When I was very little, Neville Wanless wished me a happy birthday on TV. Wanless was the sweet glue that held our regional station together in the North East of England, and although I remember him mostly as a blurry face with a voice like Charlie Brown’s teacher, there are a few seconds left. clean audio in the family archives, which I mean dusty box of Audio cassettes it must be somewhere. It’s 1983. My parents are buying a new house, staying in a low-heeled rental that my mother always called “the big house.” A flash of memory, fragile as a microfiche, sat us with an air of realization on a rolled up carpet. I just opened my birthday presents and am very happy with my new big ball. Then comes Wanless: “And a very happy birthday to Laurence Martin Scott, who is 3 years old today.” You can hear me respond with a sound I had never made before and never made unintentionally since – a puffed-up croak of a bullfrog. Rrrroiiiiiiiiiiii.
My parents were, without knowing it, early adopters. In recent years, websites like Cameo and Memmo have made it easy for ordinary people to purchase personalized videos of the famous and semi-famous. (Wanless, it must be said, made his call for free.) These services have proven to be particularly well calibrated for pandemic conditions. Now that Covid-19 has zoomed in on most forms of social interaction, celebrities fit in perfectly with the rest of the faces on our screens: friends, family, coworkers, doctors, wedding officiants, therapists. The surrealism of the moment suggests that Snoop Dogg is reminding you of read the syllabus.
The format has some startup issues. Because performers are often regurgitating facts from a request form, the handwriting tends to sound woody. On Cameo you can see Elijah wood, dressed in a tie-dye and dungarees, explain to one of her fans why she missed meeting him that time in Calgary – because she was [checks notes] “Speak at this conference as a librarian, and on the merits of the graphic novel!” Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is currently not on Cameo, lamented this kind of lazy exposure in movie scripts: “But you’re a lawyer, and he loves you!” Happy videos are, perhaps inevitably, full of it.
Services like Cameo also uncomfortably suggest that there is no limit to what the odd-job economy can commodify. Life is hectic, life is hectic, even if your circumstances are not clearly precarious. The third best player of the Belgian women’s tennis team, Kirsten Flipkens, has won millions in cash prizes, but why wouldn’t she also earn 30 euros by recording a video on the walk from the locker rooms to the training grounds?
Cameo is like a thermal imager that signals the relative warmth of a celebrity. King tigerCarole Baskin, for example, makes hay while the sun is shining. His videos cost $ 299, almost four times more than the Seinfeld Nazi soup. (It all reminds me of a scene from the sitcom 30 Rock in which we see the world through the corporate eyes of GM General Manager Jack Donaghy. As he glances across the room, everything has dollar value floating in front of her. Aquarium: $ 2000. Stereo: $ 150. Kenneth The NBC Page: $ 7.)
I admit that my reservations can seem crazy. After the time we’ve had, we deserve an involuntary croak of pleasure. We have been encouraged to wear masks, and these services add a whimsical touch to mask wearing. They’re a step up from Zoom’s augmented reality rabbit face. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is here to encourage your love of anime; British singer Lily Allen is here to give you a tailor-made #PepTalk. Really, both are mom.
This mask making would start and end with harmless fun, a little bit of joy in a dark time, if it weren’t for the mixture of feeling and money. Fun, when tied to a dollar sign, gives a gimmicky quality to the whole business. The latest book by researcher and critic Sianne Ngai, A theory of the gadget, explores what to call something “gadget” is a judgment born out of the strangeness of capitalism. Gadgets, Ngai writes, are things that don’t seem convincing because they are “overvalued” in terms of “time and labor encoded” into the product or commodity. Even the most emotional Memmos have a flippancy towards them, unaided by their brevity. You can imagine Ricky Gervais Office character, David Brent, pulls out his calculator: $ 50 for 20 seconds is… $ 9,000 an hour? Cue Gervais’ canine smile, a look turned towards the camera, his nose wrinkled as he puts it, “pro rata”.