Get Rekt Skrubz: A Brief Analysis of MLG Videos

This article first appeared in Cherwell on 4 November 2016. This extended version restores some content that was originally cut for space. I’m very proud of this piece, and I hope it can help us internet-dwellers remain watchful in the future, especially given what happened the week after this piece first came out.

“Dear FAZE POTTER, you have been accepted at Hogwarts school of MEMES AND QUICK SCOPING.” Such is the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Noscoper’s Stone’, a short film which, at time of writing, sits at 3,219,168 views on YouTube. It’s a prime example of the MLG video: a short, humorous montage of clips from a popular film or TV show, overlaid with text, memes, and video game assets. These videos have become very popular in recent years, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, but like everything else, they come with a dark side.

MLG refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports organisation—like FIFA for professional video game players. In the same way sports broadcasters produce edited highlights of matches, MLG produces montages of players’ most impressive gaming moments: impressive kills, deft bits of strategy, that sort of thing. These montages started hitting YouTube in the early-2010s, along with a flood of copycats, usually amateur players crudely editing together their own footage. This was, obviously, a bit of a joke. Imagine if every pub league football player started putting out edited highlights of their own performance. The videos made use of several stock elements, including blaring dubstep, anguished shouting, and references to popular memes. They were loud, obnoxious and totally ridiculous, which gave them a cultural presence in excess of their actual popularity. It was only a matter of time before the meme lords got to work.

The process was gradual, but between 2011 and 2014(ish) MLG videos transitioned into what they are now: montage parodies of popular media, having moved beyond video games and into film and TV more generally. This new breed of video was similar to its forbears in its over-the-top obnoxiousness and frequent references to video game culture, but the presentation was both more ironic and far more information-dense. The modern MLG video is a compressed tissue of quotations, audio and visual, its humour coming not just from references but the speed and inventiveness of those references, not to mention a significant uptick in editing quality. What was once amateur backwash had become slickly-produced gold; the alchemy of the internet works again.

The MLG effect, like most great art, is better seen in motion than dryly described. You only need to see Albus Dumbledore say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts School of Memes, Weed, and Good Banter” once before never looking back. But the structure and style of MLG is not new in itself, having borrowed most of its tricks from the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition. Jarring shifts in pitch and rhythm are a standard trope of experimental music, and the irreverent remixing of disparate texts is basically Postmodernism For Dummies. MLG is western culture doing what it always does, folding the marginal back into the mainstream in a way which strengthens the latter and legitimises the former. And, as ever, the margins bring their revolutionary power along with them.

The power of MLG is that nothing is above reproach. News, movies, politicians—none of them are immune to this remixing spirit, and there’s nothing they can say that can’t be cut off and replaced with a text-to-speech program making references to cannabis. MLG’s power is its constant and relentless humour —nothing it says is taken seriously. And it is precisely this quality which, as well as being powerful, makes MLG profoundly dangerous.

Do a YouTube search for ‘Donald Trump MLG’ and you will get a slew of results, obviously. Trump is the most-memed politician in living memory. But the most popular videos do not, as one might expect, frame Trump as the deluded, incompetent fool he is; rather, they seem to actively root for him. One of the top results shows Donald Trump “reking” journalist Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate, and another simply shows clips of Trump’s speeches and interviews overlaid with images, often of Donald Trump himself. The presentation is joking, but the effect is to hammer home the message more forcefully than a sincere depiction ever could. This is what makes MLG, and memes in general, so dangerous as propaganda tools.

White supremacist memes featuring Trump are ten-a-penny online, and racist, misogynist and Islamophobic rhetoric has seeped into mainstream discourse. Pepe the frog, once a benign comic book character, has been co-opted by the internet’s worst to such an extent that the he was recently declared a hate symbol. It would be ridiculous to say MLG is going the same way – making a good one requires more effort than most of these people are willing to expend – but memes are beginning to have a material impact on politics IRL.

Nimble America is a non-profit organisation whose activities consist of promoting the Donald through ‘meme magic’ and the power of shitposting. Their aim is to flood the discourse with so many images and perceptions of Trump that support becomes a matter of instinct, rather than reason. In the words of Adam Hess, Donald Trump is “proof that if Hitler was alive today he’d be the biggest thing on Twitter.”

I’m not trying to start a moral panic about memes. But we do need to think more critically about what we encounter online, and with an eye towards memes’ material impact. And if we could avoid shady crooks like Nimble America while we’re at it, that would be good too. Above all, we must be vigilant, and conscious that the ends do not always justify the memes.

Review: The Trojan Women

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 2 November 2016.

Greek tragedy, like most ancient drama, feels wrong in the modern day. The recourse of the playwright, then, is to make that wrongness their point. Set in the mother-and-baby unit of a post-war prison, Caroline Bird’s rewrite of Euripides’s The Trojan Women puts the traumas of its female characters front and centre. Sickly funny and deeply disturbing, it’s a hard, uncompromising polemic, an aggressively feminist reframing of the male-dominated mythology of Troy. As a production, it suffers from technical and pacing problems, but as a political statement it’s one of the most powerful Oxford has seen all term.

The play opens with a bare cell; two women. One old and untethered, one pregnant and handcuffed to her bed. The first is Hecuba, ex-queen of Troy. The other is not supposed to be there. A working class woman imprisoned with a queen, the setup makes for some good jokes, with the nameless one as straight woman to the melodramatic Hecuba. But it’s a source of horror as well as comedy; the women are visited by Cassandra, Helen, even Menelaus himself, as well as their own hapless male guard, and the nameless woman is shouted down constantly. Not allowed to speak, she can only gaze, appalled, at the meaningless squabbles which have destroyed her life. It’s an astonishingly bleak story, and it ruthlessly confronts the horrors of a society stratified by both gender and class.

The script’s ideas are disturbing in the abstract, but the cast help make them viscerally horrifying. Georgie Murphy is effectively traumatised as Hecuba, but conveys a sense of the ingrained prejudices which drive the plot. Marcus Knight-Williams is funny as the guard, pathetic and bumbling despite his petty authority, and Alannah Burns is a chilling Menelaus, all icy psychopathy and insecure shouting. India Phillips is impeccable across her three roles, her sweetly morbid turn as Casssandra marking the play’s creepiest moment. But the standout performance is Elizabeth Mobed as the nameless woman. By turns sardonic, deluded, outraged and anguished, she is the play’s emotional core, and her status as a silent onlooker of history drives home the central point with humanising force.

That said, the play can occasionally feel a bit much. The dialogue is full of over-ripe metaphors, and the script is awkwardly structured. After a few episodic encounters the play’s climax stretches on for more than twenty minutes, and there’s a point at which the horror simply becomes exhausting. But then again, that exhaustion is part of the point – the audience, like the characters, are faced with the absurd horrors of this masculine world, and that exhaustion creates a crucial sense of empathy. So I can recommend The Trojan Women; it’s harsh, angry, and extremely moving, an intimate character piece and a scream of rage against an unjust world. This is what the BT is all about.

Review: Anything Goes

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 12 October 2016.

With the Playhouse newly redecorated for Michaelmas term, where better to start than a musical from the 1930s? Anything Goes is a retro-cool season-opener, and it delivers all the colour and style we’ve come to expect from Playhouse musicals, even if it’s a tad unpolished in places. Upbeat, funny, and energetic to a fault, it’s a jolly romp of a show that will surely make a delightful introduction for the many students getting their first taste of Oxford theatre this week.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker in love with an heiress engaged to an English earl. With the help of his friend Reno, as well as a helpful tip from a passing gangster, he winds up on a cruise ship with all of the above, as well as being on the run from the law. Hilarity ensues (obviously), and the production team deserve credit for managing the play’s laundry list of elements as stylishly as they do. There’s a lot going on here, but the show hums along admirably, the scenes cleverly interwoven to give a sense of several plots developing at once. This helps maintain a brisk pace, as well as the shared space of the cruise liner itself.

The set is marvelous, with the band sitting up on the bridge like a kind of omniscient narrator. This is a show defined by song, so it’s great to see the musicians paced centre stage rather than cast into the pit. It’s also very much an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to call anyone the ‘star’, but the all-cast musical numbers are stellar. The ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sequence which kicks off act two is a masterpiece of choreography, a perfectly-paced bit of dance and gymnastics which goes on for fifteen minutes, running the gamut from joy to heartbreak, with plenty of laughs along the way.

The individual parts are mostly unflashy, but the actors are a treat nonetheless. Toby Chapman is a capable straight man as Billy, reacting dryly to the madness around him, and Josh Blunsden is perfect as the ship’s put-upon captain (watch out for his final scene). Nils Behling is an adept physical comedian, and Laurence Belcher nails the part of the oblivious aristocrat, his cringeworthy love poetry forming the basis of the play’s most quietly brilliant set-piece. But the real standout is Kathy Peacock as Reno; agile, charming, and bursting with charisma, she may also be the best singer of the bunch.

It’s not a flawless show: the opening night saw severe audio problems, and several of the jokes fell flat. There was a sense of attempting to speed through the awkward material, rather than relaxing in its ridiculousness, a feeling not helped by occasionally rushed line readings. But these problems largely fell away by the second act, once awkward banter gave way to elaborate showtunes and personal confessions. Anything Goes is bubblegum theatre; it’s bright, cheerful, and drives away the academic blues, even if the memory of being pleased lasts longer than its actual pleasures. It’s a big, frothy delight, and for the year’s first major student play, that’s one hell of an achievement.

Review: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.

Review: I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back by Brian Sonia-Wallace

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 15 September 2016.

Some books are brilliant and original. Some are predictable and clichéd. And some manage that strange combination of both, by being not quite as original as they at first appear. Brian Sonia-Wallace’s debut collection, I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back, fits the latter. Sonia-Wallace has spent the last few years as a self-styled ‘RENT Poet’, braving the streets of L.A. with a typewriter, and taking on-the spot commissions with an aim to create “a society of patrons for the arts starting at $1”. Each of these poems was “written in 5-10 minutes for a stranger who shared themselves with me on the street or online”. Sonia-Wallace then photographed his output for re-sale purposes, and here presents the best of what he produced on the job. A good idea for a collection, but Sonia-Wallace seems convinced that his scheme to “write poems for cash” is somehow revolutionary. He declares that “you can keep your high art, I am shamelessly for hire”. But street artists have been around for centuries, and working on commission is as old as the arts themselves. All of that said, there are some solid poems to be had here, even if the ‘RENT Poet’ persona fails to boggle the mind.

Given its street origins, it’s not surprising that the collection feels like all human life has traipsed through it. From grieving relatives to frustrated teachers, from squabbling kids to hopeful parents, there’s a real range of subject matter, handled with spontaneity and wit. The opening of the early poem ‘Courage’ is a good example:

We all begin as voyeurs,
flies on the wall
with frogs in our throats

eating our words
to get more salt in our diets.

What’s in our throats
eats us up,
consumes us, sticky-tongued,

throat frogs and stomach butterflies—
let them drown.
I’m done with being Noah’s Ark.

The lines are misshapen, yet coherent, shifting between twisted haikus and deformed couplets, the poetic voice alternately creepy, bitter, acerbic and weird. The sense of emotions turning against us as “throat frogs and stomach butterflies” is subtly unnerving, and the comparison of the human psyche to Noah’s Ark is rich in its implications. This complex yet elegant style is where Sonia-Wallace really shines. It makes one curious as to its original commissioner, as many of these poems do. Sonia-Wallace sadly includes only a handful of his poems’ backstories in the end-notes, a combination of poetic licence and patient confidentiality, and ‘Courage’ is not one of them.

There are moments where he’s wonderfully playful with form, as well as with his own role as a poet. ‘Eulogy for a Poem’ is particularly dry: “Cause of Poem: unknown./ Time of Poem: 8:18 PM./ Rest in poem,/ Poem.” It’s a pleasing send-up of death’s banality, and the final couplet borders on the profound: “Here lies poem/ survived by us all.” But while Sonia-Wallace is extremely daring within his short time frames, he occasionally lets his pen run away with him. This results in peculiarities like “eating breakfast off the tits of destiny”, the sort of cringeworthy line which would hopefully not survive a more thorough compositional process. That line also points to the book’s irksome casual sexism. The penultimate poem, ‘Watching You Go’, exemplifies this:

I guess your ass is a peach.

Not a melon but a sort of stone fruit. Juicy.
It’s already hot out here.
You’d better watch what you do with that thang

your body is a novel.
I’m a voracious reader.

It feels like leering dressed up as insightful artistry, which is no excuse. On its own it’s objectifying and crass, but as one of the final poems in the book it leaves a bad taste. One can only speculate as to its original commission, but the poor woman’s reception is probably worth a poem in itself.

I Sold These Poems is a perfectly decent collection, whose better moments transcend their hurried origins. Sonia-Wallace’s work ethic and commitment to populism are admirable, even if there are moments that can be accused of thoughtlessness. The book’s status as working poetry cuts both for and against — its roughness gives rise to poetic brilliance and rushed-out nonsense, and there’s no easy way to separate the two. But if, as Sonia-Wallace asks, we judge it as a purely commercial item, it’s easy to recommend — at $15 for 31 poems (a wholesale price of less than 50 cents a poem), this book certainly represents value for money.

Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.