Trying to describe my job, also, TMZ and celebrity tabloid trash culture (transcript)

Published May 21, 2016

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Hey you. How’s it going? How you doing? Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you. Well, I’ve been waiting for you, I can’t speak for everyone else. But the place isn’t the same without you. The place is THIS IS NOT A TEST, of course, and I’m Michael Phillips, the landlord. “Landlord” is such a funny old term. Behold the landlord! He cometh to reign down terror and pestilence on his filthy tenants! But really that’s not too far off from most landlord/tenant relationships, is it. We might not fear them, but we don’t exactly like them. I mean, yeah, again, I can’t speak for everyone. But I’ve had some crazy landlords. Still do, but keep that between you and me.

Even the office where I work, we’ve been there for almost nine years and now we’re moving because the landlord is crazy and won’t provide air conditioning to a certain room that we need during certain hours. So over that easily solved problem we’re moving an office of 30 people to a new building. Seems unnecessary, but there you go. This move is going to be easy for me though, I’m just going to watch. When we moved in to the building we’re in now I was in charge of the move – and new office construction, furniture, fixtures, everything. Don’t want to do that again. They say moving is one of the most stressful things people can do, and I don’t disagree with that. Even if it’s just an office that you’re being paid to care about but don’t really care about. So I’m glad it’s someone else’s stress this time. We’re moving in to the building where they make cameras for the Mars rover, so that’s pretty cool. I guess. I don’t know, are those people a lot of laughs? Hmm, maybe not. I know there’s a lot of security around the building because of what they do, so that won’t be any fun.

Fascinating, I know, my job and office and working and moving, blah, blah, blah. But we all have jobs. Or most of us have jobs, so most of us have to deal with a big part of our lives being dictated and shaped and sometimes crushed and killed by those jobs. Have I ever talked about my job here? Like, what I actually do? I don’t remember, but I don’t think so. It’s not terribly exciting, though in the scheme of things, most other jobs I’ve had have been worse. But it’s kind of ridiculous and crazy at the moment, and not because of the move. What I’m doing at work these days probably needs to be studied and dissected so something can be done about it. So no one else ever has to go through it. What is it? A website. A really dumb and boring website for a company. No big deal, right? Yeah, usually. I’m building the thing from scratch, but taking all the contents from an old site. A site that’s been up and running for 13 years. If you do anything with the guts of websites, the structure, the bones, you probably know what rejuvenating a 13 year old website is like.

Aside from the primitive, crappy nature of the thing, it’s been added to constantly over the course of those 13 years. Just hundreds and hundreds of pages, tacked on after the fact and none of it makes a god damned bit of sense. The other day the thing that was driving me crazy about it was opening a couple hundred files, or pages, removing five lines from each one, then saving and closing them again. The repetition and tedium just about melted me out of my chair. Halfway through I started to hallucinate and have an out of body experience where I traveled to a nail spa in the Arctic Circle and they moisturized my hands with baby seal blubber. Not really, but I thought that sounded cool. You know, except for the baby seal clubbing bit. Well, we assume it was clubbed, maybe they can get the blubber without killing it. You know, using technology and science. Um hm. Even worse than the repetitive tedium was the fact that I’d added those lines I was removing to every one of those pages myself. It’s boring even to talk about it and try to describe it, so you can imagine how boring it is to do it. And these are marketing people who have built and maintained the site over the years, so it relates more to search engines than it does humans. I keep saying, “Remember, we’re selling to people. Google doesn’t buy anything from us.” And they go, “Yeah, yeah, for sure,” and continue to stuff more alienating, non-human bullshit into the mix.

Here’s the thing about websites, kids – they might look simple, but sometimes there is a mountain of crap under that simplicity, and you have to wrestle that crap to make it into something less crap-like. Like this thing I’ve been working on for the job, the guy who built and maintained it keeps saying, “Just dump the text into the new site, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Let’s just get it done.” But you know, I spent a lot of time and effort making the framework for the new site. I took something awe-inspiringly horrible, just mind-numbingly awful and impossible to use and made it inviting and easy to use. So if I craft a lovely box for you, if I spend time making something nice for you, I’m not going to turn around and fill it with shit, just so you can cross it your their list of things to get done. And trust me, my gremlins, I will rejoice when I cross that fucker off my list. But I won’t do something shitty just to get it done, I can’t. So for every page I copy over to the new version of the site I’m fixing bad grammar, misspellings, out of date information and code, crappy images – because what’s the point of doing it if you’re not going to do it right? What’s the point of doing anything if you’re not going to do it right.

I’ve been chipping away at this fucker for months, not that it’s a 6 or 9 or 12 month job, but my job isn’t actually website development or building. That’s not what I’m supposed to do there, so I have to fit it in among a hundred other things. When you’re doing work on a site like that, or any kind of programming or semi-technical kind of work, you get into kind of a mental groove. You get into a groove with a lot of things, but there’s something about working on the nuts and bolts of web things, or writing code of any kind, something about that zones you into a specific frame of mind and if you get broken out of that zone it takes you 20 minutes to get back in to it when you return later. So just to make the task more ridiculous, I’m doing something that should really be done in 4 to 6 hour stretches and doing it in 45 minute stretches, then I’m interrupted like Cinderella when the clock strikes midnight to do something else until I can get back to the site, usually the next day.

One of the owners said the other day, “Why is the site taking so long? It seems like an easy job.” And I said it would be an easy job. For a web developer. For someone who came in, sat down and just worked on the site all day every day, but that guy ain’t me, you dig? And he does understand that, he’s a technical guy himself, but he still laughs every time I give a site update in one of the 500 meetings I’m in every week, meetings that keep me from working on the site. “Ha, that site, still working on it? When will it be ready, in 2018?” He’s a funny guy, I tell ya. Of course he gets to concentrate on what he’s doing without a lot of interruptions, so to him it seems ridiculous. And it seems ridiculous to me too, so I understand. I feel ridiculous in all those meetings, saying, “Still working on the site.” Then I go into my office, close the door and cry softly. Well, maybe I don’t cry. It’s nothing to cry about, after all. I’m still glad every day that I have a job. That always seems like a miracle to me.

So my job, yes. Ostensibly I started this with the aim of telling you what I do every day. Hmm, how do I do that? How do I draw you in to the exciting world that is my work life. It’s hard to even say what it is. My title – because in business you have to have a title, it defines you – is Director of Communications. That’s a specific kind of job, and when you say it to people in business they have an idea of what it is. But I don’t work in a normal business, it’s Internet, web site hosting, so what might mean one thing at an insurance company means something else in my world. And if I say “Communications Director” to most people who don’t work for insurance companies, they just say, “What’s that?” and I say, “I have no idea.” The title is one thing, but it doesn’t have much to do with what I really do. What I really do is pretty formless and freestyle – I kind of created the position for myself, so I shouldn’t complain about any part of it.

What’s really funny is that I’ve been working with these guys for 10 years now, and when I was meeting with them before I joined the company I said, “The first thing you have to do is fix that website…” That was 10 years ago, and it’s only getting fixed now. And only because I said, “Argh, okay, I’ll do it.” It’s a great job though, normally. In one of the meetings I had with the owners 10 years ago, before they hired me, one of them said, “Well, I don’t really have anything for you to do right now, but I want you to come work with us anyway.” Now, if you have to have a job, and most of us do, that’s a pretty sweet way to go into one. So I’ve done a lot of things there, and I’m pretty sure it all goes back to that punk rock ethos. That kind of, “Sure, I can do that,” attitude, even when you’re looking at something you’ve never done before, and you’re pretty sure you can’t do it. But hey man, somebody knows how to do it. If somebody else can do it, so can I. Right? Well, most of the time.

Or maybe that’s just magical thinking. Isn’t it funny that we encourage kids to engage in magical thinking, we read them fables and fairy tales and let them think that they really can fly, if only they meet the right talking goat. Then at some point the world looks down at them and says, “That was all bullshit, kid. Get a job.” Anyway, what I do mainly is write. When I’m not redesigning websites, anyway. I write. Blog posts, emails, press releases, social media, knowledge base stuff. That’s kind of my specialty, explaining technical things in an understandable way. So there, that’s the best description of my job. Explaining technical things in an understandable way. You might not think that’s much of a skill, but trust me, it’s a rare and valuable skill. Like, unicorn rare. Most people who work in tech and have to write instructions or just communicate with the humans who use it are terrible at communicating ideas. So there you go. I guess that still wasn’t much of an explanation, but it’s all I’ve got for you. It didn’t turn out like I’d hoped it would, my explanation, but then few things do.

On a completely unrelated note, I was standing in line at the drug store a few days ago minding my own business, waiting to pay for whatever the hell I was buying and I glanced up and saw the NATIONAL ENQUIRER and there were what looked like security camera pictures of Prince collapsing in the Paisley Park elevator. The headline was screaming something about AIDS which the ENQUIRER has been screaming ever since Prince died. Which makes sense because the ENQUIRER thinks everyone has AIDS and they’re all hiding the fact and slowly dying, just waiting for the ENQUIRER to tell the truth about the situation. The truth, yes, what is the truth, we must know, mustn’t we. We must know every detail, the more ugly the better. We are creepy back alley vultures who feast on blood and shit and we’re always hungry for more. Ask Harvey what’s-his-name at TMZ. Ask that rat king, that king vulture, that ambulance-chasing, big-gulp-sucking piece of shit. Well, Harvey only runs the abattoir that is TMZ, it’s actually owned by Time Warner. Or what used to be AOL/Time Warner. Not too surprising that AOL was the incubator for it, the originator of it. Speaking of shit.

The pictures of the cover of the ENQUIRER weren’t even real, no one at Paisley Park has been vile enough to leak anything like that. Yet. Though they probably do have the footage. I don’t know what it was about those pictures that got to me – they were just too personal, you know, if they’d been real. I don’t want to see Prince collapsing and dying in a god damned elevator. I don’t want to see anyone dying anywhere. Some Jamaicans leaked pictures of Peter Tosh’s lifeless body in the hospital after he’d been murdered, and I just don’t need to see that. It’s undignified. Not for me to look at, though it is undignified to look, but more for the dead or injured person. Really, why would you strip away someone’s dignity at their lowest point, or in their last moments? Everything about the bloodlust we have and the strange obsession with celebrity is unnatural and undignified. Shitholes like TMZ are possible because of the lowest parasitic creeps on the totem pole of celebrity worship, the paparazzi. They used to lurk around in bushes with telephoto lenses, now they carry tiny video cameras and accost people at every moment of every day.

For what it’s worth, the paparazzi used to be a kind of dedicated subculture of heartless twats who were – underneath the thick layers of contemptability – photographers, even photo journalists. They went to the dark side because the dark side paid better and they had no scruples or souls, but underneath it all they were photographers. Now “paparazzi” are just kids with no shame who run around Los Angeles with video cameras, asking famous or semi, semi, hardly-famous people embarrassing questions. For which we have Howard Stern to blame. Howard Stern? Yes. Howard Stern is a radio guy, or was a radio guy – he went to satellite radio years ago and basically disappeared, but he was probably the most famous radio guy in the world for a while there in the 1990s. And he was funny and a great interviewer, probably one of the greatest interviewers I’ve ever seen. But he was also a comedian, and one of the “bits” that was part of his radio show was sending a young guy who stuttered very badly out to events to ask celebrities embarrassing questions.

It was hilarious because it was brash and unprecedented. No one back then dared to ask the mighty celebrities any question that could possibly make them feel even slightly ill at ease. But Stern sent out a long haired stutterer in a leather jacket to do just that, armed with questions that they had written to be funny, not just intrusive or awkward. It usually resulted in chaos and it created some really great moments, and some horribly uncomfortable and even dangerous moments. It was really as much performance art as it was entertainment or comedy, and it was, ultimately, a blatant showing of disregard, or even contempt, for what we’ve built up as celebrity. But like a lot of things that start out great, eventually other people started to do it, and they did it without the finesse or intention of the originators, so what you got was just ugliness with no subtext of humor or subtext of anything but lowest common denominator viciousness. And now the army of idiots out there asking the Kardashians about their asses or drug use or whatever are what we ended up with. But what made the Stuttering John interviews so fascinating and funny to me is probably not that different from what people like about the new “paparazzi” videos. This new stuff is just lacking any humor or irony or creativity.

It’s all so dull and stupid and awful, since the best video footage they can get is of people who have suffered something, a tragedy, a public embarrassment, car wreck, being thrown out of a club for being too drunk – their worst moments. Those awful moments are paparazzi gold, and those are what they get paid the most for. But those opportunities are limited, so what they have to do to take up the slack is create thousands of hours of filler crap, just random questions fired off at someone because they happened to see them somewhere. Then Mr. Harvey TMZ and his crew of halfwits put them up on websites and television shows and comment on them and laugh and insult and behave like the morons they are, in what’s, I guess, supposed to appear to be detached and ironic, but is really just frat house idiocy. Pointing and laughing, exposing the flaws of the quasi, semi-famous. Those are the meat and potatoes for shit buckets like TMZ: the reality TV people, the celebutantes, the models, the Z-list actors. That’s what 99% of it is. Just the perpetuation of a bogus “stardom” that’s as empty as Harvey’s head.

They rely on that because really big stars don’t get into enough publicly embarrassing situations, so if they had to rely on “reporting” on people who were really legitimately famous, they’d all starve. The really famous types can usually avoid the little video camera leeches and microphone-gripping dust mites blowing down every dusty sidewalk in Los Angeles. But it was those really famous people who started all of this after all. It all goes back to the ENQUIRER and Entertainment Tonight. Remember Entertainment Tonight? 30 minutes of infotainment fluff every weeknight. Little more than a PR tool for movie and TV studios and record companies. That’s what it started as anyway, but they eventually realized what the scum of today knows, and that is the negative stuff gets a lot more attention than regular, dull promotional interviews that never go off script. For as wildly ridiculous as the ENQUIRER is, you know where they used to get most of their stories – and maybe still do for all I know? From the celebrities themselves.

I saw that first hand back in the 90s, really big movie stars having their staff call the ENQUIRER or one of the other magazines with a story. Leaking their own shady activities to the magazines or TV shows through nameless “insiders” who are employed by them. It was weird, but it only goes to prove that it doesn’t matter what they say about you, as long as they are constantly saying your name. I mean I’m talking about the kind of stuff you’d think someone who was a public figure would work to keep out of the magazines. They were feeding it to them. Remember those pictures of Michael Jackson and his hyperbaric chamber that he supposedly slept in to stay young? Those weren’t smuggled out of a photo lab in an unmarked envelope under someone’s coat, they came from Jackson. He posed for them with the intention of sending them to the ENQUIRER. They were staged and then given to someone who worked for him to “leak” to the tabloids. Then the stars who leaked the stuff would speak out against it, say it was ridiculous, and untrue and just “tabloid journalism.” It was a game both sides were fully aware they were playing.

I’m not sure why we turn people into celebrities, why we have such a thing as celebrity. It has to be human nature, because it happens everywhere, in every country and every society. We like to hear about people who live a seemingly charmed life that we all think is awesome but we know we’ll never live. It’s vicarious kicks, and since we know it’s out of reach to us we take perverse pleasure in hearing when those people suffer or fail. We build them up and knock them down. That perverse pleasure is just jealousy. But do we really need to be jealous of someone like Michael Jackson? Celebrities are just jerk-offs like you and me. All of them. They’re just as fucked up as you are, and they have just as many worries and problems and insecurities – probably way more insecurities than you’ll ever have. The only problem you have that they usually don’t is worrying where the rent is coming from. Other than that, you probably wouldn’t want to trade places with any of them. For sure not now with those TMZ worms waiting outside your door every time you go to the drug store or the podiatrist or your shaman accupressurist. What a drag that has to be. Wading through those poisonous toads.

I read something the other day that some clueless music business imbecile said about Prince “hating elevators,” or being afraid of elevators because of something he said to him about “the elevator.” But the lyric, what he was saying, was “de-elevator.” d e hyphen…like deconstruction, decomposition – de-elevator. Not “the elevator.” It’s from the song Let’s Go Crazy, and people asked Prince what the hell the song meant and he said, “Well, the de-elevator is Satan…” And they were like, “What?” But if your god can elevate you, if your god is an elevator, then it stands to reason that your god’s foe, Satan, is a de-elevator. I mean it stands to reason in song lyrics. Nothing about god or Satan stands to reason outside of song lyrics or religion, because they’re simplistic, laughable concepts, but you know, misheard lyrics are the root of a lot of ignorance and hilarity really, and people hearing de-elevator as “the elevator” is just one of thousands of examples of that. Hey, Prince is singing about elevators! That they’re evil! He hates elevators! What a nut! Whoa, but then he died in an elevator…spooky! He predicted that!” Oh man.

But here we all are, waiting for more news about how he died, what happened exactly, what were those final hours, final moments like. I don’t want to know any of that. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me if he was a percocet addict or a Chipotle addict or worshipped green tea or was a god damned Jehovah’s Witness. None of that matters. If you told me he drugged women to get them into bed or gave children wine to get them into bed or screwed his daughter or ran a cockfighting ring I might feel differently. You have to separate the art from the artist, but some things are hard to separate or forgive or even comprehend. But as far as I know, Prince wasn’t up to anything that hurt anyone else, and that should be that. What he did or didn’t do to himself is none of my business. And it shouldn’t be anyone’s business, should it?

Sometimes I start talking about something here and it feels like I’ve been talking for 10 minutes but I look down at the recorder and it’s 40 minutes, 45 minutes. Today is not one of those days. Ha. I feel like I’ve been talking for an hour and it’s only been…how ever many minutes have passed. I can’t see the screen on my recorder right now. Sometimes things flow, you know baby, and all the brain synapses are firing and you sound like you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes it isn’t quite like that. But it’s like anything else, isn’t it. It can’t always be gallons of red wine and chocolate cake while Japanese fish nibble the dead skin off your feet. Sometimes it’s crackers and peanut butter, or those god damned ramen noodles that you boil and sprinkle the little MSG packet onto. Sometimes it’s just sand in your teeth and a dog barking off in the distance at something neither one of you can see.

But we carry on, don’t we. Most of us. Most of the time. So let’s do that. Let’s carry on. There’s always the next hill to climb. Might as well get started, eh? Eh? What’s that you say? Keep it real brothers and sisters, and come back next time for more of whatever this is. I’ll be here. TMZ won’t be here. Unless they’re serving me legal papers for insulting Harvey the lawyer. But really, is “ambulance-chasing, big-gulp-sucking piece of shit” an insult? When you’re talking about lawyers it’s almost a compliment. Okay, well, assuming there’s no gag order or injunction, see you next time.