More than ever before, popular culture today is largely driven by social media. The things we discuss amongst ourselves are the things that drive the headlines. As a result, we now create our own celebrities, elevating to fame those who most appeal to our depraved sense of curiosity and provide us with the most outlandish sense of visual and aural shock and second-hand embarrassment. We are, after all, humans. We stop traffic on the highway as we slow to a crawl to see if someone was injured or worse in an accident, not so we can help, but so we can see something unusual, as gory and gruesome as it may be. Fight videos, wardrobe malfunctions, grammatical disasters and twerking contests receive millions of views, whereas footage of, say, a masterful jazz pianist performing in concert may get dozens, or hundreds of views at best. While countless talented artists and brilliant contributors to society languish in the shadows of relative obscurity, other individuals – talent optional, and often not preferred – seemingly rise to meteoric heights of fame and quick fortune as a result of a combination of horrific tragedy, eccentricity and over-the-top caricature.
Face it, people love the outlandish, and our voyeuristic nature is magnetically drawn to the misfortune of others, not necessarily to help, but to gawk, gander and be entertained. We feign objection by saying “look at this mess” so as not to indict ourselves, but we continue to post the mess nonetheless, and people continue to talk about it and share it with others. The result: real-life nightmares and cringe-worthy moments become viral sensations, and authentic art is often abandoned as it takes a back seat to the cultural demand for the salacious and the absurd. What used to be cause for embarrassment now becomes cause célèbre.
Need a few cases in point? Look no further than some of the biggest viral sensations of the past few years. While we may semi-sarcastically rejoice in seeing them “come up” in terms of(temporary) fame and fortune, the elephant in the room is that we all know that they often either look, act or sound like the worst in us, and those negative traits were often their real allure, whether we publicly admit it or not. The following individuals have a few things in common: They were all seemingly struggling, with either poverty, personal demons or both, before some incident – usually a tragedy – propelled them to notoriety; they were outlandish in some way that would be considered embarrassing by most; and they are all African American, and representative of stereotypes which, ironically, we vehemently protest, claiming that we want them put to rest.
Without further ado, here now, ladies and gentlemen, are some of the biggest media darlings we have created over the past few years with our insatiable lust for the absurd.
1) Antoine Dodson – “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife”
After a break-in of his Huntsville, Alabama housing project home, in which his sister was apparently almost raped by the intruder, Dodson was interviewed by the local news media. The result became an Internet sensation due to Dodson’s stereotypically effeminate mannerisms and style of dress and outlandishly animated expressions. An autotuned mashup of the news footage quickly made the rounds, and while his sister’s plight took a back seat, Dodson became a star, literally overnight.
2) Sweet Brown – “Oh Lord Jesus, it’s a fire”
After her Oklahoma City, Oklahoma apartment complex caught fire, “Sweet Brown” was interviewed by the news. Her scarf-wrapped head, gold-filled mouth and stereotypical cartoonish expressions as she described the tragedy in a highly animated fashion launched Brown into instant stardom. And like Dodson before her, numerous autotuned versions of her interview footage were introduced into the ether.
3) Ted Williams – “The Homeless Man with the Golden Voice”
In Columbus, Ohio, homeless Ted Williams was standing on the side of the road, cardboard panhandling sign in hand, when he was approached by a curious motorist for whom he eagerly launched into an impromptu series of radio announcer impersonations. While Williams’ voice quality was arguably impressive, it was his polished voice’s comical contrast with his wild, unkempt hair, ragged military-style clothing and horrendous dental work that skyrocketed him to talk-show and tabloid notoriety. As a result, his struggles with addiction and his prior arrests became media fodder as well, and America looked on, most waiting for him to fall off and return to the street corner where he was discovered.
4) Charles Ramsey – “I ate ribs with this dude”
Cleveland, Ohio made international news when three young ladies who had been kidnapped and enslaved for more than a decade were dramatically rescued from their captor’s home. A neighbor of the captor and a key contributor to the rescue effort, Charles Ramsey was placed in the forefront of the media. However, more attention was given to his hair, his dental work, his prior criminal record, and his affection for McDonald’s hamburgers than to his heroic efforts which saved the lives of these three young women. Indeed, Ramsey himself arguably garnered more media attention than these three young women and their captor combined. That in itself is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our sensationalist society.
5) Donna Goudeau – “P.O.P., hold it down”
In 2011, a man was robbed, tortured and brutally beaten in a Beaumont, Texas motel room. When the suspects were apprehended and taken into custody, one of them, Donna Goudeau gave hilariously contradictory statements to police officers and news media. More striking was her androgenous appearance, which caused her to be mistaken for a young male by many, including a reporter on the scene. Though this tragic incident went under the radar for a few years, when it finally hit the mainstream in 2014, it spread like wildfire and Donna Goudeau became an instant household name and continuous comedic fodder across all social media platforms for many moons. You would have to be legally blind to have missed it.
6) Andrew Caldwell – “I’m not gay no more”
At the 2014 Church of God in Christ (COGIC) national convention in St. Louis, Missouri, a young man named Andrew Caldwell made national headlines when he, under the prompting of officiating clergy, testified that he was “delivert” from homosexuality and set free from lusting after “mens.” This declaration prompted controversy and criticism of both Caldwell and COGIC, but mostly served as comedic fodder as a result of Caldwell’s flamboyant attire, exaggerated lisp, animated expressions and gross mispronunciation of words. A “gospel” song version of his testimony quickly made the rounds, and Caldwell quickly became a social media trending topic.
These are just a few of those whom we have made famous through social media sharing and incessant discussion.
Maybe we are the ones who need to be delivert.