In one of his most memorable roles, as the eponymous character of Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp plays a semi-human manboy with shears for fingers, stuck in eternal youth as those around him wither. I thought of this film last week, as I watched a fifty-something Depp, drunk and clad in his usual get-up of randomly placed crosses and scarves, stumble to the microphone at a televised awards show and deliver a slurred “speech” in which he giggled, cursed, rocked, and swayed his way through a painful two minutes. Here was another manboy on display, albeit one lacking the charm and innocence of Burton’s creation.
It was a shame to see Depp, a genuinely talented and by most accounts kind and gentle man, reduce himself to this display. He is well into middle age—not that any age is an appropriate time for public drunkenness. I suspect his career won’t be dented much, if at all, by the episode. This is not just because he is a celebrity. One can’t imagine, say, Morgan Freeman stumbling onto the stage, delivering a gin-soaked introduction, and walking away with his career totally intact. No, it is Depp’s enduring “bad boy” image that affords him the extra latitude. Those crosses and scarves go a long way. If you can set yourself up as some kind of outsider, those on the inside will start to think they’re caged animals and become desperate for your kind of freedom. The bad boy’s appeal comes from nonchalantly scuffing the social rulebook with his cowboy boots and daring us not to like him because of it.
But why is this destructive and often sociopathic behavior so appealing to so many people? I learned yesterday, for instance, that Charles Manson, the 80-year-old psychotic who has been in prison for decades with a swastika etched into his own forehead, is to marry a not-unattractive 26-year-old frequent visitor of his. I really do give up. Like much about human psychology, the what is very easy to ascertain, but the why eludes us. We all know that many people find rebelliousness, and even criminality, attractive. And we all know that the standard reason given is that it’s sexy to break the rules. So we are stuck in a circular argument that tells us that it’s sexy to be rebellious because rebelliousness is sexy. We are still not any closer to understanding why certain criminals are more sexually marketable than the quiet solid-state physicist or the hard-working janitor.
Popularity is never rational. The scientists who discovered recombinant DNA are not well known outside the field of molecular biology; people whose only discernible asset is the breadth of their backsides overtake our screens daily. The United States is brimming with the latter sort—utterly untalented people whose lives are a continuous wreck of drugs, arrests, and scandal. Americans themselves are fed up with this kind of unearned social prestige; you can imagine, then, how foreigners feel about the ubiquity of American pop culture.
If the United States is the land of worthless celebrities, the United Kingdom is the land of worthless intellectuals. These people combine the relentless personality cult of American-style celebrity with a watered-down version of the academy’s vacuous politics. It is becoming increasingly easy to market radical viewpoints to the masses. Ever since race, class, and gender infected Western universities, the quality of all scholarship has dropped. It’s like math without numbers. Pretenders need only memorize a bit of vocabulary and a few stock phrases. Consequently, the boundary between genuine academics and pseudo-intellectuals has been abolished, and the pretenders are free to use the appearance of intellect to win money and social status.
Russell Brand might be considered the culmination of this awful trend. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether it’s his modish views that provoke all the fawning comments and overexposure, or whether it’s the alleged sexiness that accounts for the interest in his opinions. I’m prepared to say it’s both. What I know for certain is that I cannot watch or read the British media these days without seeing Brand’s gaunt visage staring at me.
I am told that Brand is a “comedian,” though he is granted lots of time on otherwise sober platforms, such as political debate programs. I can’t understand why. What could possibly be appealing about an ex-drug addict with the worldview of Daniel Ortega and the fashion sense of a Dumpster diver? (Like Depp, Brand prefers a wardrobe that blends pirate, shaman, and Sandinista.) It is very easy to find articles in the British tabloids about Brand’s many sexual conquests. One learns quickly that Brand is considered, at least by the people writing these articles, to be a “sex symbol.” In fact, he was once treated for “sex addiction,” a very postmodern affliction.
In his television appearances, Brand usually harps about “inequality,” though the multimillionaire’s own contribution to the Gini coefficient is considerably larger than that of the average person. On his website, Brand sells t-shirts of himself with his face staring into the ether, in the style of Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara. The site also features videos of Brand giving mini-lectures on things like water taxes in Ireland. In these videos, Brand is usually half-naked, wrapped in towels or robes, lying in repose on sofas and beds, or otherwise slouching in some BBC studio. Like all pretend intellectuals, Brand has “written” a “book” proclaiming his vision for us reactionaries. Either he or his publishers chose the title Revolution, with the “evol” highlighted—I’m sure that‘s never been done before—so we are assured that this future will be full of love, just like Uncle Che.
Brand’s identification with Che should tell you everything. Che is the ultimate bad-boy intellectual. His face appears on city walls whenever some young people want to burn something down, no matter the cause or the continent. It’s worth noting that he was dead by age 39, having been executed in Bolivia, as all pseudo-intellectuals should be. Many bad boys don’t last very long, you will have noticed. James Dean died at 24, crashing his Porsche while racing on a California road. Elvis Presley went at 42, his bloated body full of Quaaludes and codeine. Bad boys either make bad men or dead men. It’s time to obsess over something else.