SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy


Art by: Sue Zola


I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.



Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.



Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.



On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.


@rachelaubrey's shoe game tho…

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on


“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

FullSizeRender (1)

Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.



One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.


“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.


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The Possibly Real Trend of Possibly Real Trends

What’s current when nothing is certain.


Health Goth.


“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”

The source for this possibly-real trend’s possibly real tipping point was an article in Marie Claire the week prior, titled, likewise dubiously, “Health Goth: The Latest Trend You’ve Never Heard Of.”

After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:

Meanwhile, Health Goth may or may not be the new “Street Goth.” Which itself is not to be confused with “Goth Ninja.” And there are also the lesser-known, possibly-real trends, dubbed, Pastel Goth, and Beach Goth. Because goth, apparently, never dies:






Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:

Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.

He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.

Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.


“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”


The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”

“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.

While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”

While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”



Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:

A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.

Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.

The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.

As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.


Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”



The Trends They Are A-changin’.

Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.

This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.

Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.

“I was messianic about punk,” Vivienne Westwood, the High Priestess of Punk fashion said, in 2002.

The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”

The late designer, Tiffa Novoa, was one of the founders of the seminal, circus subculture performance troupe, El Circo. In designing the troupe’s costumes she also created the postapocalyptic fashions that became associated with the Burning Man style, and carried over into an aesthetic that spanned west coast underground dance culture of the mid aughts. In a 2005 SF-Bay Guardian article, Steven T. Jones describes the personally transformative effect the fashion aesthetic Novoa defined had on its adherents, changing the way they conceived of themselves. “At first, this was all costuming,” The article quoted, Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s head of operations. “But now it’s who I am.”

Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”

When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.

Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.

In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.

Or perhaps, this is what happens now that subculture doesn’t exist. Back in analog days, you wore the clothes you did to express your identity as a participant in the lifestyle they represented. Now that there’s simply no unimpeachable way to really know what is or isn’t “real” at all anymore, possibly-real trends are the reflection of this new, post-certainty reality.

Then again, maybe it’s all just Pizza.



The Chicest New Trend Is Pizza” (New York Magazine, September, 2014):


Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.

Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.

Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship. The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.

Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.

However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.


Or, you know… possibly.



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The Last Exit To The Millennium

“Those of us who watched Kids as adolescents,” writes Caroline Rothstein, in her piece Legends Never Die, “Growing up in an era before iPhones, Facebook, and Tiger Moms, had our minds blown from wherever we were watching–whether it was the Angelika Film Center on the Lower East Side or our parents’ Midwestern basements. We were captivated by the entirely unsupervised teens smoking blunts, drinking forties, hooking up, running amok and reckless through the New York City streets…. Two decades after [the] film turned Washington Square skaters into international celebrities, the kids from ‘Kids’ struggle with lost lives, distant friendships, and the fine art of growing up.”

If you came up in the 90’s, you remember Kids. But I’d hardly given it a backward glance in ages. Had it really been two decades? It seemed somehow inconceivable. The cast, none of them professional actors, all plucked from the very streets they skated on, had become fixed in my mind as eternal teenagers, immortalizing a hyperbolized — and yet, not entirely foreign — experience. Kids was grotesque and dirty and self-indulgent and unignorable, and so was high school. Which is where I, and my friends, were at the time. The movie had become internalized. I had entirely forgotten that this was where Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson had come from. Like a rite of passage, it seemed to carry a kind of continuity, like it was something everyone goes through. It seemed disconnected from any kind of evolving timeline.

And yet time had passed. Revisiting the lives of the cast 20 years later, Rothstein writes, “Justin Pierce, who played Casper, took his life in July 2000, the first of several tragedies for the kids. Harold, who played himself in the film and is best remembered for swinging his dick around in the pool scene—he was that kid who wasn’t afraid, who radiated a magnetic and infectious energy both on and off screen—is gone too. He died in February 2006 from a drug-induced heart attack.” Sevigny and Dawson have become successful actors. Others tied to the crew have gone on to lead the skate brand Zoo York, and start a foundation that aims to “use skateboarding as a vehicle to provide inner-city youth with valuable life experiences that nurture individual creativity, resourcefulness and the development of life skills.” But the most striking story for me, however, was of what happened over the past 20 years to the movie’s most profoundly central character:

“I think that Kids is probably the last time you see New York City for what it was on film,” [says, Jon “Jonny Boy” Abrahams.] “That is to me a seminal moment in New York history because right after that came the complete gentrification of Manhattan.”

Kids immortalizes a moment in New York City when worlds collided–“the end of lawless New York,” Eli [Morgan, co-founder of Zoo York] says–before skateboarding was hip, before Giuliani cleaned up, suited up, and wealthy-ed up Manhattan.

“I don’t think anyone else could have ever made that movie,” says Leo [Fitzpatrick, who played the main character, Telly]. “If you made that movie a year before or after it was made, it wouldn’t be the same movie.”

Kids‘ low-budget grit and amateur acting gave it a strange ambivalence. It was neither fully fictional nor fully real. It blurred the line between the two in a way that it itself did not quite fully understand — it was the very, very beginning of “post-Empire,” when such ambiguities would become common — and neither did we. Detached from  the confines of the real and the fictional, it had a sense of also being out of time. But it turns out it was in fact the opposite. Kids was a time capsule. As Jessica [Forsyth] says in the article: “It’s almost like Kids was the dying breath of the old New York.”

It’s a strange thing. One day you wake up and discover that culture has become history. In the end it wasn’t a dramatic disaster or radical new technology that changed the narrative in an instant. It was a transition that happened gradually. The place stands still, and time revolves around it; changes it the way wind changes the topography of dunes.

Just a few days after Rothstein’s piece, I read these truly chilling words in The New York Times:

“The mean streets of the borough that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. crowed about are now hipster havens, where cupcakes and organic kale rule.”

For current real estate purposes, the block where the Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, once sold crack is now well within the boundaries of swiftly gentrifying Clinton Hill, though it was at the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant when he was growing up. Biggie, who was killed under still-mysterious circumstances in 1997, was just one of the many rappers to emerge from Brooklyn’s streets in the ’80s and ’90s. Including successful hardcore rappers, alternative hip-hop M.C.s, respected but obscure underground groups and some — like KRS-One and Gang Starr — who were arguably all of the above, the then-mean streets gave birth to an explosion of hip hop. Among the artists who lived in or hung out in this now gentrified corner of the borough: Not only Jay-Z, but also the Beastie Boys, Foxy Brown, Talib Kweli, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def and L’il Kim.

For many, the word “Brooklyn” now evokes artisanal cheese rather than rap artists. The disconnect between brownstone Brooklyn’s past and present is jarring in the places where rappers grew up and boasted about surviving shootouts, but where cupcakes now reign. If you look hard enough, the rougher past might still be visible under the more recently applied gloss. And if you want to buy a piece of the action, Biggie’s childhood apartment, a three-bedroom walk-up, was recently listed by a division of Sotheby’s International Realty. Asking price: $725,000.

When we imagine the world of the future, it is invariably a world of science fiction. It’s always, “Here’s what Los Angeles might look like in seven years: swamped by a four-foot rise in sea level, California’s megalopolis of the future will be crisscrossed with a thousand miles of rail transportation. Abandoned freeways will function as waterslides while train passengers watch movies whiz by in a succession of horizontally synchronized digital screens. Foodies will imbibe 3-D-printed protein sculptures extruded by science-minded chefs.”

It’s always impersonal. The future,  even one just seven years away, seems always inhabited entirely by future-people. It’s not a place where we actually imagine….ourselves. Who will we be when the music that speaks to us now becomes “Classic” (Attention deficit break: “Elders react to Skrillex“); when the movies or TV shows or — lets be real, it’s most likely going to be — web content that captures the spirit of  this moment becomes a time capsule instead of a reflection? When once counter-cultural expressions — like skating, or hip hop — become mainstream? Who will we be when there is no longer a mainstream, or a counter-culture, for that matter? And who will the teenagers of this future be when the culture of their youth ages?

The past isn’t a foreign country. It’s our hometown. It’s the place we left, that has become immortalized in our memory the way it was back then. We return one day to discover new buildings have sprung up in empty lots, new people have moved in and displaced the original residents. Some from the old neighborhood didn’t made it out alive. The past has moved while we weren’t looking. It’s no longer where it was at all.

“In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability,” William Gibson, the once science-fiction writer who popularized the word “cyberspace,” and turned natural realist novelist in the 21st-century, said in a 2007 interview. “Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.”

Yet this week, it seems to me the more mysterious our future, the more the past becomes a moving target.

Then again, perhaps it always was.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

Map of New York City showing the remnants of the 6ft high water line from Hurricane Sandy.
Crom Martial Training, Rockaway Beach. (Source)



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Charlie Sheen Is Not Crazy

Image: Culture Wins

Charlie Sheen is not crazy. Or, at least, he’s not crazy the way you think he is. Charlie Sheen may finally be admitting that he’s lost his mind — exclusively to Life&Style, of all places, if we are to believe it — but that’s something that would have already been a long, long time in the making. What’s been happening over the past few weeks is not Charlie Sheen going crazy. Although it’s certainly easy to get confused. No doubt, Charlie Sheen wants you to think he’s crazy. After all, the boring recovering-addict Charlie Sheen Show — or the boring functioning-addict Charlie Sheen Show, depending on your preference — is much less interesting to watch than the “Crazy” one. And we are still watching….

In the course of this production it’s hard not to think about the film I’m Still Here, the cinéma vérité chronicling of Joaquin Phoenix’s “retirement from acting.”


For a year and a half, the twice Oscar-nominated Phoenix gained weight, stopped shaving, and tried to start a career as a rapper while his brother-in-law and fledgling filmmaker, Casey Affleck, came along for the ride to document this seeming descent into madness. Phoenix even famously came on Letterman in the course of I’m Still Here‘s production, disheveled and incoherent — an appearance that, by the end, prompted Letterman to say he owes an apology to Farrah Fawcett, til then considered his most disastrous guest of all time.

Of course, in the end it turned out this was not just another overindulged celebrity losing his mind. Nor, even after it was revealed that Phoenix’s “retirement” and subsequent actions weren’t exactly the plot of a straight “documentary,” was it all just simply a hoax. Back on the Late Show a year and a half later, now clean-shaven, and charming as usual, Phoenix explained:

We wanted to do a film that explored celebrity, and explored the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves. We wanted something that would feel really authentic. I’d started watching a lot of reality shows and I was amazed that people believed them; that they called them, like, ‘reality.’ I thought the only reason why is because it’s billed as being ‘real’ and the people use their real names. But the acting is terrible. I thought I could handle that. Because you don’t have to be very good. You just use your name, and people think that it’s real.

For a year and a half, Joaquin Phoenix lived the life of a character who shared his name and history and circumstances, both in private scenes and in the public eye. What then, truly, is the difference between what’s “real” and what isn’t? What does “hoax” even mean in the age of “reality TV?” I’m Still Here, along with the context around it, is a philosophical exploration of these questions.

It’s a very similar postmodern paradox that is at the heart of Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop:


“The world’s first street art disaster movie” tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French-born shop-keeper living in L.A. whose compulsive need to record every waking moment, and a cousin who happens to be the street artist Space Invader, combined to lead Guetta to become the de facto documentarian of the street art scene, tagging along on late-night art missions with its luminaries, including L.A.’s Shepard Fairey and, ultimately, the elusive reigning godfather of street art himself, Banksy. About two thirds of the way through the movie, Guetta, who had never previously edited any of the mountains of footage he’d been obsessively recording, goes to the U.K. to present a first draft of his “street art documentary” to Banksy for feedback. Deflecting his true opinion of the unwatchable film, Banksy suggests that perhaps Guetta should consider becoming a street artist himself and sends him back to L.A. with the idea of putting on a small show. Banksy also requests Guetta send him his raw video footage so that he can reedit it himself. And this is where the movie becomes something like an Andy Warhol adaptation of the Blair Witch Project.

A few months before Joaquin Phoenix would be announcing his acting “retirement,” Guetta’s artist persona, Mr. Brainwash, or MBW, had moved from plastering L.A. with his own likeness — an image of a guy holding a video camera — straight to mounting a massive “street art” show, called “Life Is Beautiful,” in a 15,000 square-foot venue. Seemingly overnight, Mr. Brainwash was being positioned as an up-and-comer with the oeuvre of a Shepard Fairey or a Banksy — by then both artists, as well as many other leading names in the street art world, had begun having their art on display inside galleries as opposed to on the exterior of walls — except unlike these artists with years, even decades of creative evolution and refinement, Guetta had no experience. He’d hired an army of sculptors and designers to manufacture the pieces for his show, ripped straight from bookmarks in art books — even the illustration of Guetta holding the camera had been created by someone else.

The day of the show the line to get in stretched for blocks. Four thousand people attended the opening. By the end of the day nearly a million dollars worth of Mr. Brainwash art had been sold.

The story, at face value, seems so preposterous that the question of whether it could truly be real has dogged the film, as well as created the suspense that’s made it even more of a phenomenon. Could an amateur who’d never actually made art himself succeed at pulling off a show that so blatantly counterfeited and so quickly eclipsed those of the art form’s recognized heavyweights? And would they really release a movie about it happening? Or is all of it — the movie, Life is Beautiful, Mr. Brainwash — simply Banksy’s greatest prank yet? Theories abound. The New York Times labeled it as a harbinger of a new cinematic subgenre: The Prankumentary. “The whole thing, it’s clear now,” Fast Company insisted, “Was an intricate prank being pulled on all of us by Banksy, who has never publicly revealed his identity, with Fairey as his accomplice.” Their conjecture about what really happened: “Banksy… convinced Guetta to pose as a budding graffiti artist wannabe so he and Fairey could ‘direct’ him in real life — manufacturing a brand new persona.” Yet when asked at the end of the film how he feels knowing that he is in part responsible for Mr. Brainwash, Shepard Fairey laughs ruefully, “I had the best intentions. But sometimes even when you have the best intentions things can go awry…. The phenomenon of Thierry becoming a street artist, and a lot of suckers buying into his show and him selling a lot of expensive art very quickly, anthropologically, sociologically, it’s a fascinating thing to observe. And maybe there’s some things to be learned from it.” For his part, Banksy, even as his voice is scrambled beyond recognition, conveys unmistakable melancholy as he says, “I used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to think that everyone should do it….. I don’t really do that so much anymore.”

This brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide” could just be an L.A. story simply too bizarre to have been made up, and just as easily, it could all be a fabricated fable about what happens to an artistic movement when it becomes commercialized. From “selling out” to “cashing in” the concept is so mundane it’s a cliché, but Exit Through The Gift Shop‘s treatment is primarily to emphasize the absurdity of the progression of events rather than to make any concrete statement about them. As Banksy’s art dealer says at the end of the film, “I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”

Which brings us back to Charlie Sheen. Not that what Sheen’s doing is any kind of joke or “prank.” This is all very much for real for him. And it is also a very deliberate performance. How did we get here? February 28, Charlie Sheen goes on Good Morning America, The Today Show, TMZ, Radar, Piers Morgan on CNN, 20/20 — basically, every celebrity interview news show he possibly can, and attracts a tsunami of flabbergasted attention for bein’ all ka-raaaazy. The next day he launches a social media empire.

Suddenly sounding not so crazy. Hell, as a digital strategist, I’d say it’s a pretty smart move. Within 25 hours and 17 minutes, Charlie Sheen had broken the world record for amassing 1 million Twitter followers faster than anyone else. Less than a week after his first tweet, he’d reached 2 million. “Another record shattered,” he tweeted, “We gobbled the soft target that was 2.0 mil, like a bag of troll-house zombie chow.” By then, he’d also launched a social media intern search:

which received over 74 THOUSAND! submissions in 5 days. Arguably no other celebrity has “gotten” the way social media works as fast. Even Conan had a slower uptake, though he’s undeniably provided a template for Sheen to work off of. (After getting canned from his TV job, Sheen did like MBW to Conan’s Banksy and announced he’s going on tour — the “Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option” Tour — just like Conan’s Banned From Television Tour last year in the wake of his own network debacle.) And, obviously, Sheen’s not doing it all on his own.

In Sheen’s 11-minute livestream episode, titled, “Torpedeos of Truth Part 2,” recorded on March 7th, 2011 — a week after his “old media” blitzkrieg — a terribly lit, grossly contrasted video in which a curmudgeonly, borderline belligerent Sheen looks like he might not have showered for days prior then rolled out of bed that morning, turned on his lap top, and started recording through the built-in camera above the screen, at 6 minutes, 40 seconds, when he ducks “below the frame line,” the camera moves. This is a recording made to look like it’s being done through a shitty built-in computer camera, but when it moves to follow Sheen as he ducks it’s suddenly clear there may be a camera person involved. If there is someone behind the camera, there could just as easily have been a lighting guy, a makeup person, but No! “Make me look as crazy as possible,” was clearly the direction here. By episode four it’d been announced that Sheen had officially been fired from his sitcom. The ante was upped. Suddenly Sheen, well-lit, made-up, looking as healthy as a marathoner — if not for the chain-smoking — in his sweat-wicking Nike shirt, was performing a soliloquy sounding like some misplaced Hunter S. Thompson diatribe. Clearly some writing talent may have been called in — if it hadn’t been already: consider that basically everything coming out of Charlie Sheen’s mouth becomes a meme — it’s been impossible to escape hearing someone say #winning (a hashtag in Charlie Sheen’s very first tweet) for weeks; then there’s #tigerblood, which is so meme-able it can’t even be summarized properly:

Tiger Blood Energy Potion
found in a hotel lobby at SXSW Interactive. Photo: Danny Newman

Right now 4Chan, the primordial ooze that has spawned everything from lolcats to Rickrolling to SadKeanu to every other Internet meme you’ve ever heard of, is looking at Charlie Sheen like Woh. The last guy anywhere near this unstoppably memetastic was the Old Spice Guy–

and that guy was created by an AD AGENCY!

Something else you might notice — Charlie Sheen almost never swears. You have never heard him bleeped in any of the interviews he’s done on TV. There are no R-rated words on his Twitter stream. Every so often there’s some sprinkled in his livestreams, but for the most part The Charlie Sheen Show is all-ages. Where he could say “assholes” or “douchebags,” he says “silly fools” or “trolls.” These Playskool insults are unexpected, amusing, almost benign, yet nostalgically cruel. This is not the syntax of a man out of control.

“Where do these words come from, Charlie,” 20/20’s Andrea Canning asked.

“I don’t know,” he rolled his eyes, “They’re just words that sound cool together. Stuff just comes out and it’s entertaining and it’s fun and it sounds different from all the other garbage people are spewing, you know?”

Charlie Sheen doesn’t have Tourettes. He is deliberately saying these things to entertain and be funny and unique. And he’s good at it. Bret Easton Ellis — the author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, as well as Lunar Park, a haunted house story in which the main character is a writer named Bret Easton Ellis who’s lived the same history as his eponymous creator (“It was always the A booth. It was always the front seat of the roller coaster. It was never ‘Let’s not get the bottle of Cristal’ … It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore — publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour.”) or is it, rather, the life he was expected to have been leading? (“What was I doing hanging out with gangbangers and diamond smugglers? What was I doing buying kilos? My apartment reeked of marijuana and freebase. One afternoon I woke up and realized I didn’t know how anything worked anymore. Which button turned the espresso machine on? Who was paying my mortgage? Where did the stars come from? After a while you learn that everything stops.“) — writing in an article titled, “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire,” calls Sheen, “the most fascinating person wandering through the culture:”

You’re completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen moment is really a story about drugs. Yeah, they play a part, but they aren’t at the core of what’s happening—or why this particular Sheen moment is so fascinating…. This privileged child of the media’s sprawling entertainment Empire has now become its most gifted ridiculer. Sheen has embraced post-Empire, making his bid to explain to all of us what celebrity now means. Whether you like it or not is beside the point. It’s where we are, babe. We’re learning something. Rock and roll. Deal with it.

Post-Empire isn’t just about admitting doing “illicit” things publicly and coming clean—it’s a (for now) radical attitude that says the Empire lie doesn’t exist anymore, you friggin’ Empire trolls. For my younger friends, it’s no longer rare; it’s now the norm. To Empire gatekeepers, Charlie Sheen seems dangerous and in need of help because he’s destroying (and confirming) illusions about the nature of celebrity.

It’s thrilling watching someone call out the solemnity of the celebrity interview, and Sheen is loudly calling it out as the sham it is. He’s raw and lucid and intense…. We’re not used to these kinds of interviews. It’s coming off almost as performance art and we’ve never seen anything like it—because he’s not apologizing. It’s an irresistible spectacle. We’ve never seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing.

It’s the contradiction we could never quite reconcile in I’m Still Here or Exit Through The Gift Shop; one we can accept in Lady Gaga because she’s not using her real name and we’re sort of OK with it when it’s just a “character.” Charlie Sheen is real and not real at once: a spectacle and a revelation. It’s meta-postmodernism. It’s existential performance art. Minutes before Charlie Sheen’s first livestream was set to start, the audio feed came on. You could hear Sheen rehearsing the rant he would perform that night, prompting the question: is this all an act? Of course it is! He’s an acTOR. From a family of actors, who’s spent his entire life performing. There’s no way he’d go on camera ever without rehearsing. Charlie Sheen’s whole life has been a performance, and this now is not so much different, just with a bigger audience and, as we say in the 21st century music business, cutting out the middleman. As far as Charlie Sheen knows, this is what real is. And as far a we know that’s what it is, too.

Ellis writes:

If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) while stumbling out of a club on Sunset Boulevard at 2 in the morning, then you should be a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game, and you’re a fool if you don’t play along. This is why Sheen seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians.

What does shame mean anymore? my friends in their 20s ask. Why in the hell did your boyfriend post a song called “Suck My Ballz” on Facebook last night? my mom asks. But nothing yet compares to the transparency that Sheen has unleashed in the past two weeks—contempt about celebrity, his profession, the old Empire world order.

Ellis’s “Empire” is a reference to Gore Vidal’s definition of global American hegemony, which Ellis dates from 1945 until 2005: the era that defined the 20th century. Post-Empire is where we are now. For Ellis, Empire is the lie, the having to hide who you really are, the keeping up appearances; post-Empire, on the other hand, is what Ellis calls, “aggressive transparency.” But his perspective has one flaw: for Ellis, both Empire and post-Empire are binary. It’s one or the other. It’s true or it’s a lie; it’s real or its counterfeit. The post-Empire reality, however, is not the end of the lie, it’s the end of the binary. Sure, “radical transparency” has become a 21st century marketing buzzword. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg believes that Privacy is Dead and has remade Facebook in that image. Sure, I wrote last year, what makes Iron Man the first 21st century superhero? His lack of alter ego; his unconflicted, absolute identity. But that all is only part of the Millennial story.

Social media researcher danah boyd writes:

There’s an assumption that teens don’t care about privacy but this is completely inaccurate. Teens care deeply about privacy, but their conceptualization of what this means may not make sense in a setting where privacy settings are a binary. What teens care about is the ability to control information as it flows and to have the information necessary to adjust to a situation when information flows too far or in unexpected ways.

Just because teens choose to share some content widely does not mean that they wish all content could be universally accessible. What they want is a sense of control.

I’d argue this is, in fact, true of all of us now in the post-Empire. Not just teens. “What Sheen has exemplified and has clarified,” writes Ellis, “Is the moment in the culture when not caring what the public thinks about you or your personal life is what matters most—and what makes the public love you even more (if not exactly CBS or the creator of the show that has made you so wealthy).” Except that Charlie Sheen still very much DOES care. And so do all the rest of us in the 21st century. It’s there in every Facebook photo you’ve untagged yourself from. You had your reasons. It’s there in every location you pulled out your phone to check in at, and then decided not to. It’s there every time you hovered over, and then didn’t click the “Like” button. As tech blogger, Robert Scoble, writes:

The other day I found myself over at clicking “like” on a bunch of Half Moon Bay restaurants. After a while I noticed that I was only clicking “like” on restaurants that were cool, hip, high end, or had extraordinary experiences.

That’s cool. I’m sure you’re doing the same thing.

But then I started noticing that…. What I was presenting to you wasn’t reality.

See, I like McDonalds and Subway. But I wasn’t clicking like on those. Why not?

Because we want to present ourselves to other people the way we would like to have other people perceive us as.

I’d rather be seen as someone who eats salad at Pasta Moon than someone who eats a Big Mac at McDonalds.

This is the problem with likes and other explicit sharing systems. We lie and we lie our asses off.

Not only do we still care what other people think about us, we now curate it more obsessively. Trent Reznor calls it “A hyper-real version of yourself.”

This is the hyper-real version of Charlie Sheen. It is a role that Charlie Sheen is performing. And it is also who he actually is. Because how could he not be? Whatever Charlie Sheen does, that is who he is. This is the only way he has to take control over the flow of his information. For a celebrity in particular, as Ellis points out, that control is virtually non-existent. So how did Charlie Sheen wrest it back? By outdoing TMZ and the news shows and the magazines at their own game. He is no longer just a commodity of the tabloid industrial complex. He is the creator and star of his own show, the Crazy Charlie Sheen Show, and all the press is simply promotion.

Then again, it could be something much more simple. At Coachella 2008, Prince, headlining, kept demanding over and over, “Say my name, Coachella! Say my name, Coachella! Say my name, Coachella!” And like some epic call-and-response an ocean of 150,000 voices roared back: “Prince! Prince! Prince!” And I realized that if you’re Prince, there’s probably no way you can even get off anymore without 150,000 people screaming your name. Perhaps, if you’re Charlie Sheen, you can’t stay sober unless two million people are following your every move — just over two weeks after his first Tweet, it’s now closing in on 3 million.

“We’ve come a long way in the last two weeks,” Ellis concludes. “Sheen is the new reality, bitch, and anyone who’s a hater can go back and hang out with the rest of the trolls in the graveyard of Empire.” Like I’m Still Here and Exit Through The Gift Shop, what Charlie Sheen is doing is part of a continuum exposing the now inherent unreliability of the markers we’d previously depended on to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. In some ways it’s as basic as the shift from the 20th century to the 21st; from analog to digital, from binary to exponential complexity. What, truly, does reality mean when it’s photoshopable? Or just another marketing campaign for some new movie? Not that reality doesn’t exist. Things are, out in the world; you can touch them. Earthquakes happen; nuclear reactors break; nations perch perilously on the verge of catastrophe. Reality exists, but it is no different from not reality. From the inscrutably contradictory government statements about radiation levels, from the fake Nuclear Fallout maps that spread like wildfire. Reality and not reality exist in the same plane now. It’s enough to make you go crazy. Unless you’re Charlie Sheen. In which case you’re not crazy. You simply are as your world is.



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During their New Moon promo tour a couple of months back, the Twilight Trio was on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and at the end of the show Kimmel let a few people from the audience ask questions of the cast. A girl came up to the mic with a question for Taylor Lautner. “I really like your shirt,” she said. “I was wondering, can I have it?” The running joke about New Moon, of course, is the extent of the shirtlessness perpetrated by Lautner’s character and his werewolf brethren. (It’s gone so far, in fact, that Lautner, who beefed up special for the role, has vowed to never appear shirtless in a movie ever again.) As Lautner struggled in response to keep from losing his shirt and his dignity, Kimmel, possibly the oldest person in the entire studio at that moment, interjected, “You know, I think people would look down on men for demanding the shirt off a woman.” Yet that this interaction seemed totally acceptable and par for the course to the otherwise teenage audience struck me as an indication of a potentially far lager trend a few days later, when I saw “The Christian Side Hug” video.

If you’re wondering what on earth is that?? The “Christian Side Hug” is a rap performed by a group of white kids at a Christian youth gathering, about a way of hugging while standing side by side with someone as opposed to facing one another and putting your arm around their shoulders or waist, because, “front hugs be too sinful.” Despite ultimately turning out to have been intended as insider “satire” (though not before passing very convincingly as both 1. A typically “ass-backwards” — to employ a Palin-ism — move from the abstinence movement of promoting celibacy while sexualizing even mundane forms of human contact, as well as, 2. A reason to weep quietly for the final, ignominious death — like a sad toothless crack-addict in an abandoned alley — of hip hop), I happened to see the Christian Side Hug video on the same day as the fallout from Adam Lambert’s American Music Awards performance, and to me there was a certain similarity between the two.

In case you happened to have missed it, or hearing about it, Lambert put on a rather racy, sexually scandalizing live performance at the awards show.

Perhaps confusing the AMA’s with the MTV Movie Awards, which have no problem rewarding male makeouts, or, more likely, shrewdly pushing the envelope hard on the night before his debut album release, in his first televised performance since the finale of American Idol, Lambert “shocked” the audience at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre and the millions watching live on ABC by closing the show with a risqué rendition of “For Your Entertainment,” the first single of his album of the same name. Highlights from the controversial performance included simulated oral sex from a male backup dancer, a make-out session with his male keyboardist, and a giant mirrored prop set up on the stage so the audience could see the looks on their own shocked faces.

According to Rolling Stone, the producers of the show weren’t informed about the guy-on-guy kiss in advance, and after the show, Lambert told the magazine the musician he kissed is a straight man. In the aftermath, ABC canceled Lambert’s Good Morning America appearance slated for the next day, which of course only helped generate even more attention and fanfare for the artist, who has clearly become an expert at navigating the myriad controversies he’s racked up. To me, what connects Lambert’s performance and the Christian Side Hug and the Kimmel incident, as well as endless other examples from our current pop culture, extends beyond any particular sexual orientation and includes even abstinence itself. It’s an underlying aggressiveness to sexuality in general: agro-sexuality.

To be clear, I’m not talking about aggression enacted through sex, but rather about a militancy in the display of one’s approach to sexuality. The past decade’s proliferation of online profiles, digital cameras, and all manner of social technologies has demanded we approach basically every other aspect of our modern identities as a performative display. It only makes sense that sexuality wouldn’t be exempt.

When I was a teenager in the late 90’s the general approach to sexuality could easily have been described as “come as you are.” Kurt Cobain had died the year before I started high school, Britney Spears’ first album wouldn’t come out until I was halfway through, and in between there was a lot of Green Day, Jewel, Fugees, and REM. Rap was still busy beefing between the coasts to have gotten fully pornified yet. Heroin Chic, an aesthetic glamorizing a drug that destroys sex drive, was all the rage. Even Madonna was, by this time, more interested in acting and electronica than vogueing or kink. And AIDS was huge. People were still dying of AIDS then. As opposed to now, when people are living with it. Kids were obviously still having sex, but since there was some semblance of sex education going on under the Clinton administration they were getting pregnant a lot less than in the “abstinence-only” Bush era. Basically, aside from the effort pushing the word “safe” in front of it, sex in the 90’s was not something to get particularly militant about.

Of course, there was the gay rights movement, but by the time Ellen Degeneres was making the cover of Time for admitting, yep, she’s gay, it had already long been transmogrified from Activism to Pride. And perhaps it’s this shift from social justice to self-expression that is the root of Agrosexuality in general. After all, what are purity rings if not emblems of Abstinence Pride? And in some basic way, even the demand for the shirt off Lautner’s back was as much a performance of sexuality as was Lambert’s on the AMA’s.

In a 2006 New York Magazine article called “The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School” Alex Morris wrote:

Go to the schools, talk to the kids, and you’ll see that somewhere along the line this generation has started to conceive of sexuality differently. Ten years ago in the halls of Stuyvesant you might have found a few goth girls kissing goth girls, kids on the fringes defiantly bucking the system. Now you find a group of vaguely progressive but generally mainstream kids for whom same-sex intimacy is standard operating procedure. These teenagers don’t feel as though their sexuality has to define them, or that they have to define it, which has led some psychologists and child-development specialists to label them the “post-gay” generation. But kids like Alair and her friends are in the process of working up their own language to describe their behavior. Along with gay, straight, and bisexual, they’ll drop in new words, some of which they’ve coined themselves: polysexual, ambisexual, pansexual, pansensual, polyfide, bi-curious, bi-queer, fluid, metroflexible, heteroflexible, heterosexual with lesbian tendencies—or, as Alair puts it, “just sexual.”

Even the nouveau-celibacy of the abstinence movement is an option on this spectrum, its appeal (if not necessarily its effectiveness) one kind of response to all these overwhelming new choices. As alternative sexuality has become more mainstream, and sexuality moves from self definition to self expression, what has emerged is a new agrosexual attitude that really wasn’t there 10 years ago. There’s an expectancy of an in-your-face show of sexuality — whatever yours may be — as part OF sexuality itself. It’s by no means anything new, but it used to be employed by those who’d followed alternative sexual paths, flying their freak flags as a social statement, or for deliberate shock value, now, however, as the sexual mainstream is fragmenting along with the cultural one being agrosexual is par for everyone’s course.

In her LA Times article on Lady Gaga — likely as close to the embodiment of agrosexuality as a generation could hope for — Ann Powers writes:

Having gotten her start in the bohemian enclaves of downtown New York City, Gaga is deeply indebted to Warhol’s “Superstar”-oriented Factory scene and its aftermath, which produced drag performers like Candy Darling, artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and streetwise rock stars including Lou Reed and Patti Smith.

“The idea is, you are your image, you are who you see yourself to be,” she said. “It’s iconography.”

Warhol supported and exploited a coterie of outsiders who likely would never have emerged from their corners without his help. Gaga takes control but also shows herself losing it; she blurs the lines between self-realization and self-objectification, courting the dangers of full exposure for a generation of kids born with camcorders in their hands.

Though she talks nonstop about liberation, Gaga’s work abounds with images of violation and entrapment. In the 1980s, Madonna employed bondage imagery, and it felt sexual. Gaga does it, and it looks like it hurts.

She says she wants her fans to feel safe in expressing their imperfections. “I want women — and men — to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they’re always trying desperately to hide. I want that to become something that they cherish.” calls this “Maturialism,” one of its “10 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2010:”

Let’s face it: this year will be rawer, more opinionated, more risqué, more in your face than ever before. Your audiences (who are by now thoroughly exposed to, well, anything, for which you can thank first and foremost the anything-goes online universe) can handle much more quirkiness, more daring innovations, more risqué communications and conversations, more exotic flavors and so on than traditional marketers could have ever dreamed of….We’ve dubbed this MATURIALISM (mature materialism),

In fact, the image at the top of this post is an ad for UK ice cream brand The Ice Creamists, mentioned in the Trendwatching post as an example of Maturialism in action:

Trendwatching suggests that if they want to keep up with culture, brands need to mirror the current societal norms that are “about anything but being meek.” In other words, this isn’t just for teenagers and pop stars; brands need to get in on the agrosexual action, too.


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