Bread and Circuses in the Age of Social Media: Interview with Matt James
OVERSATURATED is a 6-part interview series by independent filmmaker, Ashley Good.
Through a series of interviews with individuals in front of, chasing, or inspired by the limelight, OVERSATURATED will explore a ménage of topics including: self-commodification, the chicken and the egg situation of the teenagers influencing celebrity culture and celebrity culture impacting teenagers, and the use of celebrity stories as a political distraction.
New interviews will be released once a week until the series is complete. Please sign up here to be notified when each part is released.
Matt James was absolutely fascinating to speak with. The creator of the successful blog, PopCultureDiedin2009.com, Matt has a unique insight into celebrity culture because he grew up consuming all forms of pop culture media. He, as of this interview, is a 19 wunderkind (Matt launched Pop Culture Died in 2009 at the age of 14) that deeply understands social and political trends, as he has been absorbing and studying this celebrity world before most of us could probably even reach the tabloids at the grocery store.
This interview does not require much preamble, because Matt does a brilliant job of exploring several topics, including the use of celebrity nostalgia as a distraction, and why he feels that society should not brush off the Kardashian-Jenner family as harmless entertainment.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Did you really start the blog as a way to defend Amanda Bynes?
I started [PopCultureDiedin2009.com] in the fall of 2013. And originally, it wasn’t even about what it ended up being about. … At that particular moment I was thinking about the tabloid culture I grew up seeing, I was thinking about the celebrities that I would see on TV and in the magazines and on the news and it was so wild, you know. That was my childhood pretty much … I was just watching reality TV and watching celebrities have melt downs in real time. It happened at the era of people like Pamela Anderson, Michael Jackson, and Britney, and Tom and Katie, and all of these celebrities that were constantly being made fun of and ripped apart — some for good reasons — others, God bless them — I still feel bad for Britney to this day. But that was the moment.
Everything about that era was basically seeing how far you could go, how far these celebrities would go before somebody actually would step in. And most of the time no one stepped in, we just watched them fall further and further and further and kept filming and kept laughing. It was all about gawking.
What roles do you feel blogs like Perez Hilton had in shaping in the 2000s? If at all?
I mean, yes, he (Perez) started out as an outsider but then he found himself ingrained in the circle of people he was writing about … he would hang out with Paris, he would hang out with Lindsay, and he would be sort of the messenger for all of the shit that they were saying about each other. So with him, it was a little different. He was a bit of a shitster. Can’t lie it was entertaining, but he was always sort of his own thing. He was sort of a brand himself. With something like D Listed or Pink is the New Blog or any of those other sites, they were just observers. They were watching, they were commenting. I really don’t think they necessarily had an impact, but I’m sure just their existence and all of these gossip blogs popping up at the time did contribute to the demand for more paparazzi photos and more of this and more of that and more celebrity content.
But in all areas of media at the time, that is where the demand was. Whether it be in the magazines or it on TV in actual news media, since they were pushing for more of these stories, legitimate news networks. Look at 2007 alone [and] the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith and [her] death, the paternity battle, Paris Hilton going to jail. All of it. It was just blown up by these “respected networks.” So I think the demand was everywhere.
Do you think that the bloggers commentary might have influenced society today and that’s why we are at that point where everyone thinks that their opinion matters?
I mean, you could certainly make that argument. I think with Perez in particular, I think that he… It’s like a chicken and the egg situation. You don’t know what came first, people wanting to say awful things about celebrities on the internet, or you know a particular person that made his entire brand off of it. I wouldn’t say that [Perez] really led the charge, I would just say that he became the face of it and he had no problem with that. Because it paid back then to be snarky and an asshole.
I still remember all of the drawings he did of all of the women with coke and semen on their faces, it was so terrible and everyone just ate it up.
Yeah, but look at every single site around that time. You look at the comments and they were absolutely ruthless, they were just awful. I mean Perez certainly wasn’t responsible for that. I think if anything he helped encourage it, but that was the trend.
He was fulfilling a need that was out there…
There were so many other people like him, like Nik Richie at The Dirty.
What do you feel your blog’s role is in our current landscape?
I honestly don’t even think it has a role. I am always surprised when people reach out to me to say that they read it. I am honestly stunned that people even visit it to begin with, so if anything… It’s tough.
I don’t really know the role I have ever played in the celebrity landscape in the last several years because I am viewed different depending on which platform you are familiar with me from. People that look at my Instagram assume that I am one of those dumb meme accounts that posts stupid pictures and there are like thousands of those, you know? And people who are familiar with me through Twitter, I honestly have no idea what they think my account is about. But people that follow the blog and have followed it for years obviously know it’s, in my head, in my little world, I would like to say it’s a bit more introspective. It’s a bit more of an insightful look into celebrity culture in general. Not just of the 2000s but even today.
I think you are way too modest. … I love the article that you wrote where you warned your audience not to laugh at the Kardashians political aspirations.
At the beginning of the summer in 2017, I was starting to write a piece since I was guessing at that point that the Kardashians were going to go into politics. And I assumed so because they had completely fallen off and become irrelevant since Trump was elected. I mean think about the last big story they had. It was Kim’s Paris robbery, and that was right before the 2016 election. … After that they were completely over shadowed and have become so irrelevant.
I mean, if you follow them (the Kardashian/Jenner family) on social media, you think they’re still everywhere, but if you don’t make a conscious effort to follow celebrities, it’s so easy to forget that they exist most of the time. It was really easy to forget until Kanye decided to go, you know, full out with his Trump support. And then the rest of the family started to follow suit. … I mean, it’s tough, since a lot of people assume that they are liberal. And I mean, no matter what you think, anybody with that much money is not as liberal as you want them to be. Since once you reach a certain level of wealth, a certain level of privilege, it doesn’t matter if you stick a D or an R next to your name, at the end of the day, none of it really effects you and it is so much easier to close your eyes and turn your head and pretend none of it is happening. …
In this particular era of celebrity, a lot of people like to make celebrities the faces of social movements, they like to hold their celebrities to a particular standard, and they are eager to see if a celebrity is going to proclaim themselves a feminist or eager to hear their comments on this movement or that movement. A lot of people, they look to Kim, because for a lot of years she was the most famous woman in the country, and they were eager to turn her into this, you know, quasi-feminist icon. All about female empowerment, a business woman, all of that. And that wasn’t true at all, since she didn’t have any agency over what she had become, she was just the product of a bunch of men in Hollywood… Harvey Levin, Joe Francis… And so on…
Saying she is a business woman is a huge stretch. It’s like calling Trump a business man, when really Donald Trump as a business man, was a mess, created in part by himself and his own fantasy of being a big player… and also later that image was reinforced by Mark Burnett, by Jeff Zucker, by the people continuing to report on him without really questioning, “Okay is this guy even successful? Does he even have money?” People just stuck with the fact that he called himself a billionaire, kept reporting it, and never even questioned it. You see that same trend with the Kardashians where people continue to talk about them as if they were business people. They continue to talk about them as if they built an empire, as if it wasn’t really just a fluke. Since, let’s face it if Kim Kardashian was this girl from a no named family in middle America, would she have the success that she has had today? Even with Kris Jenner in the equation? No. They’re only as good as the people that surround them, and lucky for the both of them they’re from Beverly Hills.
I mean, you’re surrounded by connections and people in power everywhere so it’s really not hard to make a name for yourself. They’re really only as good as the connections they have. Same with Donald. He never would have gone anywhere in life if it wasn’t for the connections he had simply by being born a Trump.
Expanding on that… Despite the fact that they have fans in both Blue and Red states, why do you think people are so quick to assume that all celebrities are liberal?
That’s something I ask myself, since we constantly hear this terminology “the Hollywood liberal” but Hollywood isn’t that liberal. Let’s face it, sure they’ll endorse a democratic candidate as a bunch of A-listers, but at the end of the day, they really don’t give a shit. …
Look at Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s sort of almost this poster child for this “Hollywood liberal elite,” you know what I mean? A lot of people look to him and they think, because he pretends to care about the environment or whatever his schtick is, he must you know, be this Hollywood liberal. But at the end of the day, he was very very good friends with the Trump family, is very very good friends with the Hilton family, and once Trump got elected, I don’t know if you remember, but who went to Trump tower during the transition to talk about climate change? Leonardo DiCaprio.
These people are not as liberal as everyone wants them to [be]. And the idea that ANYONE in this particular moment in time is insulting Hollywood for being too liberal, when you literally have Donald Trump as the President, that’s ridiculous. He was one of the. He still IS one of them. I mean the things you see him say and the things you say him do are less like Richard Nixon and more like Phil Specter or Robert Blake. He’s a narcissistic washed up out of control celebrity that is spiraling day by day and living with these delusions of grandeur that I haven’t seen since watching Sun Set Boulevard.
It almost sounds like a form of “blue washing.” Celebrities think that they can sell themselves and their movies better if they identify as one political ideology over another.
It’s something I still try to wrap my head around. … I guess it is just wishful thinking for a lot of people. People who are fans of Leonardo DiCaprio and so on, they want them to be everything they want them to be. They want them to be forward thinking and liberal and all of that, but in reality, they don’t give two fucks.
I guess that’s true. I mean, I would be sort of crushed if I found out that Seth Rogen was super conservative or something. He’s Canadian too, but you understand what I mean?
I go in with a very cynical point of view [though]. Where I assume, you know what, even if they are making anti-Trump tweets, who even cares. It doesn’t even really matter, since they are richer than the average person, who, if they want to can make much more of a change and so much more of an impact, but they are only concerned with themselves, so I can’t force myself to respect any of them.
That’s actually a really good point. You have to wonder why society cares so much, especially since we can choose who we pay attention to. Why don’t we just idolize better people?
That’s a terrific point right there. So much of the fact that Donald Trump is president has to do with the fact that we make stupid people famous. Donald Trump is the end result of the era I write about in my blog. He is the end result of the Paris Hilton Era. He is basically, the product of all of those years of insane tabloid culture, with spiraling celebrities and feuds and this and that. This is the result. *Laughs* It’s terrifying, but it’s true.
When did you start noticing the connection between politics and pop culture? I understand that you are quite young, you actually started the blog when you were 13. You seem like you are pretty savvy about this.
Let me think… I’m going to go with 14. … I was always terrific at history in school, terrible at math and science and basically everything else. History was always my calling. Looking back at it, I was always in to US history, European history, and world history in general. I guess that has something to do with it? I mean, I was never really that invested in politics growing up. Mostly because I was super young, what was there to be invested by?
The [one] thing I have super vivid memories of when I was little was — and I’m going to age so many people by saying this — the 2008 election with Sarah Palin, that was the first time I gave a shit, because Sarah Palin was pretty much a celebrity. She was pretty much the Paris Hilton of politics. That’s the moment when I started to care a little, because everyone would talk about these interviews Sarah Palin was doing, you would see the clips on VH1 [of] her giving an interview at a turkey farm while a turkey was being slaughtered in the background. She was a fascinating mess. She pretty much represented this closing to the gap between celebrity and politics. It was inevitable.
[If] you look at the culture around that time, [its] hard news versus soft news. Hard news is politics and the economy and soft news is entertainment and gossip, that withered away slowly over the years. I would say, beginning in the 80s, going into the 90s, you have tabloid TV really taking over the country. They you get into the 2000s and you have CNN doing breaking news reports on Paris Hilton being taken to jail. It was inevitable that celebrity was going to take over politics, because the news media was allowing that to happen, because the news media was so focused on getting viewers and getting rating, so they started reporting more and more on celebrity drama. It was really inevitable that Donald Trump was going to become President if you really look back at it. …
I remember, I think it was Buzz Aldrin being interviewed by FOX News, this was in June 2007 when Paris was in jail and as they were interviewing him, they were playing clips of Paris anyway. They were literally replaying the same clips of her in the back of the sheriffs car, the clips of her crying, they have that on the screen behind them where they were talking to Buzz Aldrin about something completely unrelated. And it [sounds] so ridiculous, but it really explains everything. I think that really foreshadowed everything to me.
I am going to date myself with this, but I remember first really starting to pay attention to politics when Bush got into office — the second Bush, I’m not that old — and I remember the media portraying him as an idiot and making fun of him constantly, but then he won the election against Gore. I remember trying to convince more people my age that you should care about this, like this really messed up, but no one wants to listen to a 13-year-old. That’s why I think it’s so great that you started to pay attention and try to make a difference at such a young age.
Bare with me on this, but I have been thinking about the idea of using celebrity nostalgia in the media to keep people distracted instead of actually listening to young people when they say that bad things are going on now… Does that kind of make sense?
I think… It relates a bit of something that I have been thinking about a lot lately because of [my] book. First, I remember when I was very very little, the only time I would see George W. Bush referenced in the media it was because he did something stupid. He was a laughing stock, and it was widely accepted. I hadn’t met anyone growing up that thought George W. Bush was smart. I just assumed that everyone was on the same page. “This guy’s a fucking moron” you know? [And] look at how people are glossing over that now. They’re really looking back in rose coloured glasses…
It’s wild to see how Trump is covered now. … George W. Bush was, without a doubt, a horrible person, absolutely terrible, but he has put up a somewhat okay front. He still sounded like an idiot, but at least he made an effort. When you see Donald Trump talk he just rambles. It’s literally like watching Anna Nicole Smith except somehow less lucid if that’s possible. *Laughs* … [But] I just feel like he is getting treated way better by the media than George W. Bush [was]. … They talk about him and they say he’s a billionaire real estate mogul who should have no chance to getting into politics or whatever… I pause right there. He was a billionaire real estate mogul? I didn’t get this news flash! Because he’s always been a stupid celebrity, he’s literally the male Paris Hilton but somehow because he wears a suit and tie people think he’s above it? It’s just so weird to me. …
I do think that if you do look at a lot of the reality shows on VH1 in particular, a lot of these shows that were premiering in the wake of 9–11, a lot of the celebrity reality shows, they were all about nostalgia. You had the Surreal Life, you had shows with Donny Bonaduce, and Scott Baio, and Antonio Sabato Jr. and this one, and that one, and all of these figures from the 70s, 80s, and 90s and making comebacks on reality TV — Donald Trump included — so I think maybe there was this ride in nostalgia around that time to sort of — whether it was consciously created by the media or people just wanted to go back to a time when it wasn’t as terrifying.
It’s not even just an American issue. Trump has influenced the political tone all around the world, even in Canada.
He doesn’t think things through. The strategy that Donald Trump uses against the media and the strategies that are now being copied by leaders around the world, they are straight out of the Hollywood playbook. The way he responds to news reports and the people who speak up against him is no different than what people like Michael Jackson would do. You know, Michael Jackson was everywhere saying “It’s a conspiracy.” He would say, “Burn all tabloids,” do this, do that, and would say you can’t believe that is being said about me on TV or in the press or anything. … I think Donald Trump has more in common with him than some dictator that I don’t even think he (Trump) knows the name of.
Do you think that the current political climate would be different if we paid more attention to outlandish celebrities?
In retrospect we should have paid less attention to them, we really should have. Like I bring over and over again, the fact that Paris Hilton going to jail was treated like the biggest news story in the world for a moment in time, that should never have happened to begin with. … Around the time that the Paris jail story happened, was also around the time of the Scooter Libby drama where Bush commuted his sentence. That wasn’t really covered at all. No one really talked about that, it was all about Paris going to jail. … There are a million reasons you could say it was covered to the extent that it was. It really distracted and really prevented the Bush administration from being held accountable for anything, since we were all too distracted by the stupid shit these celebrities were doing.
Moving away from politics a bit… It feels like one of the easiest ways to discredit somebody is to just apply a label to them. So in Hollywood, it feels like everyone sort of falls in an archetypal category, the hero, the heartthrob. Why do you think everyone is so quick to label celebrities and do you think that it’s an accidental or manufactured thing?
I think it’s inevitable, that’s just how the world works. Unless we categorize people, it’s harder for us to process things, you know? It’s natural, it’s instinctive. I think our rushing to call somebody this or that is just human nature.
The basis of this project is that I believe society is too quick to idolize and then throw away those same celebrities. What do you think it says about our culture that we cast aside our idols so quickly? Do you think it is related to consumerism?
Either something is hot or it’s not. That’s just how it works. I think it is also really representative of Hollywood in general. There was an amazing quote that I loved… I think it was the dedication in Hole’s Celebrity Skin album. The dedication said this is “To the stolen waters of Los Angeles and anyone who has ever drowned.” And I LOVED that because it is so true. … It references the Water Wars of Los Angeles and these farmers and these people that have built their livelihood lost everything so that the water could be [used] to create this metropolis…. The City of Angels. Without destruction, Hollywood couldn’t have existed, quite literally.
Then, to think about it metaphorically… Hollywood couldn’t be what it is unless people fell. Unless people didn’t succeed. Unless people didn’t go out there and didn’t see their dreams absolutely crushed. Not everyone can become a star. Not everyone can become famous. That’s just how it works, it’s how the system goes.
Why do you feel “Pop Culture Died in 2009?”
It’s because of social media. I picked 2009, because I felt like that was the year that social media started to become what it is today. You had Twitter becoming what it [is] today … With social media, you could go on someone’s profile and will have a million followers and you will have no idea who they are. They have the blue check mark — they’re verified — and they call themselves a model or an actor or whatever and you’ve never heard of them a day in your life. There are so many of those. Back in the day, if someone was a model or actor, you knew who they were. You all knew the same set of celebrities. But now it’s different because social media create so many different corners on the internet that people can be in, and they [can] idolize and worship people that you have never heard of.
[Social media] has destroyed the uniformity that existed in pop culture — in the 2000s in particular… you would see celebrities [everywhere] and you all knew who they were! You could turn to the person next to you and they would know what happened with Anna Nicole Smith, because there was a specific set of celebrities and that’s how it was. It was a monoculture, pretty much. And everyone was plugged into the same outlets, the same mediums, and the same group of people. That completely disappeared with social media, and I think the only celebrity that truly unites everybody like pop culture used to, is Donald Trump now.
Do you think we are witnessing the demise of the idea of the A List?
I guess so, since it really doesn’t matter any more because of social media. There are like I said, people with millions of followers that you have never heard of a day in your life, yet they have admirers, they have fans, they have people that worship them, and they aren’t even on the D List if you think about it in the grand scheme of things. They are not on any list. To you they don’t even exist. … So I think the traditional idea of the A [and] D List, that’s pretty much irrelevant now.
Do you think we have reached “peak celebrity?”
Yeah, because at this point, everybody is a celebrity. When you are on social media and you’re getting likes and you’re getting followers, in a way you are competing with a legitimate celebrity who is trying to do the same thing. Everybody is competing with each other, [and] everybody is a celebrity is their own head.
I feel like if Andy Warhol was still alive, he’d look at how we are now and he would be like “Wow I didn’t mean it literally, slow down a bit!”
Definitely. *Laughs* I mean, it’s crazy to think this is where we ended up and it’s even crazier to think that it’s going to go further. I mean, just imagine where we’re going to be ten years from now, twenty years from now. It’s just surreal to think about.
President Spencer Pratt?
You know, he was actually considering running for governor of California in 2007. He said if Arnold Schwarzenegger could do it, why couldn’t he? So now at this point, he might as well run for president. I could be his campaign manager. I would be far less sketchy than Paul Manafort. No connections with any oligarchs, I’m good!