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That's What Xu Said : Stop Blowhard Syndrome

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When I express any shred of doubt about whether I deserve or am qualified for something, people often try to reassure me that I am just experiencing impostor syndrome. About 10% of the time, it’s true. Amelia Greenhall’s excellent piece, however, has inspired me to clear up a big misconception about what is happening the other 90% of the time.

While there are a few situations that make me feel insecure, I am, for the most part, an excellent judge of what I’m capable of. Expressing a reasonable amount of doubt and concern about a situation that is slightly outside my comfort zone is normal, responsible behavior. Understanding my limits and being willing to acknowledge them is, in fact, one of my strengths. I don’t think it should be pathologized alongside the very real problem of “impostor syndrome”.

In fact, it is the opposite behavior—the belief that you can do anything, including things you are blatantly not qualified for or straight up lying about—should be pathologized. It has many names (Dunning-Krueger, illusory superiority), but I suggest we call it blowhard syndrome as a neat parallel. Blowhard syndrome is all around us, but I have a special fondness in my heart for the example my friend Nicole has taxidermied on her Twitter profile.

Just to be clear, I’m not mad at anyone who has tried to reassure me by telling me I have impostor syndrome, and I recognize it as a real problem that lots of talented people struggle with. But I am furious at a world in which women and POC are being told to be as self-confident as a group of mostly white dudes who are basically delusional megalomaniacs. We’re great the way we are, level-headed self-assessments and all. Stop rewarding them for being jackasses.

My totally reasonable amount of self-confidence is not a syndrome; dudes’ bloated senses of self-worth and the expectations we’ve built around them are. Correct accordingly.

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5 days ago
Hell to the yes.
San Francisco, CA
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The Next Next Level by Leon Neyfakh « n+1 | Issue 21

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I wish I could say that it’s been years since I’ve thought of Juiceboxxx when he tells me, out of the blue, in a text message one night in September, that he’s coming to New York. The truth is I have been thinking about him a lot — periodically checking his blog, wondering what city he’s living in, hoping he’s doing all right. A series of videos he has started uploading to YouTube every week, in which he stares in a sickly manner into a camera and talks in awful circles about his upcoming projects, has left me with the distinct impression that he is on the verge of cracking up.

What he says in his text is that he wants to “link” with me while he’s in town. I’m surprised but touched that he even thought to contact me. Although we’ve known each other a long time, I always figured he saw me as nothing more than a fan he happened to cross paths with at an early age. Occasionally he’d email me to tell me that he was playing a show somewhere in my vicinity or that he had a new song he wanted me to hear. But I always assumed his life was full of people he had that kind of relationship with — minor characters he had met once or twice, who stayed invested in him long after he moved on.

I wonder what’s bringing him here. Last I heard he was back in Milwaukee, where he grew up, after spending some time in Los Angeles. But aside from that, my main insight into his plans and state of mind has come from listening to the music he’s been putting out, a lot of which deals with getting older and becoming increasingly anxious about where his life is going. Although he still has a sense of humor about himself, he raps a lot about how fucked he feels for having devoted his entire life to being a “cartoon character” and about how stubbornly resolved he is to keep going. His most recent release, a rambunctious and turbulent mixtape he put up online for free, sounds like the work of a person teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but nonetheless trying — desperately, only sometimes convincingly — to channel an inspirational message about the importance of doing what you love, even when nothing is working out.

At 27 years old, Juice has been in this mode for a while, and while I could quote any number of his songs from the past few years to illustrate this, one in particular, from his one proper album, I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness, sums it up nicely: “On the road, you’re on the run / And you can’t stop till you are done / But you’re never done / And you’ll never stop / This is not for fun / This is all you’ve got.”

Imet Juiceboxxx when I was in high school, through a guy named Willy who went to the same summer camp I did after tenth grade. Willy lived in Milwaukee, played guitar in a band, and wore a red knit hat everywhere he went. I thought he was the coolest person I’d ever met, especially because despite being super-smart, he had decided to pursue music instead of applying to college. After camp ended we talked a lot on AOL Instant Messenger.

One day, Willy asked me whether I knew of any place in my area (Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago) where his band could play an all-ages show. I had no idea but said I’d see. Before long I had succeeded in not only booking the basement of a local Unitarian church but also convincing the most popular band at my school to headline, which meant that people would actually come. The idea of presiding over the whole thing and introducing all my classmates to Willy’s band was thrilling, and I set about designing flyers and putting them up all over school.

A few days before the show, Willy asked whether I could make room on the bill for his friend Juiceboxxx, a white kid from the Milwaukee suburbs who had recently started performing in rec centers and open mics around town as a rapper. Willy sent me a few of his songs, including one that opened with a line rhyming “weenie” with “Fellini.” Another was about how much Juiceboxxx enjoyed various fast-food restaurants. The songs were silly but I liked them. I made new posters, some with a photo of Juice in which he looked extra pale and extra nerdy that said “Come see this man rap,” and some with his bespectacled face superimposed on the cover of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent.

Agreeing to have Juiceboxxx play at the concert was a decision that ended up being pretty important to me and a bunch of my close friends. Seeing him perform that night exposed us to a species of teenager none of us had ever seen before, and in the years that followed his set, he took on the status of a mythical creature for us — a great, foreign force who had come out of nowhere, blown all our minds, and, with his first words into the mic (“What the fuck is up, Joke Park? My name is Juiceboxxx!”), left us with a nickname for our hometown that we still use.

Juice arrived at the church steps only about ten minutes before going onstage for his set; in between he asked me where the bathroom was so he could change into his jumpsuit, and then before I knew it he was introducing himself to the crowd — maybe twenty people total — and asking no one in particular to turn his fucking amp up. Our chaperone for the evening, a guy in his sixties named Dan who volunteered at the church and had been called upon to babysit us at the last minute, didn’t know what to make of this. As the beat kicked in and Juice bounced on his heels in anticipation of his cue, he looked like a swimmer or a track star poised on the starting blocks waiting for the gun to go off.

“You sure this guy is cool?” Dan said, glancing nervously at me without taking his eyes off the maniac in front of us.

“Yeah,” I said, conscious of the fact that even if I’d been confident in my answer, which I wasn’t, nothing was going to persuade Dan not to worry.

“OK,” Dan said. “As long as you’re sure all this won’t get too crazy.”

Together we watched as Juiceboxxx, who still had braces at the time, lunged from one side of the stage to the other as he rapped, tearing at his hair, throwing himself to the floor, and leaping at the wooden beams that ran along the ceiling.

At this point, in 2003, most white kids in our part of the country who were into music, including Willy and including me, were still starting rock bands. Some were beginning to make electronic music on their computers, but even that wasn’t so common yet. Despite the fact that Eminem was at the height of his powers, deciding to be a white rapper was still an uncomfortable proposition. It wasn’t until later, with the arrival of so-called frat rap, that a rapper’s whiteness was no longer the first thing anyone noticed about him. Some white rappers dealt with the awkwardness of being white by presenting themselves as ultraserious and cerebral — like Slug from Atmosphere, or Aesop Rock. Others turned it into a joke, which was the impulse behind consciously ironic hip-hop acts like MC Paul Barman — “I’m iller than the Iliad” — and MC Chris, who wrote songs about Star Wars and video games. The tongue-in-cheek approach these guys took to rap was known as “nerdcore,” and because Juiceboxxx had big glasses, looked like a skinny dweeb, insisted on writing funny lyrics, and had named himself Juiceboxxx, that’s what he seemed at first to be: an ascendant nerdcore rapper from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But if Juiceboxxx was making fun of himself the night we watched him perform in the Unitarian church, the joke was manifestly wrapped in a thick layer of earnestness. Even though his songs were littered with self-deprecating lines — “This mic I destroy / I’m not a real rapper, yo, I’m just a decoy” — he held himself in a way that left us no choice but to take him seriously. Moving around and yelling into the microphone with abandon, even hostility, he looked kind of like a singer in a punk band, even though he used his hands like a real rapper, stretching his fingers out and cutting the air with them. In this setting, the hammy punch lines that I had latched onto when I heard his CD faded into the background as he shouted his lyrics and convulsed. He didn’t seem angry, just possessed; with the jumpsuit and everything, he looked deranged, and when his top buttons came undone and he was left shirtless, there was something almost obscene about him, with his pink little nipples and his sharp elbows swinging wildly as he jumped and jerked around.

Three or four songs in, Juiceboxxx bolted over to where I was standing with Dan, grabbed me by the ears with his clammy hands, and rapped at me with the microphone dangling from the crook in his elbow. It was the first good look I’d gotten at his face, which was dotted with zits and topped with a terrible haircut.

As he delivered his lines — “You and I / Do or die / On the microphone I’m fly / Everybody in the place / Put your hands in outer space!” — he seemed to be in some kind of fugue state, staring at me and cupping my head between his palms. Then, all of a sudden he let go and, in a moment of apparent inspiration, launched himself at the ceiling with enough power to actually grab hold of one of the reinforcement beams and start swinging from it like a monkey in a tree. This, understandably, was a bridge too far for Dan, who ran over to me and said into my ear, with some urgency, “Buddy, you’ve got to tell your friend not to do that.” I didn’t argue with him. But to my great relief, just as I was preparing to yank on Juice’s pants, he got down on his own, collapsing into a pile on the floor as the backing track went silent. After a few seconds of him lying there motionless, it became clear the set was over. It had lasted maybe fifteen minutes.

I’m at my friend Max’s apartment on the first Saturday night in October when it occurs to me that Juiceboxxx, who has been in town for a few days by this point, might want to come over and join us, and that this would be a nice, low-pressure way for us to get reacquainted. The plan for the evening is to go hang out with Max’s little brother Sam, an incredibly handsome young guy who plays guitar in a band that recently got one of their songs onto the Girls sound track. I figure it would be fun for Juiceboxxx to meet him and talk shop, but before I text him, I decide I should ask Max whether it would be OK. This makes me realize that, because Max and I are relatively new friends, he is one of the few people I am close to who has never heard me talk about Juiceboxxx.

“Does he have a name other than Juiceboxxx, or is that what you call him to his face?” Max asks — a reasonable question. That first night Juice and I met, at the church, Willy had reluctantly told me his real name, but warned me not to use it because the only people who did were his parents.

Once I’m through explaining this to Max, I try to think of the most succinct possible way to describe who Juiceboxxx is and why I care about him. Having gone through this a number of times with different people, I decide to take a shortcut, and propose showing Max a few minutes of a video someone made a few years back, a sort of a mini-documentary of Juiceboxxx on tour.

The video, which follows Juice as he travels from Philadelphia to New York, was posted online in early 2012, right around the time I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness was released. I’ve watched it so many times that I know it practically by heart: from the opening shot of him in a mustard-yellow track jacket, sitting in a sun-drenched bedroom and telling the interviewer in a quiet, halting patter about why he only ever wanted to be a rapper, to the scene on the Greyhound bus where he takes out a portable radio and talks about how he likes catching local stations on it when he’s touring, to the closing montage of him onstage, giving a riveting, airtight performance in a Williamsburg basement.

“That’s what’s so fucked up about where I’m at,” Juice tells the interviewer at one point, speaking slowly, as if the act of putting it into words terrifies him. “It’s just like — you know, when you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise — like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?”

Max is captivated by the video — so much so that he watches the whole thing, even though I offer to turn it off halfway through. “He seems like a pretty weird guy,” Max says when it’s over. “But yeah, let’s get him over here.”

Feeling victorious, I extend the invitation with a text message. Juice responds right away, saying he’s seeing some old friends at the moment but that if we’re going to be hanging out for a bit, he’d be up for stopping by and could take a train over soon.

He arrives a little after midnight, wearing jeans and a hoodie over a T-shirt that says HIGH ROLLER. He has a baseball cap on his head and white high-tops caked with dirt, and he looks a lot healthier, more robust, than in his recent video diaries.

After we say hi and look each other over to evaluate what’s changed since the last time we were in the same room, I walk Juice through the apartment and out into the backyard, where I’ve been sitting with Max, Sam, and a grad student who recently started playing bass in Sam’s band. “Guys, this is Juiceboxxx,” I say, and everyone says hello.

Juice sits down in a lawn chair and I offer him a beer, which he refuses. When I ask what brought him to New York, he tells me that he has always wanted to try it, and now seemed like a good time. The plan is to try to find a little work before going on an eighteen-date tour with Willy on guitar and another friend on drums. The tour, which he tells me he’s calling “The Thunder Zone Tour 2K13,” will begin on November 1.

In an attempt to involve the others in our conversation I ask Sam, who is smoking a cigarette across the table from me, whether his band has ever gone on tour. “Nah,” he says, looking and sounding a little sleepy at the thought of it. Hearing this, Juice gets interested, as I hoped he would, and follows up: “Oh, you play music?”

Sam explains his situation: he plays guitar in one band, but his main focus is a solo project he’s been writing songs for in anticipation of a gig next month. When Juice asks him why he doesn’t want to tour, Sam says he doesn’t really see the point right now, since there wouldn’t be anyone in most cities who would go see him. He’d rather just record music and put it online, he says, until someone notices and writes about it; that way, if he went on tour, people would actually show up.

I can see Juice isn’t really into this answer, but he responds diplomatically, telling Sam that, basically, yeah, that’s the smart way to do it, but that he, Juiceboxxx, has a different outlook on it, as someone who decided years ago to make touring the backbone of his career. The problem, Juice says, is that all the years he has spent on the road are a liability for him now, because the way things tend to work on the internet, an act with a long past is a lot less likely to break out than a super-fresh one. For the most part, people who write about music online are so invested in discovering stuff no one else has heard that if you have twelve years of history like Juiceboxxx does, chances are no one’s going to bother saying you’re any good.

Sam backs him up on this, saying that friends of his in bands who were picked up by labels or managers are instructed to take down all their old music from the internet before they put up any new material, so that when they do, bloggers feel like they’re breaking news of them to the world by linking to it. One guy who recently came in for a lot of attention, Sam says, changed his name every time he put out a new project, so that each one looked maximally alluring to potential champions.

Juiceboxxx says he’s been told a million times that he should change his name — that friends in the music business have been trying to convince him to do so for years, but that, “for whatever stupid fucking reason” he keeps not doing it. This prompts Max to ask Juice whether he knows of a young country musician I’ve never heard of who used to be called Jonny Corndawg. “Oh, sure, of course,” Juiceboxxx says. “I know Corndawg really well.”

It turns out that Corndawg, like Juice, spent a good chunk of his twenties as a proud and devoted road warrior, playing tiny shows all over America and establishing himself within select circles but never getting truly famous. Then one day he adopted a more sober moniker, Jonny Fritz, and soon after got signed to a huge indie label partly owned by the Dave Matthews Band. Although he is no longer Corndawg, he is now an adult who makes good money writing and performing music for a living.

As I walk Juice to the subway, I wonder what it was like for him to meet Sam, who seems so much younger than him, not successful yet but poised for it in a way Juiceboxxx hasn’t been since he was 18.

The first CD Juiceboxxx had professionally pressed was R U there God?? Itz me Juiceboxxx, an eight-song EP that was released in 2005. Juice was a senior in high school when he put it out, and in the months surrounding its release, he gained some serious momentum. First the electronic-music magazine XLR8R published a short article about him headlined “The Next Big Thing.” Then the Chicago Reader ran a piece about his monthly DJ night in Milwaukee by the prominent music writer Jessica Hopper, who called him “the best DJ to come out of the Midwest since Tommie Sunshine.”

The summer after graduation marked the first time that Juice went on a real tour, performing over the course of a summer in basements, galleries, and DIY spaces in cities he had never been to, in front of people who had never heard of him. He even played a show in a Williamsburg art gallery. In the fifty-five-second video of the show that someone uploaded to YouTube, you can see that it’s daytime, and there are maybe fifteen people standing in the small, well-lit room while Juice performs.

After that tour, Juice came home and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he spent two miserable semesters. He dropped out after a traumatic experience in which a sandwich delivery guy was shot by a mugger while standing on Juiceboxxx’s porch. In the wake of that incident, which Juice says convinced him that he did not have any time to waste, he resumed touring, and has remained almost continuously in motion ever since, subletting rooms for a few months or even weeks at a time, paying his friends a hundred bucks to stay on their couches, and going on tour as much as he possibly can.

I saw him play multiple times during the roughly four years that followed his decision to, essentially, become a professional musician — in Boston, while I was in college; in New York, when I was a summer intern there; in Chicago, while home visiting family. He continued using his iPod for backup: he didn’t need much more than beats, and it kept the tour pretty simple, just Juiceboxxx on a bus with his iPod.

His music evolved, changing from what could have been uncharitably but accurately called novelty rap into something more original. For several years he took a detour into dance music and released four singles inspired by obscure genres of regional DJ music I never even knew existed. The biggest and best of these songs was “Sweat,” which was built around a jangly, cheerful synth line and featured Juice chanting dance steps in a guileless tone that brought to mind “Pump Up the Jams” by Technotronic. Much to Juice’s surprise, “Sweat” turned into a minor hit in the UK, getting him booked at all kinds of crazy, glitzy clubs full of sweaty Europeans — a far cry from the dingy venues he was accustomed to playing.

His dance phase lasted maybe two years, and ended with a song called “100MPH,” in which the chorus consisted of Juice simply repeating the phrase “One hundred miles per hour / One billion miles away” over and over. I remember writing it off as depressingly lazy, but in retrospect it was the beginning of Juice’s real flourishing as an artist: the moment when he started writing about himself and what it felt like to be Juiceboxxx.

I remember this came into focus for me in 2010, when Juice started his own record label (Thunder Zone) and put out a mixtape called Thunder Zone Volume 1, which was accompanied by a branded energy drink by the same name. The tape, which showcased Juice’s now genuinely impressive skills as a rapper, opened with a one-minute intro consisting of the horn-heavy, up-tempo Bruce Springsteen song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” playing at high volume while Juice, sounding deeply angry, determined, but also kind of joyful, delivers the following monologue:

I know it’s been a long time, man! I know I’ve been doing this shit for a long goddamn time! But if you think for one motherfucking second that I’m gonna give up now? After all the fuckin’ shit I’ve been through, man? Well, let me tell you, mister: you’ve got another motherfucking thing coming.

Though I can’t claim to have realized it when I first listened to it, I’ve come to see this as one of the most invigorating opening tracks I’ve ever heard — an electrifying declaration of purpose that manages to sound both bulletproof and vulnerable.

Some people really responded to it, including a number of prominent figures in music and art, like Cory Arcangel and Todd P, the New York promoter known for throwing DIY concerts all over the city. And while it was hard for me to tell, from the outside, how much success he was having, there were unambiguous moments of triumph: collaborations with fashionable DJs, guest verses from name-brand rappers, shows with popular acts like Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. The high point of this period came when he spent a week on tour in Canada opening for Public Enemy. “SOMETIMES,” he wrote on his blog afterward, “WHEN YOU KEEP ON RUNNING AND DREAMING GREAT THINGS HAPPEN.”

For all those achievements, it remained a fact that not one person I knew who didn’t grow up in Milwaukee or Joke Park had ever heard of Juiceboxxx, and his music never got written about on Pitchfork or any of the popular hip-hop sites. And though I tried to play Juice’s music for my friends all the time, in private and also drunkenly, obnoxiously, off my iPod at parties, no one I knew was ever converted to his music, not even once.

The problem, if I were to guess, was that Juice made people uncomfortable — that his songs sounded abrasive to them, or worse, ridiculous, because despite his self-deprecation, Juice refused to present himself apologetically. At the same time, he was a rapper who had come up performing mainly with people in noise and hardcore punk bands, and the inspiration he took from that scene mixed strangely with his intense love of pop music. Aside from any racial complications inherent in trying to make sincere hip-hop while white, Juice made himself systematically unpalatable by lacing his music with the confrontational tendencies of the difficult, alienating music he grew up on. The result was that most of the people who embraced Juiceboxxx over the years were enthusiasts of extreme, experimental art — but even they could never be reliably counted on to support him, since in their eyes his affection for pop was just as alienating as his commitment to extreme, experimental art was to everybody else.

Juice wasn’t entirely satisfied with this state of affairs, and it was because of this dissatisfaction, I think, that he entered his latest phase — one inspired in part by Public Enemy, whose performances he watched in awe during his Canada tour, and in part by Bruce Springsteen, whose big, transcendent concerts he watched on YouTube. With those two touchstones in mind, he moved to replace his iPod with a live band, and began making what he described — openly, without embarrassment — as rap rock.

Juice’s room in New York is on the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg; he is subletting it, he tells me, from his friend Jacob, part of a noise band called Extreme Animals that is coheadlining during the upcoming Thunder Zone Tour. One day I go to visit Juice, because I want to see how he’s living and because he promises to play me some of his new material on his computer. On the way over I listen to a song called “Never Surrender Forever,” which stands out from Juice’s catalog because it’s one of the very few songs he’s written — maybe the only one, actually — that someone who isn’t already rooting for him can be expected to like immediately.

What’s special about this song, which appeared as the last track of I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness, is that it contains absolutely no rapping. Instead it’s basically an indie-pop song built around a really pretty, wistful chord progression and a touching, intimate vocal melody. The lyrics are all about chasing the best possible version of yourself and not giving up even though no one else believes in you. Singing them, Juice sounds so tired and so beaten down and so alone that as the song wears on, all you can wonder is how long he’s going to be able to keep it up. But the real power of “Never Surrender Forever,” besides its catchiness, comes from the fact that, by the time you hear the soaring, heroic guitar solo by Willy that plays through to the end of the song, you begin to feel convinced that the halfhearted pep talk Juice is giving himself is, somehow, true:

Ain’t nobody gonna keep it alive

But you’ve got that dream inside.

Living in a town that don’t even care

So you go for a ride.

And for just a little while everything’s all right

Searching for a dream that lives in the night

Never surrender forever, never surrender forever, never surrender forever.

It’s trite on paper, but walking down the street with it in my head, hearing him sing these words in a voice that expresses the truly precarious footing on the border between despair and hope, it’s easy for me to imagine Juiceboxxx standing in front of a crowd of thousands and leading them in a rousing, cathartic sing-along.

When I arrive at his apartment, talk quickly turns to New York real estate. “It never occurred to me this was a place where I could actually live,” Juice says. “Somehow it always just seemed unattainable for me . . . I guess because I was just too much of a spaz. For years I was like, ‘I can live in Milwaukee and pay next to nothing in rent and jump in a van with another band or jump on a Greyhound bus and tour and come home with a little bit of money in my pocket.’ And that just seemed ideal, and I figured if something would happen I’d take it from there.”

He says that finally being in New York is exciting to him, especially after living in Los Angeles without a car, where he had a ninety-minute commute from his house to his practice space that involved two buses, a train, and two miles of walking. In New York everything’s so close, he says, and it’s so easy to see everyone, even if they live in, like, Far Rockaway, where a bunch of his artist and musician friends share a house. New York strikes him as hospitable to “alternative lifestyles,” Juice says — unlike LA, which felt to him like a city for grown-ups who probably should have been living in the suburbs.

Of course, it’s not cheap here, and Juice tells me the only reason he could afford to leave Milwaukee and spend this month in New York was that he got paid $8,000 for writing a jingle that ended up being used in a Microsoft ad. He has a hook-up at a firm that hires musicians to do that kind of thing, he tells me, and every once in a while his guy there throws him work. He’s also been helping out around the offices of a record label run by his friend Dre Skull, doing stuff like uploading YouTube videos and mailing out packages. It’s a little weird for him, I can tell, because just a few years ago, when he was making dance music, this guy Dre Skull was one of his main musical collaborators. Since then Dre Skull has found real success as a label owner and producer, scoring a big notch on his belt by putting out an album by a guy Juice tells me is “the Lil Wayne of Jamaica” and, more recently, producing a bunch of the songs on Snoop Dogg’s reggae album.

Dre Skull is not the only one of Juice’s longtime friends who has broken out in some way. But for every one who has achieved even a modicum of success, like that guy Corndawg, ten others have quit or resigned themselves to doing music as a hobby and nothing more.

“A lot of my friends are like, ‘Yeah, I’m done, I don’t care about playing,’” Juice says. “And in a way that’s the logical, right thing to do when you’re 27 or 28 — to say, ‘Yeah, I’m kinda over this . . . I’ve had some fun but I don’t really see a future in this.’ Sometimes I try to say that shit but I feel like I’m just fucking kidding myself.”

When we enter Jacob’s tiny room, Juice sits down on the edge of the bed and I shift my weight from one leg to the other before finally perching on the edge of a dresser. There’s a pair of boxers emblazoned with little Dark Side of the Moon prisms hanging from a hook beside the bed. “Are those yours?” I ask, figuring I can use it as an occasion to make conversation and tell him about how I used to love Pink Floyd as a third grader. But the answer is “No, they’re Jacob’s,” and I imagine what it must be like to live in a place where someone else’s underwear is dangling above you while you sleep and you don’t even care enough to move it.

The room is dark and smells like a sleeping person; there are records and DVDs everywhere, and a suitcase flung open on the floor that’s piled high with clothes. I ask Juice whether it’s all he brought to New York and he says yes. He is wearing a hoodie and a jacket with the NBC logo on the back, and something about seeing him in this context, living with other people in a Williamsburg apartment, makes me imagine walking past him in the street not knowing who he is; I realize that I’d probably dismiss him as a typical hipster dressed in corny thrift-store scraps. When Juice asks whether I want to hear some of his new songs, I wonder how many of the people I write off in this way go home to a room where they make things they’ve devoted their lives to.

He opens his laptop on the bed and puts on an as-yet-unreleased music video for a song called “Front Seat,” which he filmed shortly before coming to New York, on a beach alongside Lake Michigan.

As the video starts I see that Juice looks positively glamorous in it, standing against a beautiful rising sun, and wearing black jeans and an unzipped denim jacket exposing his bare chest. In the moments before the beat kicks in he wades into the water with his shoes on, and when the song starts, he keeps time with his hand against his outer thigh and gazes with intensity and concentration out at the horizon.

“Front Seat” asserts itself as a true rap-rock song right away, with a heavy-metal guitar riff and big 4/4 drums. As Juice starts rapping, the first thing I notice is that he sounds more confident in his style than I’ve ever seen or heard him — in control, revved up, certain that the song is sounding out loud the way it did in his head when he wrote it. I try to listen for the words, and though I pick out only a few lines over the running commentary Juice is providing about the filming of the video, what I do hear is personal and funny and specific. At one point the guitar falls out and Juice raps, in a tone of voice that sounds more adult and more conversational than he’s ever sounded on a recording, “I don’t know how I haven’t given up yet / I don’t know why I don’t give a fuck yet / Nothing in my life is a fucking safe bet / Can’t stop, but I prolly won’t make it!!!”

I punctuate that last bit with three exclamation points because that’s how he sounds when he delivers the line — unafraid, sure-footed, defiant. The video, most of which Juiceboxxx spends with his hair wet and his shirt wide open, makes him look, in my opinion, extremely cool.

“That was really good,” I say when it’s over, but he doesn’t react to the praise at all, his eyes stuck on the computer screen, where he’s clicking around in what looks like a piece of recording software and queuing something else. He then plays me eight versions of the Target jingle he’s been working on — tryouts for an ad they’re planning to put on the air in time for Thanksgiving. As the jingles play, I look around the room and see posters for Extreme Animals, and by way of making small talk while Juice fiddles with his laptop I ask what kind of music they play. He seems surprised that I’ve never heard of Extreme Animals before and explains that they make a hybrid of video art and noise music. He pulls up one of their videos, and what I see after he hits play doesn’t make sense to me at all. I guess what you’d call it is video collage, played over a crunchy interpolation of the theme from the Harry Potter movies and cut with all kinds of seemingly random, vaguely creepy clips. There are women dancing in a circle, there is a guy holding a cat with a crucifix around its neck, there are flashes of text that say things like “WHO AM I?” and “I AM YOU” that don’t seem to correspond to anything.

Juiceboxxx mercifully doesn’t wait for my reaction once the video is over before asking whether I want to go get dinner.

“Look,” he says later, when I admit that the Extreme Animals stuff hadn’t really done it for me, and that noise music in general has always utterly mystified me. “You have to understand . . . I feel embarrassed that this is what I’ve spent my life doing. In a way, it’s really bleak. Like when you’re so deep in the vortex of a certain kind of niche culture, it’s easy to take it as your reality. But when you step outside of it, it can just look so dumb, you know?”

A lot of times, Juice says — and he’s careful to clarify he’s not talking about Extreme Animals, a band he admires and believes in — noise shows end up being de facto competitions for who can be the most off-putting, the most out there: the noise olympics, he calls them. “That’s why pop music has always appealed to me,” he says. “It transcends some super-petty things that often exist in niche cultures.”

When he was a kid, he tells me, he glommed on to a whole array of subcultures at once — not just noise and punk but also genres of electronic dance music from around the country — instead of building his whole identity around one in particular. His problem now is that all his friends still come from those scenes, but more and more he feels like he has to separate from them if he ever wants to achieve real success. “At a certain point I probably should have been like, ‘OK, I shouldn’t be touring with noise bands and punk bands anymore.’ But I’ve always tried to have it both ways.”

When I was in college, my best friends and I had a game we liked to play where we divided people into “critics” and “geniuses.” Critics, as we defined the word, were calculated and careful and conducted their lives with effortful competence, but in the end could do nothing more than react to the geniuses in their midst. Geniuses, meanwhile, were not necessarily great at what they did, but they were intuitive and couldn’t help but be the way they were. They had original, immaculate visions, we said, that poured out of them as if by magic.

Now that it’s been a few years, I can say we might have been overthinking it a bit — that all we were really saying was that some people have the souls of artists and other people don’t. And while that’s not a trivial observation — there are plenty of people who would refuse to acknowledge the distinction — it no longer strikes me as all that revelatory, except insofar as it helped me and my friends to determine which side of the divide we were on.

Juiceboxxx, to me, was always the embodiment of a “genius”: a guy who couldn’t be anything other than what he was. Unlike me and everyone else I know, he resisted all the forces that demanded he conform to the trappings of adulthood — he didn’t graduate from college, he never took a service job so he could pay rent, he didn’t even join other bands so he could diversify his creative portfolio. Being Juiceboxxx was the only thing he ever learned how to do, and he was utterly invested, to the point of being invested in nothing else, in seeing it through.

The idea of Juiceboxxx giving up on being Juiceboxxx makes me very sad. For one thing I’d miss having him as a figure in my otherwise steady, professional-grade life whom I could root for and support (and proselytize for, however unsuccessfully). But more important, it would feel to me like someone with a special power had been defeated — something that should never happen, because “geniuses,” even if they’re not geniuses, come in short supply.

When I see Juiceboxxx again, he fills me in on his time in New York so far, which he has spent going out a lot — attending dance parties and clubs with Dre Skull and other old friends — and rehearsing with his new drummer at a practice space deep in Bushwick. In preparation for the tour, Juice orders a lot of merchandise that he plans to sell between sets: Thunder Zone hacky sacks, Thunder Zone energy drinks, plus copies of a new video by Extreme Animals, released on VHS only. Every day the mailman brings new stuff to his apartment, including a huge vinyl banner that says WELCOME TO THE THUNDER ZONE that’s going to be pinned above the stage at every venue they play. All this stuff has been trickling in via UPS over the past few days, Juice says, which has been horribly stressful because he accidentally gave some of the vendors the wrong address.

Juice really likes being in New York, he tells me — he works faster, he feels competitive with other artists in a way that’s inspiring to him — and he’s trying to think of a way he could afford to stay. He mentions that his friends from the noise-music scene who live together in Far Rockaway invited him to join them there for $200 a month, and that this was an option, at least temporarily. When he tells me this, I can’t help but think about his stated intention to extricate himself from the marginal artistic communities he was once a part of. Would Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz move into a house full of noise musicians?

I ask Juice what he thinks going “pop” the way Corndawg did would require of him — whether it would mean changing his name, changing his sound, giving up on some of his instincts and creative aspirations. After thinking it over for a second he says he doesn’t really think he could do any of that if he wanted to — but that, in his opinion, trying to graduate from underground music and become more broadly resonant wouldn’t work anyway if he entirely abandoned his past. What he wants — what he thinks he’ll need to do to succeed — is to stay on the fence, and to force the foreignness of the various niche cultures that have influenced him into a collision with his populist impulses, to create a “new kind of American music” that wrings accessibility out of the uncompromising, tough-as-nails aesthetic that characterizes so much of the music and art that he loves.

He has an idea in his head of what he wants to achieve, he says, that comes from a trip he took a few years ago to Australia, during which he opened for Big Freedia, a drag queen from New Orleans who is the top dog in a New Orleans subgenre of dance music known as sissy bounce. Big Freedia is a local legend who spent years whipping rooms into a frenzy with her idiosyncratic and queer form of sexy block-party pop. She debuted in the late ’90s, winning attention with singles like “Azz Everywhere!” and “An Ha, Oh Yeah,” and over the course of twelve years built herself into an underground institution with a cult following. Then, in 2010, she stepped onto the national stage, putting out an EP on a record label/lifestyle marketing brand controlled by Toyota Motor Corporation, getting written up in the New York Times, playing summer festivals, performing on Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly. Today she has her own reality show on Fuse.

“Having to open for her every night, I felt like I was touring with Little Richard or something, truthfully,” Juice says. “Just seeing her completely devastate these Australian rooms for the first time ever and people just fucking climbing on the walls or whatever, just flipping out . . .”

The high point of the tour, Juice says, was getting to play a festival in front of 15,000 people — the biggest crowd he had ever performed for by a factor of at least ten. The set didn’t go that well, he says, and there were scattered boos at the end, while he and Willy played the two minutes of feedback and headsplitting noise that they’d been closing all their shows with at that time. But even before that, he felt like he just couldn’t get the crowd’s attention by doing what he usually did. And as painful as it was during the twenty minutes he was up there, he says, it made him realize, in a very visceral way, that if he wanted to get to the next level, and really reach people on a large scale, he’d have to learn how to be a whole new Juiceboxxx.

He asks me if I’ve ever seen the show Kitchen Impossible. It’s a reality show in which people who own failing restaurants are visited by consultants who help them rebrand their establishments by telling them what to change on the menu, how to redecorate, et cetera. And usually the restaurant owners don’t want to take the advice, because they’re so stuck in their ways and don’t realize it’s for their own good.

If there was a Rapper Impossible and he was on it, Juice says, the same thing would happen to him — and has, in fact, in the sense that every time some friend or fellow musician has told him to change his name, ditch all his baggage, and start over fresh, he has resisted even though he knows they’re probably right.

On the last night of October, Juice and his band, plus Extreme Animals and a DJ from Baltimore named Schwarz, leave for tour in a rented van. They go to Ithaca, Boston, Providence, New Haven, then Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Toronto. Somewhere along the line, Juice develops some kind of rash on his body, but he carries on.

I consider asking if I can come with them. But I have a job, and also I am far from certain that Juice would want to spend that much time with me. When Juice announces the dates on his blog, I write the Brooklyn show — which will take place at a Bushwick nightclub called the Passion Lounge — into my calendar, and start counting down the days.

The morning of the show I stand in the shower and turn over a question that’s been on my mind since the night before: Should I send an email to all my friends and encourage them to come with me to the show, or not? I imagine it first in the abstract, me watching Juiceboxxx by myself vs. me showing him to people who have never seen him before, and playing a role in filling up the room in a way that might make him happy. The latter seems more fun until I start thinking about who I’d actually invite, and how I would explain why this was something they should see. How would I get past the radioactive words I would have to use — “rap rock” chief among them — to describe what Juiceboxxx even was? On top of that, the show is at 11:30 PM, on a Tuesday. I decide to go alone.

Before getting on the subway I duck into Wendy’s to pick up a few Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers for the ride and, after receiving a text from Juice that says “ur on the list,” I briefly consider asking if he and Willy want me to bring them any food before deciding they probably have it covered. As I sit on the subway and eat my burgers, I listen to the entirety of I Don’t Wanna Go Into the Darkness and feel inspired by the circumstances to try as hard as I can to hear it as if for the first time. One song jumps out at me that never has before: a laid-back, summery one with a bassline sample that sounds like a slowed-down version of the opening riff from “My Girl.”

Hanging out, chilling on my porch up front

Nothing to do so we let the beat bump

Snackin’ on pizza, messin’ around

Just killing some time in this wasted town

And things aren’t looking up

Yo man, they’re looking down

Try to get a job but there’s nothing to be found

But it’s not as bad as it seems

’Cause you can still dream.

I won’t apologize for these lyrics. I think they’re great, and the way Juice delivers them is great. And the end of the song, which comes as a complete surprise, takes my breath away, as the whole happy thing grinds to a halt and suddenly all I hear are these clipped ethereal notes and someone’s raspy voice saying, over and over again, as if to bring me back down to earth, “Why are you even alive?”

By the time I arrive at the Passion Lounge it has started raining hard, and I’m soaked. But the venue, I can see right away, is perfect for Juice, with a stage about twenty feet above the dance floor and a Y-shaped staircase leading up to it. It’s dark and hazy and there are neon lights in every color moving around the room from every direction. As I’m pulling out my ID to show the bouncer, I spot Willy and get so excited that I forget to say I’m on the list and pay the $10 cover.

When I spot Juice I can tell he’s stressed out but making an effort to be as friendly as he can, because he’s grateful to everyone who has come out despite the crappy weather. “I’m so fucking glad we’re not playing at some DIY space,” Juice says, kind of to me and Willy, but kind of to no one in particular. “No disrespect to those places, man, but this is just a different vibe.” After that Willy and I lose him until around 11:15, when he comes over and says in a quiet voice that he’s not feeling great about the turnout. “I’m a little worried, man,” he says, looking around at all the empty space on the dance floor.

In a fit of regret I decide that I was wrong not to invite any friends to the show. I pull my phone out and try to think of who lives nearby, who could get here in fifteen minutes, and more importantly, would be willing to. I text about ten people but no one gets back to me; finally I call Max, who owns a car, and tell him to drive over right away, but he tells me he’s sick. I beg, but he says no until I give up and put my phone away.

As the evening creeps toward midnight, a kindly waitress gives Juice the five-minute warning. He glances around the room and pleads for her to let him wait another ten, so a few more people can arrive before he starts. Willy takes this as a cue to start setting up, while I find a place to stand near the foot of the stairs and glance at the crowd. There are pretty girls in front of me and to my left, including one tall blonde with a backwards hat who has been dancing really hard to the DJ set since the moment she walked in.

Finally the music from the DJ booth goes quiet and is replaced by a drumbeat and the monster riff that Willy plays to open “Like a Renegade,” one of Juice’s biggest hits on YouTube. I take one last look around before things really get going and see that the dance floor is, if not packed, then adequately crowded. There are people here who are extremely excited to see Juiceboxxx play, awaiting his arrival onstage with as much anticipation as I am.

When Juice comes out, he holds a cordless mic as he stalks around the stage, practically skipping every few seconds as he finds his rhythm. He looks huge up there on the balcony twenty feet above us, and as he moves from one side of the room to the other, the corners of his unzipped denim jacket flapping and his pale skin glowing through his white sleeveless undershirt, he looks better than I’ve ever seen him, physically — lean, tall, broad-shouldered, his hair fashionably short. At some point he takes his jacket off, and when he raises his arms I can see the hair in his armpits — something he has obviously had for years at this point, but which strikes me in the moment as evidence of some internal growth. He raps his first verse, delivering it with clarity and focus, and punctuating every line with a triumphant fist pump.

I had to get out of my town for a bit when it all went down, yo, I couldn’t quite face it!

I dropped out and went on the road

Nowhere to run, I got nowhere to go

But I’m at the show, and I’m playing, and I’m slaying it

Tomorrow I just don’t know where I’m fuckin’ staying at

And I know the choices that I have made . . .


I’m singing along to every word and so are a bunch of people in my immediate vicinity. But it’s when Willy and the drummer start in on a warm and upbeat song called “21 on the 101” that the place really comes alive and Juice makes his way into the crowd for the first time. As he launches himself down the middle of the room I worry for a second that he’s about to start crashing into everybody like he used to in the old days and acting like he’s in a noise band again, but instead he comes to a standstill, strikes a pose with his hips out and his arm way, way up, and I realize this is a very different Juiceboxxx from the one I remember.

Everything about his body language exudes deliberateness — from the way he’s holding his mic stand as he leans over the banister, to the exuberance of his scissor kicks, to the way he puts his arm around Willy and puts his head next to his so that they can sing together. At one point he leaps onto an amplifier, his shirt off and his jacket back on, and he stands up there shaking his hips and pounding the air with his fist. He looks like a total pro. More than once he runs back into the crowd, which parts for him as if he’s been shot from a cannon. He’s on his knees, then he’s in the air, then he’s standing with his legs spread three feet apart and his right hand behind his back.

About three quarters of the way through the set he crouches down in the middle of the dance floor and looks up at Willy and the drummer and makes some kind of signal. Almost immediately the beat evens out and Willy starts palm-muting. “All right,” Juice says, perched on one knee as the music continues to simmer behind him. “What we’re gonna do right now is we’re gonna go to that place called the next level. How many of you motherfuckers know about that?” Everybody, including me, roars in approval. “That next level,” he repeats, talking quickly, “that’s what your fuckin’ parents warned you about. That’s what your teachers warned you about. That’s what your local city alderman warned you about! They said, ‘Hey man, don’t go to that next level, ’cause if you go to that next level, you’re gonna never come back!’”

With that he gets up on both feet and there is more screaming, more roaring, as he turns to face the crowd. “Well, I’m here to tell you, folks, that tonight, and only tonight, at the Passion Lounge in Brooklyn, New York, not only are we gonna go to the next level, we’re gonna go to the level above the next level.” He’s sounding more and more like a carnival barker with every word and the room feels like it’s hanging on for dear life. Finally, after a beat, Juice says, “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen,” and hits the punch line: “We’re going to the NEXT NEXT LEVEL!”

As the crowd explodes into yelling and clapping, Juice mounts one of the speakers and stands up straight. He is now towering above us as he finishes out the song; moments later I hear the opening chords of “Never Surrender Forever,” and Juice rejoins his bandmates on the balcony. The next four minutes are beautiful: Willy bangs his head as he plays guitar, Juice cradles the mic in his hands and wraps the Thunder Zone banner around his neck like a flag. When he wanders out into the crowd during the guitar solo people tousle his hair and jump up and down like they’re at a pop punk show; everybody’s singing, “Never surrender forever / Never surrender forever / Never surrender forever.” As the last chord rings out Juice has his fist in the air.

The rest of the tour goes well too. After it’s over, Juice moves back to New York, having agreed to sublet some floorspace in the basement of the house in Far Rockaway. A few months later, during a trip home to Milwaukee, he makes his first live television appearance to promote a small music festival he’s playing while in town. The local news brings him in for an interview about the event, to talk a little bit about his career as a rapper and perform one of his songs.

The segment turns out to be a disaster. During the Q&A portion, Juice looks dazed, and the skin around his eyes is disconcertingly dark, like he hasn’t slept in a week. Tall, lanky, dressed in all black, he sways languidly back and forth, smiles a lot, and chatters in an unintelligible, rambling cadence about what it’s like spending his life on the road as a touring musician. The two newscasters, a middle-aged man and woman, aren’t sure how to react to him. “We love your energy!” one of them says.

Things go wrong almost as soon as he starts his performance. First his earpiece falls out, which means he can’t hear the backing track he’s supposed to be rapping over, and when he gets it back in it becomes clear that the music is playing so softly in the studio that it’s basically inaudible, both to him and to the people watching at home. All that comes through is Juice’s shaking voice and his panicked breathing, disguised as laughter, as he tries to get through his lines. He can’t use his full range of motion without popping the earpiece out again, so he fumbles with it several times, struggling to perform while keeping still. The producers end up cutting him off after about thirty seconds and go to commercial.

I only see the video later, when Juice informs me by email that it has “gone viral,” popping up on a number of big sites, including the Huffington Post, as an irresistibly horrifying glimpse at an on-camera train wreck. “Wisconsin, you owe the world a very serious, heartfelt apology,” one blogger writes, in a post that declares Juiceboxxx to be the worst rapper of all time. “It’s so fucking bad, we can’t stop laughing at it,” writes another. Before long the clip makes its way onto a late-night talk show, giving Juiceboxxx more exposure in under a minute than he has had since he became who he is more than a decade ago.

As a result of all this attention, a bunch of people in Milwaukee start saying terrible things about Juiceboxxx — about how he doesn’t represent the city and besmirched the local hip-hop community’s name. But an elder statesman of the local scene named Doormouse, who ran a record store Juiceboxxx went to as a kid, writes a long Facebook post defending his honor, as does DJ Kid Cut Up, who helped Juice with his first EP when he was still in high school.

A few weeks after things die down, Juice addresses the video on his blog. “I have never been a part of what you might call a ‘viral shitstorm’ but I guess that’s what happened to me after this performance,” he writes. “I got a lot of hate/love and felt some pretty intense feelings coming my way. I don’t really want to dwell on this minor blip in my insanely long, weird life of music but it is noteworthy.”

“Ego annihilation isn’t a bad thing and I’ve come out of this experience more excited about making and performing music than ever.”

And just like that, he announces he is working on a new album, tentatively titled “Heartland99,” and that he is about to go on yet another tour. This time the show will be called “Business As Usual,” he writes. It will start at the beginning of May and last approximately three weeks. He will be performing, as always, as Juiceboxxx.

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5 days ago
I am one of those college friends who played genius-critic, and if Juiceboxxx is the ultimate genius, Leon is the ultimate critic. So much naches right now.
San Francisco, CA
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To all the girls who envy my life

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by Charlotte Shane 

“I want your life,” wrote the girl I’d never met before.

She isn’t the only one. There have been periods when I can’t go a week without opening an e-mail like this from a woman somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25. I’m not a celebrity, a trendsetter or an heiress. I am an escort.

For about three years, I’ve written honestly about my life as a prostitute on a modestly trafficked blog. I never intend to glamorize my profession, and I don’t list expensive gifts I receive or lavish items I buy for myself. I avoid rhapsodizing about exotic vacations or name-dropping hotels. I never disclose my rates and I don’t claim every encounter ends in mind-blowing orgasms — or any orgasm at all. That type of sensationalistic hype is really only good for selling books or selling face time on TV shows, neither of which I’m interested in.

I use my space online to write as accurately as I can about the experience of having sex for money, mostly because I need that outlet for my own mental and emotional reasons, but also because the stories that usually reach non-sex-working audiences are too often two-dimensional and extreme — focused on a white, “high-class” call girl finding happiness through her designer-label lifestyle, or drug-addicted and pimp-abused street prostitutes whose lives have been a series of degrading assaults. I do my best to not make my situation seem simplistic or easy to categorize. While I often write about clients whose company I enjoy, I also share my occasional fear, revulsion, violation and sadness. So why would some women want to duplicate my circumstances?

We could blame the usual scapegoats. “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” is a cutesy fantasy full of adventure and expensive fashion. One-time Eliot Spitzer date Ashley Dupre became known to the country as a tan, lanky beauty sporting designer accessories on a yacht. And so-called No. 1 Escort in New York Natalia McLennan recently released a memoir of her days making $2,000 per hour. But I think the causes are far more complex than a few pop culture artifacts. The glamour of prostitution can’t be traced back to the 1970s “Happy Hooker” Xaviera Hollander or the unrepentant schlock of “Pretty Woman.” It’s the persistent symptom of a society that still insists sexual desirability is a woman’s duty, and wealth is the most important hallmark of success. A young woman who is desirable is a young woman who wields power, and that power is often bestowed in the form of cold, hard cash.


Which isn’t to say the women who e-mail me are power hungry. Rather, I think they are recognizing the ways their culture tells them to achieve. Girls aren’t bombarded with messages telling them that their mental power is urgently needed to address issues like global warming or infectious diseases, or that their athleticism could be parlayed into a life as a professional athlete or coach. Instead, we’re told over and over again that we earn a place at the table — any table — by being polished and well-dressed, with glossy hair and a slim figure. The girls who e-mail me are not lacking internal resources. They’re educated, sensitive, observant, and they have the complex sentences and insightful wording to prove it. But they are living in a world where a woman’s worth is constantly equated with her sex appeal. Is it any wonder that many women might find it compelling to take that equation to its logical end?

These women are also often insecure, which I recognize because I was (and am) insecure, too. When I first started working in the sex industry, I thought my motivation was purely curiosity, but I see now that while curiosity gave me courage, insecurity was wearing the spurs. I was so highly self-critical as a young adult that by the time I was 12 I vowed I’d have breast surgery. (I wanted a reduction, since natural large breasts meant I’d never look truly skinny.) I struggled with an eating and exercise disorder, both of which were so common among my peers that they were unremarkable. I talked my parents into paying for medically unnecessary braces to close the gap in between my front teeth, which was easy since most kids my age were having cosmetic orthodontic work as well. While I was sexually ravenous — I was a teenager, after all — I couldn’t stand the thought of any boy seeing my body. So I was not quite a born natural when it came to selling myself for sexual consumption, but entering the industry quickly taught me that femininity is all performance, and it became a performance at which I was adept.

Practically speaking, envying someone for prostituting is like envying someone for eating at McDonald’s. There are no bars to entry. You don’t have to be beautiful, young or sexually skilled. Those aspects might help, but there’s no entrance exam when it comes to sex work. You don’t have to prove yourself to do it, and doing it proves nothing about you as a sexual being. Yet I’m often called “brave” by those who e-mail me, and this admiration is attributed to my perceived ability to shake off the constraints of polite society in pursuit of something stigmatized (and illegal). Most of this sentiment undoubtedly comes from the romantic quality bestowed on any taboo activity just by virtue of its being verboten, but I suspect a bit of the allure is drawn from the same masochistic curiosity that spawned sites like <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>. We’re taught from an early age to keep an eternally vigilant (and critical) eye on our appearance, and it takes a strong, studied will to refuse to pose the questions many of us have had running in our head since puberty: Is she prettier than me? Does he think I’m cute? There’s something almost merciful about finally having the clarity of a number, and once you’re an escort, you’ve quite literally put a price on your sexual powers. That’s an intimidating assignment for any young woman with a less than robust sense of self-esteem, but it can also be perversely satisfying: You’ve finally quantified your appeal.

Sex work may also appear to require some type of sexual precocity, a high sex drive or at least the willingness to jump headfirst into unpredictable intimate situations, qualities that all hold cachet for my generation. As Ariel Levy and others lamented, we’ll be navigating the wake of “Girls Gone Wild” culture for some time, with its aggressive promotion of an anything goes attitude as the primary means to gender equality and sexual liberation.

Sadly, the national debate on prostitution could more accurately be described as a shouting match. Any sex worker’s account of his or her own life that doesn’t involve drug addiction, abuse and tragedy is often immediately derided as sensationalistic, dishonest and dangerously misrepresentative by those who are categorically opposed to the sex industry. Prostitution is denigrated as a soul-crushing, life-ruining choice, but it’s simultaneously acknowledged to be deeply alluring. If these critics are to be believed, one positive story about hustling a businessman for some cash is so dangerous that virtually nothing will stop hordes of young women from shimmying into cocktail dresses and hitting hotel bars to taste that thrill for themselves.

And maybe the critics are right. Women are still burdened with astounding, disproportionate pressure to be both attractive and sexually willing, so they look for arenas in which to prove themselves as such. I don’t think many of these curious women envision themselves prostituting for years or even a full 12 months. They don’t think about lying to their parents and their friends, or telling their friends and suddenly feeling even more alone. They certainly don’t envision the problems presented by trying to date while working or the necessary efforts they’ll have to take to avoid law enforcement. They can only imagine those candlelit moments over pricey dinners when a well-dressed man slips them an envelope and they know for a moment that they are good enough.

There’s something profoundly human about wanting to be sexually valued, and it transcends genders. More than one young man has told me he envies my life, too. I suspect these young men are hinting at the same longing for affirmation as the young women who e-mail me. We all want to know that we matter, and being paid is one way of knowing we have value. It may be inelegant and often impersonal, but because money is quantifiable, its message is indisputable. Where do you go for reassurance if you doubt your physical and sexual desirability? Talk is cheap, so you take cash instead.

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12 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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My Week of Dangerous Self-Indulgence -- The Cut


Valentine's Day is fun, but this week the Cut is celebrating self-love: we're indulging our all whims, desires, and worst impulses. Join us for five days of ME ME ME ME ME.

One Christmas, when I was growing up, a well-meaning neighbor left a dozen homemade pecan rolls on our back porch. Someone in my family let our 12-year-old cockapoo out into the yard, and he ate the whole shebang. We spent a good portion of the holiday break at the emergency vet clinic while Opie clung to life, his pancreas tumid with sugary nuts.

"I don't understand," wailed my sister. "Why would he eat a dozen pecan rolls?!"

But I understood. I knew. It was because nobody stopped him.

Long before his later, peaceful death from natural causes, I realized that my voluptuary dog and I were not so dissimilar. I'm not a person of modest appetites: I love drinking, overeating, gambling, certain drugs, and having casual sex with horrible people. 

The only thing that keeps me from doing all of these things at once, and constantly, is a crispy thin-style crust of self-restraint. So when challenged for Journalistic Purposes to spend a week "treating myself" — eating what I wanted, smoking what I wanted, sleeping with whomever, and otherwise indulging myself in hepatically disastrous ways — I wasn't concerned about being able to complete the task. I was concerned that "doing only exactly what I wanted" would be a little too easy.

To wit: I am 31, unmarried, and nonreligious. I live by myself. The phrase "in the privacy of my own home" covers an awful lot of behavior that I don't feel particularly bad about, and nobody is around to make me.

I don't say this proudly. I get hangovers. My weight fluctuates. I give blow jobs to the deeply undeserving. Yes, sometimes it "bums me out." I would love to be one of those one-glass-of-wine bastions of female composure. Instead, I am a woman who routinely falls asleep with a face full of makeup, loudly digesting a hoagie and rousing my emotionally diseased lovers with my bourbon snores. 

So I wondered how I could make a week of "treating myself" interesting for me and for you. I don't think I can say anything exciting about substance abuse that hasn't been written before and well, in the mid-century literature so beloved by the terrible child-men I have sex with.

I live in Los Angeles, so I considered practicing the kind of reverse sensuality we enjoy locally. Here, "treating yourself" frequently translates to Martinizing one's genitals, and hiking. But that wouldn't be doing "exactly what I wanted" in the strictest sense, because let's be real: Deep down, nobody wants to hike.

I wondered if there weren't a DIFFERENT kind of indulgence I could practice — if there weren’t conduct from which I actively refrain, even with my own chubby whore's lax code of ethics. Something seedier and sadder than the usual second-act-of-a-musical-biopic tropes of VD and pills.

I concluded that, thanks to technology, temptation and indulgence are available in a myriad of new and crisply damaging forms. And I'm not just talking about moonrocks, which, yes, okay, are great too. Sorry. 

Here is what I did — for one week — that was bad for me. And also "exactly what I wanted."


Comedian John Mulaney said it best: "In terms of instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin." He's right! Thankfully, my calendar for "Me Week" is ripe for the blowing-off. I decline to put in "face time" at a friend's birthday party and reschedule a work phone call, just because I don't feel like taking it. Exhausted after a long day, I cancel on the friend who invited me over, even though I know she's already bought steaks, wine, and deeply perishable lettuces. 

The pure pleasure of "not having to be anywhere" is admittedly fantastic. But on all other levels, acting lazy and unreliable actually doesn't feel that great. I know people who have chosen to end longtime friendships over this exact kind of selfish interpersonal sloth. It's very inconsiderate! Ultimately, I feel as gross as if I'd eaten too many potato skins. 

Internet Feuding

I write, publicly, for a living. This often involves receiving criticism — sometimes directly, and sometimes via what depressed lichen-people on social media like to call "subtweeting." I accept that criticism is part of my job, and I try to freak out about it as little as a person with human feelings can. (I have trained my eyes to avoid reading comments that contain phrases like "can't believe someone is paid to do this" and "parents" and "disappointed," in much the way government agencies police private emails for sensitive terms like "pipe bomb.")

As much as I'd like to, I try to avoid beefing with strangers. Particularly with other women in my field. Unfortunately, some of them are not as beatific as I am: A colleague texted me a few weeks back to let me know another writer was saying semi-meanish things about me on Twitter. So in the spirit of this long, dark Cheat Week of the Soul, I drafted a cutting, if late, response: "Thanks for reading. And by the way, I've enjoyed following your career." 

Immediately after I'd spent hours coming up with that tweet, I realized I couldn't send it. It just didn't feel good. I mean, it kind of did, but whatever. I'm not that much of a penis. 


Through a lot of luck and a little effort, I'm on cordial-to-excellent terms with most of my exes. I'm Facebook friends with some of their wives and girlfriends. I harbor no ill will for those who came before or will come after me. I rely largely on my glittering personality to attract a man, so anybody else with whom he enjoys relations is generally going to be hotter and thinner.

Occasionally, when a guy's new girlfriend or his ex hasn't immediately warmed to me, I've tried to be pretty cool. By which I mean, I actively fantasize about having lunch with her so she can see how sweet and fun I am over a sizzling appetizer platter. I'm just an easygoing gal who tries as hard as anybody else! LOOK HOW MUCH WE HAVE IN COMMON. NO, I'LL PUT YOU IN MY PHONE. Ha ha, girl, you have ranch on your lip.

I admit that sometimes I feel tempted to use the internet to look at photos of these women, the ones who don't like me. So this week, I do. It sucks. It causes actual, profound physical discomfort. I delete Instagram. 

The Occult

I love astrology. I love thinking that my apartment is haunted. I still have three pieces of rose quartz a tarot-reader told me I would need to carry at all times in order to find true love, because my fire spirit was repellent to men. I also realize that this is not the way a rational person thinks or acts, and as such, I try to limit my impulse to hurl gypsy curses or talk about what a Cancer I am. I mean, I know most of those puritan ladies were innocent, but this kind of nonsense is why they used to burn us at the stake.

But who cares? I'm on moral shore leave! So I read my entire unhinged Susan Miller horoscope AND my ex's, light some Guardian Angel candles I bought from a botánica, and open an envelope containing a voodoo spell my friend bought me in New Orleans. The voodoo spell turns out to be very involved. Its extensive list of ingredients includes red wine, nine plums, and something called "devil's shoestring." Instead, I drink the wine and watch an episode of Ghost Adventures where one of the ghosts' bros insists that a ghost tried to touch his penis. I worry about what Susan said about my ex being "especially charismatic" this month. What the fuck does that mean? Also, NINE PLUMS?


Look. I'm not trying to come off like a chill Fonzie robot who thinks it’s cool for having conquered dainty human frailty. But in certain cases, I find crying to be exceptionally indulgent: like at the death of a celebrity or movies where talking animals are separated and subsequently reunited with their families. If a "good cry" is indeed its own kind of pleasure, it's one I typically try to deny myself. 

Not today! It's id week, and the baser part of my animal personality structure wants to weep down like a little bitch. (I also try not to use the word bitch ever, but please remember that from an ethical standpoint: SPRING BREAAAAAAAAAK.)

There is one thing that I am ashamed to admit makes me cry without fail: YouTube clips of The Wonder Years. I call up the ending of the episode where Winnie blows off Kevin for an older boy and then gets in a car crash. Kevin climbs on Winnie's roof and they start playing that Bob Seger song and exchange I love you's, and, oh God. Oh my God. Where did my youth go? How could Kevin and Winnie go on to find mature love with other people? Why is my own private life an Apache ambush from a Cormac McCarthy novel? I miss my mom. 


I love pornography. I am not ashamed of this, because there's such a bounty of material out there created by sex-positive feminists, queer filmmakers, and other conscience-palliative perverts of the Pacific Northwest. Every once in a while, though, I pine for the grody smut of my youth, the kind that used to be glimpsed in the blue-lit rumpus rooms of sexually precocious middle-school friends.

So, I decide to seek out some good old-fashioned oppressive male-gaze ADULT CINEMA. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that the least sexy part of porn is looking for it. It's difficult and convoluted, and the ads. My God, the ads. I'd venture to say some of them are more repulsive than a thousand alcoholic single thirtysomething bloggers. 

I can't finish. When the guy in the video finally ejaculates on the woman's once vogueishly augmented breasts and some of it gets in her hair, it just makes me miss the last man for whom I had true feelings. I close the laptop, stare out the window, and eat a plum.


Why do we abstain from things? Excesses of cake and alcohol may make us sick in the long run but feel great in the moment, whether we're consuming them joyfully with friends or to escape the churning cafard of being alive. But those kinds of self-regulated pleasures are meant to make us feel good, or at least better. The "gratification" I chose this week couldn't have been less so; in most cases, it caused immediate, and lingering, discomfort. If hooch made you feel bad immediately and not, say, 12 hours later, fewer of us would probably do so many damn shots.

But while I can defang a hangover with a greasy breakfast, there's no egg burrito that can quell the agony of seeing someone I love looking happy without me. You can always lose weight or dry up, but awareness is indelible. The future will doubtlessly continue to bring new, exciting ways to mess ourselves up, chemically and emotionally; in some cases, abstinence really is better than moderation, so as not to grow hair on the palms of your very soul. Pleasure is meant to distract from misery, and when pleasure is misery, there is no hydrating Gatorade, no Canyon Ranch, no methadone for it. Humanity is finite and ungraftable. Have pizza instead.

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19 days ago
I loved this piece!
New York, NY
19 days ago
"I don't think I can say anything exciting about substance abuse that hasn't been written before and well, in the mid-century literature so beloved by the terrible child-men I have sex with."
San Francisco, CA
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Reasons You Were Not Promoted That Are Totally Unrelated to Gender.

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You don’t smile enough. People don’t like you.

You smile too much. People don’t take you seriously.

You’re abrasive, for example that time when you asked for a raise. It was awkward and you made the men on the senior leadership team uncomfortable.

You don’t speak up. We’d really like to see you take on more of a leadership role before we pay you for being a leader.

You’re sloppy. Like when you sent that email with a typo. You need to proofread your work.

You’re too focused on details. Leaders need to take the 50,000-foot fighter pilot view. No, I never served in the armed forces, what’s your point?

You’re not seasoned. Oh, wait, you’re 35? Well, you look young. Maybe if you were more mature, like if you were married or had kids (why don’t you have kids, by the way? We’re all a little curious) then we could envision you as being a leader in this organization.

Oh, you do have kids? Well, we’re concerned about your ability to balance everything and you look really tired all the time and I feel guilty asking you to stay late so I just ask good old Tom who’s a great guy and simple and easy to talk to.

You’re argumentative. For example, right now you’re upset that you didn’t get a promotion and you’re asking for concrete examples of what you can do better. I really don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty and you should trust my judgment anyways.

You’re a pushover. When Tom came up and gave you that totally platonic hug in the shareholders meeting you should have just told him to not touch you instead of telling me you thought it was inappropriate. Leaders handle their own problems.

You’re not a team player. If you’d just wait a few years, there will be some great opportunities here for you, we need you in this role right now.

You aren’t good at promoting yourself. I mean, toot your own horn a little!

I’m not sexist and this organization is not sexist and I have to say you’re developing a little bit of a reputation as a troublemaker. Five years ago we promoted a woman who happens to be black –- I mean, African-American… or maybe just African, I can’t remember –- and that proves that we are tolerant and committed to diversity.

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20 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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A provocative new theory for why so many Americans are in prison.

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high. It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012. But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.

What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.* Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be. If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory.  

The U.S. prison population increased fivefold between 1980 and 2009—from approximately 320,000 inmates to 1.62 million. When you look at the work of scholars and the policymakers who are influenced by them, what do you see as the dominant explanations for why this happened?

One is that we’re sending people to prison for more and more and more time. The other is the war on drugs—that we’ve made this concerted effort to target people for drug dealing and drug possession, and we’re filling up our prisons with all of these drug-related offenses. The dominant view is that those two changes have transformed the size of the prison population in the United States.

What do you think of those two explanations?

I understand where they come from. It’s true that legislators have passed a lot of new, tougher sentencing laws over the past 30 or 40 years. And it’s true that we have increased the attention paid to drugs. But in the end, there are other things that play a much, much bigger role in explaining prison growth. The fact of the matter is in today’s state prisons, which hold about 90 percent of all of our prisoners, only 17 percent of the inmates are there primarily for drug charges. And about two-thirds are there for either property or violent crimes.

Has the percentage of drug offenders among the prison population been higher in the past?

It peaked in 1990 at 22 percent and then steadily declined. So even when the percentage of drug offenders among the state prison population was at its peak, about four out of every five people were there for a nondrug offense.

Why are you skeptical of the idea that longer sentences have been a significant driver of the prison boom?

If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million.

Because while it’s true that legislators have passed a lot of longer sentences, if you actually look at time served by inmates in prison, it doesn’t appear to have changed that much. We have good data going back approximately 20 years or so, and at least in northern and northwestern states where we have better data, about half of all prisoners who get admitted in a given year only spend about two or three years in prison. And only about 10 percent serve more than about seven or eight years in prison. These laws look incredibly punitive—25 years for a class B felony—but you just don’t see people serving that amount of time.

OK. So if it’s not the drug war, and it’s not harsh sentencing laws, what is it? What do you think caused the prison boom?

You need to break the question into two periods. Because there’s a time between 1975 and 1991 when you see this dramatic rise in crime, and the prison population went up as well. And then there’s a more interesting period, between 1991 and 2010, when crime steadily declined, yet prison populations kept going up. So, between ’75 and ’91, it’s almost certain that the increase in crime had to play at least some significant role in increasing the prison population. The scale of the crime boom that took place was dramatic: From 1960 to 1991, violent crime rose by 400 percent, and property crime rose by 200 percent. Figuring out how much of prison growth can be attributed to the crime boom is actually statistically quite difficult, but the best estimate that’s out there—which is not a perfect estimate, but it’s the best we have—suggests that about half of prison growth during that period was due to rising crime. Clearly other stuff mattered, but rising crime played a very big role during the first phase.

So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates. 

Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.

What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

Isn’t the traditional explanation for why prosecutors tend to be overzealous is that their political careers depend on it?

The political question is interesting because generally the district attorney election is not very difficult to win. DAs tend to win elections pretty regularly. So, when Joe Hynes was defeated in the Democratic primary in Brooklyn, New York, in 2012, he was the first sitting Brooklyn DA to run for re-election and lose in more than a century. But that’s not to say that politics don’t matter: Maybe it’s that next election they’re looking at, that they remain tough on crime because they want to become attorney general or governor. There’s no clear data on this. We’re only just starting to look at this question. But that strikes me as a possible story. What might have happened is the crime boom made being a prosecutor more of a launch-pad position—it elevated the status of prosecutors, and perhaps elevated their political ambitions, and they remained tough on crime even as crime started going down.

OK. So why does any of this matter? Why is it important for reformers to have the right theory for why mass incarceration happened?

The reason it’s important to get it right is that if we’re trying to reduce the prison population, we want to make sure we do it correctly—and if you focus on the wrong thing, you won’t solve the problem. So if you think it’s the war on drugs, you might think, ‘OK, if we just decriminalize drugs, that will solve the problem.’ And, you know, it’s true that if we shift away from punishment to treatment that could be a huge improvement. But just letting people out of prison—decarcerating drug offenders—will not reduce the prison population by as much as people think. If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country; we’d still have an enormous prison population.

And if we focused on cutting back sentence lengths, maybe that would weaken DAs’ bargaining power at plea bargaining, but since people aren’t serving the massively long sentences anyway, it probably won’t have that big an effect on prison population either.

Well, the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison. And there’s a lot to be said for nonprison approaches to a lot of people who are in prison for violent crimes. But that’s a political issue that we haven’t even begun to address, in part because it’s politically scary.

Where does that leave reformers who want to see the prison population drop significantly?

What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now—whose behavior we need to regulate—is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He’s directly elected, and he’s directly elected at the county level. So there’s no big centralized fix. You can’t necessarily go to Washington and say, ‘Here’s the law that’s going to control what the DAs do,’ because they don’t have to listen to the federal government at all. So you have to figure out how to go county by county and either elect DAs who have less punitive attitudes, or you can try to sort of change the incentives DAs face at the state level. But it’s very tricky.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction, Feb. 7 2014: This article misstated John Pfaff’s title at Fordham Law School. He is a professor.

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20 days ago
Whoa. "If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country; we’d still have an enormous prison population."
San Francisco, CA
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1 public comment
19 days ago
Orange County, California
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