in reinforcements from the previous films, i.e., members of the MSA Crew and the Pirates from Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D.


A table for the uninitiated; a chart for the unrefreshed; a guide for the perplexed:


3. This has more to do with characters than narrative continuity from entry to entry; seeing the films out of sequence will result in no difficulty in following each, individual one.







Step Up (Anne Fletcher)


Baltimore, Maryland



Step Up 2: The Streets (Jon M. Chu)


Baltimore, Maryland

Protagonist Andie (Briana Evigan) introduced as longtime friend/protégé of Tyler (Channing Tatum).

MSA Crew

Step Up 3D (Jon M. Chu)


New York, New York

New protagonist-of-sorts, Moose (Adam G. Sevani), was a supporting character in Step Up 2. Others from the second film roll up in this one to join the NY dance crew, the Pirates. Strangely, Moose’s best friend Camille is played by Alyson Stoner, who earlier played a small role as Tyler’s foster sister Camille in Step Up. Same character? No mention in the Step Up intertext is made of this fact.

The Pirates

Step Up: Revolution (Scott Speer) [Also released in 3D]


Miami, Florida

A minor character in the Miami crew, who was also a minor character in Step Up 3’s dance crew, the Pirates. This character supplies the connection which – in the final act – brings Moose, et al, down to Miami help the Mob make their big statement.

The Mob


The first shots of the first film fade back and forth in a crosscutting pattern. Hip-hop dancers in a dark warehouse alternate with ballet dancers in a crepuscular studio. Immediately, we are introduced to a dynamic at play throughout all the films. There is always an official, privileged group or institution and an informal, underprivileged group of characters who fight for recognition. The modes in which this binary opposition play out are open to a great deal of finessing and reinvention. Parallel storylines and side-plots complicate matters. In terms of overall address, the films gradually focus less on demonstrating the value of street or hip-hop dance, and more on the importance of harnessing attention.


Of all the films, Step Up centres the least around dance set pieces; it focuses on romance and incorporates elements of gritty ‘urban’ crime drama. (4) Nowhere in the rest of the Step Up canon do elements like these re-emerge. In the film, Tyler learns that his dance talents might lead him to a better life should he apply himself. It is a hackneyed lesson, and probably a fairly conservative ‘bootstrap’ one at that. But its socioeconomic perspective is not steeped in privilege; that is the point. Furthermore, as romantic narrative, Tyler and Nora (Jenna Dewan) must come to terms with each other’s class status and habitus. (Again: this is fairly conventional ‘wrong side of the tracks’ romance territory.) But the fact of class difference plays out in a much richer and more explicit way in Step Up than in any of its sequels. It informs the movie in subtle ways, and theme interacts with style. Consider these reverse-angle long-shots in Step Up, when Nora first spies Tyler dancing beside his friends outside. Previously, he had shown up to the MSA for court-mandated, janitorial service; his body language underlined his discomfort in an environment of emotive, middle-class, over-achieving peers. But he is back in his easy-going element outside the school walls, as he dances jokingly for his friends.




4. ‘Urban’ is, of course, an American (Anglophone?) euphemism for inner-city, non-white communities, particularly black or Latino. Non-white individuals are simply not part of the Step Up stable of protagonists to date.



Early on, Tyler’s self-expression through dance is an end unto itself. It makes him no money and opens no doors for him (save, perhaps, picking up young women in clubs). Dance is not a careerist vocation in Tyler’s world. Nora’s problem is a more respectable, middle-class one. Her mother is apprehensive of her long-term prospects as a professional dancer, even with the institutional backing of the MSA. So it is a matter of a secure path toward a respectable and worthwhile career, or a less secure one through creative modes. But the series gradually naturalises Nora’s bourgeois career-path dilemma, and abandons representation of working-class characters who, like Tyler, do not even think in terms of dance as a feasible vocation. (5)


In subsequent Step Up films, the characters evince unshakeable confidence about the wisdom and legitimacy of their choices as future creative professionals. They have only impatience for friends or relatives who question their practicality. Far be it from us to criticise determination and confidence in youth! However, we should note that the effect this has on the films is that the characters’ struggles to realise dreams become easier. The dramatic core begins to point elsewhere. (6)


Staging Spectatorship

Generically, dance films often operate like musicals. The dance sequences in Step Up do not typically stretch the boundaries of verisimilitude too far. So, dance numbers occur in a shared time and space with the spectators before them – whether that amounts to a single voyeur or a large crowd at a dance competition. These spectators in Step Up Revolution form the focal point of my analysis. It is an aesthetic of spectatorship that the series builds up to, precisely because of its disengagement from such representational matters as class or race.


Before looking at Revolution, let us quickly examine some established ways of staging attention. Somewhat arbitrarily, let us start with Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953).




5. In Step Up 2: The Streets, Andie ultimately decides that one’s street credibility essentially comes from within, as she speaks from her soapbox as an art school kid to the presumably working class/urban crowd that hosts the eponymous Streets dance competition. By the third and fourth films, the primary kind of friction about dance or any creative endeavor seems to be whether one should or should not treat it as a career path.  

6. By no means is the first Step Up an organic expression of working class experience or mentality. It does seem, I think, a more forthright stab at representing such a thing.



The ‘Shine on Your Shoes’ number presents a crowd of people who cast admiring glances at Fred Astaire as he performs. But this public is transitory. They have other things to attend to, other things to which they will grant their attention. The people can elect to watch the performance, but there is no need for Astaire’s character to secure their gaze and their time. This is a free-form and casual way of styling spectatorship within the context of an impromptu, diegetic performance.



Observe the blonde boy with a bored expression as he chews gum when Astaire enters the photo booth to show off his shoes. By this point in the shot, he is looking past Astaire, although the two older boys behind him are still paying attention. This non-engaged extra is organic to the overall aesthetic of crowds, space and attention. As people come and go in the scene, or simply stand right before this performance, it is alright if not everyone is having the same, unified experience.


Sometimes, of course, an attentive intra-cinematic audience, blocked just so, is dramatically appropriate. There are conventions of staging which underline this kind of diegetic performance. Let us look at the staging from another Minnelli film, Meet Me in St Louis (1944). The cake walk scene is, like most of Step Up’s numbers, a diegetically motivated performance. We understand why the party guests look on, just as we know why attendees of a dance battle or a conservatory audition look on with polite attention and, if they like, active encouragement. Social context dictates what is expected for the spectating crowd. Esther and Tootie, like the Step Up dancers most of the time, remain within the boundaries of diegetic verisimilitude.






Note the long shots and the moderate composition in depth. The arrangement of people on one side of the profilmic space respects the fourth wall or the camera-eye; it is a convention inherited from the stage, but with a history of good use by many filmmakers and styles. Contrast this with an instance of frontal staging in Step Up Revolution:



The utensil sculpture spells out ‘the MOB’, although the awkward blocking indicates that the onlookers are reading it backwards. Of course, we embrace stylisation in a film like Step Up Revolution. The problem is why something might be stylised in the particular manner it is. This sticks in the craw here, because of the friction between the unpredictability of flash mob performance in general, and the depressing orderliness of this audience. The distinction of flash mobs in real life is that they (appear to) emerge spontaneously and organically from out of a public crowd. They capitalise on the fact that there are no conventions of looking and listening, as there are at a planned performance. (7) From their beginning, flash mobs have also been linked to neo-liberal, capitalist strategies of branding. (8) Instead of disrupting or emancipating social space, they may further restrict it.


In these sequences, the inserted reaction shots grow more insistent. Individuals watch in general admiration, mouths agape, smiling. They always quickly stand back to afford the performance its space. Many individuals use their smartphones to capture pictures and video. The soundtrack even mixes ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ into the music and sound effects. These easy transitions feel eerily like commercials. Thus, the stylistic choices do not reflect the way bodies move and feel, even when one is a mere spectator of performance. If pop can be liberating, why must the representation of its enjoyment rest upon such constrictive contrivances? This is instead a way of depicting how a spectacle can and should be consumed.


One of Step Up Revolution’s flash mobs takes place in an art gallery. Galleries are places for looking but, typically, this is an autonomous form of the activity: individuals and groups can view the displays as they please. But, in its reaction shots, and its deviations from any supposed realism, this gallery sequence depicts a rapt audience which proceeds to follow a sequential process through the space. And, of course, it reacts approvingly. (9)



7. ‘If you ask the mobsters themselves, the most essential audience of the flash mob is the public they surprise into stupefaction’. Muse, p. 15.  

8. See Paul Grainge, ‘A Song and Dance: Branded Entertainment and Mobile Promotion’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 15 No. 2 (2011), pp. 165-180.  

9. Of course, gallery space itself is neither blank nor neutral; see Brian O’Doherty’s classic Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Expanded Edition (Berkeley: University of California, 2000); the essays first appeared in Artforum in 1976. But the point is that visitors to a gallery can choose how long to look, what to concentrate on the most, and – to a degree – in what order they look at things. Whereas, in this scene from Step Up Revolution, they simply follow invisible cues.




Emily has come to the gallery at Sean’s cryptic bidding, wearing something nice. Notice the colourful painting in the background.



At Sean’s prompting, Emily looks more closely at the painting; a disguised Mob dancer reveals himself. A review of the prior shots shows that he was previously absent. This moment elides the film’s already established rules of verisimilitude, as a means of showcasing the 3D technology, and providing a narrative platform for a sense of wonder.





As the dancer detaches from the painting, the crowd looks on in astonishment.





Emily as a key spectatorial proxy, standing in a posture of amazement.



Emily as spectatorial proxy.




Clearly, art is much more fun when dancers take over.



What is humanity in the digital age, after all?



Emily as spectatorial proxy, again.



The gallery patrons exit the building after the Mob makes its getaway and leaves its signature.


The art gallery Mob sequence unfolds in numerous rooms, but it is all mysteriously synchronised. With each new intervention in the space of the gallery, Emily leads the way to look at the new thing that seems to attract, as if by magic, the attention of those nearby. It is as if she embodies the leadership role that sociologist Gustave Le Bon argued was a natural feature of crowds: ‘As soon as a certain number of living beings are gathered together, whether they be animals or men, they place themselves instinctively under the authority of a chief’. (10) At one point, the gallery curator gently restrains a security guard who is about to put a stop to this, presumably on the grounds of the slang maxim real recognise real. This curator, though she may well be a bit of an ivory tower prosecco snob, is pleased by this intervention. When the event ends, the visitors all seem to exit the gallery at once. Show over. And yet, do we not have a thinly veiled assumption here that crowds want whatever is dictated to them, by those who have grabbed their attention most insistently?


The onlookers in the corporate protest number respond the same way, as do diners at a chic restaurant. The same facial expressions and postures re-appear. It is simply a template. One could almost rubber-stamp the Step Up Revolution diegetic spectator.



10. Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (London: Batoche Books, Kitchener, ON, 1896 [2001]), p. 68. See also Elias Canetti (trans. Carol Stewart), Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984).  

Thus crowds in Step Up – particularly Revolution – are usually obedient audiences. (11) When the flash mobs end, the crowds congregate on cue around the message or signature (or brand) of the Mob. Why are these crowds so docile? Does it not occur to any of these spectators that, in fact, they might interact with the mobbers? Speak back to them in some way? Join them? Or simply ignore them? What has happened to the general distrust of the ivory tower, which we saw in Step Up inscribed into Channing Tatum’s very body language upon his first (legal) arrival at the Baltimore arts school where he did not belong? This apprehension seems to have been replaced with a circuit of cultural production wherein art galleries, middle class stage kids, and mainstream liberal politics all ‘understand’ one another. What does the franchise sacrifice along the way? I would say that it is the willingness to attempt to depict something approximating working class experience, or radical human difference, more broadly. And, as a result, this stylistic mode hamstrings the potential of pop cinema.


Spectacular Optimism

Step Up Revolution arrived in the wake of Occupy movements the world over. This was a commercial pop film from a frivolous, low-genre franchise that nevertheless promised (and, yes, even advertised) certain general features of Occupy’s rhetoric and iconography. The Mob is a street dance and performance art crew which becomes increasingly politicised over the course of Revolution. Some of its members work for the hotel owned by the land developer (Peter Gallagher) who seeks to buy up and evacuate what the working class community the Mob, and many others, call their home. Such material, obviously, is not always very visible in multiplexes; the film won over some shrewd commentators upon its release. I want to highlight two reviews of Step Up Revolution, both written by sharp and observant chroniclers of pop culture.


First, a representative excerpt from a brief review by Anne Helen Peterson on the blog The Hairpin:



11. It is telling that Revolution’s least obedient crowd appears in the sequence in which some rogue Mob members terrorize a gala function. It is uncharacteristically aggressive, wielding smoke bombs, and serves a moralising purpose in the story – as a demonstration of when protest ‘goes too far’. As one of the main Revolution characters says: ‘It’s not OK to make art for fun anymore, and it’s not OK to make trouble either’. What exactly is protest art that forbids itself from making any trouble? Thus, the sequence links the fright and discomfort of wealthy people with criminal violence and ethical behavior. It is difficult to imagine a dramatic scenario about progressive protest that tries harder to delegitimise any kind of militant force.  





  There’s a genuine Marxist, agit-prop commentary at the heart of the film. Granted, this commentary gets muddled with a few of the developments at the end, but the idea of art as a way for the invisible working class to make themselves visible – a notion actually articulated by the hottie protagonist – is startlingly perceptive, not to mention progressive. The underclass uses their bodies, their millennial-tech skills, and social media savvy to make the bourgeoisie wake the fuck up. (12)   12. Anne Helen Peterson, ‘Step Up: Revolution: More Than the Sum of Its Dance-Movie Parts’, The Hairpin, 30 July 2012.

Second, Trevor Link writes for Spectrum: ‘This is the politics of spectacle: there is a lot of injustice in the world, but if you get enough eyes on something, you might begin to change it’. (13)


Peterson’s rave notes the ‘startlingly perceptive’ and ‘progressive’ sentiment of art’s visibility, although I would counter that such strategies work both ways. For instance, the hottie protagonist’s battle plan is already entering into spectacular notions of the attention economy. If it is perceptive for him to engage in a bit of Occupy(ish) street tactics and protest art, is it not similarly perceptive for Summit, Offspring and Lionsgate to put out a film that appropriates these populist sentiments? These companies have profited from their appropriation of international mass protests against banks, trade policy, austerity measures and war. Or, in the story-world itself, is it not perceptive for Nike to come in as a saviour, hip to youth culture, and offer to sponsor the Mob?  ‘What do I think? Where do I sign!?’, says one character at the end of Step Up Revolution, when a Nike representative offers them a lucrative deal. The crowd cheers.


13. Trevor Link, review, Step Up: Revolution, Spectrum, 26 July 2012.




I agree with Link in his overall sentiment: dance films may indeed have assumed some of the role that musicals once did in American cinema, and not all critics are willing to entertain this notion. Link has also written a very thoughtful defense of the liberating potential of pop, and I absolutely endorse him on two crucial points. (14) First, that there is ‘something disturbing about the time we live in when pleasures must be intellectualised in order to purify them sufficiently before consumption’. Second, I acknowledge the insistence (building off Richard Dyer) that capitalist cultural production is and must be contradictory, and that its use matters greatly. It often means little to discuss an artwork as, e.g., progressive or racist or inherently neo-liberal, if we do not bother to attend, as well, to the ways in which people use this work. So I use Link’s writing, and his critical philosophy, as a springboard, primarily to clarify the stakes in addressing the contradictory aspects of cultural material that feels (and thus in some sense is) liberating. In other words, perhaps we can respect pleasure without turning it into a trump card. For the same reason, we should not assume that aesthetics is redemptive of non-aesthetic realms of life, like politics or ethics.


14. Trevor Link, ‘Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto / We Need to Talk About K-Pop: A Mix’, Occupied Territories, 17 January 2012.



Alhough the corporate satire flash mob in Revolution mocks suit-and-tie conformity through dance, the fact that it pictorialises reception through its template of spectators united by appreciative spectatorship unbalances the entire pop-political ethos at work. As I have attempted to show through this essay so far, it is the space of intra-cinematic performance that produces the off-space of spectatorship. So, what does it mean that the Mob parodies standardization, if the shots of spectating crowds are as glumly standardised as anything Fritz Lang ever imagined? And does this not gloss over, too quickly, the strategies employed by Step Up Revolution, and indeed the whole series, to connect the personal and the political in the most conventional ways, e.g., through chastely heterosexual romances? (15)


The aesthetics of difference at play here are always partial, and it is worth looking at what they might unite, supplementally. As noted in the epigraph which opens this essay: collective nouns like mob audience contain within them the threat to erase difference. Thus, even as Step Up Revolution revels in its articulation of individualism and some measure of cultural difference, it also produces a fictive unity. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, in their seminal 1985 work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, delineated the logics of difference and equivalence at work in politics. The logic of difference, borrowed from structuralist linguistics, is the process whereby meaning is produced. A chain of equivalence might be produced among sociopolitical blocs that unite disparate elements in their shared antagonism toward another bloc. Laclau and Mouffe write:




15. Step Up 3D also ends with Moose kissing his best friend Camille, athough any depiction of romantic tension or sexual feeling between them, until that point, was virtually non-existent. But the narrative machine must go on, and the guy and girl have to end up together, right?

  The more unstable the social relations, the less successful will be any definite system of differences and the more the points of antagonism will proliferate. This proliferation will make more difficult the construction of any centrality and, consequently, the establishment of unified chains of equivalence. (16)   16. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (London, NY: Verso, 1985 [2001]), p. 131.

On the level of political theory, at least, this might begin to explain why the aesthetics of the later, post-recession Step Up films, and of Revolution in particular, falter upon abandoning a more traditional, working class, representational milieu. The problem is not that these films have failed to maintain strict loyalty to the good old days of class struggle, above all else. Instead, it is a problem of straining too far the metaphorical connection between teenage dancers and national, sociopolitical antagonisms. Step Up Revolution, like the other films in the series, articulates difference largely through the trappings of clothing and style. Characters reiterate certain hip-hop values and slogans, but these are frequently depoliticised and whitewashed. Note that nonwhite protagonists are alien to the Step Up universe, as are interracial romances. Race is simply buried and forgotten in these films as a thematic issue. (Step Up Revolution’s Miami lacks latinidad, too.) The many points of differentiation which Step Up’s dramaturgy produces are, effectively, a smokescreen against a paternalistic authority who has means, and a filial rebel who asks/demands to partake in the same means. The logic of difference informing Step Up’s political aesthetic promises to mask a logic of equivalence which dissolves these very differences in the fundamental necessity of the attention economy. This contradiction of cultural production proceeds quite naturally, if we trace back to Link and Dyer, and venture a fully supplemental reading of the politics of Step Up’s aesthetics.


But there is also hope. Step Up 3D features a dance filmed in a single long tracking shot – accompanying a modern, remix version of the Fred Astaire song, “I Won’t Dance” (originally from Roberta, 1935). It takes place at the end of a scene in which Moose and Camille reconcile after a fight. It is breezy, graceful and charming. As a long take, the number stands apart from other Step Up dance numbers. Unlike Step Up Revolution, there is, of course, no progressive, manifest content. It explicitly concerns two friends, and only them. And yet I take comfort in how it stages the world around Moose and Camille. The people on this Manhattan street are going about their own business. They are moving apartments, watering flowers, and buying ice cream. Some of them chide the dancing pair as nuisances. This impromptu performance is also Moose and Camille’s shared, private reverie. For this observer, at least, it is meaningful that the people who share space with them are not represented as mere spectatorial automata. But – even at this moment of supreme, carefree pleasure – the film demonstrates a world that is larger than the performers and, in this largeness, represents difference.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Zachary Campbell and LOLA September 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.