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'Leave Britney Alone': Chris Crocker 10 Years Later

From Rolling Stone - September 13, 2017

YouTube in 2007 was the Wild West of freak comedy. Offbeat humor, celebrated through cheaply produced and easily distributed clips, dominated the young video-hosting platform, founded two years prior. Catchy songs about shoe shopping and trippy animations starring sleepy unicorns were elevated to the "Featured Videos" section of the site, the breeding ground for niche humor hits like "Chocolate Rain" and "Charlie Bit My Finger."

At that point, 19-year-old Chris Crocker was living with his grandparents in Tennessee, a difficult existence for a gay teen who started getting home-schooled after eighth grade because of incessant bullying. On MySpace and YouTube, Crocker (real name Chris Cunningham) posted confessional videos that provided commentary on sexuality and "realness." He sometimes assumed over-the-top Southern characters like Earl Annie Edna, a talk show host and vocal Crocker hater. On both platforms, Crocker gained a following for his videos.

The clips themselves stayed true to YouTube's strange humor but were personal enough to offer a glimpse into his life, however exaggerated that caricature of himself happened to be. "I am just a real bitch in a fake-ass world," he exclaimed in one video, the original since deleted when Crocker deactivated his account in 2015. As his videos started to rack up more views, people outside the burgeoning YouTube community started to take notice. In a May 2007 profile, Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger dubbed Crocker the "new type of teenagera young man connected in ways that let him transform his rural frustrations into national online fame, but who is still painfully disconnected."

"YouTube was where I could play a character and be able to tell it like it is," Crocker tells Rolling Stone on the phone from Tennessee, where he still lives. "Everything you did was to make people laugh. I never planned on being my authentic self."

That is, until he released pair of videos in early September 2007. Following Britney Spears' unfortunate "comeback" performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, where shoddy lip synching and sloppy dancing caused her to face public ridicule, Crocker, sitting against a backdrop of a white sheet, thick bands of black liner tracing his eyes, broke down in tears defending the star from critical bloggers like Perez Hilton. "If anything ever happens to her, I am jumping off the nearestf**king building," he said in the video, titled "Leave Britney Alone."

"That moment was a slice of the real me," Crocker says.

With the video, now 10 years old, Crocker incorporated pop culture and an inflated version of self, which hit the sweet spot in terms of comedy and perceived authenticity. This combination proved accidentally successful for Crocker and opened the floodgates for the YouTubers of today, especially those in the gay community. A decade ago, the online LGBTQ population had not yet emerged on the video-posting platform, and anonymous commenters left harsh messages and death threats on Crocker's videos. He spoke in a soft falsetto, had dyed blond hair and, at the time, was not presenting as fully male. Now, YouTubers who post coming-out videos still face public criticism, but vloggers share their experiences to a more welcoming audience.

Between Crocker's early performance and character-driven videos and the authentic "Leave Britney Alone" clip that followed, new media academics acknowledge that his influence over the future LGBTQ vloggers has been instrumental. Michael Strangelove, a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa and author of the 2010 book Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People credits Crocker as helping to bring camp performance to the digital realm with the attempt at being genuine. Crocker's realness (whether true or perceived) helped lead the way for future vloggers to build an audience based on personality and pop culture criticism.

"This is camp 2.0," Strangelove says. "The old camp performers of the mid-Twentieth century saw themselves as performers, and they were not in the business of revealing themselves and engaging in the audience. The medium of the Internet is changing identity politics. Chris Crocker gets wrapped up in all of this and is significant in this new early wave of performing and emoting."

While being a fan helped Crocker capture the attention of the Internet, his original goal with his videos was to make people laugh. "I would throw out things," Crocker says, "and let people draw their own conclusions on 'Is this real? This is a joke.'"

In reality, the "Leave Britney Alone" videos were the first of Crocker's where he was not performing at all. In addition to observing Spears' downward spiral from afar, which included shaving her head, rehab and a custody battle, Crocker was dealing with the tangible fallout of his own mother's struggles. She had just returned home after serving in Iraq and developed an addiction to meth. His family had disowned her. So Crocker responded to the difficulties of the two women he looked up to most the same way he'd responded to haters: by turning the camera on himself. This time, though, the emotions were not for show. "I have always looked up to Britney," Crocker says, "and the other woman in my life who I looked up to, my mom, was falling apart. I did not know how to explain that because I knew people would not take me seriously."

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