The oh-too-easy lure of the YouTube Black Hole can take you down anytime defenses are lowered and procrastination has had even four minutes to percolate.

Somehow, a diligent non-TV owner can even get a little nostalgic for TLC: those Extreme Coupon-ers are a bit entertaining and probably not too dangerous. Extreme Cheapskates are bearable and not contagious in careful, four minute snippets.

Suddenly, “Recommended Videos For You” feels like a friend, with a mix of dangerous real magic (videos you’ve watched or favourited, endless “Thug Life” Animal compilations, any old DELIGHTFUL interview clips featuring the impossible to resist allure of the honest glow and long missed full cheeks actresses still had in the 1990s, offset so well with the matte pinky-brown lip that some of us will take to the grave) and devil-work (“Where Are The Kids of Jersey Shore Today?” ANY current Today Show clips, just about anyone who”Gets Owned On Camera!” and inexplicably, haunted dolls). Haunting, too, are the depressed and conflicted feelings raised by seeing current-day Lindsay Lohan (making a serious stab at The London Stage, and apparently, recovery) appear on TV next to a sneering, lisping, jaded Jonathan Ross who thinks both The Parent Trap and a decade of youthful legal troubles is fodder for five minutes of his largely pointless brand of TV fluff. She’s flanked on the other side by Ross’s pal Russell Brand, who tries to play “good cop” and stay in his current activist-enlightened sober coach mode, even as he lurches toward Lohan, pulling his arm back with a quick withering look from her. Maybe this woman’ll be alright.


Even for those who remember very different times in entertainment, TV and media in all its forms, the expert pull of digital’s context-less world is the entire aim of the Magic 8 Ball algorithm of YouTube. The site occupies a strange space in the gap between old media and social media worlds, dominating in both areas. There are YouTube stars; magazines hanging their futures on their low-overhead YouTube channels; self-proclaimed experts at all levels of authority and popularity on all manner of subjects; former public access outsider artist misfits who’ve found a lifeline; and loads and loads of advertising. We use it as a music player (with videos being sometimes besides the point) for legal and pirated content, and YouTube happily sticks annoying loud ads indiscriminately over each thing with the same gusto and cruelty.

Context is fleeting, here. Are you willing to give it 11 minutes? 40 minutes for what was once, a full hour of TV with 8 commercial breaks? It beats doing laundry.

The fix of watching the perfect confection known as Pretty Woman, a movie innate and embedded in a generation and a half of former video renters, can now be obtained like something promised on Tinder: cheaply and without commitment, and in two minute clips. “Both the Shopping Scenes.” The trailer (which gives the whole movie away). The high is even better than watching the film: here’s the outtakes. Here’s Julia Roberts, Richard Gere and Garry Marshall performing “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” at the Cast Wrap Party!!! We can digest in 30 minutes more than existed for us in 1990 about why we love this movie. We can double down on all that delicious retro context, go all the way in, take a trip.

The longing for deeper context grows, finally, if you have that inclination, and the reward comes as it kicks in like muscle memory. Now the fix has been delivered but the opium-like comfort beckons: the recall of the nebulous memory of 1990 is a deeper and more dangerous high. Look at their chemistry. They must have had something going on (as always suspected). Julia Roberts was only 21. That character was all her- she had Garry Marshall and the probably prickly and jaded Richard Gere in love with her, she totally, 100% owned here. I will never, ever, be as alive as Julia was in that film, in that world. She was an alien. Why did she ever cut that hair? Why? Is Margot Robbie (at last, the long awaited) next Julia Roberts? No one mentions Julia nowadays, they compare Robbie to Charlize instead.

In 1990, we cared, sincerely, about things like this: the lives of stars. Their careers. Their happiness. Their hairstyle changes. There was still magic. She was the last of it, that was the end.

Willing to bet this ultra 1994 look inspired the controversial Zendaya “mullet”.

Here’s Julia in 1994. Still dewy, radiant, young, so young. Her odd features still a perfect Picasso. But all that hair is gone. She’s hiding in short hair, depriving herself and the world with a newswoman’s almost mullet, proto-typical future John & Kate Plus Eight hair do. No doubt a “fuck you” to some studio. She’s dressed like Katherine Hepburn in 1976. She’s channeling strength and heroes from magazines and old movies. Already, “Julia Roberts” is no longer a skin she owns, alone, alive with hunger, still trying to break out. “Julia Roberts” is almost gone, forever, already. She’s been through it- the instant fame, an A-List star forever, how many engagements, left Keifer at the altar, now married to Lyle Lovett for a minute. Only 26, and she’s lived more than I ever will. “Our marriage…is ours.”

She wanted to be real in an unreal, dizzying world of fame, be that Georgia girl again. She married an older Texan musician, her “Billy Bob Thornton” moment. It would be his only marriage of just 2 years. She might be his Marilyn Monroe. She’s living, here, with what was still The Media intrusion (with Diane Sawyer uncomfortable to watch, seemingly wishing to hard hit what is a soft sell piece with someone, at that time, almost impossible to dislike) as dinosaurs power suits and power hair missed that the ever-spreading scourge of the paparazzi and gossip world would soon eat 90% of The Media for breakfast.

Yet, Roberts is hater-proof in this clip, 1000 watts. She’s impossibly sweet as she talks about angels, the need for more hand holding and kissing in the world, flaky interview talk you never hear anymore. It’s delightfully alien, even as Diane Sawyer can barely hide her eyerolls at this unserious, rich, weird, beautiful and subversive woman. A woman not taken seriously, not trusted or liked by other women. A witchy woman. The best and worst kind of woman with substance, but what substance?

These artifacts of old culture are fascinating-even if remembered as major events of the TV era, the lens has changed, it’s all sepia toned. 20 years has frayed everything instead of burnishing this world. None of us are the same – not viewer, not device, not setting, not interviewer, and not subject.

YouTube is an irresistible wasteland of weird, controversial, knee jerk, hateful, funny, cruel, on point, silly, and insightful comments from users who drift through these videos on their own late night drunken rambles or wasted days. It’s a must to read the comments, even if you will, like clockwork, get an eyeful of casual, deliberate racism and sexism, cries from an America that, until quite recently, used to create & export something more than hate and ire.

All this weird Selected Videos For Me adventuring leads to a video from 2007 called “Letterman Owns Paris Hilton“. Good selection, my invisible YouTube best friend/my bad influence friend. This was a watershed moment in Late Night TV when Letterman brought back his original biting, intimidating persona that fans of the real old days (80’s) will remember. It was a significant moment: Hilton was riding five or six years of cultural overexposure before a planet who was largely tired of her fake as hell, baby-voiced shtick, most of whom thought and hoped this celebrity famous for being famous thing was a blip, instead of the first horse of the Apocalypse (whose one-time personal assistant, Kim Kardashian, would steal her entire playbook and make memories of the Hilton years seem almost quaint.)

She’d left a storage locker full of shit unpaid. And so the world, by then, knew even more they didn’t want to know of this person. About multiple, laughing, videotaped racist comments she’d made, her STD prescriptions, about the hoarded dogs that had died under her ownership, her frenemies, her chosen brand of rich trash: Ed Hardy ugly clothes, all no-ass crack and jutting hip bones and cocaine eyes. This born-rich socialite could have been anything- but became a bad actress, terrible pop star, and club rat/ attention whore, instead.


Does context matter anymore? Because it did, then. And didn’t need to be explained. It was an applause worthy moment with no losers. Hilton got to shill some crummy perfume called “Can-Can.” Letterman got to express dissent to this waste of his time and space beautifully by turning the full force of his angry wit on a deserving teflon millionaire who loved any and all attention, good or bad. She’d done a stupid stint in jail and found the bible. She was totally ridiculous and not in a fun way anymore. This marked a moment where bloggers, entertainment websites and print magazines started blacking out on Hilton- no more coverage, in response to reader demand, and she went away from the public eye at last.

But here on YouTube, it’s a new world. It’s a context-free world, a choose your own context world, an Imma gonna filter this through my own favourite propaganda world. Everyone has a voice, and the loudest have little need or want of context; while most agree heartily that Hilton got owned, others are offended by default in the new wasteland of oversensitive special snowflakes “this is just painful to watch. Letterman was just being plain rude.” ” I don’t care who he was interviewing. That was rude on so many levels. ” (How many levels, one wonders?) Even the B-word is brought out: “Nobody deserves to be bullied and publicly humiliated!” They understand, visually, rudeness and “bullying”. They lack context, the idea of matching wits (with the witless) and the truth that entertainment is a bloody battlefield where people smile expertly. They’ve bought the PR spin of today, and think that TV hosts are supposed to be neutered cats.

“What did you do today?”

So I’m moved to write a rare comment on YouTube, in despair about the dearth of context anymore, well aware it will draw shade and maybe hate, that it’s too long for most attention spans, that its very existence and content suggests my age and all the litter in the ever-widening valley of the physical, cultural world we inhabited with context, with time, and with recognized authority figures who we actually trusted once, like Dave Letterman. No prefacing was needed then. He was the context. His might, his then 20 years in the game. Now, in a blink, he’s apparently irrelevant to the inheritors of this world. He’s even “the interviewer…” nameless. For shame.

Letterman is in a better mood in this clip with Snooki. Remember Snooki from down the Jersey Shore? She played the game better than Hilton, she always had a sense of humour, even at her worst. She asks Letterman: “Don’t you watch the show?” He looks straight into the camera, our original, our truest Ferris Bueller, once a trusted cultural compass and replies “Did Willy Wonka have diabetes?!?”

Of course he doesn’t consume this shit he sells, when it’s something like Jersey Shore or Hilton’s brand. It’s just a factory, he just gives the tours, wrangles the lucky little shits with their golden tickets and ushers them through their ever-shorter stays. His wink, his smirk, was cool. He was a grumpy (even when young) sometimes terrifying, hard to please, outsider in charge. Context can be funny. It mattered. Context was beautiful.

By Jacqueline Howell