post-Empire celebrity

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.

One thought on “post-Empire celebrity”

  1. Post-Empire? Self-Aware ironic rage against the media-industrial machine was hyped, blockbustered, stamped on a hundred million t-shirts, copied ad infinitum, adapted into a thousand MTV rockumentaries, past its expiry date, and summarily lobbed into the value bin of media history somewhere in an 80th floor penthouse suite on Sunset Boulevard, the last line of it snorted from some plastoid-hooker’s cleavage among the nihilistic drug-induced endgame haze of the 90’s. The proto-post-empire’s rise of Alternative which was supposed to “expose the rotting vampire squid carcass of the rock-industry and celebrity and fakery of the 80’s for the abomination it truly had become” laying it all down on the table from so many Courtney love F-Bombs to Billy Corgan’s precedent-setting acknowledgements of abuse to Nirvana’s mile-high-wall pajama-apathy; they realized over a decade (epochs in media-time) a truth uglier than the bubonic bags of meth-eaten celebrity skin. They realized what all teen rebellion and idealist anarchism and commune and every flippant angsty middle finger thrust up into the face of the invisible hand of the culture-market must; that their efforts were the futile misplaced thrashings of a terminally entitled teen refusing to do their pre-cal homework, that kind of second-tear wrist cutting (“Fuck you dad, and Emilio too, I’ma go smoke crack the size of your gaut stones, see how you like that!”) which the vampiric thousand eyed couch-symbiotes that are the American audience could care less about as long as some Other’s life was being destroyed in Hollywood-grade hi-def car-crash splendor for their viewing pleasure. Tool sung what amounted to the anthem of LA annhilation among a nuclear wind of distorted guitars at countless concerts, “I need to watch things die…from a distance.” And the saturated white noise of grunge, those walls of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing in the face of the media monolith were crumpled up, left on a rehab facility bedstand like a suicide note, before they were blown by a 12-guage out of the head of Kurt Cobain.

    These guys were telling Katie Couric off before Ricky Gervaise was spitting sardonic amniotic fluid. Biting the heads of chickens, bats and every avian phenotype in between and spitting their blood on CNN cameras before Lady Gaga ripped off her first indie fashion meme. Rocking the haute-rocker insouciance riffs during interviews via orthoganal non-answers to questions about “their habits” and “their PR problems” and “how they’ll get back on track” before James Franco discovered ‘irony’ via the webcast of some emo Beiber impersonator at 2AM while trolling Youtube. They declared “the track” to be the one-way runaway train to bored ‘normalcy’ before the upstart multi-pattern socked trust-funders gorging on back-seasons of The Office coined the term “career pathing”. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is as old as the star-spangled ‘Hills. Hell, rock — as the author describes Sheen — is and has always been about post-empire, it’s always been about deconstructing the monoliths of the mainstream, “the system”. And as subcultures are subsumed, gobbled up, metabolized into arms of the media octopus — rock, folk, punk, metal, alternative — so do we have new bohemia farms to take their place and repeat the culture crop-cycle. Sheen is an extreme and recent example, a particularly elevated shooting star burning up in the multi-million dollar apex-rated TV show atmosphere padded by a familial dynasty of Hollywood big-wigs and fan base making his descent particularly prolonged as he tears through that deep social safety net, yes the mediascape has shifted since the 20th century with realtime media like Twitter and the internet as a whole increasing both the number, bandwidth and framerate of the camera lenses exsanguinating the hell out of this particular car crash in multi-perspectived bullet-timed, Uber-Def detail down to the nanoseconds, the audience almost tasting each “7-gram-rock” as it burns away another fragment of his real and celebrity-tulpa personality, but let us not kid ourselves into believing Charlie is some new species of media-logical transhuman worthy of a fresh tsunami of culture-critic post-doctorates and neologism-coinage battles, to be brought back to the whitewashed lab wrapped in space-grade plastic, examined through every orifice and datamined for tweetbait rants on flippant cultural-unobtanium, blood-letted for bleeding edge revelations into the post-human condition of “post-empirehood” (whatever that means). And it’s precisely that same meta-phenomena of “phenomena”-ization which is proclaimed by Twitter’s marketing department in droves with article titles like “the revolutionization of revolution” which realtime media supposedly creates a la Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, but which in fact is no newer than rockstars ODing for tabloids: it’s just an accelerant, as any level-headed analyst without a social media agenda to push or delusion of armchair-philanthropy to nurse. There are the rubberneckers out there who pull over to watch dozen-car pileups on the freeway, but milking this phenomenon is as long-mainstreamed and as “edgy” as turning your tube amp up to 11 is today. In fact, that’s precisely how the media keeps us on the straight and narrow milking-lines as cash cows and away from doing something really revolutionary, like paying attention to the real issues affecting the planet, the eight hundred pound gorillas sitting in the middle of the road which we’re speeding towards.

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