Liar, Liar, Phone On Fire

Trying to control our narratives in real time, convinced the world is watching – it’s unclear who we’re trying to fool.

ILLUSTRATION Yolande Mutale

“All the kids on the Disney channel must’ve been railing uppers between takes,” is a crass party line I like to throw out when the conversation lulls. “Imagine having to deliver those corny lines at that self-conscious age? Anyone would need a chemical helper.” No one disagrees.  

“I’m hanging in there,” Demi Lovato tells the webcam, post-overdose and broken engagement, compiling quarantine footage for her upcoming docuseries, Dancing with the Devil, which of course is also the name of her new album. “The video I made earlier,” she clarifies, this time sans makeup, “wasn’t an accurate representation of what I’m going through.” After a very public decade of struggling with addiction, the singer’s management began to recognize the bankability of her candor—there have been three Lovato documentaries to date, the second of which was also a companion piece to a record—building a brand out of her trauma. This is not to say, as a WME agent might put it, Lovato’s willingness to go there hasn’t helped people. I’m sure it has. But it’s fascinating and disturbing to watch someone try to control their narrative in real(ish) time. 

In one scene, her entourage alleges that everyone is saying her last Grammy’s performance was one of the “greatest of all time!” Lovato blushes and laughs, not challenging the lie. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a former child star to see her artistic output clearly; the other day on the phone, a friend was saying how she misses when no one anticipated her work—she is not a famous artist. Neither am I, but I’ve felt similar delusions of a captive audience. Rumor has it honesty can be reached by inviting cameras into your life and artistry achieved through simply telling the world how you feel. 

Rumour has it honesty can be reached by inviting cameras into your life and artistry achieved through simply telling the world how you feel. 

In a more private display of addiction, a boy who would be handsome if he weren’t so self loathing is subjecting the room to his niche cultural opinions. He’s lured new friends back to his loft with the promise of expensive drugs. Whiskey wouldn’t dull his edges, and the guests must suffer comments like, “Anthony Bourdain was mad corny” and “I can’t believe she was bad in bed, she was wearing Eckhaus Latta.” Someone should’ve told him to shut the fuck up, but party favors pacify.

As the sun rose, only the most self-destructive of the group remained. It was revealed that despite his judgements on everything from Downtown it-girls to the future of publishing, the host worked in tech. He didn’t write or paint or make music. Morning is always embarrassing. 

The feed is not much better—an aftershock of global crisis, everyone’s been acting especially threatened lately. A media columnist covers the hype around The Drunken Canal, a humorous print-only newspaper run by 20-something partiers, and the New York internet boils. The critique from over thirty bloggers is something lofty about whiteness, privilege and pandemic response—although the peer response is similarly disproportionate. Still young and hot enough types with good jobs tweet takedowns of a scene they were never really part of. No matter that they don’t work or drink in the industries or neighborhoods that would be written about in a media column, the success of others brings their own relevance into question. One particularly fragile bystander even created an entire mock paper with a reversed name. That cool is a relative construct that remains largely an underground idea. Regardless, we’re all too old for lunch table politics.

Meanwhile other kids are fighting about gentrification on TikTok. Arguing in the comment section about who’s more to blame: the white occupiers or the real estate powers that court them into low income neighborhoods. Everyone sounds very serious and informed, something I don’t remember about Vine. In another new HBO show about high schoolers, instead of calling a rude character a bitch, they call her a bigot—because being a bitch isn’t bad enough anymore, now you have to attach political context to an insult for it to land. 

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the cultural moment when anything became about everything. 

In liberal arts college there was a social tendency to distance yourself from the proverbial oppressor by clinging to fringe parts of your identity. Like a reverse punch card where the more ancestral persecution you’d scrounge, the louder you could be when discussing politics that don’t affect you. But we dropped that act outside of class, or at least I did, inspired by the 30-somethings I waited tables with who lacked the elitist vocabulary and concern over hypothetical discourse. They loved to dance and never took out their phones and taught me that drunks are generally not preoccupied with moral dilemmas.

Last week my roommate’s boyfriend asked me, “Does the world really need more sad white boy music?” To which I echoed, “If that’s what you are, what else could your art be?” Then we talked very seriously in the shared kitchen about process vs. reception, both of us delusional about our impact. 

I’m starting to wonder if art can really be activism or if that’s just something artists tell each other to anoint their work. It shapes discourse, but discourse is just masturbation.

I’m starting to wonder if art can really be activism or if that’s just something artists tell each other to anoint their work. It shapes discourse, OK, but discourse is mostly masturbation. Still we argue like our conclusions are helping someone. It’s probably not good that the topics are curated by magazine writers whose careers were built on exploiting a zeitgeist of fake problems manufactured by their equally out-of-touch coworkers. Inducing a Buzzfeed mindset of protest, how does YOUR personality type fit into the revolution… loss of urgency and cyber exceptionalism French kiss while the world burns in the background like a bad porno. 

“I heard this thing on a podcast: prioritize policy over language,” remembers a fuck buddy. I nod vigorously, my brain rotted enough to confuse infographic slogans for profundity. He’s decorating his apartment and I tell him I’d love to see it, which is a lie. Which gets me thinking about other lies. Like how I keep telling my friends that I’m going to stop making Matthew Shepherd jokes. (Several didn’t know who that was, I am raising awareness in my poor taste.) 

A leading LGBTQ+ organization releases an “accountability” list naming 200+ politicians and internet bullies who are negatively impacting the cause, a tactic that would make J. Edgar Hoover click his heels. I mostly hear trans people talk about healthcare but I guess accountability is nice, too. 

Smoking outside a bar, someone tells me someone we both know crossed a line. Several years later, he gains a following on TikTok and I wait for the inevitable reckoning, which feels like a singularly modern problem. More recently, someone tweeted, “Not paying a sex worker for their work is sexual assault.” It takes me 48 hours to understand what they mean. I’m scared language will be diluted to the point where we won’t be able to describe what’s happening to us. 

“How is your family?” an editor texts in the wake of natural disaster. “I’m thinking of doing a write-up for the site… I feel like it’s the biggest thing I can do to help.” Artists don’t even know when they’re being self-serving. Insecure about how we don’t literally save lives, we subscribe to the half-truth that art does—which is why it’s something only artists say. This conclusion is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve never heard a doctor begin a sentence with “My work…” 

Artistic narcissism only becomes a problem when it distracts an artist from actually helping, and it usually does. Though, a God complex is really the ultimate self-defense. 

Lately, whenever I catch my friends embellishing about a job, night out, human capacity for good or the size of their apartment, I quote Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” They don’t do the same to me, because that would be annoying.

<strong>Jacob Seferian</strong>
Jacob Seferian

Jacob Seferian is a writer and editor living in New York City.
His work has appeared in over 13 magazines and he’s currently developing a comic about bad sex. 

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