Thursday, 31 October 2013

Why I Kind Of Hated Russell Brand But Now I Don't Anymore. Much.

So I finally sat down to write a response to the infamous Newsnight clip known as "Russell Brand may have started a revolution last night". I'll confess, the blog I had planned was mostly "Blah blah I hate his whiny voice and he's stupid and he was horrible to Andrew Sachs and Katy Perry and that's why I can't stand him".
It's never OK to insult this man.

In THAT phone call back in 2008, Russell Brand joked "You only ever played Manuel" – but the fact that we still know Andrew Sachs for work he did almost forty years ago makes it pretty obvious that he's far funnier and more talented than Russell could ever hope of being.

Then there's Katy Perry; in the documentary Part of Me, her response to the breakdown of her marriage was nothing less than heart-rending; the way she steeled herself for her stage entrance after hours of desperate sobbing was the epitome of "the show must go on" mentality.

We can't possibly know what really went on in their relationship, but the snippets of information that have been released don't look good for Brand. Katy talked about the "fairytale" she'd had in mind for her ideal man; someone who "won't be threatened or have weird motives..." but "that's not true for me right now." She elaborated with "At first when I met him he wanted an equal, and I think a lot of times strong men do want an equal, but then they get that equal and they’re like, I can’t handle the equalness. He didn’t like the atmosphere of me being the boss on tour. So that was really hurtful, and it was very controlling, which was upsetting."

Brand's apparent lack of respect for his wife leaked out in his "jokes", from her appearance in his movie Get Him to the Greek ("Her acting was so atrocious that it ruined the film. It just made the film boring and rubbish") to their sex life ("I’d be having sex thinking, ‘think of anyone, anyone else’") and the freedom of being single again ("Like if you've been on a diet of rice for a while and then suddenly Willy Wonka said, 'I need you to run my chocolate factory'"). Posting a make-up free snapshot of his usually glamorous wife "by accident" was a classic way of undermining the woman who was perhaps a little too powerful for his liking.

On the bright side, I've been listening to Katy's new album
 Prism on Spotify all week and it's awesome.

Is it fair to judge someone's politics on the way they run their personal lives? Well, yes. It's got to be a better gauge than listening to what they say. (I've always been particularly irritated by people who preach about world peace and then have constant feuds with their friends and family members. Pacifism starts at home.) So I was pretty nonplussed by all the cried of "Genius!" when Russell appeared on Newsnight, particularly the claims that he made Jeremy Paxman look "ridiculous". The conversation went something like this (paraphrased):

Jeremy: So why don't you vote? 
Russell: Because it's all got to change! We need a revolution! Everything is wrong!
Jeremy: Yes, I agree. So what should we do instead? 
Russell: We need to change everything and have a revolution!
Jeremy: Yes. How

On and on to infinity....

To be blunt, Russell was repeating the same half-baked philosophies you'd hear in any sixth form common room. When your plan for revolution begins and ends with not voting, you may have a little work to do on your manifesto. 

The media responded with scepticism: Harry Deansway quipped "how can we not listen to someone on the redistribution of wealth who married Katy Perry on an elephant in a lavish Indian wedding?" (He also mocked Brand's pal Noel Gallagher for saying that novels were a "waste of time"; I'd also remind everyone that the delightful Gallagher once said "I'm not arsed about world peace, a bit of war is good – it sorts men out from the boys".) 

Fellow comedian Robert Webb called Brand an "intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored" and told him to read George Orwell. Robin Lustig of the Huffington post pointed out that, far from being a message of hope, "I will never vote and I don't think you should, either" is in fact a message of despair. "By writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he'll never go hungry or be without a home."
Only the Guardian offers support, saying "It is a sad reflection of the dire state of politics and the media that it falls to a celebrity comedian such as Russell Brand to speak truth to power – and an even sadder reflection that mainstream cultural commentators find themselves incapable of even understanding his key message." 

Lots of viewers (who perhaps weren't that familiar with Newsnight) noted that Paxman was "rude" or "arrogant" or a "bully". But he's always like that! He rakes everyone over the coals, poking holes in all their arguments and scoffing if they waver for a moment. He won't let anyone get away with BS, and that's why he's a great interviewer. Far from being antagonistic towards Russell, he appeared amused throughout most of their encounter. That he started with the question "Who are you to edit a political magazine?" seems reasonable when you consider that he's addressing a stand-up comedian who doesn't vote; his "you are a very trivial man," was in fact a chuckling response to Brand's suggestion that he grow his "gorgeous" beard and join it up with his armpit hair.

Paxman tries to pin down Brand to a straight answer: "I'm not having a go at you 
because you want a revolution... I'm asking you what it would be like!"

Brand said he "felt cross" with Paxman (even when Jeremy said "I wouldn't argue with you" about many of the points raised) – which may be why he brought up Paxman's appearance on Who Do You Think You Are – "You CRIED! Because you knew that it was unfair, and unjust." A bit of a low blow? (It was Margaret Thatcher who once said "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left".) Brand finished with a defiant cry of "I don't need the right from you, I don't need the right from anybody, I'm taking it!" with the exact cadence of someone on Question Time who expects to be applauded.

It's not the first time the pair have teamed up (which may be why Jeremy generally regards Russell with the twinkling eyes of an indulgent uncle). In 2010 they had a far more interesting conversation in which Brand talked about celebrity culture, saying the price of fame is losing your privacy forever and that "if you have a deep love of singing or dancing or basket weaving then you should pursue that," but to pursue fame for its own sake is "ridiculous" and "unfulfilling". He said he was sorry for the "impolite" phone calls to Andrew Sachs, astounded Jeremy with his belief in God, and declared his hope of achieving something "truly valuable" with his life. 

(So how come that one didn't go viral? Maybe the people who love the idea of a political revolution haven't quite got over their aspirations to get stalked by papparazzi.)

An appearance on MSNBC in June also swept through the internet at the speed of light when he amusingly pointed out the rudeness and unprofessionalism of the hosts. They started with a neg hit ("He's a really big deal... I'm told this, I'm not very pop culture, sorry") and continued into full-blown shambles (talking about him in the third person, saying they didn't understand his accent, and the final insult; inexplicably re-naming him "Willy"). As they grew more flustered at his unpredictable responses, he retorted incredulously "Is this what you all do for a living?!"

I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed his casual sexism; you can actually see his ego bristling at any kind of "dis" and his reaction is to draw attention to a woman's body / sexuality and to call her "love". 

Brand must be constantly frustrated; he's created a persona of being a crackling ball of energy, a comedian and a womaniser, but the very reasons for his fame are now the reasons he's not taken seriously. When he's talking about the transcendental realms reached through meditation and the disillusionment people have with religion, ecomony, and what they're being told on TV, the reply is a parody of itself: "But more importantly, did Tom Cruise buy you a yoga mat?"

So the upshot of this blog is that I don't hate Russell Brand any more. I still find him annoying (and his fans even more so) but he does make some good points. (I especially like his suggestion that we call the government "admin bods" so they don't start thinking too much of themselves.)  He's been very straightforward about his past drug use and is one of the few celebrities who admit what we all secretly know about drug addicts: "people take drugs and drink excessively, those that have a problem with it, because there's this kind of a sadness, or loneliness, or emptiness in them. I don't think they're doing it for a laugh." 

Obviously voting DOES make a difference (just ask Barack Obama, and all the people who will be able to afford medical care because of him) but Brand is alerting the big political parties to the kind of disillusionment many young (and old) people feel, and I think his heart is in the right place. But rather than throwing our hands up and gloomily saying "Nothing can improve our current conditions" why don't we try to make small, sustainable changes? We could start by giving MPs less pay and fewer opportunities to employ family members, spending money where it's really needed, and holding more referendums so the people can have their voices heard. That way we'll have a revolution in no time, and we won't even have to blow up parliament to do it. 


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