My heart went out to Russell Brand this week. It returned soon enough, feeling slightly dirty and ashamed of itself. But I understood why it happened, so forgiveness was swift. The ties that bind Russell and I are slight (some might even say non-existent), apart from the surface commonality that neither of our recent films did very well commercially, and our second beach houses in Malibu are beginning to look like extravagances. But there’s one thing that unites all writers, and indeed all artists, wannabe or otherwise, in an empathy gestalt: the terror of being “pwned”. Of having your craft, style or MO so devastatingly caricatured and demystified that it’s impossible for anyone to take you seriously ever again.
So the Parklife viral catastrophe that befell Russell this week had me wincing for him, despite his fame, wealth and baseload power-generating braggadocio. Because with a single, devastating 140 character tweet, originally intended for his modest band of followers, anonymous e-commerce enthusiast Dan Barker delivered a hammer blow to brand Brand more powerful than a thousand snotty Daily Mail editorials:
“Russell Brand’s writing feels like someone is about to shout “PARKLIFE!” at the end of every sentence,” Barker tweeted, in reference to Blur’s eponymous 1994 Britpop hit, and its cockney ramble-ogue verses. He then adduced this particularly tortured passage from Brand’s latest book, Revolution:
“This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.”
The tweet went viral at light speed, so mordant a skewering was it of Brand’s trademark verbosity. Within hours, the star’s twitter feed was inundated with people digitally shouting “PARKLIFE!” at him, to the extent that Brand was soon forced to fire back with his own defensive parody video. But Barker’s coup de foudre had once again proven the millenial maxim that internet mockery is a fate far worse than critical death.
Brand’s Revolution – a confused, inchoate manifesto calling for the overthrow of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy in favour of a superior, utopian system yet to be devised by its author – has received a nuclear panning from the mainstream press. The Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan memorably described it as “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism”, peppered with factual errors and “simple ideas brutally assaulted by a thesaurus.” Over 300-odd pages, the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Despicable Me 2 naively lionises Castro and Guevara, misquotes G.K. Chesterton and demonstrates a “Wikipedia understanding” of Orwell, Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, all in the service of an unreadable, unfunny harangue about the state of the modern world.
The book is unquestionably shit. However the critical firestorm that’s engulfed it has as much to do with the eternal resilience of the English class system as the poor quality of Brand’s prose. Brand first came to prominence as a comedian in Britain not because his material was devastatingly witty or piercingly original, but because of his caste. In addition to his well-publicised formative years as a heroin addict, he first announced himself to a mass audience as a prolix Cockney, capable of using big words in complete sentences, a feat still unconsciously viewed by many Brits as akin to a dog walking on its hind legs in a crop top. Even in 2014, an accent like Brand’s is still a powerful signifier of a lack of education and sophistication, both in Britain and, via cultural osmosis, the rest of the Anglosphere. Its cadences still make us reflexively think of Alf Garnett, Del Boy and David Beckham, London cab drivers and Dickensian street urchins. There are, of course, exceptions to the generalisation I’m about to make, but you don’t hear too many public thinkers holding forth on, say, the limitations of Lacanian post-structuralism, or the late works of Gauguin, in a broad South London accent. Thus, Brand is forever cramming as many polysyllabic words as he can into a sentence, both in print and performance, in a desperate bid to transcend the enduring stigma of his accent and background. It’s true that Brand’s writing and speech are also littered with self-conscious Thames Estuary idioms, rhyming slang and references to his love of football and chip shops, but these are overt acts of self-tethering to a working class identity. He implicitly understands that he must still play the Cheeky Chappie, if he wants permission, both from those above and those of his stratum, to reach for anything more sophisticated.
All of which is a bit of a shame really. Because for all of his literary and intellectual shortcomings, Brand is attempting to articulate the malaise of our times, and giving garbled voice to the frustrations of the majority. His rants about corporate welfare, political duplicity and underclass exploitation, whilst supported by an intellectual framework about as sturdy as a Fantastic Furniture settee, are the sort of thing progressive voters are crying out to hear from centre-left parties everywhere. But after a brief, lambent flickering across the political mainstream courtesy of the Occupy movement, these issues have once again retreated to the bosom of the leftist commentariat, and are no longer something that politicians feel compelled to address directly. Good luck getting an Australian politician, for instance, to make corporate tax avoidance a central plank of any upcoming election campaign. So it’s now left to impassioned clowns like Brand, armed with a few McNuggets of political science and a celebrity megaphone, to try and reset the agenda. As Mark Steel wrote in The Independent recently:
“The most effective complaint about Brand’s call to arms is that it’s confused. Of course it is, it’s all over the place. “He poses only questions but has no solutions,” it’s claimed. Which is also true, but in a world in which it’s accepted by all major parties that banks and giant corporations and vast inequality are inevitable and can’t be curtailed, the most radical act can be to ask why.”
Indeed, you have to be grudgingly impressed by Brand’s willingness to even seriously associate himself with the word “revolution” in these politically tranquilised times. Because despite our knowledge of the toxic, venal links between corporate interests and their political handmaidens, of the growing chasm between the lives of the One Percent Tsars and the vast mass of serfdom beneath them, and the Orwellian horrors being perpetrated by governments on a daily basis against their own citizens (thanks largely to a few genuine subversives like Assange and Snowden), calling for a “paradigmatic shift” will still get you a seat in the crazy corner. The idea that poorly functioning economic and political systems can and should undergo revolutionary change, for the betterment of the many, has over the last 30-odd years been carefully assigned by the dominant neo-liberal orthodoxy to the playpen of public discourse. Only a backward child, a junkie comedian or worse, The Greens, it’s now supposed, could seriously entertain the notion that social and political change can be anything other than glacially incremental and painfully compromised. “Just look at that Obama guy and how well his ‘Change You Can Believe In’ stuff worked out…” But why should we feel so complacent about the idea of revolution, when history tells us that these are high fire danger conditions, and there’s plenty of tinder-dry fuel lying around?
Watching something like Town Bloody Hall, DA Pennebaker’s 1971 film of the public debate between legendary literary chauvinist Norman Mailer and a panel of heavyweight feminist thinkers (most notably a young Germaine Greer), it’s still possible to glimpse what the last genuinely revolutionary era felt like – an era that scared the bejesus out of conservatives, big business and the military-industrial complex. The 1960s and ‘70s were a time when truly dangerous ideas were in the air, water and soil, and didn’t need to be curated into a ticketed “festival”. This febrile, incendiary spirit is cellared beautifully in Pennebaker’s film, as we watch not only Greer, but a crowd full of big minds (e.g. Susan Sontag) rip into one of the great American reactionaries over his unreconstructed views on women. As Mark Holcomb of the Village Voice wrote at the time of its re-release:
“Mailer backpedals and obfuscates like a madman, but what finally makes Town Bloody Hall so compelling and unsettling is the impression that such serious, spirited debate is a thing of the past.”
Watching the film, you get the sense that tectonic plates are shifting before your eyes, and that Mailer is attempting to stem an un-stemmable tide of social history with his own, negligible manhood (although looking at the withered view of modern feminism espoused today by the Julie Bishops of the world, you wonder why he bothered). One doesn’t get quite the same sense of profound communion with the zeitgeist from watching Russell Brand’s 2013 Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, but comparing the two does strike me as a sad commentary on our distinctly un-revolutionary times. Paxman, the Oxbridge totem, accuses Brand of wanting “a revolution”, simply because of his naïve call for people to stop voting, thereby ending their “complicity” with a failed system. And despite lacking a coherent ideology from which to mould his new utopia (beyond a few Green Left Weekly talking points), Brand nevertheless counters that today’s working poor endure living conditions equivalent to those faced by Paxman’s own grandparents, a fact Paxman had himself become emotional about when featured in a recent reality TV program.
Much like the farmer in the McCain “Super Juicy” corn advert (“Marge! Marge! The rains are out!”) I too get the sense we are living in a liminal historical moment, prior to a storm. Apart from anything else, we are too volatile a species to go without some sort of revolution for much longer, whether it be social, cultural or political. Russell Brand is a reedy, prolix voice for the partially informed and totally disengaged – a significant voting (or non-voting) bloc, if the polling data is to be believed. When challenged by establishment figures like Paxman, or even his own publisher, the mouthy comedian has, unsurprisingly, failed to articulate an alternative vision to replace the iniquities of the present. But does that mean we can dismiss his agitated “revolutionary” yappings altogether? Can we really say he’s not in touch with a certain spirit of the times?
Bill Maher recently labelled millenials “Generation Ass”, in an entertaining rant that decried our culture’s obsession with youth (and Kim Kardashian’s ass) at the expense of age and wisdom. For better or worse, Brand can be seen as the political spokesperson for Generation Ass. He can just about identify the overarching problem, and convey the dot points to those with TMZ in their bookmarks. But having pressed the fire alarm, he has no coherent strategy for getting anyone out of the burning building. And the fact that he’s the closest thing we have to a revolutionary public discourse right now is pretty fucking depressing.