Last Sunday, Kanye let loose a torrent of Tweets — he apologized to Taylor Swift, but also did a little media studies self-scholarship, declaring himself the big black “King Kong” of the incident, an analysis that echoes Kristen Warner’s own reading on my blog in the days after the VMAs.
I would copy the full litany of Tweets below, but my screen shots necessarily make it appear in opposite order. You’ll get a better sense by reading Gizmodo’s rendering of the Tweets into “letter form” or by simply checking out Kanye’s Twitter Stream yourself — if you scroll down, you’ll happen onto the end of his Sunday tweets. But here’s just a sampling:
I picked this particular section because it emphasizes the authenticity of the comments — “these Tweets have no manager, no publicist, no grammar checking….this is raw.” Obviously, that was how these comments were received: as a pure conduit of Kanye-ness. Gizmodo says that Kanye and other artists on Twitter “mark the death of music magazines,” while Mashable goes to far as to claim that Kanye proves that Twitter has not only changed the way that we communicate, but “set information free.”
These articles demonstrate a utopian embrace of new interface — and to do so, they must take Kanye, and all celebrity Twittering, at face value. For these writers, the fact that the celebrity twitter account is “authenticated” (via a little check mark in the right-hand corner: yes, this is really Kanye!) means that the artist has dismissed all publicity and intermediaries, choosing instead to speak directly to the consumer/fan. And this move on the part of major artists, celebrities, and stars — everyone from John McCain to Snooki, from the Dalai Lama to Conan, harkens a new age in accessibility and, apparently, the end of the publicity apparatus.
Twitter (and its champions) have cultivated an image of authenticity and immediacy around the service. But just because the interface itself has embraced that image does not mean that it is necessarily true. Nick Muntean and I explored this concept (and its drawbacks) at length in our joint piece over at M/C Journal , and I explored the “cloud of authenticity” around celebrity Twittering on FlowTV way back in May 2009, when Ashton Kutcher raced CNN to the most followers.
The bottom line: just because Twitter claims to offer unmediated access does not mean that it is not mediated. Put somewhat differently: just because Kanye says that his Tweets have no publicist does not mean that they are not part of a generalized publicity strategy. Or, finally: Kanye is a publicity mastermind, and he — and his people — know exactly what they’re doing. The idea that we are gaining access to the “real,” intimate Kanye is the goal. The fact that most readers — and journalists — have bought into it affirms its efficacy.
As I’ve written about before, Twitter is most often used to buttress the existing star image. When a celebrity Tweets about his/her personal life, thoughts, inclinations, etc., it reaffirms that his/her pre-exisiting image is, in fact, more than image — it’s the “real” person. Thus when Kanye Tweets “sometimes I get emotional over fonts” or “just looking at my closet, wool suits, fedoras, trenches, and furs…I’m bout to put fall in the hospital…Ima hurt the season” , he is absolutely (and hilariously) reifying his existing, bombastic, over-the-top, and, yes, brilliant, image. And he’s no stranger to using New Media to cultivate this image — as many remarked when he first joined Twitter, it was surprising that he had even waited this long, as he has long used his own blog to speak “directly” to his fans (including a drunken post immediately after the Taylor Swift incident). He’s smart about reassuring his fans that it’s really him — regularly claiming that the existence of bad grammar and spelling proves that it’s him and not one of his publicists/employees.
Even in the above paragraph, I’m revealing my own vulnerability to the image-making machine. I attribute the entire Twitter stream to Kanye, even though there is no proof whatsoever that it is, in fact, Kanye West himself that is sitting at the computer typing these words. It’s just that all signs seems to point to the fact that it is him — and it’s much easier to believe than disbelieve. Of course, “Kanye West” (in quotes) is, in fact, Tweeting — the IMAGE of Kanye West is providing information to fans, providing access to the intimate details…..but of the IMAGE, not the man. if we consider the Twitter stream in terms of Kanye’s IMAGE, it makes no difference whether the man himself or others responsible for the cultivation of that image are actually writing the words.
What’s frustrating, then, is the illusion, or perhaps the neat acceptance, of Twitter accounts as the end of organized publicity and manufacture of image. Twitter is simply this particular moment’s medium of choice for transmitting image. Under the studio system, stars “wrote” columns, confessionals, and responded to fan letters personally — and the vast majority of readers believed that they were in fact gaining intimate access to the star. We look back on those interactions, and the willingness of fans to believe that their stars would in fact spend the time to write for a fan magazine or responding to individual fans, and recognize the absurdity. But in the ’30s and ’40s, what reason was there to doubt that a star wouldn’t want to tell you the “true story” of her childhood, her marriage, her rise to stardom? Her name was on the byline; she posed for the pictures, the quotes sounded like things she would say. To doubt the authenticity was tantamount to declaring your star a liar, a fake, and an image — and, by extension, your willingness to like that image was embarrassing and juvenile. So why doubt?
In fifty years, we might be thinking the very same thing about Twitter — and our willingness to believe that every Tweet comes from the fingers of its namesake, a pure extension of his/her mind and “real” self simply because it pops up instantly on our computer screen and bear’s the celebrities “authenticated” handle. No matter how real the Tweets seem, no matter how often the celebrity replies back, it’s still part of his cultivation of image, and our belief in its authenticity is absolutely crucial to sustaining the illusion.
But don’t get me wrong: I *love* following celebrities on Twitter. But as those interested in interrogating / thinking through stardom and celebrity, we should be just as “wary” of a Tweet from Kanye as we would be of a signed picture, arriving on our doorstep, signed “You’re the greatest, Anne Helen Petersen, I love your blog, Love, Kanye.” Ultimately, thinking and analyzing and doubting is not mutually exclusive to taking pleasure in these things. You can be smart about celebrities and love to “consume” them — all at the same time.
First, a few links to a string of Antenna star/celebrity-based articles:
- “It’s a Bird, It’s a GaGa! It’s….Miley?” (Lindsay Garrison on the ridiculous new Miley video for ‘Can’t be Tamed. Sneak preview: She’s dressed as a GIANT BIRD)
- “I Don’t Give a Damn About My Bad Reputation: Glee Talks Back” (Sharon Ross, with a lively comments section)
- “Character Bleed, Or, What’s Lorelei Gilmore Doing with Nate Fischer” (Kristina Busse on the ways that television characters previous roles ‘bleed’ onto their new performances.)
Now onto the actual topic of the post…..celebrity pity.
This is the cover of last week’s US Weekly — the magazine’s counter to the People Mag Sandra Bullock bombshell. And while this cover isn’t nearly as compelling as Sandy with her baby giving the reader the ‘Don’t mess with my Mom’ look, it does touch on a sentiment that’s regained tremendous currency of late: namely, that these young women have been permanently damaged and distorted by fame….and it both is and is not our fault.
[Of course, this is no new phenomenon -- fame also ruined all the child stars of the 1970s and 1980s, just as it ruined Judy Garland. It's important to remember to historicize -- but I also think that what's happening with these celebrities -- and the very public and incessant cataloguing of their respective 'falls' -- is of a different intensity than that which has come before.]
The ladies of The Hills are in the spotlight because the show just began its final season, but the generalized sentiment (and its connection to tabloidization and reality TV in general) is by no means limited to Heidi et. al. US Weekly has participated in its fair share of blaming Kate Gosselin for ‘destroying her family’ through her quest for fame, while Jezebel recently published ‘In Defense of Lindsay Lohan,’ pointing to the ways in which Lohan’s current situation is the result of shitty, very public upbringing (and celebrity-hungry parents).
The Hills — and Heidi in particular — best represent this particular brand of destruction: the ideological work of celebrity is physically mapped on her body in the form of plastic surgery so drastic that it has made her back bow. She’s also unable to hug or run, and made her mother weep when she saw her. (For more on the tragedy of Heidi, see Liz Ellcessor’s fantastic guest post from a few months back comparing Heidi to Lady MacBeth).
The basic thesis of these pieces is that celebrities have been consumed by their fame — and that process of consumption has warped their ability to see themselves clearly, function in the real world, or follow the rules of society. They drive drunk, they do coke, they starve themselves, they post inappropriate messages on Twitter, they fight with their girlfriends in public, they spend tens of thousands of dollars on energy crystals. The thing about these celebrities that was compelling in the first place — the fact that they were beautiful but also mundane, living a life different than ours but also used the word ‘like’ every other sentence — is eclipsed by their transformation into entities wholly unrecognizable as a part of our daily existence. They turn from ‘just like us’ to ‘just like we never want to be.’ Indeed, it’s no accident that Lindsay Lohan is now so often compared to Gollum from Lord of the Rings: she’s no longer recognizable as human. They become freaks — physically and mentally distorted under the spotlight.
What’s fascinating to me, though, is the way that such articles elude to our participation, but evacuate the actual articles of any potential indictment, either of ourselves (as consumers of celebrity) or of the magazines/blogs themselves (as participants in the production of celebrity). Put differently, Heidi is destroyed by fame….but this destruction is (conveniently) discursively divorced from the fact that Heidi actually gained her current level of (in)fam(y) through a series of US Weekly covers two summers ago (and subsequent follow-ups).
US Weekly even ran a cover story about Heidi’s “Revenge Plastic Surgery” — effectively endorsing the fact that she used breast implants to get revenge (and find happiness).
Of course, gossip magazines are intended to make money — and the way they do so is by recycling stories, regurgitating details but framing them differently, making one party the villain and the other the victim….and switching the tactic the very next week. This worked brilliantly during the Jon and Kate maelstrom of last summer; it worked for Speidi the summer before that. And I’m not saying that US Weekly should suddenly turn hyper moral-/ meta-conscious and begin publishing editorials about the way in which it participates in the destruction of these women. That’d burst the illusion of celebrities simply occuring naturally — and illuminate the strings of production, which no one wants to think about. Most readers want to believe that celebrities simply exist…..and aren’t the product of a celebrity industrial complex. To acknowledge the production of celebrity is to acknowledge its hollowness.
What we should think of, however — especially as feminists — is the ways in which our participation as readers of these products does, indeed, contribute to this ‘destruction’…a destruction that afflicts female celebrities far more than their male counterparts. Even our pity for them — effectively allowing Heidi to think that her surgery was a great idea, as it managed to garner her more publicity — feeds that machine.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be interested in gossip, or that reading celebrity gossip blogs is akin to taking the knife to Heidi’s skin. That sort of blame and shame usually comes from those who are wholly critical and dismissive of celebrity and gossip in general; the people who tell you that by looking at the covers of magazine in the supermarket check-out line that you’re basically causing the end of the world as we know it. I’m neither that alarmist nor that condemnatory; obviously, I participate myself.
With that said, I do think it’s important for us, whatever our level of gossip consumption, to realize that the way that fame is destructive, and to acknowledge the fact that the industrial process that produces celebrity can’t function without readers. What’s happened to Heidi, Kristen, and Lindsay Lohan is what Lainey Gossip would call ‘sad smut’ — it’s the type of thing that we shouldn’t be pleasuring in. I may be disgusted by Heidi, but I also genuinely pity her.
When you pity someone, say someone you pass panhandling on the street, what do you do? Do you laugh at that person? Lecture her on the fact that she made decisions that led her there? Give her a paper you wrote on the fact that the structures of capitalism put her there? Probably none of the above. Usually you just avert your eyes and keep walking and try to forget. If anything, these US Weekly‘s are, somewhat ironically, forcing us to confront the result of fame — and our participation in it — on a daily basis. And while US Weekly is certainly part of the problem of profiting off of sad smut, it also provides a visual reminder that haunts the gossip blogs, the doctor’s office, the gym, the supermarket aisle, reminding us, if we choose to listen, of our participation.
And that’s the catch-22 and the delicate balance of celebrity gossip: it simultaneously produces and consumes celebrity….as it works to both encourage our consumption and make us feel shame for doing so.
First, a caveat: My apologies for authoring a third post on Twitter over the course of two weeks. I promise: we’ll get some good J-Lo gossip soon. What’s more, the post that follows deals with my experience this past weekend at an academic conference and how Twitter both accentuated and ‘scandalized’ those proceedings — while it will certainly be of interest to anyone who’s ever been concerned with how junior professionals grapple with how their name/image is bandied about in public spaces, there will be a little bit of ‘inside baseball’ academic talk.
With that said, I’ve just arrived home from a long weekend spent in Eugene, Oregon at the 2010 Console-ing Passions Conference. The funky name is a vestige of the 1990s, when pun-y, hyphenated names and titles were all the rage in academia — basically it’s a feminist media conference that deals with many of the texts, approaches, and concerns that have long been marginalized by mainstream media studies (although that situation is gradually changing). In other words, this was a conference with a ton of panels that dealt explicitly with identity politics (race, class, sexuality, gender, etc.) and also dealt with texts, such as my own objects of study (gossip, stars, celebrity et. al.), that are still eschewed by some in the academy. (At SCMS, the ‘big dog’ of media studies conferences, I had a senior male scholar visibly recoil and scoff when I told him that my dissertation was on the history of celebrity gossip).
For various reasons, there was no internet access at SCMS, a situation that rightly infuriated many participants (myself included), mostly because it prevented any sort of live Twitter coverage of the panels. Hello: MEDIA STUDIES CONFERENCE. This situation will of course be remedied at SCMS next year, but it also left many of us media studies scholars who are regular users of Twitter. Thus, when Console-ing Passions rolled around six weeks later, anticipation for what live-tweeting would like like — and how it would be received — was high.
Indeed, as both Jason Mittell and Max Dawson pointed out (through Twitter) almost immediately, one morning panel of CP had inspired more Tweets than the whole of SCMS. I myself live-Tweeted most of the panels I attended (if you follow me on Twitter, this was obvious); I greatly enjoyed being able to look back on what was live-Tweeting about my *own* presentation — not to mention participating in the back-channels that emerged during several panels and the plenary.
Melissa Click authored a great wrap-up of the conference over at Antenna, and Amanda Ann Klein has a great piece on the uses and mis-uses (including several Twitter highlights). As Amanda emphasizes, Twitter can create really productive conversation — but the particular interactions on the backchannel (and their ramifications) at this conference leads us, as scholars, to think about how Twitter will be used in the future — and if we should come up with some tentative ‘guidelines’ to guide us towards a proper conference Twitter etiquette.
Now, Amanda also draws attention to what might be the most controversial use of Twitter at the conference — an event that took place at the plenary. Here’s Click’s succinct recap of the plenary itself:
“The CP plenary was Friday’s anticipated event. The plenary, titled “Publishing What We Preach: Feminist Media Scholarship in a Multimodal Age,” included Bitch’s Andi Zeisler, the Queer Zine Archive Project’s Milo Miller, and scholars Michelle Habell-Pallan and Tara McPherson. While Zeisler discussed blogging’s utility in feminist activism, and Miller discussed the web’s utility for archiving “twilight media,” Habell-Pallan discussed the importance of new media in American Sabor, the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. All three speakers communicated important messages for feminists wishing to bridge activism and scholarship, but it was Tara McPherson’s polemic, “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination,” that captivated the audience and had conference Tweeters typing like crazy. McPherson challenged the CP audience to adjust to the changing nature of the humanities by engaging with “the materiality of digital machines,” namely code, systems, and networks.The CP plenary was Friday’s anticipated event. The plenary, titled “Publishing What We Preach: Feminist Media Scholarship in a Multimodal Age,” included Bitch’s Andi Zeisler, the Queer Zine Archive Project’s Milo Miller, and scholars Michelle Habell-Pallan and Tara McPherson. While Zeisler discussed blogging’s utility in feminist activism, and Miller discussed the web’s utility for archiving “twilight media,” Habell-Pallan discussed the importance of new media in American Sabor, the first interpretive museum exhibition to tell the story of the influence and impact of Latinos in American popular music. All three speakers communicated important messages for feminists wishing to bridge activism and scholarship, but it was Tara McPherson’s polemic, “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination,” that captivated the audience and had conference Tweeters typing like crazy. McPherson challenged the CP audience to adjust to the changing nature of the humanities by engaging with “the materiality of digital machines,” namely code, systems, and networks.
Now, what Click doesn’t mention — and perhaps rightly so — is that part of what had Tweeters typing like crazy was a potentially incendiary phrase uttered during the Q&A session. Discussing where media studies needs to go in order to remain relevant during the next century, McPherson pointed out that “as lovely and elegant as Lost is, it doesn’t really matter.” This particular phrase echoed through the Twittersphere, Tweeted by myself and others, reaching hundreds of scholars following the conference remotely. This particular point was one of the most circulated (at least virtually) of the conference, and inspired Jason Mittell to author a response of sorts on his blog entitled “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do.” (For those of you not in media studies: there’s tension in the academia between those who think that studying actual texts is important and others who find it not as crucial to the future of the discipline. See McPherson’s response to Jason’s piece for more conversation on that point.)
Importantly, the comment simultaneously was and was not taken out of context. Sure, without actually hearing all of the talk — or the specific wording of the question to which McPherson was responding — it’s difficult to know exactly what she meant. But at the same time, myself and others were diligently live Tweeting snippets and key concepts from her address — which, to be very clear, I *loved.* Here’s just a sampling of what I tweeted from the talk — this was probably written over the course of about 3 minutes:
Thus, when I and others Tweeted her comment on “Lost doesn’t really matter,” it wasn’t without already having worked diligently to establish the other ideas and concepts that she was forwarding. McPherson herself was disappointed that a single comment — one that Nina Huntemann appropriately termed “media studies bait” was what many took away from the talk. Again, I’d like to emphasize that there were many other ideas taken away from the talk — especially the ‘silo-busting’ phrase — and that McPherson is correct to be disappointed if that’s what people remembered from the otherwise inspiring, challenging, deeply insightful address.
But not only would I say that it’s not what those in actual attendance took away — it’s also not what those in the Twittersphere took away…..unless they tuned in for a single 3-minutes of Tweets and refused to look before or after. And for better or worse, McPherson knew she was being live-Tweeted, and that that phrase, no matter the context ,would read as incendiary. As Bethany Nowviskie points out, most of those critiqued on Twitter at academic conferences are also *present* on Twitter and able to respond; appropriately, Tara McPherson regularly tweets from conferences and even live-tweeted the speeches leading up to her own.
Which all brings me to my overarching point and title of this post: how criticism of how scholars are Twitter has the potential to scare grad students away from using it — especially in the conference setting — altogether.
Because our conferences are (relatively) small and the number of people Tweeting them is even smaller, those who are participating in the backchannel are highly visible. Many people *follow* the backchannel on their smartphones, but participate little or not at all — in part because it’s too cumbersome to update swiftly and eloquently on such devices. Yet those who are updating frequently, as I was, in part because I had a computer, but also because I’m a ridiculously fast typist (thanks to an Apple IIe program called ‘PAWS’ that I played non-stop from age 5-8), my handle and name was incredibly visible on the feed. Looking at the stream now, I’d venture that 75% of the Tweets came from non-professors.
Put differently, those who are in some ways most vulnerable to rumor and word of mouth — e.g. graduate students — are not only doing most of the labor in making the conference visible to the rest of the world….but also exposing ourselves to criticism and visibility by those who think that a.) Twitter doesn’t have a place at conferences or b.) we’re ‘getting it wrong.’ What bothers me about these particular critiques is their passive aggressivity: if I’m doing it wrong, tell me so, either in real life or on Twitter. Part of why I like Amanda’s recent post so much is her willingness to think through what worked and didn’t work with Twitter at CP — but I think that we need to have more frank conversations, especially with those who not only don’t Tweet, but don’t read academic blogs. To put it plainly: we need to have conversations with those who are most critical and dismissive of Tweeting, who are most often (but certainly not always) senior scholars, and who are often in charge of whether or not we, as graduate students, get hired.
Of course, scholars, whether professors or grad students, shouldn’t write things on the backchannel that they wouldn’t say in the Q&A session, and I was very careful to craft my own comments according to that maxim. Twitter shouldn’t be a gossip session — it should be an opportunity to better formulate responses to what’s being said…and also to help open up the conference to those not in attendance. I’ve had several non-academics on my Twitterstream tell me how fascinated they were to see the ‘innards’ of an academic conference — and that’s *exactly* the sort of positive exposure that we, as scholars whose work is often undervalued or ridiculed by those outside of the academia, should be looking for.
But if our legitimate responses to a panel — whether in the form of transcribed a quote that struck us as particularly incendiary, asking for more attention to race/class, or simply bemoaning the fact that a scholar seemed to be dismissive of a topic — become a liability, then it’ll certainly discourage us from continuing to cultivate the back channel in the future. Junior scholars should be encouraged to participate in discourse, both critical and affirmative, about scholarship — whether in spoken conversation or Tweeted @s. But the visibility following this particular conference, especially as I’m about to enter the job market in the Fall, makes me think twice about whether I’ll be live-Tweeting again.
For whatever reason, last week seemed to be a tipping point for celebrities on Twitter. When Jim Carrey tweeted “Tiger Woods owes nothing 2 anyone but himself,” then criticized Woods’ wife, Elin, posting “No wife is blind enough to miss that much infidelity…Elin had 2 b a willing participant on the ride 4 whatever reason,” it was enough to prompt two separate articles, one from EW, the other on Jezebel, with the shared thesis that ‘Twitter is Ruining Celebrity.’
Here’s Jezebel’s explanation:
I’m just suggesting that certain people reconsider how goddamn annoying they can be. Because it turns out that plenty of high-profile people are not that smart, at least not all the time. Or at least not without the intervention of lots of people whose job it is to make them look good. And sometimes I would just rather not know how far short they fall.
If you’ve ever met a public figure you previously admired, you know it can seriously undermine whatever drew you to them in the first place. When I was pounding the pavement as a media reporter, there were plenty of writers and editors I met who more than lived up to fangirl expectations with their sparkling in-person insights. Then there were the ones that sloppily regurgitated conventional wisdom, or were giant social climbers or total leches. Still sorta ruins it every time I encounter their byline!
Twitter is like that, all the time.
The article then (rather hilariously) details how annoying/banal/mildly offensive some of these celebrities can be: Susan Orlean, who writes good pieces for The New Yorker, is a piss-poor and annoying Tweet author; Margaret Atwood is way too verbose; Kirsty Alley defends mild racism.
And, of course, there’s the whole John Mayer saga, exacerbated by his Twitter presence. Conclusion: when it comes to the Internet, some people should consider shutting up. Or, more specifically, some celebrities should consider shutting up — lest they shatter our illusions of celebrity and its function altogether.
So let’s be clear: these authors aren’t worried about overexposure. God knows the vast majority of celebrities who have taken to Twitter are already throughly, and arguable over, exposed. What seems to be at the crux of this anxiety — and what I find quite interesting — is this anxiety that the ‘authentic,’ unmediated sharing of Twitter will make the celebrity TOO real, TOO authentic…..too much like a real person. (You can see this anxiety invoked in the quote pulled from the Jezebel article in which the author compares Twittering to meeting someone you admire in the hallway — when you meet him/her in the flesh, she becomes an *actual person,* with blemishes, bad breath, bad jokes, whatever).
Undulating beneath both articles is an unstated assumption about celebrities: namely, that they are IMAGES, not people. We are attracted to the ideas — of race, of gender, of relationships, of Capitalism, of America — that they represent, not who they actually are. As I tell my students over and over again, it doesn’t matter who a celebrity is in the flesh, or what he/she ‘truly’ believes, or whether he/she is ‘actually’ a nice person. All that matters is how he/she is mediated — sometimes more successfully than others — and whether the public finds that image salient.
Some Twitter celebrities do a fantastic job of further extending their well-pruned image through Twitter use. Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Conan O’Brien all come to mind. (Importantly, all three use Twitter somewhat sparingly: their Tweets become fetishized, heavily retweeted, and are rarely all that banal. Each one seems to perfectly fit with the stars established image, as when Bieber tweets “a cool thing about 2day is that North Tonawanda, NY has 32k people in it…just like my town. Maybe the next kid with a dream is there.” It’s cheesy and sincere, but so is Justin Bieber….or, more accurately, so is Justin Bieber’s image.
Celebrities are ‘ruined,’ then, when they become too much like people — and disclose so much, and in such an uncontrolled fashion, that their images are impugned. We want the celebrity image to cultivate the crucial tension between the extraordinary and ordinary — between the knowledge that the celebrity eats food and the also goes to premieres and buys expensive clothes. But when the ordinary overwhelms the extraordinary, it creates an imbalance in the celebrity image. The celebrity image becomes imbalanced via his own disclosures, whether linked to bathroom habits or preference for ‘chocolate’ men. To stick with the metaphor, such imbalance causes the image to fall, causing a rupture….and the unseemly ‘real’ person behind the finely wrought celebrity image seeps through, causing disgust.
When you get down to it, celebrity twitter exposes are desire for celebrities to be ‘just like us’ as a fallacy. We don’t want them to be just like us. We don’t want them to Tweet just like us. We want them to be a simulacrum of ‘just like us.’ Put differently, celebrities should represent our ideal what a ‘real’ person is like, but we can’t look at that representation too closely, or ask it to Tweet….lest it reveal the hollowness beneath.
I’m not suggesting that celebrity culture — or our fascination with it — is hollow, or worthless. Rather, that the anxiety over Twitter (and other new media means of over-disclosure) are highlighting the disparity between what we think we want from celebrities….and what we actually want.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Twitter’s function in Hollywood of late. In part because I just finished reading P. David Marshall’s fascinating essay ‘The Promotion and Presentation of the Self: Celebrity as Marker of Presentational Media‘ in the inaugural issue of Celebrity Studies, which you can access in full (and for free!) (Imagine my tremendous surprise and delight when I reached the end of the essay and realized he had cited my earlier work on celebrity Twitter and the generation of authenticity . While I don’t always agree with Marshall (his understanding of the way that celebrity works is far more deterministic than my own — in his major work on the subject, Celebrity and Power, he theorizes celebrity as a means of generating self-surveillance and complacency in capitalist democracies) I admire his work tremendously . Along with Graeme Turner, Su Holmes, Chris Rojek, and Joshua Gamson, he was amongst the first to rigorously theorize the way that celebrity functions within society. In other words, his work helped make celebrity studies (and not just ‘star’ studies) legitimate, and it is an honor to think that I contributed to his thought process.
Tangent over — and back to Twitter. My thoughts on the ways in which celebrities generate clouds of authenticity around themselves and their disclosures remain static. While Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore may have tempered their Tweeting, the number of celebrities who have taken to Twitter over the past year has increased exponentially. Whether Conan or Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Taylor or Coach from Survivor, Twitter has firmly established itself as a means of extending one’s celebrity persona/image.
But Twitter and production information is another matter entirely. Hollywood observer Anne Thompson (an avid Tweeter herself) recently wrote a series of posts dealing with the ways in which Twitter is changing the way that publicity for films in pre-production, production, and post-production has been disseminated. Historically, such information was the provenance of the trades (Variety and Hollywood Reporter). When Entertainment Weekly debuted in the early ’90s, selling itself as a ‘trade for the mainstream,’ it began to trade similar information — but rarely were they exclusives or breaking news, in part due to the EW‘s weekly publication schedule. (Side note: if you ever meet me and get a glass of wine in me, make sure and ask me about my hilarious childhood devotion to EW.)
But with the trades in free fall for myriad reasons, most of the breaking trade news has migrated online — most prominently to Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily, but Anne Thompson’s ‘Thompson on Hollywood’, The Wrap, and even non-insider blogs like Cinematical are all now breaking trade news. Granted, Finke’s blog is probably the only one providing the sort of ‘inside baseball’ info traditionally organic to the trades, but the popularity of all of the aforementioned speaks to the growing fascination with production details outside of Hollywood. Put differently, ‘laymen’ — whether academics or just those independently interested in the industry — have become conversant in the trade language of Hollywood, and hunger for specifics concerning signing details, actor salaries, mergers, and weekend grosses.
Why are people more interested? Can we attribute it to increased levels of cinephilia? (Or DVD culture?) Not necessarily, no. When I was researching Entertainment Tonight and its start in the very early ’80s, I found dozens of articles trumpeted ET’s innovation and brilliance in their move to provide such information to the general public. Up to that point, no one was reporting how much stars were making, how much films were grossing, or how different television shows were faring in the ratings. But once that information was provided, the public came to view it as crucial in determining whether a show as successful — or whether they could call themselves an expert on a show, a movie, a star, or Hollywood more generally. If you provide stats, even if they’re ultimately somewhat meaningless, as reported weekend box office takes can be, people will begin to think of those stats as essential. Today, the general public is so versed in the parlance of weekend box office — and so assured that opening weekends determine the popularity of a film — that such stats turn into self-fulfilling prophesies. A #1 weekend ensures that the film will continue to draw consumers, not because the film was good, but because it’s so obviously marked as ‘popular.’ (Unless, of course, that film is G.I. Joe). (See also my summer piece on how box office speculations — and the discourse of ‘box office disappointment’ — unfairly doom pictures like Public Enemies).
So how does Twitter fit into this? As Thompson explains, more and more, stars, producers, and directors are taking to Twitter to break their own news, essentially obviating the need for trades altogether. Jon Favreau just Tweeted the (theretofore unannounced) news that Harrison Ford would be starring in his new picture; Tom Hanks posted a Twitpic of his casting session for his new film; Jerry Bruckheimer reports from screening of Prince of Persia at Wondercom. Jon Favreau posted a ton at the beginning of Iron Man 2, apparently got in trouble, but is now back at it, as evidenced by his Ford announcement.
To my mind, there are two forces precipitating this move. First, as described above, the lay men (e.g. the vast majority of those following the likes of Favreau, Bruckheimer, etc.) is hungry for ‘insider’ information. And, even more importantly, he/she will feel more ‘a part’ of a product with which they’ve been intimate for a long time. In this way, providing ‘inside’ information from pre-production is basically a way of hooking ticket buyers early: if they get in at the ground floor, they’re be more likely to show up to see the top put on the skyscraper. Second, Hollywood is, without a doubt, in financial crisis. No matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars made by the huge blockbusters, it still takes a tremendous amount of money to get a film made — and part of that ever-escalating budget is P.R. Thus, if you can publicize your film for NOTHING to an audience of millions of self-selected fans via Twitter…..why not? The same logic holds for the celebrity using Twitter to promote their general image: why keep a P.R. agent and stylist on retainer when you can publicize yourself with little more than an internet connection and a free Twitter account?
So it’s a smart business move. But it’s inciting all sorts of anxiety, in part because it, like the dissolution of the trades, threatens to fundamentally change the way that Hollywood does business. Because Hollywood, as an industry, is much more than simply the people who actually ‘make’ the movies — it’s also composed of vast armies of agents, assistants, managers, and P.R. agents. And if you take away those middlemen, replacing it with Twitter, a tremendous amount of people will be out of work. In some ways, I think the seismic effects of the internet (and digital technology more broadly) can only be compared to the demise of the studio system in terms of wide-spread ramifications in the way that Hollywood does business.
Which isn’t at all to suggest that the P.R. agent and agency is dead, or that the trades (print or online) will be rendered obsolete. The number of actors, producers, and directors using Twitter to break news straight to the consumer is still proportionally minuscule. But the possibility is there — and it’s going to continue to cause anxiety. What interests me most, then, is that it took a platform as widely ridiculed as Twitter to make both the movement itself and anxiety over it visible.
A few months back, someone on my Twitter feed asked “What is a Justin Bieber?” Obviously he’s a person, and more specifically, a teenage pop star, but the phrasing of the question highlights he’s particular role in the mediascape today. Justin Bieber isn’t just a teenage boy with a baby face. He’s not just the next New Kid on the Block, nor is he a new Justin Timberlake. His fame is organic to the internet, and he’s either a harbinger of the future of the music industry or a model for a new type of teenage fame.
It’s tempting to just think of him as a pop idol. His songs are pure treacle; he looks like he’s still around 10. But he’s quite different from the likes of, say, Zac Efron, both in his provenance and in the way that he’s manipulated his fame since he was ‘discovered.’
The Bieber Creation story is both fitting with our current digital moment…and somewhat creepy. Bieber taught himself to sing and play multiple instruments, eventually entering some contest in his native Canada and coming in second place. His mom then started posting videos of Bieber covering various songs (like this one from Usher) to YouTube, and poof, several months and several millions hits later, he’d caught the eye of music producer, who flew Bieber to Atlanta and had him sing for Usher, who immediately took interest. (Rumor has it that there was a bidding war between Usher and Timberlake; it’s unconfirmed).
Bieber’s first album, My World, was released in November 2009, featuring the single “One Time” (featuring Usher). The video for the song (see below) has accumulated a RIDICULOUS 65 million hits. He even sparked a riot in a Long Island mall when someone yelled that he was going to appear in Abercrombie Kids.
But I don’t think Bieber really made it into the public consciousness (and by public, I mean people over the age of 17) until the release of his song “Baby” in January. The song, like the rest of the Bieber oeuvre, features benign promises of chaste love and devotion, only this one gets a special rap from an uncharacteristically clean-mouthed Ludacris.
He also got to sing the first verse of the new ‘We Are the World’ to benefit Haiti, prompting many old fogies to remark “who the hell is this kid?” He is the subject of “3 year old Crying Over Justin Bieber,” a glorious and hilarious home video with a inconsolable toddler bawling because “I just love Justin Bieber” and “I know that he loves me back” that went viral last month. Trust me, this video is incredible. Even more recently, he was the ‘recipient’ of an intimate letter from the normally pop culture-phobic Atlantic, and became the pivot of ‘Funny or Die’s’ April Fool’s Joke, in which the website was ‘overtaken’ by Bieber to become “Bieber Or Die,” featuring videos of Bieber gone power crazy, Justin Bieber “just wants to tell you he loves you girl,” and a dozen others.
So what is a Justin Bieber? He’s a transmedia product — and one who has achieved that status without the help of Disney or Nickelodeon. ’Transmedia’ is a term generally applied to storytelling techniques — defined by one transmedia storyteller as “the art of conveying messages themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well planned use of multiple media platforms.” Lost is a good example of transmedia storytelling, as are Heroes, and The Matrix – all of which have had additional content published online or in alternate formats that can be consumed by fans as a means of adding to their understanding of the show and its narrative.
Now, I realize the term and idea of transmedia do not translate perfectly to a star. But I do think that we can think of a star as having a ‘narrative’ — and, as in the case of Bieber, a narrative that has components that are consumed by the majority, while other components are meant for consumption by fans aching for deeper understandings of the ‘story’ that is Bieber. Stars were transmedia before narratives were transmedia: dating back to Classic Hollywood, gossip and ‘story’ magazines lured readers with unknown details (and re-writings) of stars and the narratives in which they were featured (see Janet Staiger’s piece on Marlene Dietrich in Perverse Spectators for a particularly compelling instance). Just as today’s transmedia consumers were lured by the ‘tip of the iceburg’ that is the show/movie proper, so too are fans of stars — you see the star in a movie, on a YouTube video, whatever — and are drawn to seek our further details. To satiate your curiosity, sure, but also as a means of pleasurably expanding your understanding of the star and his/her meanings. Again, compare this activity to that of fans of Lost engaging in discussions, role-playing, fan-fic, and reading deep into the alternate and ‘fringe’ histories beneath the show on The Fuselage. In that case, it’s as if the show were the star, and the backstory provides the same pleasures that seeking personal history, dating habits, etc. function for a celebrity.
How, specifically, does Bieber occupy this position? He regularly Twitters; he has a website; his music videos are on Youtube. None of those things make him all that different from other pop stars. Yet I would argue that it’s the existence and tremendous popularity of his original videos — coupled with ‘stunts’ such as “Bieber or Die,” the Twitter account (with its 1.7 million followers), and dozens of videos Bieber made specifically for fans, including “So How Did I Fracture My Foot with Taylor Swift?” and “Justin’s Favorite Girl Response” that make his transmedia status (at least somewhat) unique. Bieber has an immense footprint on the web — and that, more than his signature haircut and plaintive voice, are what helped make him so successful.
Again, I don’t think Bieber is unique in his status as a transmedia star. Rather, I think that his success underscores the necessity of *being* transmedia — whether through Twitter, writing books, serving as a guest judge on a reality program, or having a website that does more than simply reproduce known facts about the star (as in the case of Tom Cruise’s). If you want to be a star today, whether in music or reality television, you’ve got to offer breadth — room to explore, room to be fascinated, room for your fans to feel like they know more about you than anyone else. At this point, I don’t think the paradigm applies to ‘organic’ movie stars (that is, stars whose stardom is either rooted and long-perpetuated almost exclusively by movie roles, with Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt as specimens par excellence) — but then again, I don’t think that transmedia storytelling applies nearly as much to movies as it does to this relatively recent wave of heavily serialized television. To resist that pull is, to quote John Mayer’s analysis of Jennifer Aniston’s career, pretending like you still live in 1997.
To conclude, I could go into elaborate detail about how Bieber’s lyrics and look cater to ‘tween audiences that actually want a highly asexual crush. But instead, I’ll just point you to the startlingly full collection of “Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber.”
If you’re at all in the generation and reception of celebrity, stop what you’re doing, reserve ten minutes, and read this somewhat lengthy and admittedly explicit Playboy interview with John Mayer.
The release of the interview on Playboy’s website has made major waves: everywhere from USA Today to Huff Post, from TMZ to Perez Hilton, from ABC to US Weekly is excerpting and covering the reaction to the piece. Mayer added fuel to the fire earlier today when he Tweeted (to his 3 million followers) to apologize for using the ‘n’ word — in what he claimed to be an attempt to ‘intellectualize’ the word. (Details here; see John Mayer’s Twitter feed here).
There’s no doubt that what Mayer said in this interview was offensive. Inappropriate. Guilty of kiss-and-tell. Weirdly and obsessively honest. Borderline repulsive. Racist, sexist. This is all made very, very clear not only in this particular interview, but in Mayer’s other interviews — see, for example, last month’s equally odd and frank interview with Rolling Stone.
But more interesting, at least in terms of the celebrity paradigm, is the way in which this particular interview functions to produce Mayer as a very certain — and discourse-worthy – type of celebrity. While I do not condone or agree with the behaviors, word choice, or attitudes that he espouses throughout the interview, as one who studies celebrity culture, I find his disclosure and image generation absolutely genius. Disagree if you will, but consider the following:
1.) He’s generating a tremendous aura of authenticity.
Richard DeCordova, following Foucault, argued that the disclosure of sexual secrets is equated, at least in our culture, as the disclosure of the ‘real,’ authentic self. Usually these sexual secrets are disclosed without the consent of the subject — think Fatty Arbuckle, think Tiger Woods — but even when the subject is doing the disclosing himself, it’s still the rawest, most honest, most ‘real’ path of access to the star.
So when John Mayer extrapolates, at length, on his masturbation habits, and reveals that Jessica Simpson is “crack cocaine” for him (“sexual napalm”!), it’s so apparently honest, so apparently not the sort of thing that you’re not supposed to publicly disclose, that it can’t be anything but true. Let me rephrase: because ‘normal’ people, whether celebrities or laymen, are not supposed to talk this way, let alone talk about sex this explicitly, when Mayer does it, breaking those taboos, it is de facto taken as truth.
Which is part of the reason that the anger towards Mayer — at least the anger towards his sexual disclosure — is, at least on some level, amusing. He could be making this up just as easily as he could conjure a tale of him buying roses, making dinner, massaging feet, going on romantic walks, writing poetry, or “sneaking moments,” a la Jennifer Garner’s own disclosure last week concerning her and Ben Affleck’s “romantic” relationship. Mayer’s disclosure reads as pure truth — because who would lie and make themselves look like a douche? — when, in reality, it’s absolutely part of image production. Mayer says over and over again that he just wants to be real, transparent, honest. And isn’t that just as much of a constructed image as a star who puts himself forward as romantic, needy, giving, head over heels in love?
But so what? So he’s ‘real’? Isn’t everyone ‘real’ in the age of reality television? Sort of, but not quite. ’Authenticity’ has long been privileged in the celebrity game — look to Richard Dyer’s seminal essay on Judy Garland and the generation of authenticity — and it often has much to do with a certain coherence between extratextual life and textual narratives. In this way, Mayer’s confessional songwriting style certainly affirms this interpretation. But I think it has far more to do with the fact that Mayer is…
2.) …Playing the celebrity game for the 21st century.
Part of which is, of course, the generation of authenticity and transparency in an era when everything can be digitally enhanced or otherwise manipulated. Mayer generates his authenticity through traditional means of disclosure, e.g. the tell-all interview, which has long been a fixture in a star’s strategy to “set the record straight” or “show my fans the real me.” But he is also a faithful user of Twitter, which, as I’ve argued both here and here, is equated with the star’s unmediated voice. When you read a John Mayer tweet, it’s really him — whereas a quote in a magazine can be doubted, as it’s going through the filter of an interview, an editor, etc.
Mayer, like Ashton Kutcher, understands the ways in which Twitter can, in Kutcher’s words, “take back our own paparazzi.” It’s his means of setting the record straight, of establishing the real and authentic self that will, and should, take precedence over any mediated or unauthorized versions. In his words,
With Twitter, I can show my real voice. Here’s me thinking about stuff: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could download food?” It has been important for me to keep communicating, even when magazines were calling me a rat and saying I was writing a book.
Indeed, the fact that Mayer even used Twitter to “set the record straight” about this very interview only further authenticates the process. Even more interesting, however, is the way that Mayer contrasts his understanding of celebrity with that of Aniston, who rose to stardom during a very different period. His take:
One of the most significant differences between us was that I was tweeting. There was a rumor that I had been dumped because I was tweeting too much. That wasn’t it, but that was a big difference. The brunt of her success came before TMZ and Twitter. I think she’s still hoping it goes back to 1998. She saw my involvement in technology as courting distraction. And I always said, “These are the new rules.”
For me, such a comment underlines the divide in celebrity culture today — those who know how to play by the new rules, and those who try and play by the rules of the 1990s and before. Tom Cruise obviously had no idea how the new game was played, and Mayer points a fine point on the only means for Cruise to return: I said, “Tom Cruise put on a fat suit.” That pretty much sums up the past decade: Tom Cruise with a comb-over, dancing to Flo Rida in Tropic Thunder. And the world went, “Welcome back, Tom Cruise.”
When the interviewer asks if Jennifer Aniston maybe bittorrented his completed album, he even responds “if Jen knew how to bittorrent I would eat my shoe.” He’s not making fun of her, per se — indeed, he tries to emphasize how much respect and love he has for her throughout the interview — but it underscores the fact that Aniston, and her cohort, have no idea how to operate within the incredibly mediated, networked word. None of them — apart from Demi Moore — know how to use Twitter correctly. Tom Hanks signs all of his Tweets ‘Hanx’ for goodness sakes, which is just like the way that all of my relatives and friends on Facebook over the age of 40 use a salutation at the end of a post, as if it were a letter. (Sorry, over-40s, but you totally do). Mayer knows how his actions will be amplified and proliferate across the internet at a moment’s notice. He knows how Perez operates; he knows how TMZ operates. Which leads me to the conclusion that…
3.) …Mayer is much smarter than you think.
Sexism and bigotry are not smart. But sexism and bigotry are by no means mutually exclusive with intelligence — and celebrity intelligence in particular. Mayer will get flack for this interview; it may or may not alter his overall star text (really, it does little save confirm what most already thought of him). It will most likely not significantly affect the sales of his new album. This is the guy whose most popular songs are “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Daughters.” Those two images might seem discordant, but such songs only help to diffuse comments such as ”My d*** is sort of like a white supremacist” in reference to his lack of experience with black women in bed.
But when it comes down to it, his name is all over the internet. He’s only heightened interest in his album, his Twitter account, and his celebrity brand. It may be negative attention, but it’s attention nonetheless, and as the maxim goes, all publicity is good publicity. Obviously, he’s a douche. As Lainey Gossip says, he’ll always be that fat nerdy kid on the inside, desperate for you to know that he does, indeed, attract women. But he’s also playing the game better than Brange, and certainly better than Aniston herself, whose staged Mexico getaway photos with upcoming co-star Gerald Butler scream manipulation and desperation. He’ll be around a long time — and I’m not just saying that because I have a secret thing for that “Georgia Why” song from his first album. He’s cunning and adaptable, dynamic and compelling, quotable and effusive — characteristics that describe some of the most durable and enduring of celebrities.
And don’t forget that this is Playboy. There are reasons the interview was framed the way that it was. John Wayne made himself an uncontestable bigot in its pages in the 1970s, and John Mayer, facilitated by its editorial policies and interviewer questions, continues the tradition today.
Maybe you didn’t hear the news on Saturday night. Maybe you weren’t like me, at home, preparing a journal article at 7 pm, and were thus out of reach of all internet gossip. But if you were online or in any way attached to social media, chances are you heard or saw the tsunami-like progress of the Brangelina Break-Up through the internet. Of course, it was false. But for a few hours, for many, it felt very true.
Lainey Gossip does a superb job of laying out the very specific reasons why this rumor could not have been true. As she underlines,
These two are manipulative and obsessively controlling. Especially HIM. And they’re not lazy. They’re not Tiger Woods. They are experienced. They lock their sh-t down tight. And for something like this, if they really are prepared to call it off, it would have been engineered and masterminded months ago. They would have had a game plan in mind to run the message the way they want to run the message. Just like Pitt made the announcement of his split from Jennifer Aniston strategically on a Friday afternoon, after everyone had gone home, while he was away on holiday, as the least opportune time for the media.
In other words, they’re the best. I’m not saying this because I like them or I’m fascinated by them; I’m saying this because they have a tested and true record of brilliant and immaculate publicity manipulation. Please recall: Angelina Jolie, whose image had theretofore been characterized by brother-kissing, amulet-wearing, and associations with the likes of Billy Bob Thorton, “steals” Brad Pitt from all-American Jennifer Aniston. They don’t get married. They adopt many, many non-white children; they have three children out of wedlock. And they got away with it! Not only that, they are beloved. Indeed, they are, without a doubt, the biggest stars in America. Their auras are the largest; they may not be able to open a film like, say, oh, John Travolta in Wild Hogs, but trust me, their brands are much, much more valuable.
This wasn’t some magic trick or intrinsic quality; it was the product of impeccable and incredibly savvy P.R. Just see Nikki Finke on Jolie’s manager, Guyer Kosinski, who was recently hired by Nicole Kidman to revamp her struggling career. He may be referred to as “Guyer the Liar” and have a general reputation in Hollywood for sleaziness, but the guy is so effective that Jolie does not even have an agent. Many of you already know this about Pitt and Jolie. But for those of you who don’t, the lesson is: when, and if, they ever separate, it will be a masterpiece of P.R. manipulation.
And it will most certainly not come from the likes of The News of the World, whose story, published on Saturday afternoon, was the source of the rumor. Now, as Lainey again points out, U.S. tabloids have been trumpeting the demise of Brange for the last four years. Life and Style is especially keen on declaring the various reasons for their tragic break-up: Angelina cheats on Brad with tutor, Brad’s secret rendezvous with Jen, etc. etc. But when you read it in Life and Style in the supermarket aisle, the vast majority of us, even those who love gossip, put absolutely zero stock in such a claim. Why? We’ve been trained. We’ve seen so many false claims on the tabs — and I’m not necessarily talking about The National Enquirer, which, as the John Edwards and Tiger Woods cases prove, are actually oftentimes ahead of the curve — but the truly unresearched, sensational, and derivative tabs like L&S, The Sun, and The Star.
Why, then, did so many believe it? Let’s be a bit more specific. Why did so many Americans believe it? The answer is pretty simple: lack of international media literacy. In other words, they didn’t realize that News of the World was a British tabloid. Doesn’t it kind of sound like, oh, I dunno, The Globe and Mail? Or something else super official? It’s promising to offer the News of the World! Not Life and Style!
And many people believed this story — including reputable people — which only facilitated the spread of the rumor. Even Roger Ebert, who’s developed quite the devoted Twitter following, retweeted the news. When it first broke, I was in Twitter “conversation” (oh god, supernerdtastic) with fellow media scholars Christine Becker and Alisa Perren, and all of us were looking for TMZ to break the news. And if you ever hear news of such a split again — or of any major celebrity news — that’s where I’d absolutely advise going to confirm. As I argue in my recent article on TMZ, which just came out in print in Television & New Media, TMZ has a rock-solid network of informants, inside-men/women in the legal system, and immaculate fact checking. They’re basically lawsuit proof, in part because they don’t publish rumor. They publish confirmed facts. When they broke news of Michael Jackson’s death hours before anyone else, it wasn’t because they were jumping the gun. He was dead on arrival, and they had the sources within the ambulance/EMT network to confirm it. But they’re more than just libel-proof — they’re also right. No matter your feelings about their garish and intrusive style, they get the dirt, and they publish it first, and if it’s not there, it’s not true.
Of course, when Pitt and Jolie (and their publicists) realized they needed to counter this unexpected rumor, they didn’t call TMZ. TMZ rarely trucks in publicists. Instead, they called People, which relayed an official statement as to the continuing integrity of their relationship. And while official statements are often bunk, this one rings true. Again, if they were going to break up, it most certainly would not be leaked, scooped, or scandalous. It would be handled with kid-gloves, it would sustain the auras of both Pitt and Jolie, and it would make all involved parties look saintly.
So let this be our lesson: don’t trust British tabloids, don’t trust sources just because they have “news” in the title, and don’t believe a Brangelina break-up tale until it involves an official statement, TMZ confirmation, and a dramatic surge of damage control pictures featuring beautiful children.
Today’s post features a roundtable of various scholars from the Twitter media studies universe, all of whom (myself included) are invested in the Globes for rather different reasons. Read on — and make sure to weigh on the question posed at post’s end.
Hollywood’s only shining moment of the night
I’m going to go ahead and say it: this year’s Globes was a game changer. And while it isn’t in any way predictive of who will actually win the Oscar (or the Emmy), this year’s show was markedly different than those of past years. Different, and, in my humble celebrity opinion, worse. It was more transparently commercial — and the artists involved registered their cognizance of that commerciality (and the general practice of studio bribing) accordingly. (See Nikki Finke’s incisive take down here). To my mind, even though it aired from 5-8 on the West Coast, it had all the trappings of NBC primetime: unfunny, trite, and throwaway. The electricity and spontaneity the Globes historically connote: gone. Here’s a brief break-down of what went wrong.
1.) Gervais stunk. I’m sure we’ll elaborate on this further, but let’s just agree that his particular brand of humor did not lend itself well to the Globes format.
2.) At the risk of sounding elitist — and again, this is a point that we’ll have to discuss at length — several wrong things won for all the wrong reasons. The wins for Glee, Robert Downey Jr., Sandra Bullock, Up in the Air, or Avatar made this much abundantly clear. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like Glee or RDJ, or that I didn’t appreciate most of Up in the Air, or that I don’t value the achievement and innovation of Avatar. Heck, I even kinda sorta like Sandra Bullock. But they weren’t the best in their categories — that much is near universally agreed upon. They’re popular and likable, but not the best. Which is why I repeatedly Tweeted that this year’s Globes were resembling The People’s Choice awards — not lauds from a group of critics. I’m particularly incensed by Bigelow and Mulligan’s losses.
3.) 90% of the celebrities were wooden. There was obviously not enough champagne drinking going on. Maybe it was the rain? The general spark and spontaneity generally associated with the Globes was gone, and I blame James Cameron’s massive ego for sucking all the oxygen out of the air. When Robert De Niro has the best and juiciest speech (okay, okay, rivaled by that of RDJ) you know something’s off. There was no Pitt Porn, there were few bitch faces (save that of Jessica Lange, who gave two excellent ones — one for Drew (who didn’t even thank her) and another for Cameron’s trite call to “pat ourselves on the back.”) There was one moment when it looked like George Clooney’s Italian Queen was perhaps giving him a happy ending under the table, but they cut away too quickly.
4.) No really. Nothing exciting happened. I thought we were headed for greatness when the now-skeletal Felicity Huffman went off the rails in the early moments of the ceremony, but hers was the last gaff of the evening. I also loved Julia Roberts vintage asshole behavior during the red carpet — with Tom Hanks by her side, she made fun of NBC and yelled “who’s Natalie?!?” when Billy Bush decided to cut his losses and leave them be. But shots of her flirting with Paul McCartney simply couldn’t salvage a dry night.
5.) And I blame the director. Of the broadcast, that is. There was a paucity of choice reaction shots. There were all sorts of opportunities to catch the stars reacting poorly — when Gervais was digging on writers, say — but there was a lot of rushed panning and random celebrities. Why couldn’t we have more shots of William Hurt’s beard? Like all the time? Enough of Julia’s smile and Meryl looking quietly bemused. Let’s get some extended Clooney nookie action, or at least Cameron passive aggressively looking out the corner of his eye at how hot his exwife still is.
It’s like a party where you drank a lot and know you’ll be hungover the next day, but didn’t actually get the feel the joyful and giddy pleasures of being intoxicated. And that’s just the worst. Almost as bad, that is, as Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for a movie about white people saving black people.
Myles McNutt (Graduate Student, TV Critic/Blogger)
I don’t want to sound as if I’m speaking out in support of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but I think it’s important to clarify that this is not, in fact, a group of critics. They are (primarily) members of the press and little more, closer to tabloid reporters than to a Roger Ebert (not to suggest that Ebert himself is perfect, but he is unquestionably a critic and not a reporter). Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time in the past ranting about how the HFPA fetishizes the new, continues to elevate HBO over the rest of television, and somehow has never realized how inane their supporting acting categories are, but I’ve come to the point where I’m almost rooting for the Globes to go off in bizarre directions.
The problem is that, while most of us have written off the show, the industry has not: the Globes have an influence on the Oscar race (Bullock, for example, is now guaranteed an Oscar nomination), and every star (except for Robert Downey Jr., who revealed the “HFPA are nuts” line of argumentation in his speech) thanks the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as if they are a voting body that deserves to be recognized as a legitimate sign of a film/show/star’s quality. I don’t blame them for this, but I do always worry about providing the show any sense of legitimacy. I might, in a bubble, be fine with Sandra Bullock’s win in terms of the Globes being the only non-fan-voted awards show crazy enough to give her an award for making history as the only woman to topline a film earning more than $200 Million, but I’m not so fine with the idea that her performance could knock out a more deserving competitor (Mulligan is safe, I think) come the Oscars.
What’s convenient about viewing the show from a primarily television perspective, however, is that they have extremely little impact: their love for things which are popular or airing on cable means that few shows are going to be “rescued” by a Golden Globe win, and because there’s such a long gap before the Emmys (and because the Supporting categories are organized so differently) there’s really no correlation. So on that front, I’m sort of glad Glee won a Golden Globe, since its chances of coming close to winning an Emmy are slim; the Globes sit in that liminal space between popular and legitimate, and I think that defines Glee almost perfectly, so it feels “right” (in so much as it feels kind of wrong, but in a way that I’ve come to accept).
I agree with Annie that Gervais was a failure, and would argue it was a combination of both the format not being built for a host (too many categories, too little time to develop rhythms) and Gervais not bothering to try very hard (which I expand upon here). And while there may not have been much exciting happening in the ballroom itself, I thought there was some great banter on Twitter: without the online engagement, I probably would have found the show excruciating. In the end, though, I guess my expectations were such that what we saw felt almost comfortably precisely, and I guess my Golden Globes-related cynicism might finally be close to depletion.
Hopefully next year will provide a refill – I don’t like being the closest thing we might have to an HFPA advocate.
Noel Kirkpatrick (Graduate Student, Blogger)
This had to be the dullest, least surprising Golden Globes in…well…forever (was no one drinking?!). Which is odd, since the thought of Ricky Gervais hosting had all of us very excited. In fact, that Gervais wasn’t very entertaining was probably the biggest surprise of the evening. The Globes don’t have the leisurely pace of the Oscars, and Gervais has always taken over an awards presentation in a leisurely way. There’s no room for him to do his awkward comedy bits (with Steve Carell) when you have to move so briskly. It’s that scruffy, pig-nosed guy coming in from nowhere and tweaking the institution that makes us laugh, not him getting swallowed into it.
I’ve never been a fan of how the Globe organizes its dining tables, and it’s telling. The television folks feel scattered, sometimes way in the back, while the cinema folks are all very up front, easily shot for the cameras (though, the camera work in this telecast was ABYSMAL). It perpetuates this sense of stratification between cinema and television. Indeed, the telecast not only does it with its seating chart, but how it presents awards. The television awards are mostly up first, instead of scattered throughout. Why? To keep the audience, that they assume cares more about movies, watching to see who will win. (Even more telling is the presence of an award for lifetime work in film but not one for television.) This is a well stood upon soapbox, so I won’t belabor the point any longer save to say that people watch these award shows on TV, not on a silver screen and that matters. (Or it should matter more.)
Interestingly, however, I think this ties back into the elitism that Annie mentions. I can’t comment on most of the film winners simply because I haven’t seen most of the nominees, and neither did/could most of the people watching from home (How many people in the home audience saw An Education? My mother hadn’t even heard of The Hurt Locker). Yes, it’s not the People’s Choice Awards, but Bullock, Downey, Jr., and Cameron essentially, as Myles noted in the Twitter conversation, bought their Globes with box office dollars, not with merit. Perhaps in the face of sagging award show ratings, the HFPA decided to do the arty television (notice that we’re not really chiding them for their television votes (except for ignoring Neil Patrick Harris, c’mon people!)) and the mainstream movies to keep people viewing.
I personally always tune in for drunk celebrities.
Lindsay H. Garrison (Ph.D. student, blogger):
So the celebrities weren’t drunk, but the broadcast’s director could have been. So many shaky floor shots and awkward zooms – all for boring reactions and rushed walks to the podium. I’m with Annie: more of William Hurt’s beard, please.
The People’s Choice Awards Golden Globes were less than spectacular last night, with surprising wins that seemed more like picking the quarterback and the head cheerleader for homecoming court than the best acting talent or films. But I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling this a game-changer. While it’s easy to dismiss the HFPA for voting Avatar best picture along with Sandy B. and Meryl as best actresses (in a drama and comedy/musical, respectively), there were at least a few other head nods that didn’t seem like total celebrity suck-up: Best Original Song could have gone to U2 or Paul McCartney, but Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett took home the trophy for Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges won over George Clooney for Best Actor. (Okay, that’s a stretch; Jeff Bridges isn’t a total ingenue, but his speech was great – who else thanks their stand-in?) Seriously, though. Yes, the Globes felt flat and too mainstream this year, but I’m not sure the Globes were ever really a truly magical event that their mediocrity is something I’m going to mourn for too long. I think their role as an Oscar barometer and box office nudger are still intact.
I mean, Avatar was already a clear front-runner for Best Picture; The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, and Precious have already made their Oscar mark with dominating wins at the Critic’s Choice Awards. I’m not sure this totally means Oscar failure for them or necessarily guarantees a win for Cameron and Avatar. Streep was already a front runner in the actress category, and yes, Bullock’s win does perhaps make her more of a stronger contender to Streep. So, we’ll see. But in the meantime, here are my thoughts on other parts of last night’s broadcast.
Notable TV win: Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife (in its first season on CBS). Margulies finally wins after being nominated six times for her work on E.R. (did you see her get a congratulatory kiss from George Clooney? Oh, Dr. Ross and Nurse Hathaway.) But The Good Wife is a show that intrigues me; there’s something about it that I really like, but something that keeps me from all-out loving it. Just renewed for its second season, its win here will hopefully allow Margulies and team to develop the show further and let it find its stride.
Most Wheels-Off Presentations: Harrison Ford looked like he hated being there and just wanted to go to bed (hopefully video will find its way online soon). Felicity Huffman could hardly get the words out of her mouth, and Taylor Lautner could hardly be heard over everyone still talking in the ballroom. Presenting the award for Best Comedy suited him well, but even on TV, it was obvious no one was paying him any attention.
Best Moments in Acceptance Speeches: My personal favorite goes to Julianna Margulies, who snuck a jab in at NBC (who was airing the awards show) when she thanked Les Moonves “for believing in the 10:00 drama.” Mo’Nique brought a tear to my eye in her heartfelt speech; too bad it was the first one of the night and seemed to be quickly forgotten. Scorcese gave a great speech in his win for the Cecille B. DeMille Award, captivating the room with his love for the art and desire to see it preserved. And James Cameron, G-d bless him, spoke a sentence or two of Na’vi while accepting the award for Avatar. (I know. Seriously).
Kristen (Phd, Late to the game blogger)
I can only blame CP time for why I’m late to this roundtable. But uh..I’m here. So here it goes.
First, I want to say that this whole section is in great part a conversation I had with some of my most trusted and respected bedfellows. So thanks IC.
Second, I disagree about Gervais. I thought he was a great host. Funny, smart, timely, and not afraid to state things the way they are and not the way publicists would like it to be. I’m not quite sure I want to return to the Hugh Jackman-esque/Billy Crystalitis that has been award show performers. I want someone who can make the celebs a little uncomfortable. They don’t just exist in that ballroom. They exist on the Pacific Coast Highway inebriated to the utmost and bedhobbing from star to star. Let’s not pretend like all is wel just cause you’re in some loaned pretty garments. And that is what I loved about Gervais.
I disagree with Annie on the being irate at the Golden Globes thing. In my opinion, to look to the Golden Globes as an indicator of “quality” like looking to the Nickeoloden summer awards to know who’ll be the next “it” person. A futil enterprise, indeed. I’ve said elsewhwere that I believe the Golden Globes are the Walmart of award ceremonies. Complete with Rollback prices. To expect anything LESS than populist award winners is problematic. As had been said about the “HFPA” (in scare quotes because if they’re journalists, then I’m Lady Gaga..and I ain’t), they are more concerned about partying with celebrities than about actually being concerned about awarding good films their due. Also, as I was reminded in an earlier conversation this move to the popular has slowly been emerging. Recall, the changes made to the Oscars to accommodate more populist movies by expanding the nominees from 5 to 10 selections in various POPULAR categories. Perhaps the Globes are following suit(especially since they can construct the winners as they see fit).
Which leads me to this point: I may sound a bit ornery but really, what is the point of televised award shows? Is it really to elect the “best” film? Is it really to appreciate and give praise to the films we won’t forget about by the time Memorial Day rolls around? No, as Laineygossip says, “it’s about style.” And, you know what, we need to be honest about that and admit that that is what it is. I will remember that Reese Witherspoon wore a fantastic gown and had fantastic hair and makeup. I will remember that Clooney and his Italian new young thang were there and she may have been entertaining him in ways untold underneath that tablecloth. I will remember that Julia Roberts needs to go ahead and retire because it’s over. I will not, however, remember The Hangover. I will not, however, remember The Blind Side (well, I might if it makes into my dissertation). Why? Because they will fade with time. And the things I remember are more about extratextual things rather than the films themselves. Think about it: Aren’t the less televised, lesser known critic circles really where we should be looking to determine what the worthy (that is, respectable, important, relevant, quality) cinema is? Televised award shows are placed in a set of boundaries that pertain to ratings and advertising revenue and popular acceptability. Forget Julia Roberts, “Who’s Natalie?!” deal. Insert into the masses’ mouth: “Who’s Kathryn Bigelow?!” I rest my case.
Finally, I really do think there’s something to minority actors and international actors acceptance speeches that functions to set the tone and generate some sort of appropriation device by which all other winners restate what the formers acceptance speech was. I’m thinking particularly about Mo’nique’s winning speech and Drew Barrymore’s “redo” of that. Drew don’t know Mo’nique. Probably won’t know Mo’nique. So for her to “shout out to her” in that way (despite Barrymore already being a nutter) is interesting.
Enough for now.
Kelli Marshall (UToledo, Unmuzzled Thoughts)
I think everything that can be said about this year’s Golden Globes ceremony has been said:
- Ricky Gervais was less than thrilling. However, as some have pointed out, it’s not necessarily all his fault.
- NBC (aptly?) was reamed throughout the ceremonies, e.g., “Let’s get going, before they replace me with Jay Leno” (Gervais); “Just want to say thanks to Les Moonves for believing in the 10 o’clock drama” (Julianna Margulies).
- The speeches of Mo’Nique (earnest), Robert Downey, Jr. (sarcastically amusing), and Meryl Streep (reflective) stood out.
- William Hurt’s beard was a highlight of the night. Just ask Noel Kirkpatrick.
- Witnessing The Hangover, The Blind Side, and Sherlock Holmes receive accolades prompted many to rename this year’s broadcast The People’s Choice Awards.
- Slow-talking Harrison Ford and eye-rolling Jennifer Aniston evidently did not want to be presenting.
- Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker were inexplicably shut out.
- De Niro and Di Caprio’s tribute to their mentor and friend, “Marty” Scorsese, was touching, funny, and well deserved.
- Upon accepting his award for Avatar, James Cameron spoke Na’vi. WTF?
My colleagues have already skillfully (and humorously) analyzed many of these events, discrepancies, and surprises. To this end, I will keep my analysis to a minimum, politely redirecting you to the above bullet points. I would like to mention, however, a bit about Twitter and its role in my Golden Globe experience this year.
Generally, I don’t watch award shows in their entirety. With TiVo remote in hand, I often fast-forward only to the categories that interest me (e.g., comedy/musical, drama, best film). This year, however, I decided to view the Golden Globes as they aired, tweeting while I watched.
Last night, my Twitterverse consisted of about 5 of 6 “film and media people,” grad students and professors, firing off tweets at each other about every 30 seconds. (Yeah, it’s hard to keep up!) Short statements about fashion (or lack thereof), awards speeches, winners, and losers flooded our Twitter accounts (apologies to my followers who had no real interest in The Globes). In 140 characters or fewer, we dissected the evening in real-time, cheering virtually for Dexter, Mo’Nique, and Glee, and booing virtually for Sandra Bullock, Sherlock Holmes, and Avatar. It’s a strange little community, Twitter. But it sure does make a three-hour event much more entertaining than it’s ever been before. Perhaps you’ll join us at the Oscars?
Having slept on my earlier comments, I do agree that this year’s Globes was not as much as a ‘game changer’ as I’d like it to be. I want people to be weirded out by this Globes, but listening to the chatter online, in the blogs, and on the air, no one seems to think this was all that special. WHICH KINDA FLOORS ME. Am I experiencing selective amnesia? Between the show itself (boring) and the chose of awardees (populist), it still seems much different — a return to Weinstein/art-house backlash that brought us a win for Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings over at the Oscars. Thus, in conclusion, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on whether this particular Globes signified as different or as par for the course….and, of course, your own favorite and least favorite moments. Let the roundtable continue.
So you’ve got a weird looking male comedian. He has flaming red hair, his humor is relentlessly self-deprecating, and he has real talent. He also has a certain demeanor — different from Leno, different from Letterman, different from Carson — that makes you want to buy him a drink, give him relationship advice, and ask him to your sister’s wedding as a platonic date. He’s not a star (clearly, he’s a television personality — like reality stars and daytime television hosts, he’s not an actor). He’s a comedian. Who ‘plays’ himself, whether in skits, appearing on other shows (Liz Lemon’s ex-boyfriend!) or interviewing guests. Conan O’Brien doesn’t play other people, he doesn’t take roles. Rather, he cultivates the image of Conan.
And ever since he took over as the host of The Late Show following the Leno-Letterman war for The Tonight Show, his particular persona has been built on a foundation of likability. I’m not saying the guy is the Ellen Degeneres of Late Night — forgive me, but he’s far funnier, and treads the fine line of respectability and poor taste in a way that pleasures me to no end. And just look at that face!
Like Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart and, yes, even Ellen, that face demands to be liked. I look at Leno’s face, and I want to punch him. I look at Letterman’s face, and I kinda suspect he’s up to no good. But I look at Conan’s face — and, crucially, he’s almost always referred to by his first name — and I want to ask him to by my screwball adopted uncle.
So when NBC made the decision earlier this week to move The Jay Leno Show back to 11:35, thus displacing Conan and his hard-earned Tonight Show back to The Late Show‘s slot at 12:30, the air was thick with electric potential. How would my screwball adopted uncle react?
Earlier today, Conan issued a statement that not only reified his established persona, but has quickly and effectively unified his fan base behind him. Take a look at the statement, which I’m copying in full:
People of Earth:
In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I
want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second
feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I
love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky.
That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my
bosses are demanding an immediate decision.
Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight
Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson
every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant
everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed
up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally
hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the
future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would
have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of
ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting
audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.
But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months,
with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their
terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their
long-established late night schedule.
Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight
Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years
the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I
sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to
accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider
to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight
Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move
I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David
Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot.
That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be
unfair to Jimmy.
So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy
hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is
for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably
hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The
Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its
destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the
Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I
believe nothing could matter more.
There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set
the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have
no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this
quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of,
for a company that values our work.
Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair;
it’s always been that way.
Note the themes, tone, opening, closing: there’s no name calling, there’s no mention of Zucker, there’s not even an explicit jab at Leno. Instead, there’s a sense of respect, not only for his fans, but the long history of the show that he has long held sacred. When he writes ““My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction,” he implicates NBC, but he does it in a way that emphasizes the fact that he’s simply attempting to protect his show, its history, and the millions who have watched it over the last six decades. He’s not protecting himself — he’s protecting his show! Its legacy! HOW CAN YOU ARGUE WITH THAT, AMERICA?!?
Such respect is juxtaposed with his own signature humor, both in his address and salutation. The statement mixes an extremely serious call to action, a well-earned defense of his previous work, and clear markers of his personality to a tremendous effect: it’s the work of an excellent writer and extremely savvy member of Hollywood, and, even better, it is by all accounts the work of Conan alone. (As always, it doesn’t matter if it actually is or not — what matter is that enough people are reporting that his agents didn’t want him to issue the statement, but he purportedly stayed up into the wee hours of the night crafting what he “knew he had to do.”) The statement is thus constructed as the outpouring of his own passionate, dedicated, and innately quirky self.
This much is authenticated by the statement’s reception, which has been without exception positive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such uniform support for a star or personality. In articles, comments, and Tweets, he’s called a “class act,” “honest,” “full of integrity,” etc. et. al. Even curmudgeon Nikki Finke really, really admires the move:
I’m proud of O’Brien for standing his ground and protecting his own and The Tonight Show’s future from NBC’s nitwits. There’s a rich legacy of that among his predecessors, from Steve Allen through Jack Paar and during Johnny Carson: they all refused to knuckle under to the network. Only Jay Leno didn’t. Instead, he begged like a dog for The Tonight Show, and then rolled over and played dead even after Zucker canned him. Then Leno stayed with the network and agreed to a 10 PM show doomed fromn the outset. What a doormat. Obviously, NBCU thought Conan would be just as compliant. I’m thrilled that he’s not. Hollywood should be, too, and publicly support him.
Because it’s the kind of principled position you don’t see anymore from showbiz talent who these days are afraid for their future livelihoods in this downsizing entertainment community and just grateful for a job, any job. As much as Big Media’s networks and studios think they call all the shots, and in almost every case they do because they’re so rich and powerful, here’s one of those rare times when they can’t push people around at will.
And in the hours since the release of Conan’s statement, the internet has facilitated the coalescence of fan sentiment. The Twitter hashtag #TeamConan hovers between the fourth and fifth trending topic, and a Facebook Team Conan page has already attracted 10,000 fans. IN UNDER SIX HOURS.
A quck sampling of #TeamConan tweets to exemplify the current sentiment:
Oh Conan. Lead. I will follow your pale, pale torch.
Conan, I have heard what they are planning to do to your show and it isn’t fair! Congrats on declining the offer! Fight man, fight!
Conan O’Brien has more class in his little finger than all of those guys at NBC put together!
I am for #team conan. Even the Pentagon is! I have never watched a full episode but might just tonight to spite NBC’s ongoing stupidity.
So we like Conan. But I want to emphasize a few crucial points — especially since they’re mostly getting glossed over in the media coverage. First, sure, we like Conan. But we like the IDEA of Conan. As the last Tweet makes clear, most of us don’t watch the show. In fact, I have NEVER seen one of the new episodes of The Tonight Show with Conan was host. The fandom and #TeamConan movement is around what Conan represents — not his actual product. As as Dyer and other star scholars have long emphasized, a star or personality can be tremendously popular….and even still, no one goes to see his movies, buy his products, or watch his show. Conan’s problem isn’t NBC, per se; it’s the fact that only older audiences still watch late night television (because only older audiences still watch late night news) and the younger, commercially viable audiences either get their comedy/current events via The Daily Show, which plays at all hours and is always available via Comedycentral.com or through other online comedy sites. I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that much of the Conan Twitter support has been stirred by a tweet by comedian Jim Gaffigan, a hilarious stand-up comedian with a Twitter following of 150,000. Gaffigan isn’t popular because 150,000 people have seen him live; he’s popular because of his YouTube videos, radio clips (I personally was first introduced to him via Seattle’s 103.7 5:20 Funny). In fact, my own affection for Conan, at least in recent years, centers around his tangental role in 30 Rock. The lesson, it seems, is that people aren’t rooting for Conan’s show, per se, as much as they’re rooting for a style of comedy and a persona — and a youthfulness. And even though Conan evoked the storied past of The Tonight Show in his statement, most of the people Tweeting their support wouldn’t even find Johnny Carson, or his particular brand of humor, funny.
Second, Team Conan has no embodied opposition. It’s not like Twilight, when Team Jacob is clearly up against Team Edward. There is no Team Jay. NBC isn’t deciding between Jay and Conan; it’s already announced that Leno will be back at 11:35. Finke and others think that the statement could be used for leverage, but I think Conan’s gone. His agent are fielding dozens of calls. It’s not that he’s not a formidable competitor for Leno — he certainly is — it’s that there’s just not a contest. They’re catering to very different demographics, with very different styles. As more than one commentator has pointed out, this isn’t 1992, when Leno and Letterman were constructed as rivals. Conan’s opposition is NBC, which has already demonstrated that it no longer even understands the rules by which these games, let alone fights, are played.
And third, we need to step back and consider why people would find it important enough to digitially voice their support for a persona. To reinvoke the Twilight analogy, when you announce yourself as Team Jacob, you’re announcing something specific about what you find attractive in a male and in a relationship. You’re also rejecting the hegemony of Team Edward. To be Team Edward is to be different. Does the same hold for Team Conan? Just because he has red hair and a quirky sense of humor, does that mean that my support for him actually says a single thing about me? If anything, supporting Conan, especially considering the outpouring of support, simply reinforces how easy, and ultimately non-controversial, it is to like the guy. He issued a statement that signified as gutsy, brave, and dignified — all traits that, like his plaintiff Irish face, are easy to get behind. Now, if he would’ve said something rude, or made fun of Leno, or said that Leno’s audience would be dead in twenty years, or that NBC was completely screwed, or dared to blasphemy the past, present, or future of late night comedy — that would be risky. And if fans were voicing their support for that — well, that would be something (even more significant) to write about. As is, I like him. I could motivate my fingers to type in the #TeamConan hashtag. But I’ll still fall asleep before he comes on tonight, as I generally do, and there’s very little to be done about that particular situation.