September 25, 2017

The Happiest People in the World

I was first exposed to Team 10 — video blogger Jake Paul’s stable of would-be YouTube stars — on the Wildwood boardwalk in southern New Jersey this past June. At the T-shirt stalls, alongside all the other ultra-confrontational T-shirts, amid the nationalistic slogans and the butt shorts that read “E-ZPass,” were a smattering of Team 10 shirts. I didn’t know what Team 10 was, but guilt by association told me it had to be something inflammatory and divisive.

The Team 10 shirts didn’t make Deadspin writer Dan McQuade’s excellent and otherwise comprehensive taxonomy of the 2017 Wildwood T-shirt scene, but his rundown gives a sense of the gamut of reprehensibility being curated there. Almost all the shirts are flamboyantly offensive, semaphore signals conveying the most racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, scatological things someone with a silkscreen could think of. Why wear a shirt if it doesn’t get a reaction?

The point of these shirts is to be as “in your face” as possible, which is especially clear in the “Come at Me, Bro”/”U Mad Bro?” genre of shirts, where the subtext becomes text. The shirts exude insecurity transmogrified into aggression, a feeling ambient everywhere in Wildwood, which has the reputation of being the Archie Bunker of beach resorts. You can almost taste the defensiveness in the air, in the free-sample nuggets of vanilla fudge, in the frozen custard that tastes like baby aspirin, in the salt water taffy that pulls out your fillings. Don’t judge me, I judge you! Whoever designed the welcome arch at the north end of the Wildwood boardwalk — “Through this arch walk the happiest people in the world” — must have had a pretty dark sense of humor.

The boardwalk T-shirts feel like they are there as reminders: never forget those people who scorn you, who think they are better than you, who want to deny your pride, who want to take offense at your very existence. Stay wounded! Mixed in with the narcissism and defensiveness is a peculiar thread of masochism, which really comes out in the vein of shirts that combine self-deprecation and self-pity with an eagerness for self-harm. I’m thinking of the many, many variations that celebrate being too drunk or too stoned, as well as the perennial favorite “I Pooped Today.” Humiliation seems fact of life so ordinary and omnipresent that of course you’d wear it on your shirt. These sorts of shirts present the wearer as of course out of control of their own lives, a spectator to their own spectacle, rejecting adult responsibilities of self-control or acknowledging that they had never been entrusted with them in the first place.

The masochism T’s  give a different spin to the more overtly aggressive ones; it dawns on me that the fantasy behind wearing the “Come at Me, Bro” shirt is not just the thought of administering a beatdown but the thought of getting beat up. The masochism, not surprisingly, is even more explicit in the apparel targeted at girls: lots of shirts and shorts that boast of being someone else’s property (corresponding to the genre for men that conveys a unwillingness to relinquish such property —  McQuade labels these “Creepy Father T-shirts”).

McQuade asked one of the T-shirt sellers why he thought they were so intrinsic to Wildwood, and the seller replied, “It’s Wildwood, man. You act a little bit more crazy, you act a little different.” That seems to be the essence of the Jake Paul brand. He seems like the living embodiment of the Wildwood boardwalk T-shirt. In a New York Times style section profile of Paul by Alex Williams, Paul says that his daily vlogs are “an extreme version” of reality TV in which he deliberately presents himself as a cartoony version of a jocky high school hell raiser.

“Literally, by saying the word ‘bro’ I do try to come off like a high school kid having fun,” he said. “What would a junior in high school say? What would their slang be? They use the word ‘savage,’ they use the word ‘lit.’ That isn’t my personal vocabulary. But it comes out on camera.”

This isn’t meant to be an especially convincing performance; it’s more of a gesture in the direction of relatability within a larger imperative to be flagrantly performative. In Paul’s shtick, there is no emphasis on an authenticity at the mundane level of facticity. He aims for a different kind of authentic, an authenticity of mood that is expressed through explicitly rejecting being consistent or sticking to an ongoing set of facts. Williams details how Paul staged a fake wedding with one of his collaborators:

The team matriarch, Erika Costell, a 24-year-old model from Michigan, mingled nearby in workout gear. Half of the Team 10 power couple “Jerika,” she has three million YouTube subscribers and got a big boost from her “wedding” video with Mr. Paul, “We Actually Got Married…” in June, which has attracted 21 million views, even though they actually did not get married. (“We’re not even actually dating,” Mr. Paul explained later that day. “It’s like the WWE. People know that’s fake, and it’s one of the biggest things of entertainment.”)

The comparison with wrestling seems apropos, but he has it sort of backward. Professional wrestlers don’t typically acknowledge that they are faking anything. A big part of what is being consumed in pro wrestling is the wrestlers’ keeping kayfabe — the effort that goes into pretending the fiction isn’t fiction, setting up conventions that authorize the viewers to suspend disbelief. But for Jake Paul and his fans, kayfabe is irrelevant. No one is putting much effort into pretending its real. Instead he offers a fantasy of getting away with being fake, being unqualified, of not trying and being given the benefit of the doubt anyway. For his fans, he comes across as more real as a fake. Discarding the pretense of kayfabe is the new keeping kayfabe.

His account of how he launched his rap career exemplifies this: “I woke up, and I was like, ‘What if I make a song today, and make a music video for it, all in one day?’” he tells Williams. “To me, the whole thing was a joke. I was like, I’m going to morph into a rapper and just go for it, 100 percent.” That seems like a mass of contradictions — how is doing a song in one day with no training, practice, or deliberation also going for it “100 percent”? How can you commit fully to an endeavor that you also think is a joke?

But the point of these contradictions is to dismiss the idea that Paul needs to worry about his identity. It does not seem accidental that he chooses an art form associated with black Americans and asserts that he can master it without effort but still expect unearned credit for having given his all. He is modeling the quintessence of white privilege, where one feels like they have earned what a racist society gives them automatically, misrecognizing those structural advantages as proofs of one’s individual extraordinariness. (Wildwood’s boardwalk also has lots of ethnic pride shirts and shirts celebrating the Confederacy as heritage.)

Paul seems to work relentlessly on creating the conditions in which he can be seen as getting away with things, and that entitlement perhaps becomes participatory for the kids who watch his videos. He has exerted a lot of effort in an apparent attempt to come across as half-assed and talentless, as if making it without talent is the ultimate confirmation of your predestined fame, your manifest destiny for attention, your whiteness as golden ticket. Anybody with talent can get attention, but it takes something really special to get attention without talent. At least that is the ethos he is modeling — a kind of contemporary caste privilege translated into the idiom of YouTube.

I first went to Wildwood when I was 12, brittle and insecure and on the cusp of puberty. The tense, self-loathing vibe of the place resonated with me, a threat and a looming promise. I didn’t know how to swim and was also morbidly sensitive to being sunburned, so I spent a lot of time sitting on the beach with my jeans on, reading fantasy novels, probably something along the lines of The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Sometimes I would put the book down and stare up into the sky, at the planes that dragged banners behind them, advertising things I didn’t understand or couldn’t enjoy: drink specials, happy hours.

I don’t know if I would have liked Team 10 then. It most likely would have made my alienation even more total. But maybe some friend would have showed it to me, and sheer inertia would then have kept me watching, because I wouldn’t have had enough experience of life to imagine alternatives.

Down the shore that summer, I would sometimes get permission from my mother to walk the boardwalk alone, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I were a kid now. Now I would probably be expected to make do with an iPad or something. But the freedom of being alone was undermined by the powerlessness of being broke. I would walk through video-game arcades but couldn’t do anything by watch the high-score screens flash by, or watch other kids play.

At one point during the time Williams is hanging out with Jake Paul reporting his story, Paul convenes a house meeting with his underlings.

“First of all, we hit 80 million,” Mr. Paul announced, gesturing toward a flat-screen television glowing orange with a graphic that read “80,095,981,” Team 10’s current subscriber base. “And we’re also doubling the Kardashians in monthly growth.” Team members, many wearing Team 10 hoodies and T-shirts, erupted in applause.

When I was a kid in Wildwood, I didn’t have a sense of that sort of scoreboard. I counted dead jellyfish in the sand. I watched clusters of older kids walking past the T-shirt shops, laughing and yelling. If they come for me, I wondered, would I be able to get away?