Mythmaking: On YouTube “Celebrity” Cults, Their Hubris, and Avarice


The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man. – Frank Herbert, Dune

In Dave Eggers’ foreword to Kurt Vonnegut’s last posthumous publication, While Mortals Sleep, he highlights three points about getting attention the Information Age we live in, especially with new media like YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. If back in the day you actually had to be good and had morals and wisdom to impart in order to be published as a writer, now you have to have at least one of these characteristics to be noticed: loud, radical, and insane. Oftentimes, people are all three. But that doesn’t mean they are good or imparting anything worth learning from–or at least, they help us to learn what not to do or who not to be (see Alexandra Wallace and her Asians in the Library video for an example of having all three characteristics).

I’ve never been gullible or lacking in self-esteem enough to see “celebrities” as gods the way many I have encountered often do. There’s something about the whole “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” act people put up when encountering Steven Tyler or Alice Cooper in public or the complete inability to just say “hi” to someone. Actors, musicians, directors, and writers are people too, and though many have flamboyant personalities, that doesn’t come from being too holy to touch, that comes from exuding a certain kind of self-assured confidence that allows them to be themselves since they’ve already impressed the right people (or at least have a few influential names they call friends). Worship of a celebrity makes about as much sense as kowtowing to the class clown because “everyone knows him”.

Though I don’t doubt there is definitely talent to be found when you have the freedom to express without the bullshit bureaucracy of Hollywood or major publishing houses that comes from personal politics rather than actual talent, you will find a lot of garbage out there. It’s like sticking your hand in multiple toilets hoping to find diamonds once in a while, fully aware you’re getting into shit every time. Nietzsche once said that with universal literacy, the standard goes down, and with universal access on YouTube and blogging, there are less filters and more garbage that comes out, which are often the aforementioned “loud, radical, and insane”. Of course, someone will argue and try to retrofit postmodern attitudes and values to downplay the context of Nietzsche and say things like “He’s elitist!” which is true, I don’t deny that, but I haven’t seen a hell of a lot of movement forward, just a lot more niche groups and isolationist silos. It’s a sign of the times rather than the integration between music and cultures in the past, but let’s not get into that discussion yet.

Asian America is itself by nature a niche group. It does not have to be an exclusive silo, and the very idea of trying to fight for representation, equality, and visibility in America and American media is immediately forgotten by the politics and attitudes of many “celebrities” and their fans (cult members), especially at film festivals. There are indeed some celebrities who live up to the arrogant snob image, and at times, have rightfully earned it for their talent with the likes of Christian Bale and Sean Penn, because they are good at what they do and it warrants those six-figure paychecks for their talent. But go into any Asian American event where YouTube personalities (who believe they themselves are celebs) gather en masse, and for a good number of them, you have the same attitude–whether they have a million views or a few thousand views, it’s baffling to see elements of that incessant and incestuous pride. All the while, it’s a wonder they survive when the general quality of what’s come out of most of the peanuts gallery of YouTube artists is essentially glorified home movies with people acting “loud, radical, and insane” and not being very good at it either. Think of the kid in the 1980s and 1990s who had a camcorder and shot cheesy movies on a Super 8 that he wants to show off every time you come over: that’s what a lot of YouTube is.

Now to be fair, it’s also a good way to connect with supporters and like-minded people to improve, but there is a certain zenith people reach too early, from the circle-jerking that comes from being in a room full of kids who think they’re hot stuff, talk about “doing lunch” and “talking shop” and the whole “fuck yeah, we are gonna make it!” and then they get too comfortable and end up not pushing as hard to go mainstream. If the Raelians and Flat Earth Society people can find their lambs, and Count Victor Lustig can find his marks to play for suckers and cheat out of their money, then likewise with the Asian American YouTube mafia, there’s not much motivation to go beyond the circle of Asian America as the social climbing is all about being the big fish in a small pond as opposed to preparing for the sea of life. And even if there is still desire to go beyond the online frontier, most of them still aren’t that good at what they promote. They’ve found their niche making juvenile videos and unimpressive music, they have viewers and attention, they can make a little money to live fairly well– but the message of inclusiveness, visibility, and representation becomes lost. Yet somehow, they attempt to build a reputation to everyone else while portraying a very different story, about promoting Asian America and working to make the community more visible, represented, and diverse–however, you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do, especially with what you haven’t done, let alone what you aren’t doing anymore.

So for every time I’ve encountered these YouTube “celebrities” who think they are too self-important to say hello back or give the time of day (especially at Asian American film festivals), I laugh and remember the words of Hunter S. Thompson: “A professional is someone who can get work any time he wants because he is that good at what he does”, and the words of Rousseau: “One does not seek a great name, but knows how to honor that which he has.” For every time I see someone about to go into a seizure for seeing a celebrity, YouTube or mainstream, I remind them that everyone farts, and they stink.

For the TL;DR crowd who want the Cliff’s Notes version of this article: Celebrities are normal people too and can be assholes. YouTube celebrities are no different and are mostly not that good at what they do. They think they can use YouTube to promote Asian America’s goals of diversity, representation, visibility, and inclusiveness that mainstream Hollywood and television don’t allow, but once they hit their niche crowd and make a little money, they develop huge egos and don’t care to improve their skills or continue trying to go beyond the small pond they live in while believing they are the big fish. They remain social climbers and arrogant; they do not recognize that they are not as good as they believe they are, and won’t improve until they acknowledge that Asian America is only a stepping stone. Popularity does not indicate they are good, either, otherwise it is the same as saying Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” are better than any song in existence for their sheer number of views. Breaking into mainstream isn’t about racism, it’s about actually being good enough and mixing outside the community, which almost nobody is doing.

Author’s note: No YouTube artists’ egos were harmed in the making of this article.

photo credit: Jonathan Kos-Read via photopin cc

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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