According to YouTube, approximately 300 hours’ worth of footage is uploaded to their site every minute. Assuming a three-shift day much like what we had at the Marysville Assembly Plant, but not accounting for breaks of any sort, it would take a workforce of 74,000 people just to stay current with what’s being uploaded to YouTube.
That’s my excuse for why I had not heard of Ronald Jenkees until recently. Mr. Jenkees, who has been on YouTube since 2006 or thereabouts, can boast of close to one hundred million views for his self-produced electronic music videos. Since appearing “out of nowhere” on the site, he has self-released five albums and has worked with a number of music industry heavy hitters behind the scenes. He is that rarest of creatures: a man who earns his living through music despite having no label or brand affiliation.
Jenkees appears in his videos as a cheerful fellow with tremendous keyboard chops, a taste for “uncool” outfits, and perhaps a bit of the autism spectrum in his features and demeanor. It’s impossible not to like the man; even the traditionally caustic YouTube commenters are generally kind to him. Yet for the past nine years there’s been a swelling undercurrent of resentment regarding Jenkees and his YouTube performances. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the man has enemies — and his enemies say that he is “passing”.
Now I don’t know about you, when when I hear the word “passing” in a context like that I think about Slash, the African-British-American guitarist behind Guns N’ Roses. Or maybe you think of Rachel Dolezal. To “pass” is to insert yourself into the mainstream society without said society knowing. During the Holocaust, some Jews “passed” as ethnic Germans. For at least the past 150 years, black people have “passed” as white in American society. The rather fascinating and adept book Caucasia is a hard look at the emotional and spiritual burdens involved with passing as white. There’s a scene where the main character finds another Black girl who is passing — but they can only confess that fact to each other when they are huddled on the ground together in the dead of night.
Nobody is saying that Jenkees is “passing” as white. Instead, the allegations are that he is a perfectly “normal” musician who is passing as a geek:
How can anyone rag on you if you can always hide behind being different? You could try to be cool, you could try to be your normal semi-cool self, or you could exaggerate your inner dork to the point where you’re clearly different (not retarded, just different). If you do this, any social misstep you might make can be attributed to your different-ness, which is considered a positive attribute (kind of like the self-effacing jujitsu Eminem uses on his first couple of albums). There may be people as talented as Ronald Jenkees out there, but who would notice them if they’re just another Steve Vai wannabe from Berklee School of Music, some quiet man-of-mystery (which reads as holier-than-thou) with a ponytail, no fashion sense, and zero charisma? If that were you, then wouldn’t you have an easier time getting attention and sympathy if you exaggerated your dorky characteristics (in effect “passing” as a dork)?
This is “reverse passing”, joining a presumably disadvantaged group to obtain a particular advantage, the same way that Rachel Dolezal did. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, it was so she could earn a living as a race hustler and poverty pimp, God bless her soul. There’s some additional precedent. The singer Phoebe Snow was often thought to be black, to the point that President Obama mentioned her once as an inspirational Black woman — but she never claimed to be anything but Jewish. The case of Bobby Caldwell is a little bit less clear-cut: the man who brought us “What You Won’t Do For Love” didn’t appear on his own album covers at the request of his record company, which correctly deduced he would sell better if people thought he was Black. Rod Stewart tried so hard to sound Black that he told Jeff Beck he was worried about being “found out” by concert audiences. Beck’s response was to laugh and tell him he wasn’t fooling anybody, on or off the record.
(Another case of “reverse passing”, of course, would be Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry, which helped her career to no small extent and which she has yet to fully discard, saying only that she is not a registered member of a tribe but that she still believes herself to be Native.)
According to Ronald’s critics, he’s a normal guy who pretends to be a dork so you’ll be extra-amazed by his virtuosity. The biggest problem with this claim is that nobody can say for sure that they know who Jenkees “really is”, or what he is “really like”. There have been a few posts on Reddit along the lines of “my brother went to school with this guy and he had a different name and he was totally normal.” Nobody has a picture or recording of him “out of character”, however. The closest anybody has come is a shot of a man playing keyboard in a dorm room; it’s obvious from the shape of the man’s head that it’s not Jenkees.
Which leaves us with a few possibilities.
One: Ronald Jenkees is exactly what he says he is and exactly what he portrays himself as in his videos.
Two: He is a complete fake who lives his character with the same kind of dedication as Burden and Fallon in “The Prestige”.
Three: His everyday persona is not exactly like what he portrays on the videos — maybe he doesn’t always wear a fedora — but it is based on who he is.
The Internet consensus has coalesced around option three, for the most part. Which makes the next question: Is it offensive for him to put on — and I’m gonna make up a word here — “nerdface” when he plays? If so, whom has he offended, and why?
Don’t take the easy way out here and say, “Well, he’s pretending to be a white nerd, so what’s the problem?” The driving force behind GamerGate, which arguably led to the rise of the alt-right and the election of Donald Trump, was the simmering anger felt by “geeky” white men at being designated by the media both as villains and as the only acceptable target for harassment, slander, and assault. Let’s be fair and equitable here. If it would be offensive for Jenkees to “pass” as black, it’s also offensive for him to “pass” as an autistic white nerd if he is in fact the former captain of a football team and/or president of his fraternity.
Now let’s complicate it a little more by stating something that should be obvious: the camera changes how people behave. I’ve been watching automotive journalists “do video” for a decade now, and I’ve “done video” myself. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is entirely natural and normal in front of a camera. They are always playing a character of some sort, even if the character is based on their own self.
I’ll give you an example. Many years ago, I agreed to do something called the CTS-V Challenge. When I got there, I realized they were making a TV show about it. A TV show in which I would be interviewed multiple times. I was absolutely determined not to say “um” or “uh” in front of the camera the way most people do. I didn’t want to come off as a dumb hick who couldn’t get his words straight — even though most people do, in fact, pause and stumble a bit in everyday conversation. I achieved this goal by speaking in complete sentences at this kind of unearthly measured pace. I also managed to sound like the most prissy, unpleasant, self-absorbed idiot in history. Thankfully, the original Speed TV show has long disappeared from the Internet, but you can catch my interview with Automotive Rhythms for a sense of how I came off in the video.
The night the TV show came out, I couldn’t help but root against myself. I sure hope that stuttering hick Michael Cooper (who was the ultra-privileged son of Manhattan millionaires and who is now a World Challenge champion) beats that prissy Baruth (who didn’t have next month’s mortgage payment in the bank when he drove at his own expense to New York)!
When people are on camera, they act in a way that they think will look good on camera. The people who can do this successfully are called “actors”. Everybody else is just a moron when the curtain goes up. It’s why I don’t do video about cars unless I get paid for it. There are no automotive journalists who should be on camera. You could maybe make an exception for Clarkson, Hammond, and May — who are all portraying characters only distantly related to their true selves. Their banter is scripted.
Which brings me to the matter of a certain YouTuber named Doug DeMuro. As some of you know, DeMuro worked for me at TTAC briefly before ghosting. I say “ghosting” because he didn’t quit and he didn’t return my emails asking if he had quit. He just disappeared. Why? Simple. I wasn’t letting him choose the exact time that his articles ran. He’d come up with some sort of algorithm that told him when he would get the most clicks and he demanded that I follow his algorithm. He got really strident about it so I sent him this video in response:
I never heard from him again. A few months later, I saw one of his videos for the first time and I was, as they say, gobsmacked. The guy on the video wasn’t anything like the writer who harassed me about daylight-savings time and page positioning. That’s because they are not the same person. There is a person named “Doug DeMuro” who works day and night to try to become a famous YouTuber and writer. That person deliberately obscured the source of the funds he used to buy his cars. (I know it, but I’m no snitch.) That person has applied dozens of times to be in every pilot, on every website, and in every magazine you can imagine. That person works very hard to grow his fan base through thousands of posts on Reddit and elsewhere. That person went through the trouble of creating an entire fake life, including a marriage, in order to get a following. That person somehow managed to get a major car magazine to profile him a few years back as an “exotics spotter”.
The character “Doug DeMuro” is a happy-go-lucky moron who loves everybody and everything and definitely thinks his fans are all super-cool and loves to make recycled Dave Barry jokes and loves to make funny faces and loves to babble endlessly on his videos.
Most of the automotive Internet can’t distinguish the two. They think DeMuro really is that person he portrays in his videos. They think he grew up as a rich kid and he can buy anything he wants and he’s just doing all of this for the love of cars. They ruthlessly downvote any suggestion on Reddit that he knowingly pumps-and-dumps his personal automotive purchases via his videos and via AutoTrader. They attend his meetups, where they shake the hand of the man, who is performing in character the same way Idris Elba reportedly does the “Stringer Bell voice” when he meets American fans.
Is that okay? Or should we force everybody to be their “real self” at all times? If that’s the case, how do we know what their “real self” is? Is the real Jack Baruth an autowriter or a cyclist or a father or none of those? If I have a tailor on Savile Row, am I still allowed to wear the infamous gold hoodie? Or do I have to choose? If Ronald Jenkees doesn’t wear a fedora in public, is he allowed to wear one in his videos? Should DeMuro be allowed to say the stupid shit he says in his videos, or should somebody fact-check him before each performance?
I’ve covered this before, from a slightly different angle. My opinion now is the same as it was then. I think that “authenticity” is not nearly as important as some of us would like it to be. Robert Cray really is a better blues musician than T-Model Ford, even though Ford killed a man and Cray was a teenaged stage performer. Bob Dylan is a better folk singer than pretty much everybody else even though his “character” was 100% fabricated. Doug DeMuro is good at his job, even though I find his work repugnant. And Ronald Jenkees should be allowed to perform his music without being endlessly harassed about the purity and authenticity of his “nerdiness”. We should judge people by the quality of their performance, not how neatly their background lines up with the purity test we’ve independently devised to determine whether or not they “deserve” to perform.
It’s tricky because if you carry that philosophy to its logical conclusion then you get “blackface” performers and Rachel Dolezal and all sorts of stuff that repels us. I’m not personally comfortable with people who cross the lines of color and/or race in the cause of an artistic performance or career enhancement. Yet I also have to admit that I’m probably on the wrong side of history here. In the past decade, we’ve been told over and over again that gender is “fluid” and that I could become a woman just by identifying as one. Given that there is less genetic difference between a white man and a black man than there is between a white man and a white woman, why can’t I “identify” as black, or Asian, or whatever? How is gender fluid when race isn’t? And if race is fluid, doesn’t that mean being a nerd could also be fluid?
When everybody can decide to be anything they want, isn’t that the same as saying that nobody is anything at all? It’s enough to bake your noodle. In the meantime, I’ve decide to vote with my dollars for Ronald Jenkees. Whether he’s “real” or “fake”. Doesn’t matter. The music is real, the same way Dylan’s first album was real, the same way the Milli Vanilli album is indisputably real even though Rob and Fab didn’t sing a note on it. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. As for the rest of the discussion on race and identity and fluidity? I’ll have to take a pass.
(One last thing: Riverside Green COTD status for the first person who can tell me what the graphics on the “Rhodes Deep” album are a direct rip from.)