I was on the boardwalk at Coney Island this weekend and something in the distance caught my eye. "It's a puppet show!" I said (fine: squealed) to my boyfriend. And then, upon approaching, "...and I think it's religious!!!!" It was:
I think this is a wonderful metaphor (or working example, even) of evangelism's burden in 2011. No one cares and the wind's blowing too hard to pay attention, anyway.
Though it was an obvious highlight, this was not the most surreal thing I experienced on Coney Island. The Coney Island beach is pretty gross (it's more dirt than sand), but a nice thing about it is that people walk by all day selling things. This makeshift dim sum set-up is very convenient if you want ice cold water or a Corona in a paper cup or a $1 blow-up beach ball. As part of this series of nomadic peddlers, an overweight, older man with a gray ponytail that was down to his ass approached our group and held up a seashell with a pot leaf laminated inside of it. "Would anyone like to buy an ashtray?" he asked. His intonation was somewhere between music and a child-beauty pageant announcer (really, he sounded like Mr. Tim in Living Dolls when he announces that Reed Hale's hobbies include "playing in the dirt and watching Unsolved Mysteries"). Of course we were like, "No." "It's made with a realllll leaf," sang-song the man, lingering. We ignored him and he slinked off. I realized that he was probably speaking in code: his Lynchian tone and behavior were either his way of signaling that he was selling marijuana or that he would be back to murder us later. We're all still alive, so I'm going with the former!
And thennnnnn, when we had left the beach and were standing on the boardwalk, waiting for people to finish using the bathroom, two guys approached our group of eight or so and asked, "What's a douchebag?" Someone started to explain exactly what it was, but the pair interrupted and clarified: they wanted to know whether "douchebag" was more frequently used to describe men or women. The more laid-back of the two was gently trying to convince his friend that "douchebag" was typically used for cocky, boorish guys. His more excitable friend (who had what I think was a Dominican accent) was insistent that you call women "douchebags" because "douchebag is the equivalent of scumbag" (literally, that is a quote). I calmly explained that, no, the laid-back guy was right and that men are typically called douchebags. Someone else in our group said that you could call anyone anything but typically the connotation is that men are douchebags. The excitable guy began pointing at each person in our group in an impromptu poll that got him nowhere except more insistent that he was right. Then a giant pitbull with a football in his mouth walked up and distracted them. We slipped away and I got ice cream.
The literary-level irony of this is that both of these guys were total douchebags! (I can only imagine the conversation that led to this debate – it almost certainly stemmed from shit-talking a stranger, probably a woman.) They didn't know it, but they were in the middle of an existential crisis.
Anyway, the larger point is that if you go to Coney Island, you should talk to people because everyone is fucking insane.
A few weekends ago, a Philadelphia station aired a four-episode marathon of Dancin' on Air, a teen-oriented dance show that aired from 1981-1987 (it was Dance Party USA's predecessor and then sister show). Before and after commercials during this string of very special reruns, they'd cut to various dancers who kept this show going back in the day. One of them said that this was "the reality show of the '80s." That claim sat alongside ones of them still being recognized, 30 years later, in supermarkets, so I was ready to dismiss it along with those. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Many of the ideals present on Dancin' on Air have become reality show dogma. Already strange-looking people have clearly gone out of their way to make themselves look stranger. No discernible talent is necessary to participate. There's a palpable struggle for camera time that is rewarded by outlandishness. In its polite and simple way, Dancin' on Air predicted our cultural adoration of extreme human behavior.
It was also run really weirdly, although I'm not complaining: pop curios (like Taffy's Italo "I Love My Radio") were featured alongside smash hits. Also, concepts the cut-in dance above certainly introduced layers missing from your standard kids-dancing-in-a-room programming. And who doesn't want to know what turns underage children off?
I'm having an old-media moment, I think. It really shook me last week when I was reading some of my old ANTM recaps. "God, these took so long to do," I thought as I scanned through for research and the sake of remembering why I loved some of the contestants who'll be back for the all-stars cycle in the fall. When I came up with my format and posting schedule for those recaps years ago, I was operating off the initial Television Without Pity model, which assumed that writers could not only take a few days to digest and process what they saw, but that readers would have the patience for that. And so, I'd typically let five days stretch before I posted my reactions to the episodes. This primarily was out of function: Combing through episodes, capturing several images and sounds (and sometimes videos), thinking about what all of it means and uploading it takes time. Multimedia synthesis takes time. Add a day job in there, and the occasional desire to do something social after work, and things need even more time. I'm an idealist, and I never thought that I should approach recapping in any way other than that which worked for me. "People will wait, and if they don't, oh well," was my attitude, and so I took my sweet time (primarily for the sake of getting it right, but also because I do need a modicum of sleep to function).
That worked for a while. I watched a slew of sites begin to turn around their recaps at a much faster rate -- sometimes virtually as soon as the credits rolled. It didn't bother me or make feel the need to work any faster, and I think people largely accepted that. After a certain point, though, interest in the recaps began to wane. I'm not sure what the cause of that was, but I suspect it was a variety of factors including people's waning interest in America's Next Top Model in general, my waning interest in the show reflecting in my writing, people getting so used to my format that any novelty that attracted them wore out and, yes, that I was taking too damn long and that our cultural attention span has shrunk even in the past five years, so that a show that aired last week isn't worth that much consideration (you know you'll be reminded of it in a brief montage preceding this week's episode, anyway).
I can only be me, and going from my gut has been really rewarding, but at times I feel obsolete. Last Sunday night, I watched Mariah Carey live on HSN as she made her first post-childbirth televised appearance. I logged every silly thing that she said and kept my eyes and ears open for repetition and trends so that I could later, at the end of her run (24 hours after it started, with 8 hours of live television under her belt), cut together something along the lines of what I did after her first set of appearances on the Home Shopping Network last year.
That idea needed revision when the next morning, I saw that Gawker had posted their own highlights reel comprising only the first two hours (something my own obsessive-compulsive completism would never have even allowed to cross my mind). I'll admit, and only because I've talked about it with Matt who put together Gawker's video: being scooped irked me. I know that Matt's idea was to piece together in chronological order what he considered the highlights (he told me this on Twitter), and that is a more manageable task than my painstaking truffle-sniffing. Love takes time, Mariah told us in 1990, but that was before we were on the Internet and she was on HSN. That was a different world.
Of course, Matt was doing his job and it paid off extremely well -- the video went everywhere, including on Anderson Cooper's show that same night, which led to Mariah herself giving it a shoutout. That is amazing and enviable. Matt's instinct to turn this around and get it up as soon as possible was the right one. After being presented with its existence, though, I then had the choice to do my version of what would be, by the time it was uploaded, a day-old story, or compartmentalize and do more specialized, supercutty things that certainly are very much in my aesthetic, anyway. Despite many elements that would have made my take on the former something very insane (including an arc in which Mariah repeatedly forgot the names of the HSN models no matter how often she was reminded, and her dubious habit of prefacing statements with, "Honestly..."), I went for the latter (twice, actually). These did not go viral. I think that maybe they were repetitive to the point of being excruciating to most people and I know that regardless of my focus, Mariah on HSN was old news by the time they went up.
I don't know what I'd do if confronted with the same situation again. I suspect, being someone who learns by example and who has dedicated his life to being as practical as possible (despite several completely impractical goals), I'd be even more tempted to rush it online in order to give my piece a fighting chance. It's a strange, sometimes contradictory position to be in as a writer/blogger -- I don't want to say that I'm motivated by popularity (and I think the frequent obscurity of my conveyed interests is testament to that), but I dread irrelevance. I put so much time into so many things that to have them ignored just makes me seem pathetic. I don't want to be pathetic. That may be the extent to which I care what people think about my work here, but it isn't nothing. I write to be read, I edit to be viewed and I share to be shared. It's a very strange feeling to have developed my voice via the Internet and all of the expressive outlets it affords, and yet frequently get the impression that I've been outmoded by it.
There's no easy answer but to continue to go with my gut. I'll ride it as far as it takes me, because I don't know any other way. I've seen so much blog criticism that's done by smart people and yet is just bad because of its knee-jerk nature. Then again, I've seen plenty of amazing work turned around just as quickly. (And, by the way, this is no commentary on Matt's Mariah video, which despite what he presented as a simple set-up was presumably time-consuming and unmistakably curated.) Maybe professional Darwinism on the Internet in 2011 means that only the fastest survive. There's also the possibility that I'm taking my work too seriously, and that ultimately the editing of such a piece matters much less than its content, if at all.
Maybe the most practical thing to do is to forget about the craftsman and just be a ship, a vessel that delivers the information to those who've yet to experience it. To resist how things work is to battle with technology, which is almost always a foolhardy choice. But so is changing to fit in. I don't know where this leaves me. It'll probably take some time to figure out.
La Toya Jackson took to Stickam last night to say that shit she's been saying since the June release of her second memoir, Starting Over (much of that same shit, by the way, is in the book). It was pretty hilarious, since it was live and her mic kept going out. (You can watch the recording at the chat's page -- the video and sound are out of sync, which is kind of perfect.) When you could hear her, she did things like claim credit for MJ's love of crests and for coming up with the idea to name children "Paris" and "Prince" (not only Michael copied the idea, but so did Kathy Hilton, at least in the former case). One of my favorite quotes of the night was, "Jan is always saying something about something." JACKSON FAMILY SECRETS REVEALED. Put that in your 900 number.
My other favorite moment is above, when La Toya vaguely described her fear of small cats, and vaguely explained how that fear does not extend to large ones, like the tiger she's posing with in the picture she's describing. It makes no sense, but then again, if it did it just wouldn't be La Toya. I am in love with the fact that she is the most visible Jackson in pop culture! My her reign be eternal!