Abdul Dremali is a photographer based in Boston, MA. His pictures are wonderful. Go follow him.
A few days ago Abdul posted an exchange he had with a, ahem, very hostile person on Twitter, prefacing the exchange with this tweet:
Then it begins:
Now I don’t know about you but I would like to be more like Abdul in my online life. Personally, I get defensive at even very mild online criticism. Because, let’s face it, it’s scary to be criticized. Criticism can feel like death. Can make your stomach turn in knots. Not to mention an all out racist attack, which I would imagine results in much more than a sore stomach.
But what I really love here is how much compassion Abdul had to respond this way. Say what you will about what social media “incentivizes” people to do; this is rare in any case. Whether or not social media can or should be held responsible for our actions, and there is a lot of belly-aching about that nowadays, as though human frailty and inattention began in 2010, this kind of thing shows how far we can transcend how we are supposedly “incentivized” to behave.
Bravo, Abdul. May the rest of the internet follow your lead.
On Saturday April 28, 2018 comedian Michelle Wolf delievered the annual stand-up comedy routine for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of the tradition, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual event designed to raise funds for scholarships in journalism, put on by the WHCA (White House Correspondent’s Association).
The central event of the night is the comedy roast.
It’s what you would expect it to be. A dinner with journalists, celebrities, and politicians—an unholy trinity of sorts—where apparently important things are supposed to be expressed, “truth spoken to power,” and all that, from people with a little less power, or just a different kind of power, than those they are supposedly “roasting.”
And just as every other non-event in 2018, Michelle Wolf’s recent comedy roast has drawn much attention and comment from just about everyone. Even the WHCA, who issued this statement:
Here you go. Watch and make up your own mind.
Now this is an important moment to stop and take stock, because what is about to unfold is a very proto-typical moment in current day pseudo-controversy.
Here are the typical steps:
Somebody famous says something (celebrity, journalist, politician) usually with a note of exaggeration or of an inflammatory character, to promote something they are selling or a piece of entertainment that has recently been released, or a piece of journalism, or a piece of legislation. Controversy is key. Without it, nobody will watch.
The media react to the inflammatory thing—usually on some supposed moral grounds, although they never clearly state exactly what moral grounds these are beyond very vague political positions. The key here is two camps are defined. Either for or against.
A bunch of articles come out with some words in them and randomly pasted tweets from celebrities and journalists.
4. Now that you know what the famous & rich people think, I, the supposed journalist doing some very deep digging into a very important issue, will give you my two cents about who is right and who is tanking Western civilization as we speak. I have to choose either for or against
a. If I am a super smart snooty journalist I will create one or two issues of sub-points in which I still take a side but with subtlety and many confusing statistics with the help of Nate Silver, and a brief history of the Roman Empire.
5. But first there must be a very juicy and headline-worthy title. I cannot simply release this very content-rich article without click bait, so:
a. Michelle Wolf, Female Comedian, Eviscerates Elites at WHCD & Donates All Revenues Attributed to Increased Viewership of Upcoming Netflix Special to Starved Orphans in North Korea.
b. Supposedly Feminist Comedian Mocks WHPS’s Eye shadow!
c. A Very Woke & Lovely Comedian Single-Handedly Tears Down White Male Patriarchy & Conservative Media Hegemony, at the Same Time!
d. This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!
e. Media Elites’ Heads are so Far up Own Asses, Trump sure to Win Second Term
f. If You Didn’t Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck.
g. If You Did Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck
6. Also before article posts, ads must be placed in and around the article so that a certain percentage of people click the ad and buy the product advertised (baby wipes, beer, Pop Tarts, etc). The money from these people goes to the company that makes baby wipes, beer, etc. whose shareholders decide what % of that money should go back to these same media companies in the form of advertising dollars so the media companies can pay writers like me to write even more articles for you to look at with very important information that is very pertinent to your life alongside very subtle ads for these same products, and so on and so on. (This includes mentions within the article itself to entertainers with development deals with Disney or any other big media company that also owns one or multiple news stations).
7. Article posts. Hopefully millions upon millions click it. Doesn’t matter what their opinion is, only that a certain % click on that ad or subscribe to the publication (ha!)
8. Now begins the counter-article phase whereby articles about the original articles, normally called think pieces, or spicy hot takes, react to the reaction, in hopes of getting some bottom feeder secondary clicks. (Also known as leeches). Many sources are cited in these style articles and usually there is a narrative or a very artsy form mean to inculcate a certain intellectualism and cultured flair.
9. Rinse and repeat. Depending on how controversial a given event is, steps 1-8 could happen up to 7 times.
10. Eventually interest is lost and focuses on another burning issue.
It’s important to highlight this 10 step backdrop it’s the subtext for every instance of reportage in the modern world. Without understanding this dynamic you might make the unfortunate mistake that a) any of these people actually care about you and/or your opinion or b) that these events are reported in an earnest search for truth.
Here’s the real kicker: people are promoted within these organizations if you, reader, viewer, etc. look at what they produce. All you have to do is change the channel or click their article, and bear witness to advertisements. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. It’s not a new model, but one that has become so totalizing and omnipresent that it would be a mistake to pretend that Michelle Wolf, or anybody else, is just some regular funny person walking in off the street. Their checks come from Viacom, Bertelsmann, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, etc. The people who give us the news (the supposed “watchdog” of American politics) are the same people that entertain us, and this co-mingling of frivolity and fact should be unsettling since the terminus of this obscene logic has led to Donald Trump. No wonder the media react in a more or less unanimous fashion to the Trump phenomenon. Trump did not come from some wheat field in the Midwest. He came from Manhattan where all these people milk their own udders.
Michelle Wolf herself says it better than I ever could, at the very end of her set:
I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks, or Vodka, or water, or college, or ties, or Eric [pause for laughs]… But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him…
If you want to see the most lightweight cream puffy White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routines, watch all eight under President Obama. Jeez. Then there were even more celebrities in attendance. Clooney, Spielberg, and even Trump himself. You’ve probably already forgotten about them—as they are articles of a bygone era, part of the wasteland we leave behind of opinions once dearly held, and then lost as new opinions are manufactured and shoved down our throats like Twinkies, for which it seems we have a hearty appetite.
A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.
The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.
“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.
Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.
“Drop them now.”
Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.
Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.
One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.
“What was that about?” Seven says.
“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.
Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.
“Don’t waste your energy.”
Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.
“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”
“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.
On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.
“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.
The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“They’re trying to get inside us.”
“What does it matter if we die?”
“We could escape.”
Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.
“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”
“There could still be a way out.”
“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”
In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.
“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.
“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.
“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.
Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.
“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”
“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”
Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.
“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”
“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”
By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.
The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.
“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”
Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.
“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.
“That’s not how it works,” the men say.
Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.
“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”
“We need the eye.”
“That’s the deal.”
Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.
“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.
“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.
The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.
They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.
“What do you think of all this?” she says.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Do you know what your people have done to us?”
“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.
“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”
“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.
“No,” Thirty Nine says.
“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”
“My name is Thirty Nine.”
“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”
“I am a person.”
“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”
“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.
I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.
A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.
So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.
The Professor Trilogy
Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.
Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’
In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.
In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.
But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.
The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.
The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.
When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.
We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.
I can’t, the professor says.
Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.
But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.
You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.
What? the professor says.
We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.
Fuck, the professor says.
Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.
Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.
In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.
This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.
It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.
This is what he played for me:
Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’
Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.
This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.
I hated this music, so I had two options:
1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.
In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.
That was the end of that conversation.
Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?
Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.
This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.
Still not resolved.
But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?
And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.
I think can live with that interpretation.
So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:
Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?
Well, hopefully, no.
Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.
This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.
When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.
I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.
I REMEMBER THE FIRST Casey Neistat video I ever watched. It was a rainy day at the office—gray, windswept, and generally very depressing—I was scrolling on YouTube’s Trending page and there was this video entitled, “this was 100% HER FAULT.” The thumbnail was of a hairy and tattooed arm pointing at a shrugging woman on a bus.
I was conscious of the shallowness of my curiosity, of the clickbaity title and thumbnail, but what else did I have to do that afternoon? Nothing. And I had to know: who was this woman and what did she do wrong?
Hook, line, &…
Little did I know that I was stumbling onto one of the fastest growing YouTube channels of 2016, and that this video was part of a larger project: a series of daily vlogs covering almost two years in the life of this one man, Casey Neistat, a young squirrelly Sean Penn lookalike with goofy sunglasses.
“this was 100% HER FAULT” was immediately interesting. A softly droning electronic beat drops and there is the Houston city skyline time-lapsing from dawn to early morning. All the filming is done by Neistat himself, as well as the video editing. The style is good. It feels very new and technically polished but is also carefully calculated to feel amateurish when necessary, like an everyday personal vlog (although Neistat is far from an amateur, with an impressive career history in cinematography before ever doing YouTube videos).
The next scene is of the faulted woman in question—Candace Pool, Neistat’s wife— casually brushing her teeth. Casey walks into the bathroom, camera in hand:
Casey: On a scale from 1 to 10, how much did you miss me?
Candace: Up until this morning? 10.
Casey: Besides our minor fight this morning, how much did you miss me?
Then cut to kitchen. Candace is hurriedly walking.
Casey: What are we doing right now?
Candace (slightly exasperated): Going to get you a suit.
Already, in under a minute, the premise is set. There’s been an artsy intro, and a dialogue that clearly establishes all the necessary pieces of a classic drama: 1) intended goal = going to get suit & 2) complication = tension between the characters. One itches for a resolution—especially with the title and thumbnail image in mind. What exactly is going to go wrong?
And why does Casey need a suit anyway?
Cut to SUV, on the way to buying suit.
Casey (to camera): I know my life as portrayed in this show is fairly chaotic but the last couple of days have been peak chaos… So since we’re going to New Orleans for a wedding, I need a suit. I don’t have one.
Casey (to Candace): What are you wearing? Where are we going?
I would learn later that this was classic Casey Neistat. Every vlog has some intended purpose. And it isn’t always clear whether Casey superimposes these events onto his life as a narrative structure to engage the viewer or whether he just has a knack for animating everyday events with clever editing techniques, or both. Whatever it is, the effect is the same: Casey Neistat’s life is fun to watch.
WATCHING HIS DAILY VLOGS became like a ritual for me. They would pop up on my feed and I noticed a particularly consistent set of emotional response swell up inside of me that I could not exactly place. Like “this was 100% HER FAULT,” most of Neistat’s videos chronicle the everyday events of his life, and I soon began to realize that I had caught Neistat in the middle of a massive upward trajectory. The internal spark animating the narratives of his videos were consistently the exciting developments in his career, and his ‘peak chaos’ schedule thereafter. Neistat had already been making successful viral videos for years on YouTube, but when he started posting his daily vlogs in March of 2015 his monthly viewership was 3 million, and by October 2016 his monthly viewership had grown to 130 million. His daily vlogs during this time are both the means of his success and a diary of his success. Casey’s life is cool at the beginning of the daily vlogs as a middling Youtuber and gets way cooler by the time he reaches superstardom.
The plots in his vlogs are pretty standardized, taken as a whole: Casey travels to such and such location, Casey does interesting project for interesting company/person, Casey reviews piece of hardware, Casey does thing with drone, Casey does a Boosted Board commercial, Casey answers questions, Casey gets mail. All of his videos fit somewhere on this spectrum but achieve a level of entertainment because each of these categories become more expansive as Casey’s brand and viewership grows. He travels to more interesting locales, in more expensive flights, in more expensive hotels, does even more crazy projects, gets cooler hardware, wrecks more drones, and gets more fan mail.
Realizing this overall direction helped me pinpoint the emotional thread that ties the intrigue in Casey Neistat’s plots together, and it’s a common emotional impetus among the projected lives of social media stars in general:
I felt envy when I was watching “this was 100% HER FAULT,” all the way to Casey’s final daily vlog. I wanted to live a life like Casey was living. I wanted to be doing interesting projects that millions of people enjoy; I wanted to travel to exotic places, and to meet interesting people. I didn’t want to be sitting in my gray office building, shuffling papers, and feeling unimportant.
This is interesting because most entertainment—as is classically understood—is not engineered to produce envy. I can hardly think of any movie or book in which the main character’s life is so outrageously good that we can’t help but envy them. That would be a boring story.
WHEN DEFINING TRAGEDY, Aristotle says in his Poetics that:
A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.
This is the classic model which is still in use today. Think of basically every movie or book that exists, tragic or comic: we observe something bad happen to a character we like (or have some connection to) and their response to that bad thing. When we watch something bad happen to someone we like, it sparks pity in us, insofar as we are connected to a character, whether they are fictional or real. We watch and enjoy tragedies because pity has a bright underside. Yes, if a bad thing happens to a character we like—that is bad. It makes us feel bad for them, to a degree. It produces an anxiety in us that will have to be resolved in some way. But the bright underside of tragedy is this: we are watching something bad that is happening, not to us, but to somebody else. And that’s the key. Deep down tragedy counterintuitively makes us feel good—even though superficially we may feel bad—because the ‘tragedy’ makes our own lives look good by comparison.
Casey Neistat is a perfect inversion of this model.
Envy, not pity.
Even in the face of small inconveniences (“this was 100% HER FAULT,”), the modus operandi for Neistat (and his social media ilk) = Positivity. Casey is constantly upbeat and hardworking (see a video of his daily schedule) to a frantic and crazed degree. There are hardly any moments of melancholy in all the hours of his life that are recorded online. He seems invincibly happy.
This envy-based entertainment is a new development via internet culture—many have tapped into its power (see Dan Bilzerian, Roman Atwood, Tyler Oakley, Maddi Bragg, Cameron Dallas).
It runs on a non-fictional pretense. That is: these are real people, not fictional characters, so we buy into their positivity at face value. It tacitly tells us: anything is possibly as long as you work hard, are smart, are pretty, have an identifiable brand ethic, etc., etc. This new form of story-telling requires an ethic of positivity to produce the desired effect. We are to believe that these ‘real’ people really have it all figured out. Whereas a classical tragedy could be very dark in its core contents (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, etc.), and depressing, the implication was positive: at least this is not happening to you. This new form is the exact opposite: most of its core contents are extremely positive and uplifting—the music, visuals, attitudes, etc. are embodiments of sunny days, everyday; cool people and fun adventures—but the implication is negative: your life by comparison is not as cool as Casey Neistat’s.
Neistat recently addressed this perception of his own channel in a video entitled “i’m not that happy.”
Around 4:40 he says:
My thesis when I was daily vlogging was to pluck the fun and happy and interesting aspects of my life out of the 24-hour day that is my life and turn it into a 10-minute video for you, the audience. I chose that approach because, much like a lot of you, I enjoy videos that make me feel good vs. ones that are overwhelmingly depressing. No one wants to watch a video of someone groveling about how lame their life is.
[But I do see how viewers] would see that as the totality of my life—like every second of my life is that happy. And it isn’t. No one’s life is that happy. I try really hard to live the happiest most positive life I can, but life is ebb and flow. And my life has been no different, especially throughout the vlog.
And at 6:20:
…[As vloggers] we have the opportunity to edit our lives—edit out the shitty parts and leave in the really happy parts. But know that they exist.
FURTHER ON in thePoetics, Aristotle describes the difference between the historian and the poet:
The historian speaks of things which have happened, and the poet of such things that might have happened.
In other words, a good story, in order to be believed, must be plausible or believable—but the audience knows upfront that it is fiction. We know, for instance, we are about to see something made up when we walk into a movie theater. This has been the tacit agreement between the maker of the fiction and the audience for thousands of years, since Aeschylus: that we are about to pretend. Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year to more effectively suspend our disbelief in this way. So, says Aristotle, the best fiction is ‘true’ in the sense that it is the type of thing ‘that might have happened,’ via likely causes and effects. It didn’t happen but it could happen, and probably would happen, based on what we know of human nature. The deeper the understanding of human nature embodied in a piece of art, and the more plausible its plot, the greater the effect it has on its audience. We are touched deeply because we know great works of fiction are ‘true’ in some sense, in their plausibility, at the very least.
Neistat’s brand of storytelling (and arguably most human behavior on all social media) runs counter to this principle as well. Unlike a work of fiction, we assume when watching a vlog that what we’re seeing is true, and it is ‘true’ in the basic sense of the word—it did happen. Neistat’s vlogs, and others like his, are true at face value. But what they edit out creates a picture that is out of proportion—we assume we’re seeing truth when really we’re seeing a fiction, a new, and, I would argue, more sly type of fiction. It isn’t a fiction spun from events made up whole cloth, but from real events edited together to specifically or selectively give a false impression of reality. Nearly all social media works in this way, because all we experience of someone is their profile, the implication = this is my life. A profile is, after all, probably an apt metaphor for Neistat’s ethic of presentation. In his vlogs he is a projection of himself rather than himself—a meticulously curated projection including only the fun parts.
This style of story-telling is not necessarily brand new. It had forerunners in cinéma vérité and docufiction dating all the way back to the 1920s—authentic-looking movies that blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, without expensive sets and costumes. But these attempts were scant and avant-garde before the widespread proliferation of social media.
My question is: what effect will this type of story-telling have on the masses now that it is mainstream?
Is the Neistat way of narrative more or less authentic in today’s age of authenticity? Is it a new way forward for creative story-telling? A trendy blip on the screen?
I AM IN A NEW office now, with the same company, at the same regular dreary job I had the first time I saw Casey Neistat zooming around NYC in an Adderall-soaked furry. The office is still gray. The sky is even still gray.
I realize that I am probably not the most objective critic of Casey Neistat videos because I have seen so many of them. I walk to the Break Room to try and clear my mind. I’ve been sitting at my cubicle since lunch. I need a breather.
My friend is in the Break Room.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he says.
“Do you have a minute?” I say.
“Sure,” he says.
“Cool. I want to show you something.”
We walk to my desk and I show him a video entitled “HUMAN FLYING DRONE,” in which Casey Neistat is pulled on a snowboard by a giant light-up technicolored drone, swerving through the streets, giving high-fives to those watching. The drone pulls him up into the air against an orange and purple sunset backdrop. The shots pans until he is center-frame and the words appear:
From Casey Neistat
and your friends at Samsung
I want to get an outside perspective. I want to know if I’m reading too much into this.