There are monsters in Ali Spagnola’s living room. The two main characters from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.—a seven-foot fuzzy-blue likeness of Sully and the short-statured likeness of Mike—are more prominent than the bright red couches that hem them in or the 24 paintings that lay drying on every available surface. They seem at ease along the edges of the room, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a person’s monsters to be out in the open.
“When I was in middle school they were giving them away at Toys “R” Us. This was pre-Internet contests. You had to fill out a thing and put it into a ballot box, like a caveman,” Spagnola laughs. “I had my parents drive me to all the surrounding Toys “R” Us and filled out tons of them. I gamed the system.”
Ali Spagnola—artist, musician, Internet personality, nerd—doesn’t seem to care much about the system. A native Pittsburgher, Spagnola is most famous for her Power Hour concerts, album and app. For those who haven’t eased the intake of alcohol in game format for a while, Power Hour participants drink one ounce of beer every minute for an hour. As things get hazy, the Power Hour’s musical hallmark keeps things up-tempo: there is a song for every minute; when it changes, you drink.
Spagnola hit on the idea for a Power Hour concert while in her junior year at Carnegie Mellon University. Like most aspiring college-age musicians, she played small concerts whose audiences were comprised of loyal friends.
“It was so boring,” she says. “You know, ‘Come hear an artist you don’t know play songs you’ve never heard.’ It’s tough to promote that.”
She decided to make her concerts interactive by leveraging the popular “power format”: she wrote 60 goofy one-minute songs and encouraged the crowd to drink along. Spagnola remembers the line around the building to get into that first concert, held at Peter’s Pub.
“It was a huge difference between that and your four best friends in a coffee shop pretending to listen to you. I thought, ‘I should probably keep doing this.’ And I did.”
The Power Hour idea might seem ubiquitous and unlikely to be copyrighted, but part of Spagnola’s notoriety stems from the protracted legal battle she fought with a former colleague over the allowed use of the Power Hour name. (Spoiler alert: Spagnola won. She “freed” the Power Hour for the masses). The showdown drew support from all corners of the Internet. It was featured in Boing Boing, went wildfire on Reddit and successfully raised $30,000 to cover legal fees through an Indiegogo campaign. But Power Hour is a small, if well publicized, part of Spagnola’s repertoire.
In the age of the specialist, Spagnola does a little bit of everything. And despite her protestations (“I say I do everything poorly”) part of her charm is being very good at seemingly incongruous things. She’s a former competitive figure skater, a member of the Penguins Ice Crew, a computer nerd and a sound designer. The home page of her website features a graphic of five labeled spheres—blog, music, Ali Spagnola’s Power Hour Drinking Game, free paintings and portfolio—with a very direct greeting: “Hi! I’m Ali Spagnola. I’m an artist. I do many things and I’ve separated them into different pages. Choose a ball!”
“I’ve tried to cut it down into little digestible pieces so that people don’t get like annoyed or scared or confused,” she says. Her elevator pitch is to say she’s a musician and Internet personality, but even that description is purposefully reductive.
“It’s just the label I put on it because I had to figure something out,” she says. “I like to make cool things and show people and the Internet allows me to do that, so I guess I’m an Internet personality.”
Online, Spagnola is a forthright, funny, glamorous person who writes covers of popular songs, makes video commentary on pop culture, and has a running gag about how the wall outlet in her videos is more plugged in than she is. In person, Spagnola is both forthright, funny but clever and not glam, wearing sweatpants and mismatched Converse sneakers and embarrassed by the state of her apartment.
“The Internet’s a heightened version of me, it’s an exaggerated Ali,” she says, busily picking up paintings. The canvases measure one-foot by one-foot and represent 1/83 of her free paintings project. Anyone can send Spagnola an email to request a painting. She has painted and mailed “one square foot of awesome” to more than 2,000 people at no cost. It’s the physical manifestation of her driving objective: to have people see her work.
“The Internet is very helpful for that. I’m glad that I live in this age where I can make something and say, ‘Look what I made,’ and be able to get that out to people.”
Spagnola has amassed a huge following on Twitter and Facebook because she gets what the Internet wants: honesty (if it’s funny), commentary and self-deprecation. In her weekly show “Most Googled Song” she writes a one-minute ditty about the week’s Internet news as revealed through its searches.
“I will keep you up to date on what’s trending,” she explains in the show’s intro, “while simultaneously making fun of what’s trending.”
Her dual stance—engaging with the absurd while coolly breaking it down—is both the core and form of Spagnola’s appeal. She presents herself as art while asking people to connect with the art; she dedicates her time to making work while making fun of herself for trying. That jocular humility is a rare commodity and her followers and fans, frat bros and nerds, reward it with likes and retweets and genuine communication.
“I am cultivating a meaningful relationship with millions of people is what I say,” she laughs.
While she maintains her presence on the Internet, touring the country playing Power Hour concerts, Spagnola is pegging away at her next venture, a full-length album. “I want to be seen as a legitimate musician,” she says. “I want to write something that resonates with people.”
Her studio holds a drum kit and a keyboard; a guitar resides in her kitchen. While the Internet loves the Spagnola it knows, the one drinking decaf coffee at 2 P.M. is full of surprises.