Bret Easton Ellis pops up at The Daily Beast and manages to pull a whole bunch of cultural threads together using almost-overnight memetic sensation and celebrity-carwreck Charlie Sheen as nexus/exemplar.
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. I know functioning addicts. They’re not that rare or that interesting. What this moment is about is Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned midlife crisis played out on CNN instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank. The midlife crisis is the moment in a man’s life when he realizes he can’t (or won’t) any longer maintain the pose that he thought was required of him.
Anyone who’s put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or suffered from addiction problems) has a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: If you’re punching paparazzi, you look like an old-school loser. 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. Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of crap you made? So Empire. 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. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just cursing to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is pure transparency, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning.
Transparency! We’ve been talking about its effects at the nation-state and corporation levels for a few years, but the same corrosion is happening down here in the culture trenches; I’m sure you can think of people in your circle of friends, online or off, who are doing a similar “performative fuckuppery” kind of thing, albeit (probably, or rather hopefully) not as intense. (After all, a 7-gram-rocks coke habit isn’t accessible to most income bands, AMIRITES?)
But this is important: Josh Harris may be a bit unhinged, but he realised it way before anyone else: we live in public. You know how when you get a videocam out at a party or bar and there’s always a few folk who immediately start playing it up for the lens? Well, we’re all on camera all the time, metaphorically speaking… and behaving normally does little more than let you fade into the background. This is the same root phenomena that drives comment trolling and those Westboro shitheads, but also the chain of revolutions across the Middle East and the sudden upsurge of protests in the UK and the US. Publicity is a feedback loop, but only now is it fast enough that the feedback can start really amping the signal. Sheen is not an end-case; he’s more of a prototype.
As Ellis points out, we’re in a transition period where Empire and post-Empire celebrity share the stage, but the Empire types don’t understand the landscape that the post-Empires are exploiting to their advantage. For example, here’s a classic Empire project: David Tang’s iCorrect website, where celebrities can correct the false mythologies that have accreted around them in the roiling mediasphere. But why would you want to go and shatter the mystique? They’ll believe whatever they want to believe, anyway; you might as well just play to the peanut gallery. After all, they’re the people who are most likely to spend money on things you do in the future… better to be a carwreck on a busy highway than pulled up carefully on the verge of a backroad.