Video Mutants: Shirtless on YouTube

Pub date January 23, 2008
WriterMyles Cooper
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

The Passionistas, “Wild West”

GAZE ON THE INTERNET I guess I’m a true romantic. I like my porn softcore. When I get in that certain mood, I visit YouTube to watch videos because I know they’ll never go too far. I’ll get off watching a mustached Austrian take a shower while fully clothed or a drunken dad mooning the camera. It’s repulsive enough to be sexy but harmless enough to be cute.

I must have watched thousands of videos like these without ever considering making one of my own. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an early viral video, "This and That" by Chris Crocker (of "Leave Britney alone!" fame), that I seriously considered making one for the Internet. What I saw was a young gay white boy with a Jennifer Aniston bob, screaming out "to the bitches that wanna fight me" in an accent halfway between Mo’nique’s and a Tennessee grandma’s. It wasn’t necessarily erotic, but there was something completely invading about Crocker’s gaze into the webcam — it was as though he activated that little gray box perfectly. He had the excitement of a Pinocchio with his strings recently cut and the entertaining intent of a sociopath like Chucky. I knew this was a car crash waiting to happen, and I immediately became addicted to Crocker’s videos.

I became Crocker’s friend on MySpace in December 2006 and followed the flood of video monologues posted almost daily. In topics that ranged from sarcastic beauty secrets and arguments with his grandmother to sexy dance videos and relationship advice, there was something very lonely about him. He wanted to be famous but was stuck living with his grandparents in a rural part of the South. With only the Internet and a camcorder, Crocker was able to independently create, in a little more than a year, an infrastructure of hundreds of thousands (and now millions) of viewers. A mixed audience of fans and haters, they all waited on his every move because he would do anything for the camera. As an artist, I was jealous of his popularity and brilliant consistency. I wanted in on his game.

My bandmate Aaron Sunshine and I decided we would start making Internet videos for our band, the Passionistas, as this would be a simple way to sate our incessant needs for humiliation and self-promotion. After our first attempt, an underviewed series of videos titled Haterz Beware targeted at a fictional group of people who spend their lives hating our band, we decided to make a short that would encapsulate everything that makes Internet video popular. Or so we thought.

Our goal was Internet popularity, so we wanted to make sure something sexy happened, and something violent too. We decided that the concept of Aaron burning me with a cigarette while we were both shirtless sounded too perfect not to do.

We sat in front of my iMac, a gift from my parents for my graduation from San Francisco State University two anticlimactic years ago, and took off our shirts. We opened QuickTime and clicked Record. Aaron seemed transfixed by the moment. He stared at the camera, then at the tender white of my forearm. He showed the glowing cigarette to the camera. Then, leering, he sadistically burned my wrist. It hurt like an Alien baby popping out of my arm. Fifteen minutes later it was on YouTube. Stupidity being a mainstay of the format, I was expecting grand popularity. We made sure to include lascivious and lurid tags in the video description, like twinks, shirtless, naked, burned, owchie, and sexy, so anyone searching with these words, or a combination thereof, would stumble upon our video. It reached about a thousand views in a little more than a week.

My rational mother somehow found out about the video and got very upset. She is a grade school teacher who lives in a pine tree–infested coastal art community. She made some really popular shabby-chic birdhouses in the 1990s. She’s recently returned to watercolors and has always loved making smiling figures with clay. My mother had no idea why somebody would make something so awful and hurtful. She was not at all thrilled when I explained that this video was an experiment done in the name of art. I told her that one day she’d understand, and I reluctantly removed it from YouTube.

So, to get back at her, I asked Santa for a camcorder and staged a Passionistas video for our song "Wild West" in her hot tub. Following one of the rules of Internet video popularity, I was, of course, shirtless and in my underwear. To contrast with my forest-filled hot tub scenes, I filmed Aaron brushing his hair and teeth and smoking in San Francisco — shirtless, of course. My second attempt at a viral video is doing all right in terms of views at the moment, but its popularity is not comparable to that of Crocker’s videos.

Crocker is more pathetic than me. Aaron and I had a chance to catch him in one of his first public appearances, in October 2007 at the Crib in San Francisco. It was that night that he proclaimed, "I don’t have talent — I only have fans." There is a certain sexy courage we possess only when we are alone. Crocker is in the vanguard, the best of many new artists broadcasting from the bedroom.

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