Tag: internet

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.

This website: The making of…

My friend Tom kindly bought me a domain name on a whim.

However, this meant that my public persona until I worked out how to use the damn thing was one which he had set up for me — a powerful combination of Lorem ipsum and Nyan cat.

As someone looking for freelance editorial work which rather depends on being able to produce non-generic copy, lorem ipsum was not the ideal scenario. Plus Nyan cat is now dead so the pictures of him were making me sad.

As such I decided to set up some kind of website for myself. How hard can this stuff be? — I know what a server is. I’ve used HTML. I can make a motherfucking GIF! I can do ANYTHING! — I will confess that I had had two mugs of mulled wine by this point in the evening.

Three minutes later I was typing “How the fuck am I supposed to deal with web hosting?” into Google. The first search result looked relevant but entirely hinged around WordPress – did I even want WordPress? Was this the equivalent of researching snazzy frontend space travel without bothering to evolve from the primordial folder tree slime I suspected I might be?

The other results were even less helpful:

  • Wolverine (comics) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Fight Club (1999) – Memorable quotes
  • What’ s so funny about Gangnam Style? – The Guardian
  • The 5 Worst Ways To Break Up With Someone. – @TremendousNews!

This is one of the perils of assuming Google has reached the point where you can angrily type questions at it as if it were a friend at the pub. Previous search queries lurking in my browser history include “What’s so great about yachts?” and “Show me really good owls”. I have never discovered what’s so great about yachts and the owls have been pretty hit and miss.

Some more keyword friendly search phrases yielded information by the ton. I could see all of that helpful information on the screen in front of me, glowing and shining and generally beckoning me to a glorious future where I was a dot com millionaire. But there didn’t seem to be any way to bridge the gap between the words on the screen and the part of my brain marked “modern shit that you need to know if you ever hope to eclipse your parents’ generation”.

SIDENOTE: Eclipsing my parents’ generation at anything would probably be a lot easier if I cut down on the “Show me really good owls” search engine visits.

The feeling I had at this point was of being a leopard standing at the bottom of a chrome-plated tree, unable to gain a foothold on the shiny bark to get at the succulent meaty leaves above. Or, perhaps, the feeling of knowing there was a salient point buried in that last idiotic metaphor but finding myself without any of the requisite tools for digging it out and presenting it to you.

I love to learn – really love it in fact – but without a frame of reference I couldn’t find any hooks upon which to hang the explanations. It’s a strange quality of search engines and the internet – they’re so busy trying to refine what you’re asking for it can be harder to get a big picture. All the results listings felt in such a rush to get to the fine detail there wasn’t time for the basic shape of what I was aiming at to crystallise.

At this point I had closed the browser window entirely and was typing “HELP HELP HELP HELP” into Twitter.

Before hitting send I realised that this was both unlikely to elicit helpful information and also very likely to provoke panic in any friends who haven’t quite got to grips with the whirling morass of hyperbole that is Twitter. I deleted it and tried again.

“Anyone fancy talking to me about domain hosting and the like?”

I was pleased at how grown up and knowledgeable that tweet made me sound — the outside world would never need to know that I was currently dealing with the realities of domain hosting by trying to drown out the feelings of inadequacy with Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits.

Unfortunately my joy was short-lived as I spent the next few minutes responding that I actually meant “How do I use the space I currently have” rather than “How do I get the space in the first place”.

But then something wonderful happened.

She later told me that my tweet had hit just the right note of bewilderment, sparking a kind of sympathetic “Yes, what does one even Google?” moment. Whatever it was, I found myself in the company of Jenn Frank, being guided ably and enthusiastically through the confusion of systems and setups which had sent me running to Twitter just moments before.

Finding out exactly how distant our computers were from one another (five thousand miles, give or take) as we tried to untangle the mess I had created — did I forget to tell you that in addition to this domain and hosting I also own philippawarr.com thanks to a moment of drunken plan-free optimism which is technically locked to a different service? — gave me a rush of warmth towards Twitter. Honest to God, at its best it is the most helpful, friendly, kind-spirited entity on the internet. Anyway, I digress.

As we talked we seemed to play a digital version of “The hip bone is connected to the leg bone”. It turned out I knew an awful lot of the disparate pieces, just very little about how they came together — the hallmark of someone who deals with the “content” part of the content management system and the “why is the content management system broken” part of the IT helpdesk, perhaps?

For over two hours we typed, me sporadically microwaving my mug of sugary wine so as to have something to keep my fingers warm, and her enjoying an entirely different kind of muggy stickiness over in the wilds of Texas. (I have literally no idea whereabouts in Texas so my brain just filled in the gaps. There were also at least five ten gallon hats. That’s FIFTY gallons of hats.)

Eventually I had set up all the basic permissions, installed WordPress, collected a small heap of plugins — like Jetpack; a kind of mad Swiss army knife of an add-on whose functionality seemed to ping off in all directions– and tried to make the whole enterprise as functionally secure as possibly without securing it from my own access. A kind of sweet spot between idiot-proof and attack-proof.

I won’t go into detail on those fronts (or at least not yet) because there was a certain amount of trial and error and asking lots of questions and reading lots of answers. The information itself is still settling into shape in my brain but the basic ideas are there — I think the main thing I realised was how easy it had been to forget the structure of the digital world as soon as I stopped using the DOS interface to engage with it. No doubt more and more of it will crystallise or regroup as I tackle the next part — the FTP business.

The rest was my home turf — a soothing cocktail of faffing about in Photoshop, playing with colour schemes, poking at the CSS until it did something akin to my bidding and doodling octopus tentacles.

The results of this whole learning curve are what you see before you — my new online home.

I hope you like it!