I’m going to start like this: I saw Ke$ha live once. Worse: I woke up at 4 a.m. and waited in Rockefeller Center in a puddle of glitter sprinkled off clusters of Midwestern teenagers who had woken even earlier to see Ke$ha, to see Ke$ha.
I’m telling you that I went to see Ke$ha, a singer whose work is derivative of pop music, play a few songs for the Today Show, whose content is derivative of journalism, because I need you to understand that I am well-versed in the annals of derivative works. It’s street cred of the worst kind, if you will.
If you won’t, I guess I could also tell you that I am sitting in a chair with a glass of bourbon and a bag of peanut butter M&M’s watching someone else watch someone else complete a mission in Grand Theft Auto Online, because that first someone kind of blew his load and decided to go and shoot pedestrians unnecessarily and set the cops on everyone’s asses, so now he’s dead and just has to wait around while the second someone else steals a tractor trailer and drives it all the way back to the warehouse, and this is the sort of thing I find myself emotionally invested in at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in my yoga pants.
Stop to think about this for a moment: I am not doing anything at all. I am connecting not with my activities, or with the activities of a person I’m in the room with, but rather, with something some mystery person in some faraway living room is doing in a simulation that mimics an alternate life in the city I’m actually sitting in the middle of, not doing anything.
Because this is who we are now, isn’t it? We are watchers. There are studies about our new psychological disorders, caused mostly by ourselves and our inability to put down the screens and interact with real people in the real world. We have empathy problems and self-esteem problems that we didn’t have before. (On the other side of this coin, we are apparently wayyyy awesome at operating remote-controlled drones, so thanks for that, video games.)
And this isn’t the dominion only of gamers and the deadbeat essayists in the room with them. The world’s economy is layers upon layers of derivation. There are people who make things and people who buy things, yes? But there are also people who make bets on whether people will want more or less of those things, and people who make loans to people so they can buy things and make things, and people who bet on the ability of those borrowers to pay back those loans. There are people who bet on the abilities of the people who make bets, to make bets.
There are people who are betting that people will sit in their living rooms and watch someone else play video games. The game League of Legends, for example, is its own industry, with players sponsored by Mountain Dew and American Express competing in tournaments that work like football (but not like college football because the League of Legends tournament rules are fair and the BCS will NEVER BE FAIR). They fill Staples Center with ticket- and t-shirt-buying people who, while these sponsored teams are playing a video game, are just sitting there, watching.
What would we do if we weren’t watching? At night when we get home from work, we watch stories about other people’s lives on TV. We craft and maintain our own personal fictions on Facebook and use those avatars to watch the fictional lives of our friends as they get married and have babies and live happily ever after, according to the illusion. We could instead, I suppose, use this time to make something. We could paint pictures or write stories, but we’ll only ever create things we’ve seen before, the clay figures being carried between the fire and the wall where the men are chained.
I am OK with this as I say it, or rather, as I type what I would say, if I were to say out loud in this studio apartment electrified with the anxieties of two people who are not stealing this tractor trailer. I’m OK with this because I like Ke$ha. I like TV. I like watching this fake guy get run over by this fake truck in fake Los Angeles while I sit here in real Los Angeles and eat M&Ms.
I like these things because the tangible world is hard. People get cancer and die in real ways that have ever-rippling consequences, not just in ways that end in them becoming the meth king of Albuquerque. Debt collectors call you and enumerate for you all the ways in which you have failed. Some jerk backs their truck up into your car and dents the hood.
The real world is shit, and derivation creates distance. As Ke$ha, the goddess of our times, once said, “Tik tok on the clock but the party don’t stop, no, whoa-oh oh oh, whoa-oh oh oh.”