Friday, December 31, 2010

James Suckling and R Kelly – Searching for (unintentional) satirical perfection

"I'm here with Red to Brown"
 If you have a passing interest in wine and how it is covered on the internet and social media, you may have noticed the promo videos put out by wine critic James Suckling for his new website.

For those not familiar with James Suckling, he is the former Senior Editor and European Bureau Chief of Wine Spectator Magazine. Suckling recently gave up this dream role to strike out on his own and try to shake up the wine world, with a newly created subscription wine website the first step in that process. Unfortunately for James, the wine video ‘teasers’ released prior to the site going live have been panned by a few people on the internet, generating considerable comment and critique in the process.

The critiques range from the relatively civilised and considered to the rather crude and fully anonymous.  For a pretty broad overview of the new media critique on James, the following link is a useful backgrounder: (Link)

To momentarily get serious, this post is not a defence of James Suckling. However, I must say that he has probably been given a bad rap – the talk of him being evil, exploitative and a douche are going too far, and arguably highlights the wine snob tendencies of some critics. His promo clips are objectively pretty bad, and I will not subscribe to his website (for financial reasons and the fact I can get better wine advice from other subscription sites). Though he is a well respected wine critic and has every right to try and make money with his wine website and pitch it to a certain type of wine buyer if he wants to. If you don’t like his approach, try to create something positive to compete with it (free, subscription, whatever). A topic for another post, and not the primary focus of this post, though I feel it needed to be said.

What amuses me about the subjectively awful promo ‘teaser’ videos is that they are so bad they are actually good. Furthermore, they remind me of a legendary set of video clips/songs by an artist from a different genre: R Kelly and his HipHopra opus: Trapped in the Closet Episodes 1-12.

Of the several Suckling promo teasers, two stick out - the “Searching for Perfection” video (or ‘I’m XY points on that’) and the “Im Here with” teaser.
The by-line from the first video has already been appropriated as a favoured term/meme on various social media forums – eg: “mocking the James Suckling promo videos? – I’m 92 points on that”. As if this gem wasn’t enough, I would personally argue that his ‘I’m here with’ teaser takes it to another level with his subtle and mysterious “I’m here....” closing line. James – what are you here for? Some more wine reviews at an elite winery?, some subtle seduction? Where is here? Bordeaux?, Burgundy? Piedmont?, the Cessnock Pub?

Both clips in my wine nerd /wanker view are pieces of unintentional satirical comedic genius. That might be taking it a bit too far, but I must say that the clips grow on me over time and become more funny than they are pretentious or condescending.

I find the James Suckling promo videos amusing as wine satire to the point it is still hard to believe he produced these videos as serious vehicles to generate hype for his website. If Suckling came out tomorrow and said “it was all a viral ploy to generate a bit of hype for the website, but primarily to poke fun at wine critics from the inside out” I would applaud him. As of the time of writing, the joke has not been called, so we must assume the Suckling teaser videos are serous and sincere.

To add to my enjoyment of the suckling clips, the teaser videos remind me of R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet series of songs/video clips. (If you are yet to be introduced to the best example of “so bad it is good’ pop culture, go here for a taste).

"Don't make me pull out the wine equivalent of my Beretta"
 In terms of similarities, both were released in regular instalments (episodes 1-5 of Trapped...) over a number of weeks, presumably to let the suspense build. Self evidently, they are both so bad, that for me they are actually quite good. Thirdly, there is ambiguity regarding whether both sets of clips were intentionally or unintentionally funny, adding to the intrigue and enjoyment (unintentionally creating satire is a feat to be admired, even if the creator tries to defend or distance themselves from the end product).

R Kelly has argued that Trapped in the Closet 1-12 was intentionally tongue in cheek, and that his initial claims to have invented a new genre of music (hiphopra) were part of the gag. His less impressive (or less amusingly cringe worthy) follow-up ‘Trapped in the Closet 13-22 was arguably an attempt to further paint Trapped... as a joke and not a serious piece of art so poor it was assumed by most to actually be a joke.

Noting that Suckling does not look like coming out like R Kelly and admitting his clips are a joke, part of me would love to see Suckling go loco and really shake things up – eg: move into avant garde wine clip territory and release a teaser clip that is the wine equivalent of a Zaireeka era Flaming Lips song. Based on his ‘serious’ wine teasers, such a clip would make a 100pt Robert Parker Jr wine review or a Gary Vaynerchuck ‘sniffy sniff’ Wine Library TV review seem even more passé, smallfry and decidedly conventional (even if delivered from a helicopter).

Wine nerds/wankers like me can only dream of such an outcome in the wine entertainment world, but for now I will have to settle on James Suckling searching for perfection in one of the many locations of the world he is visiting and monitoring the at-times amusing backlash against the promotion for his website. Go easy on him:  it may turn out to be serious, or a joke, but it is entertaining regardles. For that, James Suckling should be sincerely commended.


Moredsir said...

"unintentional satirical comedic genius"?

I have always assumed they were intentional, especially with the backing track to Searching for Perfection - I was waiting for his head to explode at the end of the clip;

Brown said...

Hi Moredsir,
All the evidence points towards the clips being intentional, and that is the glory of them. I am sure there must be some people who watch those clips and think to themselves "that man has so much knowledge and so many impressive wine friends, I am going to subscribe to that website!", otherwise he would not have kept putting them out. The cynic in me assumes he is aiming for the Robert Parker Jr-style points fiends who base their purchases on points, reputation, fashion and price; therefore the teasers are targetting the right audience (US market and increasingly the Chinese/Asian market).
Still, it makes for some very entertaining, if somewhat cringe-worthy viewing.


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