By Roland Betancourt
fangirling (v.): the reaction a fangirl has to any mention or sighting of the object of her “affection.” These reactions include shortness of breath, fainting, high-pitched noises, shaking, fierce head shaking as if in the midst of a seizure, wet panties, endless blog posts, etc.
What is the location of pop? Or, what is popular culture today?
Let me pick up on this investigation with my initial observation: Pop is the method of the navigator; the incessant movement of the fan through space and time, consuming and representing images, clips, and laconic texts as they go about. The topography of pop is that of Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube. But, this is not the domain of those who use these media periodically, only when something pops up on their Facebook feed or when something goes truly viral. Rather, this is the kingdom of those who fervently filter their pics onto Instagram, tweet their celebrities, create seven-second videos on Vine, and make gifs of their favorite YouTubers on Tumblr. This is the location of pop, this is the kingdom. It is a thriving underworld of videos and quasi-celebrities that exist right at the brink of virality.
At the brink of virality, we encounter a spectacular scape: like diving down into the depths of the Mariana Trench and stumbling upon a thriving community of deep sea life, surviving and flourishing under the most unfathomable conditions. At the brink of virality, we encounter a series of YouTubers and Bloggers who thrive and have made a living precisely by partaking in the activities and actions that we often deem to be the most severe impediments to one’s productivity and well-being: spending their day watching YouTube videos, checking Twitter and Tumblr, and Facebooking. Like the allegedly inhospitable pressures of the deep sea, this state of being in the world, which many associate with idleness and inactivity has become a space where many are making upwards of $150,000 and well into millions for uploading videos and posts (for extrapolations of YouTubers’ salaries, see here).
Here, I wish to focus in particular on YouTube, for the majority of these artists embody the habitus of the fan, yet are in themselves the recipients of an immense amount of attention, with millions of followers and subscribers on Twitter and YouTube.
In the end, my selection of the YouTubers discussed here will be idiosyncratic. I have chosen to focus on an interrelated group of YouTubers, based in Los Angeles, who all have loose ties to one another and also to a variety of auxiliary YouTubers based in England, South Africa, and Australia. The primacy of this group is attested by their appearances at the major YouTube-based annual gatherings, namely, VidCon (Anaheim), and also Summer in the City (London) and Playlist Live (Orlando), while their coherence is in turn attested by their various collaboration videos, which allow us to sketch out a network of interacting individuals and their social groups.
While I do not want to over aestheticize or enforce a deep intentionality in my readings of YouTubers, I also do not wish to leave such videos on the order of documentary evidence, with only a sort of cultural, archaeological value regarding a cult status. As such, I consider the work of these YouTubers as one would the work of a visual artist, and lend to my reading the force of a clearly operating system through which his videos emerge. With this very brief treatment of these figures, I want to propose an understanding of YouTube not merely as a site where videos like Charlie after the Dentist or Sweet Brown go viral, but rather as a topography ruled by videos that stand right at the brink of virality, drawing in tens of thousands of hits at a steady rate – often weekly, if not daily – with perhaps only a couple (per YouTuber) that actually have gone fully viral.
At first glance these videos are simple to characterize: they bring us into their makers’ carefully choreographed and stages lives, offering us a glimpse of these [not so] average people – mostly in their early- to mid-twenties – going about their routines. However, these videos are not merely drunken exposes of mundane parties, or banal reflections on daily purchases or consumptions, although such aspects matter. What comes to the forefront in any of these videos is how YouTube operates as a dominant force in the lives of their makers – it’s like watching a reality TV show about making a reality TV show.
As such, it is in their configuration of fandom and in the fandoms that they consequently configure that we encounter a hermeneutic loop within the system that exposes the embodiment of the fan-artist. These are the hyperreaders that modulate the interval of pop culture, between fandom at large and the Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys.
If there is one person who can be said to embody this duality best it is Tyler Oakley, who, as a self-described “Professional Fangirl” with over a million and a half subscribers, exemplifies this category of YouTube celebrity. In this essay, I focus primarily on Oakley’s work to sketch out some foundational issues in regards to the function of the YouTuber within a system of fandom and celebrity.
On 3 March 2012, following the leak of a number of shirtless pictures of Darren Criss from a People magazine shoot, Tyler Oakley uploaded a response video, fangirling over the leak and documenting his responses to the various images. The video follows a common typology of YouTube videos where viewers record their responses to either a viral video or image, thus manifesting in “real time” the viewer’s response – although usually used in cases where the videos are of a scary or disgusting nature, such as responses to Slender Man or 2 Girls 1 Cup. Here this trope appears for the sake of embodying Oakley’s fan-girl response to the images on Tumblr.
A similar display of fan-girl devotion occurred recently on 23 July 2013 when Harry Styles from One Direction retweeted Oakley, leading him to become the number one trending topic on Twitter. The retweet, as Oakley admits, was insignificant, but his response was in keeping with most fangirling over a retweet. In his video, he responds to the retweet with a series of “Oh my God,” his iPhone blaring in the background as fellow YouTubers text him about it. Throughout the video, Oakley embodies a state of fandom experienced by many of those who fervently tweet their favorite celebrities, craving for such a moment to occur. On Twitter, it is not uncommon to see tweets that simply ask a major celebrity to retweet them, not for the sake of the tweet’s content and its widespread exposure, but merely as a form of recognition and validation of a certain fan status. Oakley ends his video by asking the haters to step aside as he foresees the lashing out of jealous fans for his recognition. This video serves as a perfect encapsulation of the behaviors and actions of fans; it manifest the crucial, operative behaviors of fan-celebrity interactions on Twitter. It also manifests, however, a deeper logic that runs throughout Twitter, where such practices constantly occur on smaller orders. Of course, Tyler Oakley – who recently passed the one million followers mark – likewise is subjected to the same cult of fandom as he himself is partaking.
Oakley’s videos on YouTube have deployed fandom as a generative tactic for sketching out a system of adoration and interaction where he has managed to simultaneously place himself both at the center of it and at its peripheries. He, like many YouTubers, does periodic mail videos, where he opens on camera his fan mail and shares with his audiences the letters, artworks, and objects sent. This, in essence, serves as an analog iteration of the Twitter exchange as gifts and letters compete with one another so as to make their way onto the camera. And likewise, this act manifests precisely the depth and strength of his own cult following. Yet, I am drawn more to the moments in which Oakley addresses the operation of fandom obliquely, as exemplified by his 17 February 2012 video, “My Sacrifice to Britney Spears.”
In this video, Oakley wears a Lady Gaga inspired shirt with the word “Schieße” on it, which he plugs by indicating that half of the proceeds from the shirt go to the Born This Way Foundation. A few moments later, he recommends Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” as his current musical obsession, and then continues to give many pop culture suggestions and recommendations. The video, therefore, opens up quite stereotypically as Oakley shares current trends with his viewers, engaging directly with his role as a mediator of pop’s circulation and proliferation. However, the video is centered on Oakley’s response to the five-year anniversary of the date on which a spiraling Britney Spears infamously shaved her head. In order to commemorate the event of that “beautiful moment of a celebrity falling from grace,” Oakley has his roommate Korey shave his head in an act of mimetic identification with Britney Spears, taking upon his body the literal cuts per se and scars of her downfall through the shaving of his own head. As such, Oakley both performs his fandom, while nevertheless taking on Spears’s image obliquely through the shaved head. It is both a manifestation of his fandom and a mimetic manifestation of the fan’s object of adoration – after all, in shaving his head on camera, Oakley performs an act analogous to that of Britney Spears’ as the video’s audacious act also serves as a tactic for drawing in viewers and fans.
As Korey shaves Oakley’s head, they begin to sing – with their own twist – the lyrics to Gaga’s “Hair,” saying:
Whenever I’m dressed cool [Korey] put up a fight (Uh-hum, Uh-hum)
And if I’m hot shot, [Korey] will cut my hair at night
And in the morning I’m short of my identity (Uh-hum, Uh-hum)
I scream, “[Korey], why can’t I be who I wanna be, to be?”
In this manner, Oakley is densely layering a series of pop culture moments as a hyper-reader or hyper-fan. These allusions are targeted likewise only to a fan who has the active vocabulary to readily understand his sometimes concealed citations and references – as when he starts singing this revised version of “Hair,” or when he references Sweet Brown’s viral catchphrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Like the videos of most YouTubers, Oakley’s are densely layered in a language and system of short-hand citations that only become intelligible by a community of readers trained in pop culture, and which for many seem completely idiosyncratic or incomprehensible.
However, to perform one’s knowledge of viral videos and pop culture without explicit citation is a form of conspicuous consumption; to not be a hyperreader of our contemporary pop culture is to not be part of a community. This is not about citing David Bowie or some obscure video from the 1980s; it is not a depth of knowledge configured in terms of historical production, but rather a system of referentially that values the breadth of synchronous citation. To know a hot indie band or the best nightclub acts in New York is not a currency within this system. This outdated valuing of obscurity and rarity is how knowledge of popular culture often seems to be configured in elite, intellectual groups, primarily of an older generation; nevertheless, this is a wholly outmoded epistemic model.
Note that while knowledge of late-1980s and 1990s trends surely appears in Oakley’s videos and in those of his fellow YouTubers, this often emerges in tag videos (survey questions answered usually by a pair of friends) in terms of nostalgia rather than as active sources in the world. Thus, Oakley’s seemingly inconsequential actions speak to the fundamental elements that construct a method of exchange in contemporary popular culture: the logic of the retweet in essence operates as a system of community construction, as a method of forming close knit discursive spheres where knowledge can be exchanged quickly and were the act of citation almost becomes a category on the order of connotation – deploying a nexus of enfolded meanings and tenors to even a passing word or phrase. This is the logic of metadata as a form of language in and of itself.
Yet, what becomes most interesting about this video is that it acknowledges precisely the function of the cult image and its place within this economy of intricately wrapped up, monadic bundles of reference. Taking up his clumps of hair, Oakley offers them to the camera, saying, “In 2007, Britney shaved her head for our sins, and today I offer up my communion.” This is perhaps a facile comment, but if we consider its impetus, we can acknowledge its performance of a sacral metaphor as a manner of capturing the operation of Britney Spears as a cult figure. It also re-reads her actions not as an internal act of desperation and spiraling downwards, but instead as an act of dialogic exchange with her fan base – by reading the head-shaving as a redemptive, sacrificial act committed by the cult’s center for her fans is to construct that historical event as a site for and of literal communion between fans.
In paralleling Spears’s shaving to the Crucifixion of Christ and then bringing up the notion of communion, Oakley has – perhaps unintentionally – alluded to the liturgical rite of Communion (i.e. the Eucharist) as a stand in for the sacrifice of the human being, which is in keeping with Christian Eucharistic theology’s understanding of the “bloodless sacrifice” being made manifest in the act of Communion, where one consumes the flesh and blood of Christ through the act of divine transubstantiation rather than through the need of a human sacrifice. Note, however, that the word sacrifice does not appear alongside Britney Spears’ actions “for our sins,” but rather as a way of describing Oakley’s own re-performance in his title. Oakley elides the actions of Britney Spears with his own analogous sacrifice and mimetic identification, a term I have used here following Michael Camille’s observations on late-medieval devotional practices, which operated on an analogous system.
What I, at first, experienced as most jarring in this passing quote was Oakley’s seemingly incorrect use of the idea of Communion, saying that on that day he offered up his communion. The language of “offering up” is in keeping with a loosely liturgical language, but the notion of his hair being an act of Communion is strange, given that the worshiper does not offer the Communion but rather receives it in order to partake of Christ. This slippage therefore suggests the elision of the one offering and the one being offered; it manifests likewise the act of the worshiper and that of the priest. In a sense, this mistake perfectly captures Oakley’s function in his dual nature as one who is a fan and has fans. In offering up communion to his viewers, he himself is doing something for our sins – that is, he is operating in the same manner that Britney Spears’s well-publicized, infamous act did for her fan community. He operates as the priest of pop, offering up Communion to his followers in commemoration of Britney Spears’s previous sacrifice. Thus, his YouTube video is both a sacrifice in keeping with Spears’s own and a sacrifice to her; the dual position of celebrity and fan-girl is here embodied in what was surely a confusion or mistake on Oakley’s part. Yet it is his resorting to this liturgical language that captures the order upon which the phenomenology of the fan operates: in the dual role as passive and active creators through a linguistic system in which signification is always inset within other tacit and bundled logics of signification.
As a regular contributor to POPSUGAR and a variety of other online pop-centered blogs and web-series, Tyler Oakley professionally embodies the operation of the hyperreader through the image or trope of the fan-girl, capturing his ability to actively channel the meanings and unfolding of images, videos, and texts circulating in the domain of pop. I wish to demonstrate (or at least suggest) one such potent act of revision, which recently occurred following the release of Lady Gaga’s single “Applause.” Upon hearing the song, Oakley – who is a self-professed Little Monster and fervent devotee of Lady Gaga, see here for example – tweeted, “The first line of Applause by Lady Gaga sounds like @MirandaSings is singing, DON'T ARGUE WITH ME, THIS IS 100% ACCURATE.”
Oakley’s gesture was an act of immediate revision, which retroactively enacted a system of metadata signification (as I will tentatively call) it, tweaking the citations of an object in circulation, which did not necessarily come with such intentions. In doing so, Tyler constructed a discursive space that produced an artificial sense of conspicuous signification for his audiences, which are accustomed to understanding and interacting with pop at this level. I do not think we can dismiss this comment as merely an act of derision – even if he did compare Gaga’s singing to MirandaSings, a YouTube character constructed by Colleen Ballinger who is famous for her terrible, vibrato-infused singing. Instead, with its 1,131 retweets and 2,260 favorites (at the time of writing this), the tweet actively appropriates “Applause” into the same system of fandom that he, his fans, and colleagues partake. By ghost writing into Gaga’s song an act of citation to MirandaSings, Oakley has performed the same complex acts that he once did with his “My Sacrifice to Britney” video. He did not need to attribute intentionality, even by simply stating that it “sounds like” he is altering the way in which others respond to the song.
The key thing to keep in mind is that what I describe here is not unique. I am not saying that Tyler Oakley, with a simple tweet, has managed to accomplish something exceptional. Instead, what I am saying is that we must view every tweet such as this one in an analogous manner, and thereby construct systems of reference and citation where none necessarily exist as a way of opening up the possibility of and for discursive action. After all, Oakley’s tweet opens up the possibility for MirandaSings to go on to produce a YouTube video where she sings “Applause,” or where MirandaSings complains that Gaga stole her idea, her vocal training, or that she is simply a worse singer than she is, as MirandaSings replied to his tweet. It produces a miniature spectrum of possibilities for satirical videos and parodies to emerge.
We need to keep in mind that on Twitter such interactions occur constantly on a massive scale, and as such they produce much of the content that is uploaded on social media, such as YouTube – for example, consider lyric response videos where dramatic readings or outlandish interpretations of a song’s lyrics emerge as a YouTuber reads through a song line-by-line (i.e. GloZell’s reading of the “Applause” lyrics), or in the form of a response video where a YouTuber may comment on a music video as they watch it, a trope which was quite popularly deployed for Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video (e.g. Shane Dawson’s mom’s response). Thus, Oakley’s comparison of Gaga to MirandaSings not only processes Gaga’s work into a more layered and complex cultural item by allowing these various YouTube-native, fan-based understandings to emerge, but it also is the building block of the type of pop-culture based material that YouTube generates.
Therefore, we cannot simply understand the bitchy or sarcastic comments of a YouTuber – particularly when dealing with those who have a million or more followers – as nothing more than critical, non-constructive language. Lady Gaga herself has recently advocated an end to the “fan wars” and to blogger-critics, but this is not how pop operates and or how things really do go viral – or rather, how they thrive at the brink of virality. In the end, it sometimes seems that Lady Gaga has come to misunderstand what precisely is the location of pop today, its terrain and topologies. Such comments and arguments construct the manner in which pop culture processes its inputs, at times updating the levels and orders of signification so as to produce a more complex and thus more-consumable product, and other times setting out a system by which such inputs can lead to more production and discussion. To ask that this contested discursive space be terminated is not to short-circuit the system, but rather to purposely alienate oneself from circulation. In Tyler Oakley, we encounter not only a representative model of this system, but truly an ideal manifestation and by-product of this system’s logic.
As such, a tweet (like the ones below) is never just a tweet; it’s a manifesto of pop culture.
Naturally, this essay and the products of a blog, such as Gaga Stigmata, operate on the same order as a way of making pop academic, or at least serving up #AcademicRealness, the house down.
This is Part II of the series, “What is the Location of Pop?” See also the first installment entitled, “A Pop Phenomenology.”
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University writing a dissertation entitled, “The Proleptic Image: An Investigation of the Medium in Byzantium.” In April 2012, he co-chaired a major symposium at Yale entitled Byzantium/Modernism on the mutually generative collision of Byzantium and Modernism. In addition to various other projects, he is currently editing a special volume of the journal postmedieval entitled, “Imagined Encounters: Historiographies for a New World,” which asks scholars to suspend disbelief and create cross-temporal analyses using artworks and theories from different historical spaces.