Yes, It’s About Miley Cyrus…Sort of.

This is the face of a liar

Keeping true to my fashionable self, I’ve arrived late to the party. A brief recap for those who have been living on Mars, or who are too concerned with other more important things (but we’ll get to that): Miley Cyrus has been getting progressively provocative in the past year, culminating (so far) in a performance at this week’s MTV Video Music Awards that has touched off a firestorm of commentary. The ensuing conversations have touched on a variety of narratives: Miley is out of control, music is becoming morally bankrupt, pop stars have become empty vessels for sheer commerce, and the cultural relevance of twerking (and debates over what exactly it is), dominate the unfiltered screaming hall that the Internet has become.

In the past few days, especially after the Obama administration’s announcement of an impending military strike against Syria, a new voice has pushed its way to the front risers: why are we even talking about this? How has this become the dominant cultural conversation? Why does our mainstream media push this story as aggressively as they do? The truth, as usual, is kind of simple and kind of sad.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. As the gatekeepers of media crumbled, following the rise of Napster, which arguably shoved American culture into its current form (ultra-customizable, fast, and cheap), we became more and more spoiled, more and more insistent that as consumers, we had the high ground. It wasn’t enough that our parents were gone, now we needed our own, personally-curated party experience. Nothing else would do. The media, and by association artists (because much as we’d like to pretend, artists ARE the media) bowed to the pressure, thoroughly cowed by a new technologically savvy customer base that didn’t really care what they got as long as it was delivered in the method they wanted.

We grew lazy, made fat by our own appetites for novelty and spoiled by our indulgent corporate parents. They fed us a never-ending diet of memes, high concept films, glossy and pre-packaged pop stars and rappers that were barely distinguishable from one another. The crushing blow delivered to the CD industry by Napster turned out to be a blessing in disguise: without the need for album sales, there was no reason to treat signed musicians as anything more than a hype investment: interchangeable parts for use in the groaning arena performance machine. All the gatekeepers had to do now was keep an ear to the ground and adjust the pitch accordingly, which wasn’t hard, since we had long since taken to various social media platforms to register our every thought and whim in the most public manner possible.

This is the fallout of the Internet age: a young girl who was jammed into the Disney roster once she was barely out of puberty,  has  stripped off most of her clothing and paraded around the room like a child who just discovered her genitalia. The Miley Cyrus “fiasco” wasn’t shocking because of the skin showed, or the ersatz eroticism on display. It was shocking because it was so heartbreakingly cynical and transparent. Every move of Cyrus’ “transformation” has been calculated in order to mine the most clicks and shares. Camille Paglia wrote a great piece about Cyrus’ inability to understand the true value of sensuality and mystery, and while I’m inclined to agree with her outstanding piece for Time, I don’t even think Miley is in this for what she thinks amounts to an artistic evolution. It’s a business strategy. If a product becomes stale, change the name, change the box, change the color. In the age of social media, after all, the on thing an artist can always trade on is the inherent publicity produced via petty outrage.

By that same turn, the news outlets that reported on this shockingly dull spectacle and the ensuing wave of requisite pearl-clutching really don’t deserve the torches and pitchforks they’ve been fending off ever since CNN reported the Boston Marathon bombing 20 minutes after the story broke on Twitter. They’re just keeping up with our demands for up-to-the-minute, curated by the whims of the Internet, cultural osmosis. The fact that people are actually moaning about CNN reporting on this is both infuriating and sad: individuals don’t understand that they are the ones who forced the hands of legacy media institutions into reporting on crap stories, and they seem to not understand that in a world bombarded by electronic stimulus, the story you want is just around the corner. If Syria was really that important to you, you only have to click on the “world news” tab of any major media website. Or use google. Or go to r/worldnews. Or turn on MSNBC. The possibilities are endless, but we’ve grown so obese with entitlement that we can’t even be bothered to change the channel. We’re throwing tantrums because mom and dad caved to our wishes for an ice cream dinner, and now it’s making us sick.

It should be added that the upside of all this is a growing number of independent and underground art scenes that are putting out terrific and challenging work. Like every generation, the good stuff is out there, you just have to find it (it’s just that the likelihood of finding the good stuff without looking is dwindling more and more), and in a lot of cases, you have to pay for it. What a concept.

I’d like to say the denizens of the Internet have two choices, and then make a sanctimonious point about growing up and bettering your consumption habits, but the fact of the matter is, denizens of the Internet have all the choices in the world, they’re just liable to take the path of least resistance in almost every case, and then complain about it.

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This is New York City

This is New York City.

It’s the middle of a slightly warm but overcast day, and I’m walking towards the Jefferson L stop to catch a train into the city. Usually I take the Knickerbocker M—it’s right next to my place and it drops me off directly outside my gym—but today I had to stop by my friend Eric’s place to check on his cat. I spend a few minutes waiting for the L and I’m happy to find a seat in the front car when it rolls in. Seconds outside of Montrose, the next station, the car screeches to a halt, on a section of track that makes the whole car lean ever so slightly to one side. Earbuds are removed and eyes roll upwards, waiting for the inevitable conductor announcement.

The loudspeaker tells us that the train’s brakes have been engaged for reasons beyond the understanding or control of the train operator, and that people are investigating. The loudspeaker hopes we will be moving quickly. There are a few scattered sighs and groans, and we settle in to wait. What can be done? This is New York City.

Five minutes pass. Then ten. This is the longest I’ve ever been held up in a subway without any movement. The loudspeaker crackles again, and repeats itself: the brakes have been engaged, and the train operators are working to get the train moving. Ten more minutes pass. A few passengers are becoming antsy. Suddenly, the door separating the two cars slides open, and man walks through. I’m puzzled: why would anybody move between cars when the train is stuck on the track? A few other passengers cast curious glances at him as he shuffles through the car, then stops near the doors at the front, jiggling his leg. He’s a light-skinned black man, with short braids, a white t-shirt, athletic shorts, and a backpack. He’s one of any number of people who take the subway all across the five boroughs. Just another guy getting a little claustrophobic while stuck on the train. This is New York City.

We sit for a few more minutes. The door opens again, and a three men walk through. They are all tall. One is wiry, looks to be of middle-eastern descent, and is wearing shades. Another is muscular, dark-skinned, with eyes wide open and alert, a baseball cap perched on his head. A third is Latino, rotund, and wearing an MTA vest. A walkie-talkie crackles in his hand. The wiry man gestures to the front of the car.

“That’s him,” he says.

“That’s the guy?” the MTA worker asks. The wiry man nods.

“That’s the guy,” the man in the hat agrees. All three of them are staring intently towards the front of the car. The MTA worker pulls his walkie-talkie to his face

“The guy is still here,” he says. A voice on the other end asks something indistinct. “Yeah, she’s still here,” he responds. He turns to the wiry man at his side. “What happened?” he asks.

“He just walked up to her and punched her in the face,” the wiry man says, smacking his fist into his palm to illustrate the force of the blow.

“You saw it too?” the MTA worker asks the man in the hat. He nods. The MTA worker says a few things on his walkie-talkie, and then walks through the siding door into the next car. We’re still sitting here. The man with the braids has begun jiggling his foot more quickly, and a pained expression is creeping across his face. A booming voice comes from the back of the car. It’s the man in the hat.

“This guy punched a lady in the face a few cars down,” he says in a loud but even voice. “Keep your eyes on him.” People are beginning to grasp the situation. A few look towards the man in the hat. “Don’t look at me, look at him! Ladies, look at him don’t let him catch you off guard.

A man sitting next to me, on the next bench, pipes up. He’s a beefy white guy, wearing a tank top. “What happened?” he asks the wiry man, who is standing stock still next to the doors.

“He punched a woman right in the face,” the wiry man says, trembling with rage. The man in the tank top looks at the front of the car, where the man with the braids is lying on the floor.

“That guy?” the man in the tank top asks. The wiry man nods. “He’s not going anywhere,” the man in the tank top says, getting up out of his seat. “I’ve got ten years of black belt experience.” The wiry man vigorously nods in agreement, and then lashes out at the pole with a thin, heavy metal instrument, wrapped in tin foil.

“He isn’t going nowhere,” the wiry man agrees, and then begins muttering to himself through gritted teeth about his wife, his mother, his daughter, his sisters. The man in the tank top doesn’t advance on the man in the braids, but he watches him like a hawk.

“Why are we still sitting here?” A woman up front asks, in an irritated voice. It’s hard to tell if she’s concerned for her safety or just pissed about being late. This is New York City. Beyond the glass at the front of the car I can see the conductor speaking into a microphone. The loudspeaker comes on and informs us that we’re going to be moving in a few minutes. This time it actually happens, and the train lurches forward, inch by inch, until the lights of Montrose begin to shine through the tunnel.

The man in the braids gets up. He begins to walk to the doors. The man in the tank top and the wiry man block his way. “You need to sit down,” the man in the tank top says. The man in the braids said some things I didn’t catch, something about needing to go. The doors open. The man with the braids tries to walk off, but his way is blocked by the wiry man. The man in the tank top grabs him around the waist, and both of them, followed by the wiry man and the man in the hat tumble out onto the platform. I get up and follow, wanting to help but feeling useless. There are no police officers around, as we thought there would be. I stand on the platform, ready to do something, but the three men have him pinned, and then a fourth man with headphones around his neck appears. The woman on the train is yelling about being late again, and I deliberate for a few seconds before grabbing my things off of my seat and dashing onto the platform. The doors close and the train pulls away. We’re alone on the platform. The man in the braids is on the ground, immobile, but he’s wailing, and there are no police in sight. I decide to make myself useful, and jog towards the entrance.

Once I reach the top of the stairs I see two attendants in the booth. I yell to get their attention, ask if they have a line to the cops. I mime a telephone receiver next to my ear. They mime one back, and point to the stairway. The police are coming. I jog back to the pileup. The man in the hat looks up at me expectantly. “The cops are on their way,” I say. He nods, then looks down at the man in the braids, struggling underneath him.

“Why’d you hit her?” he asks. There’s no anger in his voice; he seems genuinely curious. The man in the braids sputters some nonsense about people who told him to do things. The man in the hat looks up at me with raised eyebrows. “Dude is crazy,” he says. I shrug my shoulders, and decide to go look for those officers again. They are trundling through the turnstiles when I reach the top of the stares, and I point, indicating the right way. An MTA employee, an older man with white stubble, and a small middle-aged woman are tailing them

We get back to the pileup. I notice the man in the tank top is gone, seemingly replaced by the man with headphones. The officers, two of them, join the pile, and then an awkward repositioning happens. In the end the man with braids is hauled upright, his hands cuffed behind his back, and the three men holding him are standing around, watching.

“Is she off the train too?” I ask the female MTA employee.

“Yeah, she’s in the office upstairs, she’s all sorts of outta whack,” she says, her brow furrowed with concern.

“Did you see what happen?” I ask the man with headphones.

d“Yeah, he just came up out of nowhere and punched this chick in the face. Smashed her pretty good, she was bleeding and everything.”

“Did he know her?” He shrugs. This is New York City.

The cops question the main in the braids, ask if he’s been arrested before. He says yes. They begin taking statements from the three guys holding him down, all of whom saw the woman get hit. Everyone walks off the platform, to go figure some things out. I’m left with the two MTA workers. The guy takes off his hat and fans himself. “Geez, what is it with this station?”

“You’ve seen a lot of this stuff happen?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he laughs. “But I was talking about the heat.” He shakes his head, and we chat for a few minutes about what happens while I wait for the next train. “He just attacked her?” he asks.

“That’s what those guys said,” I reply. “I just saw him come into our car and start acting crazy.”

“A lot of these guys act crazy once they get caught so they can get away with it,” the woman pipes up. “I’m so glad people did something, otherwise he would have gotten away!” Her accent is nasal Brooklyn to a T.

“Yeah, those guys knew what to do,” I agree. We talk some more. She’s been working on the job for eight years. She can’t wait to get out. The next L train comes, and it’s packed to the gills with passengers, because of the delay.

“You getting on this train?” she asks. I am. “Bye hon, you have a good day. Thanks for getting involved,” she says, giving me a brief hug. I step onto the car, squeezing between two irritated looking guys with beards.

This is New York City.

Riff Raff

Riff Raff, aka MTV Riff Raff, aka Jody High Roller, aka Rap Game James Fraco, graced SoHo with his presence Sunday afternoon at an in-store Neff popup event at PacSun. Riff was scheduled to begin his meet ‘n’ greet with fans at 3pm, but people were lining up early to catch a glimpse of the man himself. When the appointed time rolled around, the queue snaked through the store and rolled out onto the Manhattan streets. The crowd was mostly young, male, and white, and seemed to have little else to do on a Sunday but spend money on overpriced “street” wear.

For those unfamiliar, Riff Raff is the newest Internet sensation turned semi-legitimate rapper to come out of the great churning mass of the post-Internet Hip Hop scene. While Riff first began generating buzz back in 2008, and had his first brush with fame in 2009 as a contestant on MTV’s From G’s to Gents, it wasn’t until the release of the 2012 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers that he truly exploded. As the indelible scroll of the Internet shows, Riff Raff had been approached by Korine to appear in the film, but never made it to any of the final shots. There’s been speculation that James Franco’s character Alien is based on Riff Raff, though Korine and Franco have both claimed that a variety of personalities were used as inspiration, and that Florida rapper Dangeruss is a more likely model, if one exists. Still, watching Spring Breakers in conjunction with some of Riff Raff’s more bizarre YouTube tirades really brings the similarities into focus.

In any event, it’s Riff Raff’s outlandish persona that’s garnered him the most attention. He’s a tall, lanky guy from Houston with ridiculous facial hair, crystal blue eyes, and a body almost totally enveloped in tattoos. He has a penchant for ridiculous jewelry and eyewear. One VICE magazine writer quipped that Riff Raff’s fashion sense looks like he rolled around in the collected vomit of Miami, “but in a good way”.  The accuracy of that statement can’t be fully appreciated until you sample the impressive bulk of official Riff Raff music videos circulating on the Internet.

Since he began to achieve Internet fame, the only kind of fame that really seems to matter anymore, Riff Raff has amassed as many confused bystanders as he has garnered fans and enemies. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Riff Raff seems like some sort of elaborate hip hop catfish scam, but he definitely has a deadpanning, self-parodying sense of humor that makes it hard to tell where exactly the joke begins and ends. In terms of musical ability, the jury of public opinion seems to be out. Riff Raff’s lyrics are almost uniformly nonsensical, and he tends to play around with near-rhyme in a halting, barking flow that belies his Houston roots. In the vein of other artists like Lil B and Odd Future, Riff Raff seems to eschew meaning when rapping, preferring instead to focus on sounds and feelings above all else. Some of his songs have main ideas, but that’s about as focused as a Riff Raff track tends to get. The beats are heavy with synths and aggressive electronics, almost straddling the line between hip hop and the newest incarnation of dubstep. Cynics will say that Riff Raff is not a good rapper, and he’s certainly not conventional, but it’s telling that songs as completely nonsensical and strange as “Orion’s Belt” (w/Kitty Pryde) or “Rap Game James Franco” can still be so damn catchy and remain in your head for days.

So how serious is Riff Raff? That’s the question on everybody’s minds: is this a joke, or some sort of happy accident? As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Riff Raff has been producing music since 2008, but after his second-round flameout on G’s and Gents in 2009, he began popping up everywhere. The man’s not an idiot, contrary to what most people think, which is what makes people question his sincerity. The general thought process goes: why would anybody who knew they were acting like a buffoon do so sincerely? The answer, even given by Riff Raff in an on-air interview with Hot97, is that it’s fun. If nothing else, Riff Raff seems content to make tracks and party with other celebrities and get his mug plastered all over creation while he stacks paper. It’s the nihilism of commercial Hip Hop taken to its extreme logical conclusion. Personally, I think Riff Raff saw the Internet buzz created from his “outrageous personality” as showcased on Gs and Gents and realized that if he made himself as visible as possible and then acted like himself, he would generate buzz. In a media world ruled by eyeballs instead of dollars, that’s one of the most valuable tools any artist can have.

Riff Raff’s in-store appearance seemed to confirm this hypothesis. He was there to promote Neff, an clothing brand that he’s a spokesperson for. He seemed more or less uninterested in repping the label, but genuinely happy and enthusiastic about meeting and signing things for fans. A rep from the event kept informing those waiting in line that you could get a “free” picture with Riff Raff if you bought a Neff t-shirt, but Riff Raff’s security detail didn’t seem to care when nearly every guest snapped a phone picture with him sans t-shirt, and he was only too happy to sign anything that was put on the table in front of him. The guy before me flipped up his skateboard, and Riff Raff picked out a prime spot of white sticker to sign his name, and then stopped to admire the deck, even calling over some of his entourage to check it out.

I was a little surprised by how starstruck I was, and managed to croak out a weak “’sup Riff?” after he extended his gold-cloaked fist for me to bump. Immediately, he spotted the outline of Texas tattooed on the inside of my right forearm.

“You from Texas?” he asked with a gold-plated smile.

“Yeah!”

“What part?”

“Dallas.”

“Right on…what’s your name?”

“John,” I stammered, trying to come up with some witty rejoinders and finding none. He pointed to the tattoo again, looking up from the poster he was signing for me.

“You shoulda put Riff Raff over Houston,” he said, and I laughed, then asked if he would sign my Longhorns hat. I glanced down at the poster, where he had signed his name at the top, and then “Rap Game Nolan Ryan” (legendary pitcher and current owner for the Texas Rangers, based out of the DFW metroplex). He handed over the hat and I put it on my head, asking if I could get a picture.

“Did you see what I wrote?” he asked, pointing at the hat with all the pride of a grade-schooler showing Mom his art project. I flipped the hat over, and on the bill he had signed his name, as well as “Hook em Horns”. We slapped palms, and then he slipped next to me for a quick picture, right before the store security asked me to move it along. As I shuffled off towards the register, I saw him signing stuff with my roommate, still smiling and joking around.

If Riff Raff is some sort of sleeper agent for a nefarious social media conglomerate, the strain and wear certainly isn’t showing. He’s here to have fun and he’s doing it in spades, all while giving us something that keeps us talking and just a little bit freaked out. Isn’t that more credible in the end than anything else we could say about a musician?