longing for the real

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Month: October, 2012

All Hail the New Emperor

 There was a buzz in the air—a pack of assistants and security staff stood around tensely—that indicated the presence of Justin Bieber, who was slated to make an appearance on “The Voice,” to promote his new album.  Bieber, who had just turned eighteen, wore a white T-shirt, tight black jeans sagging low, and unlaced Timberland boots.  His hair was swept up into a James Dean pompadour, and a black bandanna with skulls on it dangled from his back pocket.  He was much smaller than the young men in the Wanted, and he looked frail and skittish.  (At one point, Braun reminded me, “That skinny kid you just met is the most Googled person on the planet by like two hundred million hits.”)

So these are the culture makers, I thought lying on my couch several thousand miles from Los Angeles.  Scooter Braun is at the epicenter and I am at the periphery trying to find a window in.

I was only reading the New Yorker that afternoon because I couldn’t walk.  While Braun was out signing potential young pop stars to his label, Schoolboy Records, I had succumbed to a basketball injury two days earlier under semi-heroic circumstances and was out of commission.  (I darted too quickly for a rebound while waiting for someone else on my team to score the winning point in our game.  I was lucky to have incurred only soft tissue damage.)  Housebound and reduced to hobbling around on crutches, images of Justin Bieber on the set of “The Voice” pooled inside my head.

The young men immediately began comparing tattoos.  George lifted up his shirt to reveal some song lyrics: “We try / we fall / we live another day.”  “Dope,” Bieber said, and pulled up his pant leg to show, on his calf, a large tattoo of Jesus with hands clasped in prayer.  (Bieber and his mother are devout Christians.)  The Wanted members looked a little stunned.

Carson Daly, the host of “The Voice,” walked by.  Braun called out, “Hey Carson!”  Daly and Braun began to review a script detailing stage patter.  Bored, Bieber started a game, playfully jabbing everyone in the crotch with his fist.  First, he jabbed at Braun, who, without looking up from the script, dropped his hands to block.  Daly did the same.  When Bieber jabbed at Siva Kaneswaran, a member of the Wanted, he connected.  He called out, “Got you, bro.”  Kaneswaran balled his fist but seemed unsure how to respond.  “I don’t want to hurt his pretty face,” he said.  Braun said, “Just get him in the pretty balls.  It’s fair game.”  “No, it’s not,” Bieber said.  Braun took a firm tone.  “Justin, it is—fair game,” he said.  “You hit him in the balls, fair game.”  Bieber was peeved.  “Where’re we going?”  He asked.  “Where’s my dressing room?”

What hope lies in historical monographs, one wonders, when these are the people who control the gears?

“Ten years ago, a pop star might not have a fragrance that does a hundred and twenty million dollars in business in a year.”  He went on, “My job is to make sure a client doesn’t have any ‘what if’s—to make sure, when you look back, you don’t say, ‘What if I had done this?  What if I had done that?’”  Among Bieber’s other revenue streams: “Never Say Never,” a 2011 movie that Braun produced about Bieber’s life, which was the highest-grossing concert film in U.S. history; a line of watches, backpacks, and singing dolls; a ‘home’ collection that includes comforter sets and shower curtains; and an endorsement deal with Proactiv, a purveyor of acne remedies.  All this has made Bieber rich—his annual income is estimated to exceed fifty million dollars—and has given Braun a unique economic power.  A big part of a manager’s job, one industry veteran told me, is “getting an artist to say yes to things.”

He cuts a nice figure, my rival.  The photo on the first page of Lizzie Widdicombe’s article (“Teen Titan,” September 3, 2012) shows Braun posing nobly before a drum set overlooking the majestic Hollywood hills.  His left eyebrow is raised slightly, but the look on his face is dignified, almost Napoleonic.  One senses that he knows he commands a vast empire, and that it will continue to grow larger.  As of this summer, Universal Music Group named Braun, 31, its first technology “entrepreneur in residence.” According to Lucian Grainge, Universal’s C.E.O., “He understands the entertainment business…. The company likes hits, the fans like hits, and that’s what he’s there to do—make hits.  We’re not in the art business.”

Envy works in mysterious ways.  If I’m to be perfectly honest, I find the dream of wielding this kind of cultural power almost irrepressibly seductive.  Even the pools and the palm trees exert a quiet charm I can’t deny.  Yet I also recognize Braun and his ilk as The Enemy.  His minion army of pop star-entrepreneurs threatens to tarnish and distort nearly everything I hold dear.  They are the barbarians who rushed passed the gates long ago, and now we’re at their mercy much as I was on the couch that day.

From where I sat this did not seem like a cognitive distortion.  By some curious postmodern logic it seemed there was even something faintly heroic in Braun’s victory.  Part of me wanted to congratulate him, to venerate him as the new emperor.  What else could I do in my invalid condition but admit defeat?


When confronted with the Biebers and the Brauns of the world, those of us who endeavor to heal this culture because we believe we have some ability to restore health can’t help but feel defeated.  Even if we achieve some modest influence, we know our best efforts will likely remain drops in the empty bucket of our desiccated civilization.  We are on the losing side of both History and history, everything confirms that; and the prospect of another revolution doesn’t look promising.  This, I suspect, is why many of us spend our days treading water in academic spas far away from the mainlines of contemporary popular culture: we are trying to avoid the evidence that the war is over.  We want not to think that we’re working in vain.

Los Angeles glistening in the distance, I hobbled up to get a fresh icepack out of the freezer knowing self-indulgence only explains so much.

-Michael Fisher


“Now I have to do the same,” I said as she returned from the bathroom. I followed suit, walked to the pallid porcelain sink, and brushed my teeth at a slightly rushed pace. Spit. Craned my neck to rinse. The water pierced with what tasted like an exotic variant of chlorine, attracting and repulsing like the profane. After finishing the familiar ablution, I retreated back to the unfamiliar bedroom, where she was waiting in a robe. “I like your robe,” I’d said seven hours before, as she strolled plainly from the doorway to the bed. “Thanks, I got it at the thrift store.”

I extended my hand to her side, gripping it with affection that felt resigned. We kissed again, now unsafe under the watch of daylight’s eye, pulsating in a single tone like that soft, ominous crescendo of movies of ethereal moods. And it could just as easily have been a movie. I’d asked as much of the situation in initiating it the night before, leaning over the bar she was tending to suggest that we continue our furtive glances acknowledging prior encounters. In a cinematic register, we’d both direct ourselves to the ephemeral experience of a condensed life, totaling only twelve hours. Maybe it should’ve been two and a half.

I sat at the bar waiting for her to finish. It was approaching 3AM. I pretended to wait patiently, feigning distraction by reading that French philosopher I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. Does she care that I’m the type to read such things at such moments? Do I? Earlier in the evening I’d been taken back by two close friends who’d revealed to me that they’d just given up drinking. One for good. One for a “while.” That one can see depths so dark and come out on the other side seems just an exaggeration of what we all do, what we all see always.

The lights turned off. I looked up from my book, catching her smile that signaled her readiness to come out on the other side for now, with me. Now walking side by side next to the overpass, she said, “How have you been?” “Not bad,” I replied, preceding a short silence in which was contained everything always concealed by “not bads”-that sense of never quite being sure if you really are OK, but knowing somehow that you continue to wake up and keep trying to be. And then we were at her apartment. Sitting for a while, anxiously, awkwardly, we could dance unsynchronized around the fact of the matter, which could only make mention of itself in the draft coming in from outside. “It’s cold, we should go to my room.”

The steps to the hallway blended into our caresses: awkward, no rhythm really, filled with uncertainty but certainly felt. And then they were interrupted. Her roommate walked in with others, home after a heavy night of drinking away, by drinking in, their twenties. There was that damn draft again. And then another cigarette to round out the night was our final checkpoint, as we listened to one “Mindy” talk through her intermittent hiccups, her faced aged prematurely by “hitting it hard,” as I’ve taken a liking to saying lately in order to describe someone’s romantic (or sad, or frightening, or ambivalent) abuse of themselves.

But “it” is always hard hitting, no matter how lightly we pretend to tread over its coals, how much we pretend not to need desperately to feel, to embrace. Its “it-ness” makes itself felt on nights like these, where one’s desperation-loneliness on its last legs-comes to the fore almost to the point of its standing in front of you and upbraiding your sense of self, with passersby lowering their heads in embarrassment and pity, suggesting with their eyes the truly pathetic side of human longing.


And then this “it” that is life greeted me the next morning, in the daylight, after the exotic chlorine told me to wake up, to both stay and to leave immediately. And “it” stared at me unwaveringly minutes later, as I said “I should probably go,” as we agreed that we should start our days, as she said, standing inside the door as I left, “I’ll see you around sometime.”

-Erik Hmiel