Guff goes around about the future of show business, namely: The democratic Web video will displace the monarchs of the TV networks and film studios. Some apostles of the digital age point to the fact that anyone with a camera and a high-speed connection can distribute a piece of entertainment to be consumed by millions, and they prophesy that the corporate showbiz establishment as we know it, with its crummy sitcoms and wooden movies, will wither. Others foresee home-schooled talent surging forth to compete with the polishing pros, imagining a day when, say, Magibon displaces Miley Cyrus in the world’s heart and frontal lobe. All of that is nonsense, it’s clear, after Saturday’s presentation of YouTube Live —a variety show, a branding event, a minor atrocity.
The “show” spewed fitfully into existence to frame some of YouTube’s flashiest talent as pop-culture champions and idols of mainstream youth culture. If I were in the business of producing crummy sitcoms, I would take it as a signal that the Internet poses no immediate threat and that I could feel secure in the crumminess of my product. But the show drew a decent audience; at its peak, 700,000 viewers watched what a press release promised would be “a celebration of the vibrant communities that exist on the site including bedroom vloggers, budding creatives, underground athletes, world-famous musicians, gut-busting comedians and more.” To some of them, this must have looked as sweet as a pep rally or as spirited, in its somewhat homely way, as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland puttin’ on a show.
It all went down in a venue in San Francisco, warm within the radius of Silicon Valley’s vibe. The opening act was Katy Perry, who now qualifies as a world-famous musician partly because her summer hit “I Kissed a Girl,” that synthetic tribute to recreational lesbianism, has been viewed on YouTube more than 12 million times. “Ladies and gentleman, it’s time to turn off your televisions and turn your computers on,” she said at the start of the show. Got-up like a Varga girl, she took a roundabout route to the stage, pausing to flirt with representatives of the vibrant communities. These included black-helmeted Chad Vader, the protagonist of a comedic Web series about Darth’s supermarket-manager younger brother, and the “Free Hugs” guy, a hippie long-hair who has even made it to Oprah’s set with an act about bringing kindness to strangers. (You can click here to delve into the Free Hugs oeuvre. The clips are safe for work, though perhaps not for diabetics.) This prologue, with the YouTubers fixed in a tableau fit for an awards show at a second-tier music-video channel, set the tone for the evening. Grass-roots hustlers met glossy spectacle and arrived at the definition of mundane.
You had to admire each of the amateurs for putting on a smile, giving it a shot, sallying forth in the name of greater fame. Those with clear skills—such as Funtwo, the virtuoso guitarist who plays a metal version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and who here played alongside Joe Satriani—radiated the charge of ingénues bursting onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. Those lacking skills—a “vlog squad” of unaccountably popular video bloggers, four persons pressed into service as a supergroup of shtick and snark—warmed themselves in the crowd’s gaze. No, the embarrassment was all on the viewer’s end. YouTube Live took a broad sample of cultural detritus and shaped it into an awkward monument to populist entertainment and popular triviality.