Chris Crocker :: ’What’s so hard to understand?’
Three years before sex columnist Dan Savage launched his grassroots It Gets Better project to combat queer teenage suicide, an infinitely gendered nineteen-year-old from Bristol, Tennessee, put his Keds up on the edge of the frame, tossed his multi-colored, Duranie mane back and forth and began to rant like a black transexual in the 47-second YouTube clip titled This & That.
"To the bitches that wanna fight me," Chris Crocker declared, pulling up his tee-shirt sleeve to flash a wiry bicep, "look at this bitch." Raising his orange tee to reveal a milky, bare chest, Crocker continues, "What is it, girl? What I got to hide, nigga? What I got to hide, huh? Because bitch, you wanna fight somebody, bitch? Let’s go, girl!" He finally raises his hand to the camera and knocks it into the lens.
While Crocker was holed up in his Pentecostal grandparents house crafting his This & That manifesto, his idol Britney Spears was 2.300 miles away in her home studio recording "Blackout." That album’s confrontational central question - "You wanna piece of me?" - completely aligned with Crocker’s ready to bitch-slap posturing and they came together in a most public way.
The Britney video
On September 9, Spears took the stage in Las Vegas at The Palms casino to open the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards with Blackout’s first single "Gimme More;" but it may as well have been titled "Demi Moore" as Spears flounced about the stage, bloated in a black, sequined two piece and go-go boots blowing her choreography and her lip-synch.
The media blew the performance into an international incident. The next day, wrapped up in a white curtain with black mascara sliding down his cheeks, Crocker asked, "How fucking dare anyone out there make fun of Britney after all she’s been through?" It was the opening salvo of his infamous, two-minute, 12-second, 43-million hit Youtube monster Leave Britney Alone.
The Britney meltdown, which Crocker deems more significant that 9/11, is the inciting incident for filmmakers Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch, who use it as a bridge into Crocker’s insular world that pulls primetime numbers.
"There was no HBO when we started this," Moukarbel says after a screening of the film at the 14th annual Provincetown International Film Festival. That channel’s doc honcho Sheila Nevins eventually bought the film for HBO’s Monday night Documentary Summer Series, bumping their Vito Russo doc back to July to give Me @ the Zoo their Gay Pride showcase.
HBO airs the documentary on Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9pm. For further details, visit the HBO website.
An essay on reality television
"We started making this three and a half years ago," Mourkarvel continues, "it was a broad essay about performance online and reality television. The gift was being able to help Chris tell his story."
What surprised many was the Chris Crocker, who follows Moukarbel and Veatch into the theater after their film has spooled, is virtually unrecognizable from either the long-haired bottle blond of the film’s first half or the raven-haired punk that shadows its conclusion. The haircut is prompted, the film suggests, by the Pentecostal church Crocker’s grandparents attend. "The biggest thing was just getting my grandmother to go along with it," this new, Cape Cod-friendly Crocker says of the film. "It’s her house. A lot of it was just her being able to trust their process."
The next afternoon, after a festival breakfast addressing New Queer Cinema twenty years on, Crocker is lounging on one of the couches in the Kodak hospitality suite. He’s told the morning panel could have used his help as it seemed to keep getting hung up on the question, ’What are all the 25-year-olds up to?’
He laughs and admits that an a.m. panel was much too early as he’s still shaking off a wild night in Provincetown. "And working out some drama with my boyfriend," he says, holding up a smartphone that keeps him preoccupied. He’s doesn’t flash the phone’s screen to show a picture of his boyfriend, but rather the phone’s protective outer bumper across which the boyfriend is emblazoned.
"The funniest part of these screenings is that the people who haven’t kept up with me over the years have no idea I’m sitting amongst them watching the film," Crocker ventures of his latest Murray’s Toggery incarnation. "And then when it comes time to stand up and answer questions, they’re like, ’Oh, he was sitting beside me the whole time.’
"I still ask myself, what is it? I think I’m interested in personifying a character and filling a space. It’s almost a social study for me. I haven’t really lived as what society considers an attractive kind of guy, so in the beginning, it’s like, I want to fill that, but then after I get that part, I’m not trying anymore."
And though he identifies as transgender early in the film, Crocker admits he doesn’t even know what those labels mean anymore. "I’m open to theories, " he laughs. "I’m very removed from the gay community because they tell me I’m the reason gay people get gay bashed. And a lot of trans- people tell me I’ve turned my back on them. It’s like everyone’s wanting some sort of representative and I’m only representing myself. I’ve never claimed to be the voice of the gay generation. That’s a lot to take on. If people have only seen me as a joke," he asks, "why do they want me to be a role model?"
"I can’t pretend to be a victim," Crocker says when compared to queer teen suicide Tyler Clementi. "I’m self-publishing. If anything, I was empowered by posting my videos. Growing up in Tennessee, I was so used to hatred, that it’s almost harder for me to take a compliment than it is to take the hatred. You almost become addicted to negative attention. I didn’t realize that until I got a little bit older. I was feeding off of it and the only way I knew how to feel good about myself was when others felt bad about me. You can become addicted to hatred when you grow up with it all around you. You don’t know how to receive love."
"You have to have a really strong sense of self," he continues, "in order to take on hundreds of thousands of comments saying, ’go kill yourself.’ That would get to the strongest of people. With anything that you post, you have to have conviction, and you have to be sure of it before you post. And I do go back to that, growing up around hatred physically prepared me. I mean, who cares about comments, I deal with this physically every day.
"My life in Tennessee was a preparation to endure that hatred and let other younger gay people see that they can take it on. I get so many young people asking me how to deal with it and I think this film is something these kids can gravitate to. And that sounds like such a Lady Gaga answer, but it really is true."
The porn thing
It’s also a bit Lady Antebellum. "People that live in L.A. and New York and Chicago," Crocker says, "all my friends are like, ’What are you talking about? What is this gay bullying? I don’t experience it.’ And I’m like, ’hello, you live in Boystown!’ People forget there’s still so much work that needs to be done in the south, specifically with gays. They’re just there and the only gay pride they get to experience is on the internet. That’s their only way of experiencing any sort of acceptance, which is what I was doing."
And his throw-down posture? The "You wanna fight somebody, bitch" of This & That? Crocker admits it was born of the isolation brought about by home-schooling. "I was calling black gay tranny phone hotlines," he laughs, "I had a lot of free time and no friends so I started studying their behavior and I was like what it this lingo that I’ve never heard, it’s like so exciting. It was a whole new world that wasn’t accessible to me and I was channeling that energy. I don’t even know if that was me. That was just energy."
And like most things internet, then there’s porn. Googling "Chris Crocker porn" will bring up an equal number of sites claiming he’s shooting a video with Chi Chi LaRue as those saying that he’s not and the whole thing is a hoax. His use of the words "porn" and "Youtube" are fairly interchangeable, both means to an end: fame.
"There’s no understanding among people," Crocker says. "Even people who lived through the 70s and the 80s, some of the most sexually liberal times, can’t seem to understand porn as an art. They don’t see exhibition that involves the human body as an art. When you are self-publishing your body and using it in a way people can either get off to or just wonder what is this? That’s no longer art to people. That’s why I think it’s really important to be an empowered sexual person and be educated and not just flaunt it and be irresponsible."
Just the internet
And while Crocker might not consider himself on the right side of history, he will at least cop to being on the right side of the Paris Hilton sex tape.
"The thing I don’t understand that people don’t understand about me is what is so hard to understand?" Crocker asks. "If you’re a sexually liberated person, why is there this need for explanation? Why do you need to explain why I have nude pictures? Why? We live in a generation where it just is. Nudity and self-produced exhibitionism just is. That’s the internet."
For Crocker, it all falls under the category of performance. And for someone who in his hundreds of videos manages to tick off almost all of the major historical milestones of performance art, he classifies himself as "not very familiar with it." Names like Marina Abramović are met with a quick, "yeah-yeah-yeah," but nothing more substantial. Crocker is also quick to point out something about Tarnation, a film to which his is constantly compared. That film’s director, Jonathan Caouette, has seen Me @ the Zoo, but Crocker has still not seen Tarnation. He is considering taking Caouette up on his offer of dinner and a movie, Caouette’s own, of course. "We’re very like-minded people," he says of Caouette, "but I’m so insulated and in my own world, I don’t even know what I’m channelling."
Me @ the Zoo airs 9pm, Monday, June 25, 2012 on HBO. For more details visit the HBO website.
Watch the trailer to "Me @ the Zoo":
Watch Chris Crocker’s "Leave Britney Alone" video: