Courtney Stodden’s dreadful music video reveals what’s wrong with the internet

The above music video has managed to sum up pretty much everything that’s wrong with using traffic to dictate editorial strategy. But to explain precisely why requires you to know about someone named Courtney Stodden and how she came to be a celebrity.

The reason Courtney is famous is because she married Doug Hutchison (the guy who played stretchy serial killer Eugene Victor Tooms in The X Files) in 2011. She was 16 years old to his 51. That is the reason she became famous. That 35 year age gap.

What happened next was the stylistic conventions of celebrity news reporting kicked in. Writers were looking for ways to add a little flavour or context to this newcomer and one of the ways you do that is referencing their career. It also helps with keeping the reader interested and on the site as well as beefing up keywords for search engine optimisation (SEO). But her age meant Courtney didn’t have one of those so a substitute was brought in.

As well as being “teen bride” she was “aspiring country music singer” or “pop singer” thanks to the songs she had posted on her YouTube channel. Sometimes she was also “aspiring actress” as she had met Hutchison because she wanted to take acting classes from him.

Once the initial cycle of articles about the wedding and the timeline and the parental consent had concluded there was sufficient volume (of news coverage and of search engine traffic) to switch her label full-time to “teen bride”. But Courtney isn’t just any teen bride. Rather she manages to be a teen bride and a strangely elaborate pastiche of a teenager and a bride at the same time.

Think of all those porn videos featuring “teens”; women in their late twenties at the very least but pumped full of botox and silicon and collagen to iron out any traces of time passing and wearing the ultimate signifiers of teen girlhood – pigtails and a fetishised version of a school uniform. That’s basically Courtney Stodden at age 16. A real teenager mimicking an older woman mimicking a teenager.

The bride thing is similar; a pastiche of being an object (and I use that word deliberately) of desire. Watching her being interviewed you soon become acutely aware of the amount of deliberate wiggling and pouting and jiggling as well as the pointedly chosen anecdotes (her version of housework apparently involves getting on all fours and scrubbing a floor while wearing a bikini and cutoff denim shorts). The woman is legally a wife regardless of how she acts or dresses and yet she prefers the version of “wife” that looks like it’s been cobbled together from generically bad bikini babe music videos and domestic product advertising from the early twentieth century.

At the root of these peculiar performances is celebrity news reporting. Specifically how it accommodates women by reducing them, particularly in picture-led stories. Bikini bodies, womb watch, flaunted curves, fashion face-offs – these categories are prone to column inches and it’s because they get page views.

Editorial strategies are then refined based on the internet’s currency of traffic – the fact that we flock to these articles in our hundreds of thousands for a frisson, whether of outrage or arousal. The writing which accompanies the picture focuses more and more closely around narrow keywords, reducing the scope of the woman’s existence to the terms being optimised for. She is attractive, she is young, she is only semi-clothed. The more she ticks these three boxes, the more commercial value she has.

But the traffic volume also means that these stories are the ones being ingested in huge quantities and across large swathes of the population. Writ large through every high res sideboob is the message, “sit at the convergence of attractive, young and minimally attired and you are of worth to us”. It’s a massive part of the fame culture we have now – coverage being far easier to game than talent.

That’s what I think has happened with Courtney Stodden. The girl herself has grown up ingesting this underlying message (like we all have) while her momager – an uncomfortable label with connotations of financial concern masquerading as familial love – has seen its business potential. There’s also her actor husband whose entire industry revolves around exploiting it.

Put simply, Courtney and those from whom she takes advice and instruction know that you can trade off being pretty or young or sexy or all of the above and so, to maximise her chances of success, she must level up all three to the best of her ability. It’s a bastardised version of control – being the one projecting the porn-adjacent image rather than having it projected onto you.

The momager/celebrity couple triad within which Courtney exists muddies the waters when it comes to deciding who exactly is calling the shots but the point here is that those shots (both the metaphorical ones and the staged photoshoots in collaboration with a picture agency) now reside on the Stodden side of the subject/media divide. She does a photoshoot and publications bite repeatedly. It’s financially viable. It’s business.

Then the music video launched.

It was always going to be trashy and clubby because that’s the default for celebs turning their hand to the music industry. It tends to manifest as something lumpen and drab like Kim Kardashian’s Jam (Turn It Up) or, if you get lucky, something slightly more jagged which tips over into moments of accidental brilliance like Paris Hilton’s Drunk Text.

‘Reality’ – for thus it has been [cynically] titled – manages to be neither of the above and instead falls into a nasty category of experience all its own. The music is dreadful and actually discordant, the lipsyncing is bad, the set dressing cheap and the special effects woeful.

None of these things alone are particularly surprising and neither is the idea that a business enterprise involving Courtney seems entirely cynical or exploitative. But put them all together and watch them with the memory of those first articles. The ones where the mass of hair extensions, the spray-on dresses and the lucite heels were parcelled up as an aspiring singer as well as a teen bride.

Suddenly the lollipop licking, the groping, the nudge nudge borderline self-aware lyrics “realer than my body” are not just tawdry, they are actively upsetting. If “aspiring singer, aged 16″ has the ring of a child’s fame daydream, then the grotesque realisation of that daydream involves a now-18-year-old writhing around on a wipe-clean yellow bed before pretending to go down on a guy who doesn’t even look like he wants to be in the room.

Reductive, statistics-driven titillation is the force behind Courtney’s teen bride persona and her continued celebrity. It is also the force behind her foray into music. Maybe she knows these things, maybe she doesn’t. Regardless of who is manipulating whom at this point, ‘Reality’ is a comprehensively nasty 3 minutes and 22 seconds constructed entirely from our obsession with getting eyeballs on pages.

Hilary Mantel and Kate Middleton. TL;DR? “Because the internet”

Background: Hilary Mantel said some interesting things about our fascination with the breeding habits of the monarchy. I liked the observation about how writing about the wives of Henry VIII tends to fit with moral trends of the author’s time. The Daily Mail (and others) preferred the bit about Kate Middleton being “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.” And then used it to talk more about the royal pregnancy while Twitter got cross.

A friend messaged me earlier:

“Pip, why is everyone getting so angry about Hilary Mantel?”

I used to write about celebs for a living so I field a surprising number of these kinds of queries from baffled friends who want a quick answer when a Twitter storm hits or when they can’t remember which charges Lindsay Lohan is currently in court for.

Usually I give as in-depth an account as I can (or as they will pay attention to) and the conversation moves on. That or, if the story has been a tawdry one, I send a picture of a red panda giving another red panda a high five by way of an apology for human nature.

Today… what’s the point? The answer is “Because the internet.”

Look, we all know the Daily Mail is good at trolling the internet, at linkbaiting, at manufactured outrage for initial page views and then settling back for a second round of traffic as the inevitable waves of Daily Mail detesters land crashing on the provocative text beach in a froth of tweets, comments and indignation. Oh, and then soaking up the third wave of page views as pictures and phrases in the sidebar ‘o’ shame catch your eye and you can be outraged about them too. Maybe a fourth as the rest of the world asks “What are you guys talking about?”

It’s not unique to the DM, particularly not using Kate Middleton (the artist formerly known as) to generate traffic, they just happen to execute it spectacularly. Award-winningly, even.

But if you stop and think for a moment, this whole thing isn’t really about Kate Middleton. Sure, she’s the focus of this round, but you’re noticing it because she’s ubiquitous enough that everyone feels they can give an opinion and because it involves talking about women’s bodies and women’s representations in the media. There’s also the delicious irony that by sensationalising Mantel’s essay the papers are doing the very thing Mantel is holding up for comment. Prime fodder for observers of pop culture.

Except, delicious irony? Really? It’s the god-knows-how-manyth time this has happened. Seeing it as story riddled with laziness and an improper understanding of the source material means you probably aren’t cynical enough.

Perhaps it’s easier if you take Kate out of the equation. She’s just too loaded a subject.
Look elsewhere and you can see the same sort of thing going on across the whole internet. Peer at all the speculative articles about the upcoming generation of games consoles or any physics story touching on the nature of the universe or whatever other topic takes your fancy.

Now look at all the stories asking questions in an attempt to lure you in for the payoff of an answer. Look at the headlines asking whether the Xbox 720 have a built in, like, I dunno, toaster oven? Look at articles covering mild scientific discoveries whose opening paragraphs feature at least one reference of the end of humanity or the universe or some other dramatic thing because that’s what people en masse like to click on or be outraged by or have some kind of instant emotional gratification from.

It’s a case of curating a press release or an interview with a very specific goal in mind: eyeballs not accuracy.

The accuracy isn’t the point. Going back to Kate, Why on earth would the DM be trying to give a precis of Hilary Mantel’s essay? Their readers (whether native or dragged in through a link) are interested in Kate and Mantel definitely did mention her using the phrase: “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own”. That’s where the relevance ends for this type of reportage. It doesn’t matter that that point was part of a wide-ranging and interesting essay because Kate wasn’t namechecked in that bit. Besides, removing the rest of the context means you can update the article with as many pictures of Windsor Womb Watch as you like.

So yeah. I ended up writing about it. But it’s not new. It’s how we are continuing to landscape the internet through our clicks and our outrage.

We’re a shitty, salacious Capability Brown.

The time fashion said “Y’know what, Hamlet? Up yours.”

“We love how these artists grasped at nature as a way of expressing pain, Frida [Kahlo] even ended up drawing flowers on herself”

Thus spake Fyodor Podgorny, one half of Fyodor Golan, as he described the first fashion show that meant anything to me.

Les Fleurs Du Mal was the duo’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection, named for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Looking back at the dresses themselves they’re versatile enough to make a beautiful cover shot or part of a multi-page shoot, but my interest was in the styling which teased out the hints of the malign.

Millais’ Ophelia is certainly present in the wet, bedraggled hair, the flowers, the gold neck braces threatening to choke and the morbid makeup but, rather than the oversaturated passivity of her Pre-Raphaelite tragedy, Fyodor Golan offered up something active, something angry. Theirs was an Ophelia who had had quite enough of lying in that fucking stream or bathtub or whatever with a drowning bouquet, thankyouverymuch, and d’you know what, Hamlet? Up. Yours.

Murder, She Wrote – Birds Of A Feather

I am watching Birds of a Feather – an episode from season one of Murder, She Wrote. In order to make it feel like I’m doing something productive (and also because once upon a time I actually did TV recaps as part of my job) here is what happened. I watched it so you didn’t have to, essentially.

SCENE 1 TAKES PLACE NEAR WATER:

Howard, a man in a white suit who has clearly watched too much Saturday Night Fever joins Martin Landau for a jog. Martin Landau is incredibly fashion forward in his velour tracksuit which neatly anticipates JLo’s iconic Juicy Couture look by about twenty years. Unfortunately at some point in the intervening decades the velour tracksuit connection between form and function was lost, meaning Landau’s jogging seems hopelessly dated.

Martin Landau is unimpressed by Howard’s pleas to stop making him do something degrading. Howard will therefore be murder suspect number one and the degrading thing will turn out to be, like, taking the bins out or something.

SCENE 2 IS IN THE (OR INDEED “A”) CHURCH:

Vicky (Jessica Fletcher’s niece) is chatting to a vicar about her wedding. Her suggestion that it be an “intimate” occasion elicits an odd reaction which has nothing to do with the plot. The actor has clearly decided that vicars are not on board with intimacy. He later fails to wince at some blasphemy so I have put a cross next to “accuracy” on my Murder, She Wrote scorecard.

Clearly out of his depth, the vicar suggests making the whole tedious thing “festive” by adding flowers. The way he says “festive” reminds me of the way my grandmother delivered all her finest backhanded compliments. “Don’t you look nice when you don’t have your hair the way you usually do?” Thanks, granny vicar!

Howard finally appears. He is the groom. Really Vicky? You didn’t think you could do better? “I do have the little tots waiting in the rehearsal hall,” complains the vicar. He is talking about how the wedding rehearsal is interfering with choir practice but modern ecclesiastical scandal has rather affected my ability to read that kind of line without it being a wry aside. It’s like when your mum tells you she’s off for a facial and you deeply regret knowing so much about porn.

Howard and his fiance have a row in the middle of the aisle and he offers her a lipstick-covered hanky which inflames the situation further. Howard is a moron. Why would he put a hanky covered in pink grease in the pocket of a pristine white suit?

SCENE 4 IS IN SOME RESTAURANT:

Jessica is being a jerk about the local restaurant’s lobster options. “Are you sure these are Maine lobsters?” she asks. “Maybe they have jet lag.”

Shut up and stop being so one-percenty, Jessica.

“We’ll take the first two that move.”

Now THAT is a line which crosses generational and situational divides, equally appropriate when being a dick about ordering lobster and when on the pull in a sleazy nightclub on student night. Or so I’ve heard.

But while Jessica is capable of infinite lobster snobbery (snobster? lobbery? lobstobbery?) she is also an old lush. “Glass of white wine” is as specific as she manages and doesn’t even bother to sample it first. As someone who recently had a glass of white wine which I suspect was equal parts ham and Ronseal I’d say that was foolhardy at best.

While Jessica is eying the wine, Vicky is doing Backstory.

Howard is an actor turned insurance salesman. Vicky confesses that she knows Howard has lost his job but that he hasn’t told her and keeps missing their evening dates before turning up covered in perfume and lipstick. He has also festooned his apartment with matchboxes from a particular club. Howard is either an arsonist or a plot device moron trying to keep a secret.

“If I love him how can I justify spying on him?” wails Vicky.

“For your own piece of mind I think you have to,” answers Jessica Fletcher, moral spirograph, who has sensed that this club may contain more wine.

SCENE 5 IS IN MARTIN LANDAU’S NIGHTCLUB

Some guy called Freddie wants to leave, or get more money or something. I am not really paying attention because it’s not about Jessica and no-one’s dead yet.

Jessica and Vicky arrive without a reservation but some really hamfisted namedropping gets the pair a seat. Martin Landau’s wife arrives during a comedy set by someone who makes a joke Jessica doesn’t approve of. The comedian will now turn out to be the murderer.

Felix (who the hell is Felix?) is sent to warn Martin Landau that his wife is hanging about but bumps into a woman in a monumentally unflattering belted dress which makes me think of Kate Middleton and her endless wardrobe of dresses in NO EXCITING COLOURS WHATSOEVER. Kate Middleton tells Felix that she will tell Martin Landau about the wife situation. Good old Kate Middleton, she really is so kind.

The club suddenly (I say suddenly as if you hadn’t been expecting this but, seriously, it’s kind of been building since the lipstick hanky) turns out to be a drag bar and a woman wearing the remains of a flocked velvet tablecloth crashes through the room and onto Jessica’s table pursued by Kate Middleton. It turns out to be Howard The Moron who has been moonlighting at the club (the explanation given later is, like, “that’s showbiz” or something). He is instantly arrested and confined to his dressing room.

Sidenote: The main impact of this drag club setting appears to be that the actors keep removing their wigs for dramatic effect. I am on board with this as a direction.

A policeman guarding the dressing room lets Vicky in because he is shit at his job.

Vicky is not repulsed by Howard’s dreadful taste in dresses – maybe she has decided that they fall into the category of “festive” – and the pair start getting it on. Obviously hilarity ensues when the police are unsure which one to charge. They go for “the tall one”.

I CAN’T REMEMBER WHICH SCENE THIS IS NUMERICALLY BUT IT IS THE MURDER SCENE

Kate Middleton witnessed the aftermath of the murder and is chatting on about it while the police are all “What, this gun here?”

Squawking from the corner alerts everyone to the fact that Jessica is harassing a cockatiel. She is asked to leave.

THE POLICE STATION

Jessica blackmails the police into letting her help with the investigation. They then leave her alone with Howard The Moron because they too are shit at their jobs.

Jessica instantly believes Howard’s version of events (that he was shouting at the back of a chair which happened to contain a dead man while waving a gun about). This is probably because Howard is too deeply stupid to have made anything as convoluted as that up.

THE NIGHTCLUB

Martin Landau’s wife is banging some dude who isn’t/wasn’t Martin Landau and fires Kate Middleton for knowing about it. Kate Middleton immediately tells Jessica everything about it and calls Martin Landau’s wife “Lucrezia Borgia in furs”. This comparison bothers me far more than it should because I’m pretty sure Lucrezia Borgia would have had far more furs than Martin Landau’s wife. Hell, the woman could probably have passed for a gigantic stoat in wintertime, loaded up with a ton of ermine. For God’s sake Kate Middleton, work on your historical comparisons.

MISC OTHER PLACES

Event chunter along at not enough of a pace so I am not going scene by scene. Martin Landau’s wife and the dude she is banging have a villainous encounter on the waterfront. There is lacklustre kissing and they both suspect each other. Jessica pops in to discuss Alcatraz with the comedian who is clearly the murderer, because FORESHADOWING. Then the comedian tries to make himself look innocent by staging an attempt on his own life, so that was a nice diversion.

Eventually Jessica goes for a lie down in her noisy hotel room and holds a pillow over her ears. She is probably massively hungover from all the wine.

This is the EUREKA moment we have been waiting for. She was harrassing the cockatiel earlier because of a feather she found. And where there are feathers there are either birds or – far more likely – pillows being used as impromptu gun silencers before being replaced by ones from the murderer’s dressing room which have been sun bleached because of the window with the view of Alcatraz.

On that basis the comedian goes to prison, Vicky marries Howard The Moron and Howard The Moron gets a job two days a week on a daytime soap opera. I decide that Vicky’s story is the great tragedy of the piece and try to remember if she turns up in later series to update us on what is clearly going to be a disastrous union.

Jessica just laughs.

THEME TUNE

Things I found that I had written during darker days

One of the disconcerting things about depression is its wordlessness. It’s a sickness of the vocabulary as much as it is of the synapses or the serotonin reuptake modules. Rather than sketching ideas in conversation with friends you find yourself turning your adjectives and nouns to another purpose – containing the spillage inside your brain by describing it, identifying it, pinning it to a board. But you’re building a sandcastle while the tide is coming in, taking arms against a sea of troubles.

The letters simply tumble and sink away.

The scraps below are attempts at describing or identifying or pinning from various times. I don’t know what to do with them so I am going to leave them here.

Occasionally words are too scratchy. The verbal paintbox I use to sketch the money to pay the rent dries out and crackles. Sentences can be constructed but the brush strokes are crabbed and small rather than languorous and fluid. Thoughts get constrained into boxes. Living things cooped up like battery hens without the room to flap or flutter. The crabbed writing and the crabbed thinking loop in some horrible recursive version of stupidity, a creeping idiocy.

Stunted thoughts and phrases cluster together like soap scum in the sink, bobbing on the plug-tide. Islands of the stuff spreading like a rootless, moronic mulch against a sea of sleeplessness and wordless frustration. Eutrophication in reverse. Blooms and blooms of worthless sludge sucking at the oxygen and drowning. A tangle of Ophelia’s flowers and Lizzie Siddall’s body in John Everett Millais’ bathtub.

The current drags as much as it pushes and where language ebbs, pictures flow. Nuance and feeling crawl through fingers framing an iPhone camera although they will later refuse to type.

A mouse scurries from one side of the tube tracks to the other. A furry foreigner. Without language there is no way to connect with or comprehend the creature. No sense of even being in the same epoch. Train approaching. There it is. In your mind you fall and the jolt of pain as the front of the tube catches your shoulder comes through like an echo from another world – that other reality. Nausea rises. You blink. The train stops.