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When It Comes to Corey Feldman, Empathy Overrules Irony

It’s hard to laugh at the former child star when you know what he’s been through

Like seemingly everyone, I watched Corey Feldman’s ill-fated Today Show performance of “Go 4 It” with morbid fascination and palpable pain. Yet I know way too much about Feldman for my primary emotion to be the snarky, ironic glee that everyone else seems to have enjoyed.

You also could say that I know too much about Corey Feldman, period. While researching an article on Corey Haim’s notorious video “Me, Myself & I,” I read Feldman’s memoir Coreyography, which is infinitely more gripping, revelatory and important than its title or author would suggest.

Coreyography convincingly depicts Hollywood as ground zero for an epidemic of child molestation. Feldman is particularly candid in writing about the horrific ongoing molestation he and one-time best friend and professional partner Corey Haim experienced at the height of their careers, and how it, as well as the drugs they turned to in order to numb the pain, united them as much as the movies they made together.

Feldman’s book loses momentum toward the end as the focus shifts to his increasingly irrelevant current projects, but it’s nevertheless a harrowing read I’d encourage any parent contemplating placing their child in an acting class to read. Like a lot of people who grew up feeling powerless and vulnerable, Feldman became a control freak, both in his life and in his career.

And because I’ve recently rewatched both seasons of The Two Coreys, the reality show that began as a goofy, light, “soft-scripted” reality show and ended as a bleak exploration of a friendship broken beyond repair and a man (Haim) chasing death and eventually finding it (in 2010), I know that Feldman’s high-profile marriage to a model he felt he’d aided immeasurably (in part by having her co-star on his reality show) ended in divorce. I’ve also seen the episode of Wife Swap where the “Maingel” of Feldman’s “Corey’s Angels” Harem/Backing Band/Cult switched places with Tommy Davidson’s wife.

Is it creepy to have a harem in white lingerie whose lives and careers you control? Of course. And in political, feminist terms, it’s also deeply problematic. But within the context of Feldman’s life and career, his mania for control seems much more understandable. He’s a man who has lost so much: his childhood innocence (lost that real early), his wife, his onetime best friend/partner in Coreyhood, his place on the A-list as the star of a string of iconic hits (Gremlins, Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Lost Boys, The Burbs) that, as Billy Bush not-so-helpfully reminds Feldman in the exquisitely uncomfortable intro to the Today performance, all belong to a long-ago decade. It’s understandable, if regrettable, if Feldman’s response to all this loss is trying to control the people in his world to keep them from leaving, too.

Feldman’s Michael Jackson moves are similarly absurd. But when you consider that Feldman is one of the many professional lost boys whom Jackson embraced and influenced before more or less being left behind for newer, trendier boys, those lovingly stolen dance steps begin to seem tragic and unexpectedly poignant.

When I watch Feldman on The Today Show I see a man devoid of the protective self-consciousness necessary to survive in a pop-culture realm overflowing with cheap cynicism, where the meaner the headline is, the more likely it is to get hits. In this context there’s something almost heroic about the complete lack of self-awareness Feldman brings to the performance. There’s something oddly noble about the crazed sincerity of it all—if only because it flies so defiantly in the face of the carefully cultivated self-consciousness of a celebrity realm where famous people censor themselves and adopt a default tone of detached aloofness so that the world doesn’t laugh derisively at them for, in Feldman’s case, doing something as egregious as being overly theatrical and mannered while performing a song on a television show.

I’m also watching “Go For It” through the prism of Feldman’s famously failed IndieGoGo campaign, which set out to raise more than $100,000 and failed to attract even $15,000, despite Feldman’s legitimate fame as a movie star. Even when Feldman is trying to coax cash out of an apathetic public, the pain of his early life is never far from the surface. “Music however is my Love, my Passion, my Heart & soul,” he writes. “Music is the thing I feel I was truly meant 2 do, had my parents not made the choice 2 throw me in front of cameras at the tender age of 3, & kept me there 2 earn a living & financially support my family until I was legally emancipated at the age of 15.”

Feldman goes on to enthuse guilelessly about the intense spiritual connection he shares with his fans in the campaign spiel, which makes it all the more embarrassing that not a single person contributed to the eight most expensive tiers of his campaign, and that even the standard, default reward in a campaign like this (an un-autographed physical copy of the CD for $50) attracted only eight donors.

Ironic appreciation requires detachment, if not downright dehumanization. It requires us to laugh at people rather than with them, to derive campy enjoyment from their attempts to express themselves artistically despite their glaring limitations. That can be enjoyable, but it also can be exhausting and de-humanizing — not just to the people we’re laughing at, but for the people doing the laughing as well.

Empathy works the opposite way. It calls upon us to see ourselves and our struggles in the struggles of others. But it also calls upon us to see, in even the most ridiculous people and concepts (like Corey Feldman’s live performance of “Go 4 It”), something relatable. That’s the crazy thing about Feldman’s performance on The Today Show. Its morbid fascination lies in its uniqueness. It’s endlessly compelling because of how rooted it is in Feldman’s own, strange magpie sensibility, with its copious borrowing from Michael Jackson, kitschy, bizarre sexuality (during a particularly strange moment in the Today Show performance he begins twerking), theatricality, anger, paranoia, optimism, goth gloominess and overly autotuned energy.

So laugh at Corey Feldman the musician if you must. It’s certainly easy enough to sneer at him. But the more you know about the man and his life, the harder it gets to laugh at him, and the easier it becomes to feel for him— stupid costume, inane dance moves, incomprehensible lyrics and all.