The YouTube Boogie

A livestreaming pianist accidentally steps into an international incident—and nobody ends up looking particularly good.

By Ernie Smith

Brendan Kavanagh is a man who has a lucrative gimmick.

Also known as Dr. K, Kavanagh plays boogie-woogie music on public pianos for audiences of passers-by in London train stations. He then uploads those videos as livestreams to YouTube and draws a big audience along the way.

His playing is pretty good—he’s obviously quite talented—but his position as someone doing something interesting in a public place means he’s often capturing serendipitous moments, good and bad. Recently, a bearded guy in a floral-print shirt stopped by and did a whole dance routine to the boogie-woogie.

Kavanagh is, essentially, a glorified busker, but he clearly draws a fascinated audience both in-person and online. He’s also something of a shit-stirrer whose natural talent occasionally draws security (which often tries to get him to stop) or the police (which, while keeping the peace, tend to defend his right to continue playing).

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In recent days, he’s become something of a viral figure globally for his actions in a dispute with a group of Chinese tourists, who took umbrage not with his music, but his decision to film the stream, which he’s allowed to do under British law. The law is different in China—but the tourists didn’t appear to know that there was a difference.

The result is one of the crazier viral videos I’ve seen in a while. It feels like a throwback to a 2011 or 2012 viral video.

The group, which he accidentally referred to as “Japanese” at first, wanted him to stop, in part because one of the people in the group was apparently an influencer under contract who is not supposed to appear in other people’s videos, but was apparently hoping to film a Chinese New Year video of their own. (That’s at least what I’ve gathered—sounds like a fun contract regulation to manage.) Kavanagh, who just recently kept playing when surrounded by like a dozen security dudes, took umbrage to their request, and started throwing around the word “communist” to refer to the flags they were holding. At one point, he apparently grabbed at one of the flags—and all hell broke loose.

Soon enough, the police got involved—and ultimately sided with Kavanagh, though he didn’t make it particularly easy on them. (He accused one female officer of being “their private security agent.”)

To be clear, Kavanagh could have handled the situation better, but he is ultimately allowed to film in public places under British law. But the situation has given him a strange sort of notoriety. He’s becoming good friends with conservative media personalities both inside and outside of the U.K.—he recently appeared on Fox News, and will soon appear on Piers Morgan’s YouTube channel—and on top of that, he’s being vilified on the Chinese internet. Some have suggested his actions are racist, while others disagree.

Worst of all, the piano at the center of the controversy, donated to the St. Pancras railway station by newly ordained EGOT recipient Sir Elton John, was blocked off from public use.

To be clear, this whole mess reflects an aggressive sort of culture war. Kavanagh was a minor celebrity in the UK and on YouTube before this incident, but now his previously innocuous creation feels perilously close to trolling. (His prior videos featuring tourists from other countries, while friendlier in tone, don’t paint the situation much better.)

But the aggressive stance by the Chinese tourists is worth understanding, too. A recent story on Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded news outlet that aims to promote democratic ideals to Asian countries, argues that part of the issue emerged because Chinese citizens tend to push their cultural mores outside of their borders. (As an American, I’ve heard this one said about people from my own country.)

The story referred to a concept called “Wolf warrior diplomacy,” which suggests a more aggressive tone used by Chinese nationals in diplomatic situations. (Was it that? Who knows.)

The result of this whole situation is that something that seems like it should be fun for everyone—a piano in a public place—has now become yet another culture-war flashpoint in a society chock-full of them. Great, just what we needed.

Anniversary Review

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Macintosh. Rather than write my own rant—despite the fact that I’m a well-known Apple complainer, I had to write about this goddamn piano player instead, because I prefer blue water for some reason—let me offer a few assessments of the wide array of Apple content out there today:

  • Best listicle: Benj Edwards in Ars Technica, highlighting weird examples of Macs of yesteryear. Every Mac generation should have a model specific to the Japanese Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament.
  • Best travelogue: iJustine taking her 1984 Mac to Cupertino. She bought a seat for the Mac on the plane!
  • Best reflections: Harry McCracken, Dan Moren, Jason Snell, and Steven Levy, each brilliant thinkers on all things Apple.
  • Laziest rant: Siva Vaidhyanathan’s weird takedown of Mac culture for The Guardian, which he compares to Ronald Reagan and gated communities.
  • Best single-serving site: Spend a few hours at—you won’t regret it.

My first Mac experience was in a computer lab at college. I always noticed the beige Mac towers were always open and seemed to be more powerful and interesting than the sea of beige boxes and monitors, so one day I tried one, and loved it. Then I would start using it every day.

It took a few years before I fully converted to the Mac—that came in 2003 or so, when I bought my roommate’s G4 tower after spending years using Macs in my design classes—but it shaped my thinking about computing even more than my formative days with GeoWorks and days reading computer magazines in the library once did.

The Mac, for all its faults has, on balance, been a great machine for our culture, even if it’s never been perfect.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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