From Donald Trump to Rihanna, True Detective, and 50 Cent: this summer a new theatricality has become evident in American culture. The congruence of camp and violence has given us Young Thug, a rapper who calls his guns “dicks” for reasons nobody knows.
The theatre reviewer Patrick Pacheco has recently suggested that Donald Trump is an “all-American performance artist”, and with the support of playwright Sherry Kramer, who explains, “he appeals to people the way theatre does, as an artificial construct. He’s a persona performing the role of a presidential candidate.” Kramer describes Trump as “part Hulk Hogan [the wrestler] and part Dame Edna Everage [the drag artist]”, in other words a high-camp composition, and indeed he is an unsettlingly rococo sort of would-be-president, a playful and amusing one with curling golden hair, and ornately idiotic ideas, and all the florid absurdity of a court jester.
I first encountered Trump as a character in Berkeley Breathed’s cartoon strip Bloom County, which ran from 1980 to 1989 and was syndicated in many American newspapers; unsurprisingly he was one of the pantomime villains of the piece, a cruel mogul who had (under somewhat unusual circumstances) his brain transplanted into a cat’s body. Now 25 years have passed since 1989, but only this month Breathed has decided to revive Bloom County. He thought about bringing it back in the noughties but felt that after 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq his sort of absurdist comedy was no longer suitable, explaining to the New York Times that “the sullied air sucked the oxygen from my kind of whimsy.” But this summer something has changed inside of us. “Silliness suddenly feels safe now,” he says. “Trump’s merely a sparkling symptom of a renewed national ridiculousness.”
We live in ridiculous times, and American pop culture in particular appears ridiculously camp, which is to say: affected in its mannerisms and dress, exaggerated and self-parodying, vulgar, sometimes effeminate, and often in dubious taste. And what is new is that this campiness now often conceals an intense violence. A perfect example is Rihanna’s intentionally controversial video for “BBHMM” which is an erotic, glamorous, weed-smoking revenge fantasy that climaxes in the bloody murder of an ex-model by a naked Rihanna covered in money. So delighted is this video with its own silliness and over-the-top sexuality that its violence becomes only a pleasing, blood-lustful entertainment; one evocative of this summer’s True Detective, with all that show’s high-class escort parties and perverse murders.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Teo Bugbee describes the sophomore series of True Detective as the campiest show on television, asking: “Colin Farrell threatened to fuck a guy’s ass with the headless corpse of his wife. The murdered body had his dick shot off. What is happening?” Also, the house of that murder victim, you may recall, was filled with strange sexual prosthetics and a coffee-table book of Araki’s bondage photos. Bugbee goes on to suggest that – what with Taylor Kitsch playing a self-loathing, repressed homosexual, Vince Vaughn unable to satisfy his wife sexually, and Colin Farrell unlikely to have fathered his own child – “more than any television show I’ve ever seen, this season of True Detective feels like a sexual identity crisis in motion, and it’s magnificent.” It holds up a shattered mirror to American society, which has seen much fracturing of the traditional image of masculinity as of late: same-sex marriage has been approved by the senate; Olympic hero Bruce Jenner has become beautiful Caitlin; Bill Cosby’s a wholesome father figure no longer; 50 Cent, who forged a whole career out of the now-hollow promise that he would “get rich or die tryin’”, has instead filed for bankruptcy.
What has happened to our role models?
As it turns out 50 Cent’s lifestyle has been an elaborate theatre, one of borrowing cars and watches to take photographs with, before returning them once the performance was over; and now that this charade has been exposed, his own particular vision of exaggerated masculinity has also been brought to its sorry end. In its place a surprising other vision has been provided by the most talked-of, most talented, most influential rapper of the year: Young Thug, who is an unusual proposition, to put it mildly. Because Young Thug is really camp. He enjoys cross-dressing – in a leopard-print blouse, a mini-skirt and crop-top, a Hooters waitress’s tank-top – and painting his nails, and mumbling incomprehensibly to himself whilst leaping about his stacks of money like some mad stork. He brings to mind Prince in his strange mixture of sex-obsessed straightness and absolute flamboyance, and even his thoughts of violence are theatrically portentous; recently he was charged for “terroristic threats” after offering to kill a mall cop, which sounds like the plot of a bad Hollywood comedy.
Not only is Young Thug really camp, but he really plays up to it too. If rapping is mostly about the reinvention and re-appropriation of words, well his choice of vocabulary is constantly astonishing. “If cops pull up, I put that crack in my crack,” he raps, meaning he hides his drugs up his arse. “Smokin penises!!!!” he tweets, joyously, meaning he smokes blunts. “With them dicks too!” he shouts, meaning he’ll bring some guns.
So a camp theatricality has become evident in American pop culture, and perhaps it is a form of escapism from the much bleaker reality of what is happening: racist cops murdering innocent citizens, and gun massacres, and a looming war against an Islamic State that nobody can really comprehend. Or perhaps it is because of a crisis in masculinity. Or perhaps it is actually a late, rococo flourishing of art forms that have passed their peak – the golden ages of television drama and rap music are coming to a close, whilst in politics, Republican presidential candidates reach towards new peaks of almost psychedelic delusion with each passing election cycle – but continue to uncover new ways of shocking and seducing audiences. Speaking to the Guardian about his latest novel Lurid & Cute (2015), Adam Thirlwell says, “there’s a misconception about what is truly shocking – that the shocking is the purely explicit. It seems to me that’s easy, and it’s been done in literature for centuries. What’s problematic, the real way to be shocking, is to have an unstable tone, or to use the wrong tone, the tone that’s not appropriate or that’s deemed inappropriate. Both lurid and cute are completely inappropriate literary tones or adjectives. Neither of them is good. You shouldn’t be writing either luridly or cutely – but I quite liked the idea that maybe you could.” It seems as though this pop violence and campiness is just another sort of inappropriateness, one that provokes and appals, and so embodies today’s desperate fetishisation of fiscal, fleshly, and bloodthirsty excesses.
Dean Kissick is a writer based in Los Angeles.