Epidemic linkbaiting at 'The Daily Beast'

Over time, every mass medium evolves a way of reaching the lowest common denominator, its own specially tailored and especially shameless method of squeezing the art until it screams dollar signs. We live in a capitalist world, so it’s not surprising that artists, entertainers, and journalists can’t always pick dignity over paying the rent. Let’s review:

• Television has got its missing white girls, celebrity ‘news’, and overall bleeds = leads philosophy.

• The movie industry could hardly survive without binging on mindless explosions, sequelitis, and formulaic romantic comedies.

• Radio (it’s still a thing, right?) lives and dies by voice-tracking, dayparting, speeding up songs to fit in more ads, and, of course, an unholy arsenal of screeching shock-jocks and apoplectic political gasbags.

• And even the medium associated with the highest of brows, publishing, sustains itself primarily on a program of fad-diet books, pop-science piffle, quickie cash-in bios for the dead celebs and ghost-written claptrap for the dumb and living ones.

*******

Now, the internet is still a toddler compared to the above media, but it’s already developed some tried, true, and slightly short of dignified ways of pulling in pageviews, the metric that eventually makes the money that keeps the whole thing going. Linkbait can be good or bad, and it’s obviously part of life for any company making its living with content on the web. But it’s good to know what the internet equivalent of fishnet stockings and a low-cut blouse are, so you can spot the cheap and easies like an expert.

On the technical end, there’s spamdexing – which I could explain but it would probably put us both to sleep – and on the content end, there are several tactics to lower yourself to snag more eyeballs. There’s celeb gossip (nothing new there), unverified tech rumors, fake-feuding for traffic, and throwing in names that are insanely popular but utterly irrelevant to your post like Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber, or Justin Bieber, for example. And, of course, there’s the list. I’m a big fan of lists, even if especially if they’re silly and useless.

But there’s a limit. And The Daily Beast has not only crossed that limit, they’ve set up shop on the other side and started giving the finger to everyone who ever gave a flip about standards. Their lists are kaleidoscopically stupid; every possible avenue of idiocy is explored. The premises are hopelessly flawed, the criteria are completely meaningless, and the actual content is, well, debatable is the kindest description I can muster. (Flat-out f**ing retarded is the least kind, if you were wondering.)  OK, Tina Brown, you’ve forced me to fight fire with fire, list with list.  Here goes:

THE TEN MOST USELESS DAILY BEAST LISTS OF ALL TIME, OR AT LEAST UNTIL NEXT MONTH

10. The 50 Most Stressful Colleges

Random metrics + high interest subject = shamless linkbait.  How good is the engineering program? How much crime is on campus?  What is the acceptance rate?  What do these have to do with each other and how they do prove an amorphous and probably unmeasurable quality like “stress” on campus?  Oh, nevermind all that.  Forward this to aunt Susie – she’s got a kid applying this fall.

9. The Left’s Top 25 Journalists

OK, I won’t bring up that they lump bloggers, journalists, newspaper columnists, and radio talk show hosts all together.  I realize I’m one of the few holdouts who distinguish between commenting on the news and breaking it.  But still, Fred Hiatt is on a list of lefties.  Fred Hiatt, for crisssakes.  At #5.  Worthless.

8. The Endangered Sandwiches List

It’s really just a list of great delis across the U.S., but that wasn’t eye-grabbing enough, so TDB had to come up with a confusing/dopey title and work in some story about how delis are dying because of low margins on brisket,  their association with Jack Abramoff (huh?), and the low-carb craze (four years after Atkins went bankrupt).

7. America’s 25 Craziest Cities

Any commentary on this one would be secondary to just listing their lame criteria: psychiatrists per capita, stress, eccentricity and drinking levels.  What?  But at this point, whatever, fine.  Do your dumb meaningless list, Daily Beast. But c’mon!  You should’ve had a clue something was wrong when Cincinnati, of all places, was number one.  Cincinnati has never been number one in anything, ever, good or bad.  It wouldn’t even crack the top three in a “Lamest Cities in Ohio” list, an admittedly tough contest.

6. A-List Buddhists

Aside from putting Tiger at #1, the list isn’t that bad by Daily Beast standards.  But the tagline, “Hollywood’s Buddha-ful People” is enough to land it in the middle of the Hall of Shame.

5. The Right’s Top 25 Journalists

Again, apart from a laughably broad definition of journalist (Rush Limbaugh?) , it’s a shame to throw respectable people like Caitlin Flanagan and Nick Gillespie in with the likes of Laura Ingraham and Glenn Beck. Also, I have to quote the blurb about Bill O’Reilly:

“O’Reilly, an anchor who has turned blowing hard into an art form (ed. note: no argument here), is reliably—and relentlessly—omniscient (Omniscient?  That’s the word you wanted?)  His paint-by-numbers conservatism can be off-putting even to those who share many of his beliefs, but every now and then he has his finger perfectly on the pulse of the nation. And then he’s unstoppable.”

So, Bill is reliably and relentlessly omniscient, which is good.  It sucks when someone’s erratically all-knowing.  But even with consistently godlike powers, he’s only unstoppable every now and then.  That’s why he’s only at number five on their list.

4. The Elite’s Top 50 Baby Names

The co-founder of something called nameberry.com, “which we like to think of as the high-quality, intelligent source for stylish names”, lays out the Chets,  Tiffanys, and Taylors of tomorrow so that we can preemptively hate their idiot parents.  When Seraphin, Imogen, Phineas, Atticus, and Kai become as common as Brad and Kelly, we’ll know who to kill thank.

3. The Top 25 Centrist Columnists and Commentators

Any list where Joe Scarborough follows Jon Stewart is clearly meaningless.  Evidently, Stewart is on this because made fun of Keith Olbermann one time.  I think they’re confused.  Criticizing people on your own side occasionally doesn’t make you centrist.  It makes you honest.

2. The A-List B-Cups

Somehow dumber than it sounds, it’s an inventory of celebs who’ve gotten breast reductions.  Thank God someone is recording this information for posterity.  It should also be noted that  the definition of A-List is stretched so far that it includes the likes of Soleil Moon Frye and Loni Anderson.  The slideshow contains gems like this from Kelly Osborne: “Perfect boobs is what I want.”  Enlightening.

1. The Top 20 Dog Names of the Future

With the amount of brain cells I lost just reading the title, I can’t possibly risk reading the article.  We have a winner.

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Is it wrong to engage celebrity culture?

From body image to the body politic, there are few areas of contemporary American life untouched by the tentacles of celebrity culture, the trivial pursuit whose effects are anything but. The nightly news forgoes civic engagement for cynical spectacle, and politicians respond in kind. Witness the Terminator laying waste to the world’s fifth largest economy while Sarah Palin leverages a mere state governorship into the real prize: commentator on Fox News and reality show star. And the young set their ambitions based on what draws the most eyeballs – whether they’re achieving fame or infamy is beside the point. “To be known and despised is better than to not be known at all” is the reigning philosophy.

All of this is well documented and widely deplored. We know the offenders: TMZ, US Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, Perez Hilton, etc. But as much scorn as they deserve – and sure, they deserve a truckload – I’m not interested in their particular crimes. I’m interested in exploring a more collective guilt, a guilt borne even by those who are simply spectators or who spend their time actively tearing apart the star system.

Some of the bloggers and critics I’m talking about are people whose work I’ve long admired and probably at one time or another poorly imitated. But my point still stands: Anyone who consumes this material or who makes a living commenting on stars and their behavior is automatically part of the celebrity machine and is at least partly responsible for the end result. It doesn’t matter whether you’re laughing at the whole enterprise while you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter whether you see your warts and all only coverage as a much-needed corrective to the blemish-free bullshit of the star-making machinery. And it doesn’t matter whether you see yourself as better because you reference Sylvia Plath in your posts instead of just drawing semen on celebrities’ faces. And the reason it doesn’t matter is because, in the end, you’re not a better person than Perez Hilton or someone that works at TMZ or Star magazine. You’re just a smarter one. The person who helps produce US Weekly and the person who buys it to laugh at it and the person from Gawker who makes a living mocking it all contribute to its bottom line.

This is because the celebrity industry isn’t like other industries. The cliché is true: In 99 percent of cases, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. All the blistering takedowns and all the withering quips serve the exact same function that a puff-piece People spread does. It feeds the beast. And the last thing any of us should want to do is feed the beast, because it feeds the worst in us. It’s an awful industry driven by our basest instincts – envy, superficiality, greed and spite – and, perversely, any engagement functions as a sort of endorsement. The only way to win is by ignoring them. Like the classic Simpson’s song goes, “Just Don’t Look”.

Apart from supplying fuel to a machine they claim to hate, there’s also an inherent amount of arrogance and superiority involved in the enterprise of celeb-mocking. Like most sane people, I’m frequently appalled by the behaviors of the rich + famous, but I think it’s helpful to have some perspective. The sudden introduction of immense fame and incredible fortune present the kind of character test I don’t think most people would pass, much as they’d like to think otherwise. The amount of sinless, stone-throwing spectators regarding this or that gaffe, infidelity, or chemically-induced celebrity mishap is far greater than the number of people that wouldn’t fall victim to the same self-inflicted misfortune if they were in the same place. Besides, you get no points for resisting temptations that you aren’t offered.

The giddy thrills of the celebrity merry-go-round may seem like candy, but they’re poison, more or less. They either make us feel bad about ourselves for the wrong reasons – by presenting a fake world free of problems that makes our own lives pale in comparison – or they make us feel good, also for the wrong reasons – because we’re smugly judging public figures that are under pressures that we can’t possibly imagine. And in case you were mistaken, you don’t have a ‘right to know’ the details of a public figure’s life. Presuming you do cheapens the meaning of both ‘right’ and ‘knowledge’. I don’t care if they are a golfer, a singer, or a senator (unless they’re misusing public funds). It’s none of your business.

I say this not as a blameless scold, but as someone who’s been a producer and a consumer of celebrity news product at various times in my life. The former I did as a paycheck and the latter I did out of boredom, but, either way, I regret it – and I don’t think I’m the only that does. It’s unfashionable these days to talk about something being “beneath” us, but if we can’t say this kind of thing is below what we’d like to be, then what are we saving our standards for? And, again, it’s not any better to be a mocker than it is to be a booster. You’re boosting sales, pageviews, and ratings either way. Being draped in irony doesn’t keep you from getting dirty.

The bottom line is we’re better than this, and we have better things to do with our time and talents.  Let’s start acting like it.

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The conservative policy of pettiness

Whenever I go against my better judgment and watch a clip from Glenn Beck’s show, the end result is usually not much more than a severe headache and a wrist sore from constant fist shaking. But his recent unintentionally hilarious hour-long interview with nonconsensual fondler Eric Massa actually provoked some thought from me, though not the kind Beck was intending. The lachrymose host was chomping at the bit to crown Massa a new conservative hero of the first order – the liberal apostate, eager to dish dirt on the perfidy of his previous ideological allies. But sadly, Beck ended up with little more than an hour of lame backpedaling and tickle-fight tales that made him the butt of more jokes than usual. Where did America’s favorite crazy crybaby go wrong?

Now, at least some of the blame for the primetime train wreck can be attributed to Beck’s habit of uncritically embracing every half-baked conspiracy theory that comes down the pike. But the bigger part of it has to do with the host exhibiting a trait common to nearly every conservative on the spectrum these days, whether they’re a fundamentalist railing against the evils of gay marriage or a Cato fellow ranting about the evils of the estate tax. It’s a bug that’s turned into a feature over the years: the kneejerk impulse of conservatives to choose their policy preferences, their rhetoric, and their heroes based on what most pisses off liberals.

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Highlights for Adults: Faking It

faking

HFA is a feature where I look on my bookshelf, take down one of my excessively highlighted books, and share some passages to see if anyone else thinks it was worth all the yellow/pink/orange/green ink involved.

Episode Three Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (2007)

Pop music has always been closely linked with issues of identity and authenticity.  Since it’s most often produced and consumed by the young, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, growing up is a process of figuring out how you aren’t as much as who you are.  Culture is one way to do that.  And as Pierre Bourdieu spent his life illustrating, culture is much more than a pastime.  It’s a weapon and a uniform as well.  “Taste is first and foremost distaste”, he famously said, and it’s hard to think of a more efficient machine for drawing those early boundaries between oneself and others than music preferences.

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Bill Hicks R.I.P.

hicks cig

Comedian Bill Hicks died 16 years ago today at the age of 32. This is my attempt at a tribute.

HICKS AND I

It’s fitting that my introduction to Bill Hicks came in the form of an angry 300 pound ignorant redneck, the kind of unthinking pitchfork-wielder that was the frequent butt of his jokes. I was working at the [now defunct] Best Buy clone Media Play in the music department, trying to restock the shelves, when a very unhappy housewife finally found an employee to vent her anger on. Her anger was inordinate, her obesity was morbid, and her target – none other than Bill Hick’s final CD Rant in E-Minor and its alleged crimes against all things Christian and decent. We weren’t supposed to give refunds on opened items, but I was willing to risk a write-up rather than face the sick-breathed wrath of this beastly customer for one more millisecond.

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Attention Deficit: The TV Set (2006)

tv set

Attention Deficit is a feature highlighting films, books, or TV shows that, for one reason or another, never got the audience they deserved.

Last year, while reading the excellent book And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers About Their Craft by Mike Sacks, I kept noticing a theme. Every other comedy writer, with the slightest of prompts, would launch into a tirade about how utterly useless and asinine the notes they got from execs were, and how their interference inevitably loused up a perfectly good project. And I also noticed while reading the (not nearly as good) The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, there was wide agreement among the interview subjects that one of the things that made The Simpsons one of the best shows of all time was securing the right to ignore exec notes early on in the show’s contract. Are entertainment industry heads really that awful?

Jake Kasdan’s 2006 film The TV Set provides an entertaining 88 minute answer to that question, and not surprisingly, it’s a giant “YES”, scrawled out in the torment and bitterness of the protagonist’s struggles with executive inanity.

Though the film is rich in characterization and detail, the plot is easy to summarize. David Duchovny stars as Mike Klein, writer/creator of The Wexler Chronicles, a tragicomic, loosely autobiographical TV show about a guy who returns to his hometown after his brother commits suicide. The movie begins with him casting the newly greenlit project with the exec’s supervision, and it is here his troubles begin. In a brilliant stroke of casting, Sigourney Weaver plays the ruthless network president Lenny, and she wastes no time in chopping away at every bit of originality and nuance in Mike’s vision until the final product barely resembles the original pitch. Mike has an advocate in Richard, a British exec who shares Mike’s reluctance to dumb down the show. But he has own hide to protect and his own agendas to pursue, and even if that weren’t the case, he’d be little match against the Sigourney steamroller. Mike considers quitting rather than sacrifice his work on the alter of lowest common denominator pandering, but with a baby on the way, he realizes that’s not really an option. He fights, he concedes, he fights, he concedes: this pattern continues until the show has become everything he hates about television.

Mike: (referring to a terrible actor in an audition) To me, he’s a…bit broad.
Lenny: I LIKE broad.
Other Exec: To me, the broad is the funny.

The film is neither wacky farce nor scathing satire, but more a low-key examination of exactly how artistic intentions are compromised at each step of the production process. Kasdan lays out the details like a lawyer making his case; confident and thorough, but free from histrionics. This naturalistic style confused critics, who were largely indifferent to the effort, but it’s exactly what drew me to the movie. Unlike most comedies, which seem to desperately need your laughs, The TV Set plays it relatively straight, trusting the audience to pick up on the humor of the character’s situation.

Alice: They loved it!
Mike: They called to say they loved it?
Alice: Yes. And they had some questions.
Mike: Questions?
Alice: There’s just some…concern at the network.

Satires of Hollywood rarely connect with audiences or critics. The audience apathy for these productions is usually attributed to their inside-baseball nature, their creators taken to task by reviewers for assuming John Q. Public (their cornball terminology, not mine) doesn’t care a whit for their trials and troubles. I’m not buying it. If that were true, entertainment shows and magazines wouldn’t have the massive audience they do, and Hollywood trade gossip wouldn’t be the lucrative currency it is. Nor would studios bother creating behind the scenes featurettes, commentaries, and the like. No, audiences ignore these films for the same reason critics slam them. Most of them just aren’t any good. State and Main, For Your Consideration, What Just Happened, Full Frontal, Hurly Burly, Swimming with Sharks, The Big Picture: the list of lame movies-about-movies is long and depressing. But most of those would be unwatchable regardless of the subject matter.

Of course, all the movies listed probably had bigger box office than the one I’m reviewing, so what do I know? Trying to make a halfway decent work that speaks to real human problems and connects to a mass audience is an exercise in futility by way of artistic flagellation. I’m sure the irony of that wasn’t lost on Jake Kasdan. He’s clearly learned how the industry begs, bullies, and buys concessions from artists. It’s not in one fell swoop, but in a little soul-selling every day. What could one more itsy-bitsy sacrifice to the God of Ratings hurt? After all, it’s not show art, it’s (stop me if you’ve heard this more than six million times) show business, right?

Anyway, you should check out The TV Set and tell me what you think. It’s not everyone’s thing – which is kinda the point – but I hope you like it.

Extracurricular Studies: Season 2 of Ricky Gervais’s Extras deals with a similar theme of compromised success.

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How the Bechdel Test could save the Oscars

upintheair1

For the uninitiated, The Bechdel Rule, or the Bechdel Test, is a way of judging movies based on the following criteria:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.


The rule was first introduced to the world by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985 in a comic from her popular strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. According to Bechdel, it should actually be called The Liz Wallace Test, as her friend actually came up with it, but I’m sticking with tradition, so nevermind that. The test, or rather the difficulty in finding movies that pass it, is a testament to the shocking (not really) lack of diversity in Hollywood production, even in 2010. And the problem doesn’t end with gender, obviously. Take Deggan’s Rule, an offshoot of The Bechdel Test, coined by Eric Deggans of The St. Petersburg Times:

1) At least two non-white human characters in the main cast…
2) that’s not about race.

Now it would seem, as a white man, I’m not personally injured by the failure of most movies to pass either of these tests. Our stories are being told, our concerns are being addressed, our grievances are being aired; all is well in White Boy Town. But that is not so. First off, any group that only hears it own stories is not getting the full story. Surrounded by only look-and-think-alikes, it becomes impossible not to become parochial and stagnant. After all, one of the main social benefits of fiction is the encouragement of empathy, and these narrow narratives deny us its full expression.

But as much social harm as excluding half the population from being fully realized fictional characters does, I’d say it does even greater damage to movies as an art form. Think about it. Any screenwriter/director/producer that can’t think of anything more for a woman to do than be a girlfriend, wife, mother, or kidnapped daughter is probably going to lack imagination in other areas as well. A filmmaker who only sees minorities as Issues or wacky sidekicks is, more likely than not, a hack. After all, what are stereotypes if not clichés in the real world? But why talk in generalities? Let’s look at this year’s Oscar nominees.

Boy Toys

CRAZY HEART

The most egregious current Oscar offenders on the Bechdel scale are Up in the Air and Crazy Heart. They violate the letter and the spirit of the rule. The two lead actresses, Vera Farmiga and Maggie Gyllenhaal, give solid performances playing what seem like strong female characters on paper especially since [SPOILER ALERT] neither one of them choose to stay with these dysfunctional men. But that’s pretty sad consolation, given that they still both function only as satellites in orbit around the world of the male leads. The little inner life that they possess is only there to contrast against the guy’s wants and needs. They are machines to initiate the protagonist’s redemption, never coming close to being flesh and blood people themselves. And that’s a large part of why, the Academy’s opinion aside, both of these films are infuriatingly predictable Hollywood hackery. Their surprises are telegraphed a mile away, their insight are focus-grouped within an inch of their life, and their honesty has had every bit of rough edge sanded off to make it palatable to a wide audience. Much of that has to do with the incredibly limited role women are allowed to play in these stories.  Once you know the gender, you know the role they play.

Let Me Help You Help Your People

avatar

But it’s in the racial sphere where this year’s Oscar nominees really muck it up. Take box-office juggernaut, Avatar, James Cameron’s attempt to “reinvent” cinema through the use of giant 3-D Smurf warriors and sledgehammer-subtle liberal soapboxing. Far be it for me to say David Brooks got something right, but, well, David Brooks got something right in his column blasting Avatar for continuing the long tradition of “The White Messiah Complex”, and calls it a “racial fantasy par excellence”:

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

bullock point

Speaking of white saviors and supporting minority actors who exist only for the main character’s rdemption, let’s talk about Dangerous Minds Freedom Writers Gran Torino Radio Glory Road The Soloist Music of the Heart The Blind Side, a movie that people are forever going to be looking back at and saying, “That was up for Best Picture?” Using the cover of a true story, as usual, the movie tells the inspiring tale of one large, and largely mute, black teenage male and the saintly white lady who saves him from the life of homelessness and despair so common to ‘those people’. And, of course, learns a little bit about herself in the process. Ugh. While this has been a great vehicle for Bullocks’ redemption as an actress in the press, it’s been less effective for telling the true story of Michael Oher, who remains superfluous in his own movie, an oversized prop for Bullock’s character to lift up and lean on depending on her needs at the moment.

There are some bright spots in Oscar Land, though. Inglorious Basterds, despite the title, is more about Shoshanna Dreyfuss’s struggles than the boys, and its her scheming rather than theirs that saves the day. And while An Education doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test by the letter, it does in spirit. Still, it’s sort of the exception that proves the rule: even in a movie about a young woman learning to have an identity separate from men, she doesn’t have a real conversation with a woman apart from talking about her man. And while District 9 and Precious both have racially problematic elements, they’re nowhere near as bad as Avatar and The Blind Side in that regard.  The Hurt Locker, while unavoidably a guy’s story, could bring the first directing trophy for a woman in Oscar history. So, I guess like any progress, we have to keep repeating the mantra: baby steps. Even Hollywood can learn something if you give it enough time. Maybe.

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