Looking at YouTube: KIDS REACT and Procrastitainment

Looking at YouTube: KIDS REACT and Procrastitainment

On a laptop screen, a small rectangle surrounded by a jumble
of text, ads and windows sends light into the retina of an isolated viewer, who
sees the image of a chalkboard. Two tiny speakers emit the brittle, violently
cheery sound of a chorus of children chanting “Kids React to…technology! This episode…old computers!

What started as magnetic ones and zeros residing on a hard
drive on the server floor of a Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, ends
up here at the portals of individual eyes and ears thousands of miles away, or perhaps
just down the street. The viewers are a twelve-year-old girl in her parent’s
living room, or a twenty-three year old woman distracting herself from a
particularly dreary workday, or a forty-seven year old father of two who
clicked a link in his Facebook feed. All of them sought the same thing: five
minutes of diversion. At one time or another, twelve million other people who sought
the same thing watched this video.

The seven-minute show is an episode in a popular YouTube series
called Kids React, in which children ranging from ages five to thirteen respond
to viral videos, technology, video games, music videos and technology. The show
debuted in 2010; within a year, it had racked up so many views that its channel
became one of the original one hundred channels to receive funding from Google.
The producers of the show, two brothers from Brooklyn who call themselves the
Fine Brothers, have essentially arranged for children to be simultaneously the
subject of and the reviewers of viral entertainment. The brothers make viral
videos about viral videos.

New approaches often develop when bars to entry are lowered
by new technology, and different types of people make it through who might
otherwise never have found a foothold. The brothers, Benny and Rafi, grew up in
an orthodox Jewish household in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Their father is a rabbi. Only
Rafi received a film degree, at Hunter, the city university of New York. Their
background, temperament and interests were not exactly an ideal match for
schmoozing their way into the traditional film and TV industries and producing
material that would be unveiled in the festival circuits. Lena Dunham, by
comparison, was born into a household that provided her with access to elite
credentials and networks of connected people. She was raised by a painter
father and a photographer mother and attended Saint Ann’s, a prestigious private
school in New York, and Oberlin College. She was born to be successful in
traditional media. The Fine Brothers were not. YouTube has become one way for
young filmmakers to bypass the traditional means of access to inner circles of
industry and find another way in.

The structure of Kids
React
is strictly formulaic. Each episode is shot from a single static
camera position in a small, low-budget set, sparsely decorated with public
education-ish accouterments like apples, pencils, a G-clef. In each episode, a series
of cute children are seated at a desk looking at a video monitor, are shown a viral
video or piece of technology of some kind, respond to it and are then asked
questions about it. This format pays off in two ways: by eliciting a nostalgia
reaction from the older viewers who are old enough to have experienced the outmoded
technologies or clips of older shows and web videos the first time around, and
by showcasing the cuteness of the children’s first, innocent reaction.

Like Tosh.O, Ridiculousness, and World’s Dumbest, Kids React is a mostly a web clip show in
the business of aggregating and recycling viral material from YouTube and then
adding another layer: a kind of virtual social presence sharing the digital footage
with the viewer. The formula works more or less the same way that Beavis and Butthead did, if Beavis and Butthead were reimagined as smart,
polite children. The novel element and source of all the heavy lifting with Kids React is the children’s affect. The
show is powered by a kind of affective child labor.

The idea of capitalizing on the commercial potential of the
affective labor of children is not a new one. The first show that featured
child responses was a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” on Art
Linkletter’s radio show House Party, beginning
in the 1940s. Kids’ responses were then used on Linkletter’s TV show through
the 50s and 60s. Alan Funt borrowed the format on Candid Camera during the 1960s, and it was used once again by Bill
Cosby in the late 1990s. Kids React
recycles the idea yet again, this time adding a greater level of dialogue
between the children and the producers. The Fine Brothers themselves never
appear on camera. Like documentary filmmakers, they are only heard with off-screen
prompts and questions, but they are very much characters on the show. One can
feel them behind the scene, straining to draw out particular responses from the
children, and they are the children’s audience during the filming.

American audiences prefer their reality shows to be as
artificial as possible. There is a soothing effect created by dramas like Pawn Stars or Duck Dynasty that present themselves as ostensibly “real” and therefore
somewhat unpredictable, but are actually highly scripted and controlled. This
pattern is central to the reality show genre. After all, much of what we think
of as an unpredictable “reality” in our own lives is actually the result of more
or less pre-established scripts like genetics and the social roles we are born
into. The fact that audiences and producers prefer realities that are the
result of casting calls mirrors this situation. Kids React is no exception to this pattern. The Fine Brothers found
all the children in Kids React from
notices the brothers placed on LACasting.com. The show would be more accurately
titled Child Actors React. The children
are the subjects of the show, but they are also actors playing video bloggers, cast
in that role by an agency. There is a viral element at work here, but the
viruses have been manufactured in a laboratory.

Many viral videos are actually designed, produced and
promoted by professionals. Successful viral videos share certain
characteristics: they tend to be concise, and they feature humor, cuteness,
children, or injury. They trigger emotion, have a clear story, encourage
positive emotional resonance, and easily lend themselves to sharing. Kids React recycles viral videos that
already have these characteristics and replicates many of these same qualities with
the children’s responses. It is a doubling of the viral formula designed for maximum
propagation. Like viruses in nature, YouTube viral videos have information and
structure, but lack the machinery needed for replication. The cost of Web
series must be kept low because there is only a small amount of ad revenue
available through YouTube. There usually isn’t enough money at stake for video
creators to pay for advertising to propagate their shows the way network
television producers do. Viruses need to enter the infected organism’s own cells
and get the host’s body to do the work of propagation for them. This is what is
happening when viewers share videos on social media.

 

YouTube provides the distribution system for what content
producers create, and it also takes the lion’s share of the profits from the ad
revenue. The average per-click profit for a YouTube partner is low, something
like seven cents, and most YouTube partners earn something like a few hundred
dollars a year. Discounting the setup expense of a cell phone or a data plan
and/or a computer and a monthly broadband service that has already been paid,
the viewers see what appears to be free content with ads. The content creators
get much less money per view than in traditional television, but they also
don’t have to convince developers and producers to invest large sums of money in
them. They also don’t have spend years grinding their way up through a tightly
controlled system of social and professional networks that determine who gets
access to the best resources and opportunities. All they need is a camera, subscribers
and views.

The production challenges a YouTube channel creator faces, in
creating a few minutes of acceptable low-resolution images to stream across a small
rectangle on a computer or iPhone screen are not particularly daunting. Kids
React
looks relatively professional for a web series, but that still puts it only
a few notches above Zachary Galafianakis’s willfully shoddy Funny or Die series Between Two Ferns. Producing something expensively polished would be
pointless, considering the limited parameters of the screens involved, and
would go against both the aesthetic and the business model of internet
television. Many of the viewers of this type of show are younger people whose
parents have paid for the installation cost of mobile devices, computer and
cable internet service. They are part of the MP3 generation; they have never
had an expectation of technical quality in their free entertainment. They traded
this for the expectation of access; and as a value, access has replaced
fidelity. The economy of advertising revenue on YouTube is also the inverse of
high quality cable shows, which use high production values and are centered around
generating scarcity of access, which in turn maintains profit margins. With
YouTube channels, it’s the opposite. They use low production values and
generate abundance of access. 

The current limits inherent in the delivery mechanism of YouTube
are similar to the limits faced in earliest days of motion pictures. As film, Kids React is structurally similar to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope
reels, a technology dating from the 1890s. Both utilize a one-camera static
shot, done on a small inexpensive set, depicting a single subject for a short
amount of time for a single individual. The default screen window in a YouTube Web
page is roughly the same size as the Kinetoscope’s peephole viewer window at
the top of the device. Unlike film, with many people looking a screen at the
same time, and unlike TV, with a small group viewing together, Kinetoscopes involved
a single person peering into a single machine. This is how YouTube is currently
formatted; the difference is that it distributes the isolated individuals looking
into machines across distance with network computing. This new form of television
created by YouTube has brought with it a reversion to a 19th-century
style of filmmaking and viewing.

Viewers of web TV utilize a much different economy of time
than network and cable television. Web series are generally viewed during brief
moments between doing other things during the day, often at work or while
commuting. Five-minute chunks of wasted time can easily be rationalized, and
may prove refreshing. These shows serve the function of helping to facilitate
procrastination in an entertaining way: procrastitainment. To accommodate this,
the videos must be brief, usually three to seven minutes, and can’t require any
investment from the viewer. Each one has to be self-contained and self-explanatory.
This tends to result in formulaic material that presses buttons effectively.

Kids React is
entertaining when a single episode is watched, by itself, but the formula becomes
stale on repeated views. Binge watching reveals the show’s inherent weaknesses:
a rigid adherence to formula, lack of original ideas and pandering to the
broadest possible viewership. The banality of its unremitting wholesomeness quickly
grows exhausting. The Fine Brothers have created several equally successful spin-off
series based on the formula of the show, including the stultifying Teens React, which features things like teenagers
with bored expressions watching a video from the 1990s internet, and the torpid
Elders React, which manages to make
the spectacle of elderly people dancing to Skrillex seem unremarkable. Originality
tends to be avoided in both the most inexpensive web series like Kids React and the most lavishly over-financed
Hollywood blockbusters, due to the need to maximize viewership in as broad a
manner as possible. Ironically, the problem is brought on both by too much financial
investment and by too little. Any idea that is not pre-screened for popularity starts
to seem too risky. One of the more interesting aspects of Kids React is the occasional inclusion of serious topics on a show
that doesn’t seem to call for them. They’ve had the children react to topics
such as Bin Laden’s death, gay marriage, and bullying. These episodes broaden
the series and reveal that the Fine Brothers have a genuine curiosity about
others that is part of their creative philosophy.

Over the course of the series, the children appear bright and
cute, and they produce answers that are eminently acceptable, even laudable to
an adult audience. Anyone who has spent any time with children in the wild can
attest to the weirdly unpredictable, surreal, and sometimes surprisingly
unacceptable things they might regularly say. Little of that appears in Kids React. The children are cast, prepared,
and framed to produce sunny responses that make viewers, especially children and
parent viewers, feel good about themselves. This is part of the viral formula. This
pattern says less about kids’ personalities than it does about the worldview of
the filmmakers. The show also tends to reflect middle class identity back to
its viewers. One episode involves the kids’ appalled and offended reactions to
an outmoded Nintendo Game Boy from the 1980s, and it becomes clear that most of
these children own their own iPads and would certainly prefer to use them for
their gaming. You can be sure there will be no spinoff episodes entitled Working Class African American children
respond to . . . yoga for dogs.

The set of emotions an adult has, seeing the shot of a child
utterly baffled by a rotary phone, goes beyond amusement. This kid is unable to
understand an object the viewer probably used all through his or her own
childhood. There is a bit of poetry hidden inside the cliché of consumer technology
progress on display here. The slow, normally invisible cycle of generational
forgetfulness spanning the years becomes palpable in a single moment.

The simplicity of the show creates limitations, but it is
also one of its biggest assets. Watching a child completely dumfounded when
asked to turn on an Apple IIe computer from the early 1980s has a slapstick
element that is inherently entertaining. Some of the charm the show creates comes
from the fact that the degree to which adults are fundamentally different from children
is not always clear. When we laugh at kids who are not about to allow a total
lack of knowledge or experience stop them from theorizing and having a strong
opinion about something, we are laughing at ourselves.

The Fine Brothers YouTube franchise has led them into work
in traditional TV. They started out making unremarkable amateur action figure
satires of Lost and G.I. Joe. Late in 2014, they will have their own show on Nickelodeon,
another variation on Kids React
called React to That. They have found
their way in. As web series like theirs jump to TV, TV may increasingly pursue
strategies that seek to monetize Pavlovian behaviors in an imitation of the
internet economy. It’s unclear how well the expansion from five minutes of
distraction to a half-hour of entertainment will pan out. The technology that
creates these changes will also change, and eventually television and the web could
merge. The result is likely to be that television producers will push out web
series pioneers. The Fine Brothers have made sure this is not going to happen
to them.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York
City.

The Esper Machine: The Collaborative Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

The Esper Machine: The Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

nullInformation has a way of escaping. It bounces and refracts
like light. It pools and flows as water does. It moves in different directions,
leaking out of images, out of language, out of the expressions on human faces.
No matter how carefully it’s diverted or how willfully it’s contained, it
proliferates in a way that can never be fully controlled.

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner where Harrison Ford’s Dekard is looking for replicants
who have escaped from an off-world mining colony to earth. He inspects a
photograph with an Esper machine, a Photoshop-like device that harnesses a
latent psychic power in the viewer to zoom into a photograph and shift
perspective within it to view areas not included in the original image. He
finds a convex mirror reminiscent of the one in Jan Van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife and
enters its reflected image to find the evidence he needs. The scene is an allegory
for the proliferation of information in human documentation, and the way our
powers of attention can unearth its hidden conduits and make it into meaning.

Another photograph, this one not featured in a science
fiction film but released several years ago by the press service of the Russian
Orthodox Church, also turned out to contain more information than what first
met the eye. It shows the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, seated
at a wooden table, talking with Russian justice minister Alexander Konovalov.
There is no watch on Kirill’s wrist, but a closer scrutiny of the scene reveals
a luxury Breguet timepiece in the reflection of the table’s glossy wood
surface. The watch had been photoshopped out by the church’s press service, but
they had neglected to erase its reflection. The press service may have had the
sense that this status symbol, worth several times the average annual salary of
a Russian worker, might seem extravagant for a man who has taken a vow of
poverty.

The story of the erased watch was picked up by news services
internationally after its discovery. In manipulating the image for their own
ends, but also inadvertently leaving in this sliver of reflected truth, the
Russian Orthodox Church drew attention to the very thing they were attempting
to conceal. The patriarch at first denied that he owned such a watch and rather
ironically called the photo evidence “a collage.” Later he was forced
to admit the watch belonged to him, blaming his press service for the slip-up.
The entire event was a collaborative political multimedia art piece. The
elements included the release of a digitally altered photograph with a clue
carelessly left in, the subsequent text and photographic comparisons produced
by the journalists covering the story, the performance of an ironically
counterfactual refutation and then admission by the church authorities, and the
final prose and images summarizing the story in the Western press. All these
bits of language and image writhed together chaotically in the murky digital
networks that connect, intersect and provide collision points for collaborating
and competing groups of people across the world. Looked at from a certain
angle, everyone involved in the event looked like a member of the same
political arts collective working together to manifest it. Like movements of
information, collaboration may extend itself beyond the particular wills and
goals of individual actors involved in it. The internet has sped up this
process exponentially.

Patriarch Kirill is best known in the West not for his
luxury watch collection or his unintentionally ironic political photo collage,
but for being the central figure in the prosecution of Pussy Riot, the feminist
performance art collective that has produced online videos of guerrilla punk
rock performances in public spaces in Russia. Pussy Riot is the most famous
group of performance artists that has ever existed, thanks in no small part to active
collaboration with Kirill and, ultimately, Vladimir Putin.

null

Putin’s gradual de-democratizing of Russia, increasingly autocratic
rule, election fraud, and creation of a new political alliance with the
Orthodox Church form the context in which Pussy Riot emerged as pro-democracy
activists. They had their roots in an earlier political performance art
collective, Voina. Both Voina and Pussy Riot are closer to Occupy Wall
Street-style direct action protestors than they are to typical American
political punk rock bands or performance artists. Both art groups have focused
on video documentation of outrageous, unsanctioned, impromptu public
performances. Their method is to use shock value to draw attention to power
imbalances in their society. Both groups are activists, but in their methods of
manifestation they are  primarily
filmmakers, reaching the world though the internet and relying on their
opponents’ overreaction to reach their audiences. Putin and Kirill were
eventually to become the executive producers of Pussy Riot’s film production
efforts.

Pussy Riot was formed in 2011, during the anti-Kremlin
protests against parliamentary election fraud by Putin’s United Russia party
and the crackdown on dissent that followed it. Tens of thousands of Russians
gathered in central Moscow, a temporary coalition of liberals, nationalists and
communists. The fact that Putin claimed that Hillary Clinton was responsible
for inspiring the protests demonstrates the degree to which he portrayed
criticism of the government as the result of malicious outside influences bent
on destroying the country, a classic rhetorical maneuver not unheard of in the
United States. The fact that he could pronounce such a patently absurd claim
with such confidence indicates the level of control he wields over Russian
state television. His absurd pronouncements in news releases are proof of his
skill as a film producer, a director and an actor.

It is in this context of protest and the subsequent return
of Putin to the presidency that Pussy Riot emerged as an art collective making
creative interventions with a Russia moving incrementally towards autocracy.
Despite being educated, middle class Muscovites, they have been violently
uninterested in institutional ensconcement, money, or critical acceptance. They
have never released any music commercially. Their approach as filmmakers has
been to focus single-mindedly on changing their society while sticking
rigorously to their own style. Their earnestness, commitment to ideas, naiveté,
and self-possession made them the central writers and actors working in an
ensemble cast, with a plot in which antagonists collaborated in a multimedia
performance event with a massive scale of production and a global audience.
They reinvented the rock video for the information age.

The unofficial Pussy Riot production team of Putin and
Kirill had been developing for several years, as the Orthodox church grew in
power while developing stronger ties to the Kremlin. Just before President Putin’s
controversial election to a third term, Kirill pronounced Putin’s twelve-year
rule a “miracle of God,” stated that it was “unchristian”
to join protest rallies, and asserted that it was part of one’s religious duty
to vote for Putin. He recommended that the faithful instead pray silently in
the privacy of their homes. As the church has increasingly became a propaganda
wing for the Kremlin, Moscow has put restrictions on other churches and
“foreign” faiths. Putin has used public tax monies toward restoring
Orthodox churches, and church officials have reciprocated by openly campaigning
for Putin and his party.

The documentary film producer Mike Lerner had already begun
his film about Pussy Riot before their performance of “Punk Prayer —
Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the
Savior. His co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin was his connection in Moscow. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is built
around footage, procured by Pozdorovkin, that was filmed with the consent of
the government through the Russian version of Reuters. It was originally meant
to be streamed, but the government shut down the stream after the first few
days of the trial, sensing it might not be flattering. The
footage leaked though. Most of it had never been seen before. The three
defendants in the trial, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, and
Ekaterina Samutsevich, known as Nadia, Masha, and Katia, had requested that the
proceedings be filmed, and this was agreed upon with the court. The heart of
the film, then, is an elaborated work of appropriated footage originally
produced by the Kremlin. It is a court procedural of a blasphemy trial, with
contextualizing background material on the three defendants, their parents, as
well as information about the Church and the prosecutors. Though slow-moving
and somewhat incomplete as a documentary, it an extremely important piece of
political appropriation art, and is at the center of the massive interconnected
networks of footage and texts that comprise the overall collaboration of
Putin’s church/state complex and Pussy Riot’s feminist performance art
collective. The film shows the three women transforming the trial from a
pro-forma pseudo-legalistic suppression of dissent to an exposure of the
draconian conditions of Russia’s court system and a forum for them to explain
their art, their values, and their ideas.

Pussy Riot is a group of activist-artists, but these
activists are also purveyors of a formula. The idea: put on spontaneous hit and
run punk rock music performances with a political message, done in symbolic
public areas. The performers are anonymous women wearing balaclavas and dresses
arranged with wildly clashing Fauvist color schemes. The tone is angry,the
message focused, but all is done with humor and an intentional note of
silliness. “Anybody can take on this image, masks, dresses, instrument and
lyrics. It’s not hard. Write a song. Think of a place to perform,” says
Nadia. Pussy Riot is a guerrilla performance art formula meant for others to
take up.

Nadia, Masha, and Katia took this formula to the stage at
Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a protest against the partnership of
Putin and the Orthodox Church in stealing the elections. The performance took
place in an area preserved for priests on the soleas, where woman are
forbidden. The song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”
features an angry punk riff reminiscent of the early British punk band Cockney
Rejects, alternating with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, beseeching her to drive
Putin out of office. The lyrics include the lines:

Virgin Mary, Mother of
God, put Putin away,

Put Putin away, put
Putin away.

Shit, shit, the Lord’s
shit!

The Church’s praise of
rotten dictators.

The cross-bearer
procession of black limousines.
A teacher-preacher
will meet you at school.

Go to class – bring
him money!

Virgin Mary, Mother of
God, become a feminist.

null

The song lasted less than a minute before security at the
church had the performers removed. The police arrived at the scene, but they
never bothered to opened a case. Shortly afterward, a video was uploaded to
Pussy Riot’s Live Journal page and quickly appeared on YouTube. It was only
then that the three members of Pussy Riot were subsequently arrested by the
Russian authorities and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious
hatred.” Someone high up had seen the video and made a call.

Pussy Riot, a Punk
Prayer
begins with an image of Masha entering a room in medias res. The
door swings open suddenly and she rushes in, looks around suspiciously at the
green institutional space, hastily takes off her jacket and sits down with an
odd half-smile on her face. There is something strange about the rushed pacing
of the scene, as though it were shot backwards or sped up, and the tone of it
leads into the sporadic feeling of alternate reality the court footage will
take on. It is like a scene out of a Buñuel film. Masha’s burst through this
door is analogous to the speed with which Pussy Riot turned from obscure
activists into a global cause célèbre.

The film shows the trial taking place in an impossibly
small, overcrowded courtroom; only the defendant’s families and the press could
attend. The room seems to shrink as the film progresses. It was intentionally
chosen by the government to reduce the amount of people who could witness the
trial in person, perhaps anticipating the level of absurdity that would be
required to make the women appear to have been motivated by religious hatred. After
all, anyone beseeching the Virgin Mary to join their cause has accepted her
authority to some extent. Their lyrics include, “Mother of God, rid us of
Putin.” Objections to the anti-Putin message of the song fueled the engine
that set these events in motion. In order to prove their case of
“Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” the prosecutors were
forced to frame the proceedings as a blasphemy trial, assuming that offended
conservatives would accept this framework, forgetting that they ostensibly lived
in a secular constitutional democracy. This approach worked marvelously. Russia
is a highly conservative country, and Pussy Riot is mostly unpopular,
especially in the heartland, where news comes primarily from Putin-controlled
state television, where the women are portrayed as agents of foreign
governments who themselves are controlled “by Satan.” The
majority of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, even though most don’t
believe in god, and the trial gave the government the chance to portray its
political opponents as threatening, disrespectful troublemakers and to solidify
Putin’s state/church partnership.

The case against Pussy Riot was so flimsy and the trial so
obviously rigged that no one really believed they were guilty of a hate crime.
They were on trial for opposing Putin and Kirill and the trial was justified by
highlighting the offence taken by the faithful. The language of the prosecution
leaned heavily on the crimes of offending “God” and “the entire
Christian world.”  The need to
demonstrate that “moral harm” was done to the handful of churchgoers
who were present in the almost empty cathedral at the time of the performance
led to testimonies like that of one candle seller who stated, “They spit
into my soul and into the soul of my God.” Other injured parties spoke
about being profoundly offended by the colors of the women’s dresses and their
exposed shoulders. The spectacle of criminal proceedings focusing on the
offended emotions of believers is closer to Muslim fundamentalist culture, an
Orthodox Christian jihad.

The three women stood accused of doing the “Devil’s
work,” and they were convicted for it, serving two years in Russian labor
camps. The judge, Marina Syrova, who had declined to hear nearly all defense
witnesses, pronounced that the women posed a danger to society and stated that
they had committed “grave crimes” of “insult and humiliation of
the Christian faith.” She indicated that defendants had psychological
disorders, and she excoriated them for embracing feminism, a “mortal sin.”
Their mental problems included “a proactive approach to life, a drive for
self-fulfillment, stubbornly defending their opinion, and propensity for
protest reactions.” Amnesty International declared them Prisoners of
Conscience.

The claustrophobic interiors shots of the courtroom in
Lerner’s film create a feeling of contained otherworldliness, where the rules
of normal modern judicial logic disappear and a Kafkaesque tone prevails. There
is an alteration of the nature of reality within the confined space of the
courtroom, reminiscent of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, with its dinner guests at a party inexplicably
unable to leave. Pussy Riot, a Punk
Prayer
captures a setting in which multiple stages of history exist
simultaneously. The prosecution draws on medieval Orthodox Christian liturgical
texts as evidence and the defendants give articulate speeches that quote from
western critical theory and modern Russian conceptual poetry. This situation of
simultaneous stages of historical development existing on the same stage
reflects the state of current Russia, with it’s mixtures of undrinkable tap
water and modern shopping centers.

The light that dies off at the rectangular edges of the
movie screen does not mark the essential framing of this film. There is a frame
within a frame that draws our attention to the movie’s arbitrary edges, even as
it replaces them as the central device defining the subjects: The women are
shot almost entirely through a glass box they were confined to in the
courtroom. At the time it was nicknamed “the aquarium.” It is as
though another reality containment field appeared within Buñuel’s mad dinner
party, this one encapsulating modernity and sanity in its airless chamber
within the larger madness enclosed around it. The glass box evokes an aquarium,
a wardrobe, and a partition in a cell in a zoo by turns. It separates the
accused from the space of the courtroom and suggests that those inside the box
exist in a alternate judicial reality that is being witnessed though a kind of
window. It implies that the defendants are dangerous, and that they are so
hated that they need to be protected from attack even within the confines of
the court. Its wood and glass work their magic gradually and almost invisibly; the
box suggests that the rules for those on the inside of the box are not the same
for those on the outside. This is how ideology works, by framing, by allowing the
visibility of the frame to inexplicably erode in importance from one’s cognitive
field of vision.

But information has a way of escaping. As we look at the
women, we also see the reflections of the court officials, family members and
security guards. We can see how small the room is on its opposite side, just as
we saw Kirill’s watch reflected in the high gloss of his desk’s wooden surface.
There are bright strobe flashes, the dark distorted silhouettes of
photographers and murky shapes that shift and loom with a blurred menace. These
ambiguous images in the glass suggest alternate possible fates for these
women,  alternate possible futures of
Russia. They form and change into different possibilities of manifestation,
different histories. The reflections of the reality outside the box and the
images of the women inside, laughing at the absurd comedy of the draconian
proceedings, fuse together mutually enclosed spaces of the trial in an uncanny
collage, a kind of film within a film. The glass box is the state’s framing
device, but it is also an Esper Machine.  
After Macha’s final statement, the judge makes a spectacularly
counterfactual statement that epitomizes the dark comedy of the trial:
“Let me remind you this is not a theater.” The preordained trial was
primarily designed to be a theater, to set an example for any manifestation of
opposition.

The massive film art collaboration of Pussy Riot, Kirill and
Putin has two different audiences and two different meanings that go along with
them. The Russian audience saw an insult to their faith and to state power
rightfully punished by a strong authority. This opportunity to pander to
chauvinism and to make the population feel threatened increased Putin’s
popularity and solidified this partnership with the Orthodox church, who in
turn demonstrated they can easily whip up a vengeful moral outrage when it’s
politically useful. Learner’s film has been banned, and Putin has signed a bill
imposing jail terms and fines for insulting people’s religious feelings: the
“Pussy Riot” law. The Russian protest movement has been defeated for
the time being.

In the West, the sprawling Pussy Riot phenomenon read as a
primarily as freedom of expression issue. It generated worldwide criticism of
constraints on political speech in Russia and garnered widespread support
from American pop musicians. Pussy Riot,
a Punk Prayer
has been short listed for an Oscar nomination. The western
framing of Pussy Riot as being essentially about individual freedom of
expression is somewhat ironic, considering the group was explicitly formed to
proliferate in a way that included collective direct action and total
anonymity. Western supporters may be surprised to find that the group is
staunchly anti-capitalist. “We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist
system, at concerts where they sell tickets.” The western response to Pussy
Riot has also included a fair share of sexist dismissals, both through claims that
the women are seeking fame and only get attention because they are attractive,
and in supporting them as glamorous celebrities while largely ignoring their
ideas. The chances that Pussy Riot-style actions could flourish in the West are
questionable. In New York, there is a 150-year-old law that makes it illegal to
congregate in public with two or more people while wearing a mask or any face
covering that disguises your identity. The law has been used several times
against Occupy Wall Street protestors and was implemented during a Pussy Riot
support rally, in which several people were arrested for wearing balaclavas.
Russia is not the only country using archaic laws for the purpose of harassing
civil society.

Masha and Nadia were released two months short of their
sentences in an amnesty measure designed to make Russia appear to be a modern
country with a rule of law,leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, another
large-scale theatrical event. In the tradition of Russian dissidents, these
women have committed the crime of refusing to publicly accept their own
powerlessness, and they paid for it. They now have plans to form a new human
rights group focusing on prisoners’ rights, something they are now well-qualified
to work on. 

It remains to be seen what the production team of Putin and
Kirill will come up with next.  Putin is
himself a skilled appropriation artist. He produced a highly conceptual
master’s thesis, plagiarizing large sections of text verbatim from the work of two
University of Pittsburgh academics. His creative skills and knowledge of his
audience are considerable. It’s likely that Masha and Nadia may be working on
some kind of sequel with him in the future.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York
City.

Nobody Gets Out of Life Alive: THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

Nobody Gets Out of Life Alive: THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

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“Nobody gets out of life alive. The world’s so full of
crap a man’s going to get into it sooner or later, whether he’s careful or
not.”–Hud

Originally an advertisement for professional bloodletting
services, the red stripes of barber poles still remain today, despite the fact
that hair is the only thing modern barbers remove from their clients’ bodies.
The Man Who Wasn’t There begins with a languorous opening shot of a spinning
barber’s pole. Since the film is a Coen brothers neo-noir, it’s safe
to assume there will be a different kind of bloodletting before the film
is over. 

The year is 1949, and the barber we are about to meet is Ed
Crane, played with a perfectly calibrated laconic calm by Billy Bob Thornton.
He is an existentialist anti-hero, as if Bartleby the Scrivener had chosen an
alternate career path and became tragically enmeshed in a blackmailing scheme
gone wrong. 

Ed is an absence punched into the fabric of the film, a
black hole around which it orbits. His primary response to the world is one of
violent underreaction. He is inert with passivity, an American buddha, beatific
with a placid glow of naivete and repression. He’s like an unspoken thought.
This film chronicles his unfortunate late-blooming experiments with taking
action and his resulting demise. The process of his destruction commences the
moment he goes from being an unexpressed thought to an utterance, the moment he enters the world through
activity and decision. And his destruction is also the vehicle by which he
realizes himself.

In the noir cosmos, it is normal for a timid character to be
lured out of a safe but unsatisfying zone of normalcy by mirages of wealth and romance. This is what happens to Ed when
he gets suckered into a swindle that involves becoming a silent partner in a dry
cleaning business. He acquires the money for this by blackmailing his wife’s
boss, with whom she is having an affair. The plan appears to have a perfect
symmetry. He would seem to be able to enter his dream of wealth while getting
revenge against his rival with a single action. He wants to reach goals he has
unthinkingly and hastily stumbled upon in a manner that involves little to no
effort. We know it is not going to end well.

Like many of the Coen brothers’ characters, at no point does
Ed gain an understanding of how he works. The one aspect of his revolt against
his life is his inappropriate attachment to the gamine Birdy, played with a
compelling subdued clarity by Scarlett Johansson. Their
relation is one of genuine friendship, but Ed himself has no idea that his
intentions are also amorous.

This is because he can’t see himself. No learning curve is
possible in this world, only the transformation of circumstances. The rules of
the film’s universe dictate that the ultimate sacrifice must be paid for the
crime of wanting to be a dry cleaner. He mutely picks his moment to enter the
stream of phenomena from the suspended animation of seemingly prosperous, happy
post-WWII America, and he is briskly swept away in the acrid waters of brutal
existential comedy. It isn’t that he is dispatched following a
naively lazy attempt to escape from his life, but that his existence doesn’t
begin until the elaborate process of his undoing has commenced.

Some people find it disturbing that in Coen brothers films,
the characters don’t often have clear realistic referents and appear at first
glance to be stereotypes, playthings created only to be sadistically ground
up in the gears of a machine in which unfortunate patterns of human behavior, bad
decisions, bad luck, and stupidity converge to mete out a punishment so
arbitrary and so astronomically out of proportion to the crime that one can
only laugh. I’ve never understood this objection. Placing doltish,
unrealistically drawn, powerless
characters in an uncertain, comically brutal universe is what the Coen brothers
do best, and it’s what makes their films so entertaining, thought provoking,
and appealing.

The fact that the brothers were faculty brats who went
respectively to NYU and Princeton and sometimes make cartoonish movies about
dim-witted people has led some to the misguided conclusion that they are
condescending to their characters. Dave Kehr, writing about Raising Arizona, opined that “the distinction between satire and sincerity doesn`t mean much to the
Coen brothers, who treat everything that passes before their camera with
the same smarmy condescension…. The elaborate, self-conscious stylistics serve only to proclaim how much
more sophisticated the Coens are than the bumpkins they have chosen to
populate their movie. At the same time, the empty technique invites the
audience to share the Coens` sense of superiority….” Coming to this conclusion requires ignoring the glaringly burlesque fable-like atmosphere that permeates their
films, and falling into the trap of looking in vain for realistic characters
and settings to emotionally identify with, when the films are working with
totally different dynamics and materials. The Coen brothers clearly have a real
affection for their stylistically rendered characters, and this is reinforced by
the degree to which other people love these characters as well. The Coens
create the characters not to be mocked, but to be destroyed with extreme prejudice. The brothers
seem to be poking fun at creations they love. In the process of
humiliating, damaging and annihilating these figures, they render them in an extremely vivid
and often hilarious way.

Though today the Coens are widely critically lauded and
their films are usually discussed in a way that comprehends the spirit in which
they were meant,  their work is still polarizing.
It seems that gleefully subverting conventions never seems to lose its power to
piss people off. Some critics found their first films grating and insincere,
especially critics at the more genteel publications which might not have been
ready for the Coen dynamic, which usually incorporates slapstick, noir, brutal
violence, and wry humor into an entertaining but disorienting mélange. Even the
inordinately perspicacious Pauline Kael held up the first two Coen films beside a template of expectations which rendered them somewhat
illegible to her. On Blood Simple: “[T]he reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s
nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any
rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of ‘touches’
on routine themes. (These art touches are their jokes.) Blood Simple
comes on as self-mocking, but it has no self to mock.” Critics might be able to accept stylized
wry brutality and black humor, but to be accepted it must be served with a large
side order of transcendence, and that is a dish that is not usually available
on the Coen menu.

When filmmakers don’t
leave clear markers as to how sincere or sarcastic they are, critical anxiety is generated, and this can cause us to miss how much obvious joy is being taken in playing with genres and dynamics.
This has sometimes resulted in a pattern of priggish critical harrumphing that
continues in some quarters even to this day. Rather than letting the sincere
and sarcastic elements work together in a thought-provoking manner as a kind of
essay, the ambiguity is sometimes mistaken for ridicule. Some critics have assumed
that the tradition of realistically drawn, emotionally relatable characters and
settings is being smugly dismissed. After all, it’s the critic’s job to provide
a grading system to determine how well filmmakers provide this traditional
service. 

The Man Who Wasn’t There might prove off-putting if
approached with this conventional set of expectations. But it’s funny,
thought-provoking, and mesmerizing if you let its themes and questions, and its
gorgeous, silky black-and-white cinematography work more in the spirit in which
they seem to have been created: as a wry, poetic thought experiment within a
technically impressive formal genre structure. The Man Who Wasn’t There offers
the stability of being one genre rather than several at the same time, but it
doesn’t offer a stable railing of seeming emotional truth. It works by keeping
the viewer continually off balance, so the only stability is to be found by
continuing to ask questions.

The Coen brothers’ warmer, more wildly entertaining films
like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo do provide opportunities for
the traditional dynamic of emotional identification. But even their sweetest
and most uproarious films also contain their trademark opposite pole of
punishing nastiness. Allowing these contradictory polarities to work
simultaneously to some degree is a large part of what gives their films a
unique sense of tension and unpredictability.

There are many things that critics agree the Coens do well,
including themes of friendship, theatrically arresting violence, 
humor, suspense, elaborately complex, perfectly choreographed set
pieces, perfectionist music editing and overall technical panache. Not least
among the things they’re known for is unforgettable dialogue, often done with
in a comically inappropriate literary style. They’re fond of voiceovers,
usually from unreliable narrators such as H.I. in Raising Arizona. Their films
use a contrast between the narrators’ blinkered perspective and the
considerably broader perspective accorded to the camera. The voiceovers are
dramatic monologues competing with the images rather than explaining them. Ed’s
voiceover in The Man Who Wasn’t There is eventually revealed to be a men’s
magazine article about his journey to the electric chair. It is, literally, an essay.

nullThe movie begins with Ed talking about how little he talks.
“I just cut the hair.” Disparities between subjective narratives and
the gaps of knowledge between characters fuel some of the tensest scenes of
conversation in the film, as when Ed is first speaking to the menacing Big Dave Brewster,
played by James
Gandolfini, with his trademark Tony Soprano blend of menace and
affability. We are not sure how much Big Dave knows or what he’s capable of, as
he is speaking to Ed as though in confidence about some other blackmailer. He
slowly reveals how much he does know, which is everything, and then asks him in
mounting rage, “What kind of man are you?” before attempting to beat
him to death. Ed semi-accidentally kills him in self-defense with a lucky jab
of Big Dave’s cigar cutting knife straight into the jugular. The shot of Ed
being strangled by Big Dave is done from outside the room, behind glass he is
being pressed against. The glass, our view of the scene,  cracks joltingly during the struggle, and
this marks the first start of the machine of Ed’s fate. The scene
ends with the ticking of a clock.

Not all the verbal narratives in the film are unreliable.
The Coens are not nihilists. Several pieces of information are framed as if they were
objectively the case. The first comes from Ed’s lawyer’s private detective, who
reveals that Big Joe was faking his war hero resume. He turns out to have been
just a bar room brawler with an anger management problem. The other comes from
the piano tutor Ed contacts to evaluate Birdy’s level of talent, and whose evaluation is unusually
frank. Neither piece of truthful information is particularly important in the
film.

The film’s basic dynamic involves simple reversal of the passive
and the active. Instead of shaving his wife’s legs for her and cutting other
people’s hair, at the end of the movie Ed is the one being shaved, with
orderlies scraping away the hair on his leg to ensure a good contact for the electric chair. He is not even being
executed for any crime he committed, but he doesn’t mind. He’s in the driver’s
seat.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York
City.

KILLER KARAOKE: Reality Television and the Death of the American Middle Class

KILLER KARAOKE: Reality Television and the Death of the American Middle Class

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“There’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years and my class has won.” —Warren Buffett

“I’m about to get my ass kicked by crawfish.”—Steve-O

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that, at the brainstorming session where the phrase “Not Reality. Actuality.” was coined, one of the copywriters might have pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Apparently this observation was never made, or not with sufficient conviction, because this is now the official motto of Turner Broadcasting’s TruTV network, which specializes in reality programming. Viewers might anticipate a new threshold of lowered expectations for the shows featured on this network, based solely on its grammatically challenged motto, but one show on it, Killer Karaoke, was recently described by the New York Times as “the highest possible use of the medium and the most profound statement ever made about the human condition.” This statement may be a bit of ironic hyperbole, but it contains a kernel of truth. Killer Karaoke is a window on the shrinking opportunities and declining fortunes of the American middle class.

The show combines two popular reality TV game show formats, the singing competition and the stunt challenge. It is essentially a mash-up of American Idol and Fear Factor. Like most other new reality television shows, the producers go out of their way to avoid cluttering up the show with original ideas. It is based on Sing If You Can, the 2011 British singing competition that celebrates performing while being subjected to extremely distracting circumstances, including having snakes draped on your body and being blasted with a high-powered mechanical storm simulation. Most of the concepts for the stunts on Killer Karaoke are drawn directly from Sing If You Can.

The contestants on Sing If You Can are well-known singers playing for charities, showing viewers the spectacle of celebrities experiencing various states of stress and alarm. Like American Idol or The Voice, the set design is cavernous and ostentatiously expensive-looking, and like those shows, the overarching feel of the show is one of inaccessible wealth, a wealth the audience is meant to voyeuristically ogle. The celebrity contestants on Sing If You Can may be amusingly stressed in the face of their challenges, but the audience is still very much meant to register them as betters existing in an untouchable universe of privilege.

Killer Karaoke takes this class structure and turns it on its head. The set is modest and the contestants read as average middle class karaoke enthusiasts, enthusiasts who hunger to be seen on television. The deal they accept by appearing on the show is startlingly bad. They are promised a chance to win “up to” $10,000. But it’s clear that the final challenge of the show is designed to pay out an average closer to half that amount. The largest amount won so far is $7,800. Survivor offered the winning contestant one million dollars. Fear Factor offered $50,000. The deal has been getting worse and worse as reality shows have progressed.

nullThe shows that exploded in the early aughts, starting with Survivor and Big Brother, represented a new historical relationship between reality TV actors and employers. Most reality shows today enjoy a spectacularly profitable exploitation of their actors. These shows are attractive to produce because creating the content and, ultimately, much of the show’s value requires them to utilize a class of unorganized low-paid laborer: the American reality contestant.

Capitalist economic systems require one central point of internal logic for them to function; in order to constantly expand profits, workers must be paid less than the value their work creates, ideally as little as possible, as little as the labor market will bear. In classical economic theory, new value only comes from one place, labor. In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship.

Reality TV contestants are an excellent object for this kind of relationship, because they are a disposable, easily replaced group of workers. Because their working conditions are not regulated by the Screen Actor’s Guild, contestants can work unusually long hours, Some shows require a working day as long as 12-18 hours. Appearing on a show requires temporarily leaving, even risking, one’s job. Union pay for an actor on a scripted situation comedy is $25,000 per episode. Reality TV contestants are often paid nothing at all for their work, though some receive a modest stipend. Most agree to work for food and shelter during the time they are being filmed, in hopes that the exposure might lead to some future opportunity, if not just for the sheer narcissistic reward of appearing on television.

The worsening conditions for television workers with the advent of reality TV mirror the gradually worsening conditions of the American middle class over the past few decades. Since the early 1970s, business leaders and the pro-business lobby have orchestrated a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to the ruling elite through deregulation and changes in trade and tax policies that favor the upper classes at the expense of the working and middle classes. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of households earning two-thirds to twice the median income has shrunk from sixty-one percent of the US population in 1971 to fifty-one percent today, and that reduced middle class earns a lower percent of total national income. The 1972 adjusted gross wages for the average worker was $738 per week. In 2008 it was $598. In 1970 the average CEO made twice what the average worker made. Today that same CEO makes five hundred times what the average worker makes. The income of the richest one-percent has tripled since 1980, while at the same time the income of the bottom ninety percent has dropped by twenty percent. Bill Clinton and politicians from both sides of the aisles promised to create jobs with NAFTA in the early 1990s, but according to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA actually cost the United States nearly 700,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing.

nullThere has only been one brief moment where the American middle class grew at all in the last thirty years: during the tech bubble of the late 1990s. Reality television as we know it began just after this anomalous growth spurt began reversing itself. Shows like Survivor, Big Brother and Fear Factor dramatized the new economic realities: vicious competition, humiliation, hard work for little reward, and winner-take-all ethics. These shows reflect the American economic policymakers’ ideology, where policy is decoupled from ethics, as well as from common sense. As wealth is more and more shifted from the middle class to a small concentration of the upper classes, demand begins to shrink, and with it, the ability to recover from the cyclical crises that are part of our economic system. The middle class is the main consumer class of the United States, and consumption is two thirds of the US economy. As the middle class shrinks, consumption shrinks. As consumption shrinks, the time it takes to recover after recessions grows. Increasing income inequality also translates into increasing economic instability and slower growth. Since the 1980s the job market has taken longer and longer to recover after every bust. More than five years after the great recession of 2007, the job market still hasn’t recovered, but the stock market is booming. Because of this, the wealthy are enjoying full recovery, while the middle and working classes are falling behind, largely because of high unemployment. Corporate profits are booming, but only during the Great Depression has the share of GDP going to salary and wages ever been lower. American workers are less and less part of American prosperity.

The new economy of reality television has helped American Idol become the most profitable show in the U.S. Its contestants represent legions of unpaid laborers. American Idol presents itself as an aspirational drama, but the perspectives of the show are very much those of the ruling elite. Success in this competition is about pleasing famous millionaires on their terms. Idol‘s Horatio Alger stories remain the mythic ideal, but the statistics point to a very different reality. In America, the chances of someone’s making it to the top or to the middle from the bottom are lower than in any other advanced industrial country. The essence of American Idol is not so much the performances of the singers as it is the dramatization of the unbridgeable class divide between the ruling elite panel sitting behind the desks and the average citizen contestants standing on stage.

nullThe early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd.

In the later rounds, when we root for the talented underdogs who have made it through the culling process, our sentiment shifts: now we’re thrilled at someone else’s success. But we’re also connecting with our own desire to sell out. Can this person hold on to a vestige of their humanity and individuality while achieving the extreme-sports version of selling out? American Idol openly and engagingly celebrates the triumph of commercialism over art. As viewers, we are rooting for the corporate machine that manufactures these celebrities as much as for the contestants themselves.

Killer Karaoke breaks with this tradition. There is no panel. The contestants are judged only by the audience, according to whatever criteria they please, probably a mix of singing talent, courage, and how entertainingly they flip out. But winning is not exactly the point of the show. Something of an afterhtought, the anti-climactic final challenge involves singing while remaining balanced on a giant rotating turntable with two other remaining contestants. The point of the show is to see how winningly contestants can suffer humiliation and pain under objectionable working conditions. In contrast with American Idol, Killer Karaoke encourages the audience to sympathize with all the contestants from the beginning: though we’re amused by their suffering, we’re also rooting for them. We want everyone to succeed, in a situation where success comes down to freaking out in the most hilarious way.

nullThe host Steve-O (Stephen Gilchrist Glover), a graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, went from working in a Florida flea market circus to being one of the most visible performers on Jackass, the MTV reality show featuring self-harming stunts. His role on that show was marked by the  extremity of his stunts, his oddly calm and polite demeanor, and his notorious struggles with drugs and alcohol. The inane and sublime poetics of Jackass inform Killer Karaoke to a significant degree. The qualities the now drug-free Steve-O brings with him from his former show—a particular combination of affability, masochism, encouragement, and sunniness in the face of pain and humiliation—help form much of the tone of Killer Karaoke and differentiate it from a host of other reality shows. He is a man dumb enough to consent to be choked unconscious six times in a row, and sensitive enough to tenderly French-kiss a giraffe. He helps steer the contestants to do their best to accept the challenges in the Jackass spirit, and some of them do seem to have fully embraced the idea that their suffering and fear are meant to bring joy to others.

Steve-O is consistently lucid and endearing on the show, even when the occasional shadow of substance-induced derangement briefly passes over his face. It’s clear he is not really involved in the design of the stunts, which are extreme by game-show standards but lightweight compared to some of the activities featured on Jackass, which often veered closer to self-harm-oriented performance art than reality TV. Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, “Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier.” It’s clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: “It’s about the misfortune of others and exploiting people’s willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment.” Steve-O’s host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.

One particularly telling challenge has the contestants singing while taking on the job of a waiter, serving Steve-O a five-course meal while being shocked by multiple electric collars attached to various parts of their bodies. This tableau of this challenge perfectly mirrors the increasingly debased working conditions in the United States. Before the performance, Steve-O briefly zaps himself on the neck with the shock collar set on full-strength, partly to associate himself with the contestant, and partly to imply that the singer is participating in the equivalent of a Jackass stunt. It is clear, though, that Steve-O is no longer engineering pain for himself but organizing it for others. Following the inevitable logic of career self-advancement, he has gone from being the exploited to being the manager of other people’s exploitation.

The genuine class anxiety-fueled schadenfreude of American Idol isn’t really a part of Killer Karaoke. Just before the stunts, Steve-O always says something to the effect of “You can do this, we’re all rooting for you,” even when it’s obvious that the contestant is about to get considerably more of a challenge than they are prepared for. This is a show where everyone is supposed to enjoy the pain together. Even when one contestant completely loses all traces of composure and stops singing entirely, Steve-O smiles and said afterward, “Nobody comes here to see everything go well.” Instead of notes from a panel of wealthy authority figures, the contestants, rather, get one line of instruction: “No matter what happens, do not stop singing.” All that is expected of them is to remain committed to the performance of the song in absurdly unacceptable circumstances. This mirrors being middle class in a country where a middle-class lifestyle has increasingly been an unsustainable performance that is only possible to continue though reckless borrowing. Is it that much of stretch to imagine a similar electric shock system being utilized on Amazon.com warehouse workers when the GPS units they’re forced to carry indicate they’re not moving fast enough? Currently these warnings come in text messages.

All the contestants can sing, but at its root Killer Karaoke is not really a singing show. It’s the interruption of the singing that counts. Most performers do not even get to the chorus of their chosen songs before their voices begin to lurch and jump into moans, screams, disconcerted verbal objections, fragments of melodies, and awkward gaps of silence. One particular challenge always seems to set off the most dynamically cacophonous additions to the songs. The challenge involves lowering the singer into a tank of cold water and then gradually filling the tank with larger and larger snakes. The physical discomfort combined with primal fear has produced some amazingly original variations in song interpretation. These musical ideas are accidental, but they are also compelling. The result is that Killer Karaoke is the only place where it is possible to hear avant garde music on television. If played outside the context of the show, some of these songs could easily rival early 1970s Yoko Ono recordings like “Unfinished Music,” for use of extended vocal technique, edginess and genuine expressiveness unsullied by commercial compromise. These are the primal screams of the disappearing American middle class.

Killer Karaoke‘s DNA can be traced back to one of the earliest reality shows, Beat the Clock. Beat the Clock, hosted by Bud Collyer, began airing in 1950, and featured contestants competing for money as they attempted timed stunts. Killer Karaoke, like Beat the Clock, is structured as a series of tasks: in other words, work. And it does something that TV is particularly good at: showing a person’s immediate, visceral response. Killer Karaoke doesn’t go farther into the contestant’s backstory than their name and what song they’ve chosen. Their reactions are their story.

What is relevant to viewers’ lives in Killer Karaoke is the purging, through laughter, of the stress of increasingly difficult and unrewarding work conditions. Its contestants have little to gain. The show exists in a world where the pretense of social mobility is almost totally gone. It’s taken for granted that the terms of work are bad. The show is about how well and how entertainingly the singers go through their ordeals, reflecting the increasingly shrinking opportunities and humiliating work conditions now facing the majority of the American workers, where one can expect little from working hard and playing by the rules. Maybe one day someone will make a show about how to actually change these conditions that is this much fun to watch.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York City.