UNSPECIFIED LOCATION – APRIL 18: In this screengrab, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and … [+]
Getty Images for Global Citizen
Let me begin with a full disclosure: I generally care little for what I perceive to be the vapid drivel that passes for popular culture these days. The pop stars (pap stars?) of today are as vacuous, soulless, and empty as the recycles, reboots and retreads that define mainstream culture in general, from movies and TV to contemporary music. I sometimes get the feeling that today’s cookie cutter media celebrities are generated and consistently recycled algorithms programmed by some sinister AI overlord in order to keep humankind in a state of contented stupidity. I realize that this probably sounds like the typical old guy “Get off my lawn!” cynicism and middle age melancholia of life’s post-50 years, but I am also of a particular generation whose time on the planet straddles two very different eras of media consumerism; a life split almost equally between the before and after of the current and ever-evolving information age. While technology continues to progress in leaps and bounds, culture seems to have become ossified and frozen. There’s at once too much art being produced and not a lot of good art being made. Our many screens are smoke and mirrors. There is no “there” there. I tell my media students that I envy their youth, but not their culture, and I can’t imagine what a drag it must be to be a young person today. A brilliant student in one of my experimental media classes recently sent me an email addressing the very millennial dilemma of being shackled to and trapped by past forms of media culture; the inability to forge a new progressive path forward due to having instant access to the clinging ghosts of the past at our very fingertips. When you grow up with an endless library of music, films, and books to explore, it is difficult to think beyond what came before. I quote from his email to me:
“The amount of access we have had, to where we can sample different countercultures has led to a certain amount of cultural fatigue, where we frankly just don’t (care) anymore and have homogenized into one ill-defined nebulous culture. Consider how wild it is that a student of yours who grew up listening to Crass, has a deep knowledge of NY Punk and hardcore, participated heavily in the vegan/socialist metal scene in the early 2000s has turned around to make a living playing hip hop and 80s funk and just sent you an easy listening track while dissecting it with all the pop culture references contained within it. This simply would not have been possible at any time in history. The counter culture has skipped a generation, because we have access to all the other counter cultures before us and can simply pick and choose the elements of each one and run with it. If anything, the next counter culture is going to come from Generation Z, we’ll just need to give it some more time. As they are the ones entering college and into their own adult lives for the first time, I really believe the next 5 – 10 years, we will see something new on the horizon.”
And so there is hope yet. Culture is not dead but merely hibernating until the next great movement in the arts. Streaming celebrities have proven adept at showing their true disingenuous colors during the Coronavirus pandemic. While supposedly offering comfort, they instead demonstrate how out of touch and unrelatable they truly are to the average citizen. Once beloved, they are now creatures to despise; royalty to be deposed. They are not “us” and the fantasy that they are somehow our superiors, gods and goddesses to aspire to, is also no longer tenable. They isolated themselves from us, above us, as a way of life. Now, they want us to accept them as friends and family united in a common struggle. In the face of a widespread deadly communicable disease that knows no class boundaries, they suddenly feel quite human and vulnerable. Unfortunately for them, we have our own worries at the moment and can’t be bothered to succor their insatiable egos.
Hosting the Golden Globes back in early January (a lifetime ago, it now seems), comedian Ricky Gervais hit the nail on the head with a blunt axe and was way ahead of the curve on how celebrity would be reassessed in the coming weeks and months. As he told The Hollywood Reporter at the time, “Do I pander to the 200 privileged egos in the room, or do I try and entertain a global audience of 200 million people sitting at home who aren’t winning awards? Well, no contest. I try and make it a spectator sport. I try and play the outsider. It would be nauseating for me to come out and go, ‘Hey, George, how you doing, thanks for letting me use your villa. Hey, Brad, see you tonight, yeah?’ It’s horrible. I’ve got to be the bloke sitting at home who shouldn’t have been invited. That’s who I’ve got to be.” In what can accurately be described as a hateful diatribe (and a hilarious one at that) against the essential malignancy of the very celebrity culture he himself is a part of, here are some notable barbs from Gervais’ opening monologue as he skewered the very idea of celebrity culture and worship. From calling the roomfull of stars “all you perverts” and insisting they were all friends with Jeffrey Epstein to references to Felicity Huffman making license plates in prison (Gervais does feel sorry for her daughter, however) to suggesting the Globes create “an award for most ripped junky,” he seemingly spared no one in the room, or the works for which they were being honored (“Seriously, most films are awful. Lazy. Remakes, sequels”). He repeatedly told the stars to shut up amid their hisses and moans and reaffirmed throughout that he simply didn’t care what they thought about his monologue or anything else. The assault eventually reached its conclusion, by which point all were aware that Gervais was not really joking in the least:
Apple roared into the TV game with The Morning Show, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China. Well, you say you’re woke but the companies you work for in China — unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?
So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.
So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and _____ off, okay?
Gervais captured an emerging zeitgeist, a culture of celebrity resentment that fully manifested itself as the world went into lockdown and isolation two months later. We found ourselves starved for companionship but quarantined in a hell of virtual celebrity that was anything but comforting. We saw how sad and miserable even the rich and famous had become, and how utterly narcissistic, self-pitying and unaware they had always been.
On March 29, Fox aired Elton John’s “iHeart Living Room Concert for America”, which was notable for once again highlighting the fact that Sir Elton, once possessed of the greatest vocal and songwriting talents in rock music, is at best a passable master of ceremonies today. The show was intended to instill hope and ease the hardships of the Coronavirus outbreak, but was instead dismal and depressing on a number of levels. The featured performers invited average Americans into their multimillion dollar mansions to show us how we are all alike in our isolation and fear, even while many audience members worried about whether they would continue to have a roof over their heads. The beleaguered and sensitive pop stars shared their sadness with us so that we would know that it’s okay to be out of sorts during these troubled and troubling times. What the show ultimately conveyed was the sheer narcissism and self-absorption of the rich and famous, and their obsessive need to be looked at and paid attention to. Daniel D’Addario was on point with a number of pithy comments in Variety’s review of the broadcast, noting that “Credited celebrities, unable to perform in any setting other than their living rooms, seemed to decide that showing off how they lived was inspiration enough.” As to the performance of the Backstreet Boys, “There was no pretense, in their performance, towards any uplift greater than a reminder that these five men were super-famous for singing this song at a time, and would be happy to keep singing it as long as your attention stays on them.” Another celeb singled out by Variety “seemed, in mien and performance style, to genuinely view the broadcast as a potential promotional opportunity for sales of her album, so much so that the viewer came to feel like a scold for thinking that maybe it ought to be a little more about the good causes that go unmentioned for long stretches. The Cabello cause — assiduously promoted at all moments, so why not now? — was so foregrounded as to make coronavirus seem like an intrusion rather than the point.”
Sir Elton was back with a new roster of suffering and insufferable celebrities on April 18 when Lady Gaga brought us “One World Together at Home” across various broadcast networks and streaming platforms. Sponsored by Global Citizen and giving thanks to healthcare workers on the front lines, the program at least gave a nod to the healing powers of legitimate rock and roll, with appearances by Paul McCartney and Eddie Vedder and with the Rolling Stones even zooming in from their separate homes for a live rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Indeed), with Charlie Watts inexplicably faking his drum beats to a prerecorded track. Sadly, such rock royalty couldn’t quite offset Jennifer Lopez’s woeful backyard lament or her tearfully insincere “I miss you” to the audience. New media practices are always in the service of new forms of manipulation, but these special live streaming events for worthy causes are going a long way toward making spectators reassess their virtual relationships with celebrities. As one spectator bluntly put it in a response to J.Lo’s performance on social media, “We all hate you.”
In an insightful commentary in The New York Times from April, Amanda Hess cannily assessed what she called a “backlash on cult of celebrity”:
“Celebrities have a captive audience of traumatized people who are glued to the internet, eyes darting toward trending topics for clues to processing the unimaginable horrors looming just outside, and instead are finding Madonna bathing in a rose petal-strewn bath. Stunts like (WonderWoman star Gal) Gadot’s crowd-sourced famous-person cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ are tone-deaf in more ways than one. Their contributors suggest that the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve, as if the pandemic could be overcome by star power alone.”
Hess goes on to implore outspoken celebrities to get off the tears-and-sympathy and we’re-all-one bandwagon, and argues for their replacement by those who are “charming or deranged enough to distract from the specter of mass suffering and death.” On that end of the spectrum, I sadly looked on as maverick cultural innovators that do deserve our respect and attention became victims of the limitations and failures of technology itself. Just when all our devices and streaming platforms might best be used to connect us and remind us of our collective humanity, those very technologies have demonstrated how imperfect, untenable, and volatile they truly are during our time of need. As the nobly-conceived but ultimately tasteless live events described above continued to proliferate, I was left to wonder why the voices I cared about- and voices that seemed to genuinely care about the fate of humankind- were silent. Yes, there were any number of progressive artists doing their own live stay-at-home feeds (a bit more on that later), but where were the star-studded fundraisers of the alternative and underground pantheons? I mean, I would even have settled for a few pearls of wisdom and encouragement from that secular New Wave saint Bono by the end of April. So, I was genuinely excited to hear about the Pathway to Paris concert celebrating 50 years of Earth Day and featuring the likes of Patti Smith, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, Michael Stipe, Cat Power, Flea, and Tony Hawk among others. Sadly, the effort was an epic fail on the technological side. Streaming on the unwieldy smart phone dimensions of the Instagram platform (is that a thing now?), every performance and statement I watched was constantly interrupted by tech glitches, with much of the first hour consisting of Smith’s daughter Jessie Paris, one of the organizers, staring in closeup at the vertical screen and muttering for help as she tried to negotiate the platform’s tech issues and connect featured artists to the stream. No good deed goes unpunished.
To my taste, the best live star-studded streaming event of the new normal was also one I ultimately decided not to watch. Old-school punk folksinger Billy Bragg hosted a Mother’s Day concert on YouTube benefiting the United Nations Foundation which featured some of the very greatest outliers of the music biz: Joseph Arthur, Steve Earle, The Mountain Goats, and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright, among many others. So why didn’t I watch? Quite simply, because it cost $10. I heard it went off without a hitch and it definitely wasn’t streamed on Instagram.
In the cowardly new world where “Zoom bombing” is now a thing, livestream technology faces other challenges as well. The edgy independent book publisher Two Dollar Radio, whose wonderful catalogue continues to expand on my shelves, issued the following statement to its subscribers after a recent live streaming author event went sadly wrong:
An unfortunate incident occurred tonight during our live virtual event with Andre Perry, Sadie Dupuis, and Phil Kim. Calling it anything other than ugly would be an understatement, and letting it exist without some kind of statement would be a disservice to those affected. It was a sad testament to racist ideologies in our country, as well as in opposition to quite literally everything that we stand for as a publishing company and as human beings in general.
As author of Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, Andre Perry, said in a Facebook post directly after the event, this was “an honest picture of America on Friday, May 8th at 7 p.m. Eastern. We aren’t deterred. In fact, we welcome the real picture of our national soul. The airbrushed version is no longer suitable. Never was. We will be back and our purpose to discuss art + community + a better future has sharpened.”
Our goal is, as it always has been, to amplify bold voices with something to say, and we absolutely will not let one racist counter-person deter our efforts. The event with Andre Perry, Sadie Dupuis, and Phil Kim will be rescheduled. We have amazing stuff on the horizon, and we’re working tirelessly over the next couple days to ensure that future events are secure and safe for all participants.
And so it goes: Nnew technologies, same old problems of hate and malice. So where is the love?
Singer Jesse Malin photographed in the Chinatown section of New York, May 5, 2004 (AP Photo/Jim … [+]
The only weekly streaming event I have returned to again and again is Jesse Malin’s “The Fine Art of Self Distancing” airing live on YouTube from Malin’s New York City apartment on Saturday afternoons. Malin, a longtime fixture of the Lower East Side’s punk and singer-songwriter scenes, is an intensely social person who lives alone and sincerely lets his viewers know how much he values the ability to try and stay connected vicariously. Throughout the two hours of his weekly themed shows, he sings songs, plays guitar, and spins one name-dropping yarn after another about his life in rock and roll, all with some seriously funny and enlightening anecdotes thrown in by his Tony Clifton-like alter ego Bob Strauss as well as the occasional emotional breakdown. He also pauses throughout the stream to show and tell the books he is reading, the films he is watching, and the music he is listening to. Other than some late start times, his live shows go off without a hitch. Following a brief hiatus, Malin’s show launches its second season of live streams with special guest Lucinda Williams on May 23.
Whether you will like “The Fine Art of Self Distancing” or even relate to it at all will depend on how you feel about Malin, punk rock history, and New York characters in general. My experience has been that having seen Malin perform over the years and having met him on occasion, in these dark days he has become something of a virtual best friend to me and I appreciate being invited into his home every weekend. He never pretends that he isn’t doing this at least in part for his own personal well-being. He’s a good host, honest, funny, respectful, and wise. I wish there were more like him out there in the fractured void of celebrity cyberspace.