The last 10 years — where did they go? Between the arrival of the Great Recession and our current era, which has come to resemble the final season of the trashy cable TV drama that is the United States, absolutely everything has happened, which sometimes makes it seem as if nothing really has. Perhaps the phones are a bit fancier, and the politics are more openly racist, but has the world, you know, fundamentally changed?
Perhaps this 2009 tweet from the musical duo LMFAO will answer that question:
Indeed, the pop culture of 2009 is barely recognizable to us now. And according to Matt James, a 20-year-old archivist and historian of such ephemera, that’s also the year pop culture died, ushering in a decade-wide vacuum where celebrity gossip once held sway. James has kept a candle burning for the titans of the aughts with a Tumblr blog and a Twitter account that remind us of the magic woven by these self-destructive scandalmakers. And no one is better equipped to dissect the men of that moment.
“Right away, John Mayer, Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher come to mind,” he writes in a Twitter DM when I ask which men he would consider “so 10 years ago.” Notably, they’re all guys who have stuck around, in one way or another, for better or worse. “John Mayer is basically Hollywood herpes,” James declares. “He just keeps coming back, and who seriously wants him? He ran out of celebrity women to glom himself onto for headlines a long time ago. He should’ve been finished after the David Duke dick comment, but alas.” (In a 2010 Playboy interview, the singer-songwriter bizarrely dropped the N-word, and when asked about dating black women, said he had a “white supremacist dick,” which he also referred to as “a fuckin’ David Duke cock.”)
Kutcher’s presence has dimmed likewise, and also not completely. His early fame has guaranteed some staying power. “Usually when he’s spoken of now, it’s because people are endeared to him because of nostalgia and because he finally ended up with Mila,” explains James. “But I never liked him in the aughts, and I still don’t like him — of course, my being a Demi Moore stan plays into that.” And it’s not as if Kutcher does himself many favors in the reinvention department. “His recent bout of press is evidence enough of the fact that in an industry of douches, Ashton still manages to be one of the least self-aware,” James continues. “Developing Twitter fingers and finally finding Ivanka Trump’s @ to score a few PR points after reportedly going to Joshua Kushner and Karlie Kloss’ wedding, in which Javanka was obviously in attendance, practically a week earlier — Ashton, maybe try saying something to someone’s face instead of just cozying up to garbage and then doing nothing but tweeting about it after the fact.”
Could a star from That ’70s Show really be so behind the times? Well…
As for Timberlake — or “Timberdouche,” as James calls him; you start to see the pattern here — it’s another case of mediocrity run amok. He “basically made a career of whining about Britney Spears, or lying and claiming he wasn’t whining about Britney and was whining about Elisha Cuthbert instead.” (Listen to “What Goes Around… Comes Around” and make your own judgments there.) “And then,” James adds, “there were the numerous, painstaking attempts at acting, which I still have to suffer through considering I have a strange urge to watch Alpha Dog every single time it’s on TV.” The Hollywood play culminated in “the ‘can’t read the room’ move of starring in a Woody Allen flick released right on the heels of #MeToo.” James does, though, like Jessica Biel, “pretty much only for the ‘Rusty pipes!’” bit in The Rules of Attraction, but still,” so it stung to see her settle for him.
But why were Timberlake and his ilk thriving a decade ago? “If I had to take a guess,” James says, “it’s because there were — and always have been — absolutely zero standards for men. All they have to do is show up and they get a round of applause.”
Expounding on this, James theorizes that nobody was attracted to these guys for their personalities. “And, usually, they were filler,” the connective tissue of a magazine, useful insofar as they might be seen with someone else famous in public. “If you flip through a tabloid from that era, you’ll notice there aren’t really any stories that actually dive into their personal lives aside from who they’re romantically involved with. They’ll just get a quick ‘They’re dating!’ or ‘They’re over!’ blurb, and that was pretty much it. It was rare a male celebrity had an intense level of speculation into their personality, their behavior, etc.” Few were the men whose interior dramas rose to popular interest — mostly just multigenerational figures like Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson. “And even Spencer Pratt from time to time,” James says.
Ah, the turning point of peak reality TV.
“Around 2009 and then going into the 2010s, the traditional Hollywood star fell second in tabloid favorability to the reality star,” James explains. “That’s when the Kardashians started scoring their first Us Weekly covers, and people like Jon and Kate Gosselin, Octomom, the cast members of Teen Mom and The Real Housewives became constant cover fodder, as opposed to bonafide A-list stars just a year or two earlier.”
But as this shift occurred, people were finding new ways to read about the A-listers. Tabloids naturally suffered when “all the celebrity news you could possibly want was just dumped into your social media feeds, which served as just one big aggregate of everything and even made most gossip sites obsolete.” Now, James says, your typical tabloid has “pretty much the same focus on women, with men as romantic fillers, but the subjects of these stories are now, for the most part, 20th-tier celebrities.” The romantic travails of your Brad Pitts or Justin Biebers may come in for rote scrutiny, yet they fail to excite, “so most of these magazines are now just glossy print Pinterest feeds: D-list wedding pictures, diet tip after diet tip and recipes from a reality star you’ve never heard of.”
Does that mean we’re mostly now free of the 2009-vintage pop culture guy? Not quite. “In the case of social media, which only became the leading force in celebrity gossip within this decade, there hasn’t even been the slightest evolution concerning the worship of male celebrities and the much harsher critique of women,” James says.
Meanwhile, someone like Bieber can still function as a type of filler personality: “It’s rare he’s the sole focus of the story even when he does land the once-coveted cover story. If his behavior is discussed, it’s always talked about in tandem with whichever woman is in his life at the moment — how it affects her, whether that person is Hailey Baldwin or Selena Gomez, or some self-proclaimed model that, even though she was seen with him once years ago, still manages to land a spot on the Daily Mail celebrity sidebar.” Basically, for all his notoriety, the pop singer feels like a sidekick, barely compelling in his own right.
What’s more, you could argue that unimpressive celebrity dudes now have it easier, despite cancel culture and sensitivity to anything “problematic.” James says it’s “rare a critical voice regarding any celebrity is amplified now, since ‘stan’ culture pretty much allows everything to be drowned out,” with pop culture sites catering to diehards for extra clicks — and to avoid kicking the hornets’ nest. “That was incredibly different a decade ago, when even E! Online had columnists who were snarky and would regularly take the piss out of certain celebrities,” James explains.
But beyond Bieber, who are the ubiquitous, uninteresting men who took up the “filler” mantle once carried by the likes of Timberlake, Kutcher and Mayer? After all, those guys don’t have the oversized share of the spotlight they once did. You’d think younger dudes might take their place. But rather than an ambient interest in such mega-mainstream faces, perhaps we’ve splintered into smaller (if more passionate) fandoms: some Michael B. Jordan here, a bit of Benedict Cumberbatch there, a mishmash of Hemsworths and Chrises scattered all about. And Dwayne Johnson seems more like a close personal friend than a target for paparazzi. Nobody, according to James, exactly fits the 2009 mold.
“I’m not entirely sure, since I’m a celebrity gossip purist, I never really pay mind to celebrities who are big on social media,” he says. “I know I sound like a grumpy old man, but I’m only 20! And it just takes too much out of me to lurk Twitter and Instagram. So I’m not sure who the filler men are now — or at least their names aren’t as easily memorable for me.”
Even so, we aren’t totally without an objectionable male character whose likeness gets slapped on magazine covers week after week, and whose personal dramas make for jaw-droppingly salacious reading. “The only massive male celebrity we have now fits more into the Jackson/Cruise/Gibson category” than the Kutcher/Mayer/Timberlake archetype, James says. “And that’s Donald Trump.”
Some men are just so 1989.