Monday, September 15, 2014

Shane Dawson and the YouTube Problem

Shane Dawson
Later this month (September 23rd to be precise), Shane Dawson, YouTube personality and former owner of the best Bieber haircut on the planet (and that includes Bieber himself) will be releasing his first feature-length movie, Not Cool.  The movie, made in conjunction with Starz recent Project Greenlight-inspired The Chair, has released a trailer and will get some theater time in Los Angeles and New York before being available on iTunes.  For Dawson, a YouTube creator for the past six years, it is a major step in his career and one his fans (myself included) have been rooting for for a while.  All-in-all, this should be a great thing, right?

And yet, I'm not quite there yet.  Honestly, I want to be.  I have chronicled my love of YouTube on this  site sporadically (though clearly I should do it more often as most of the YouTube articles tend to be the site's most read), and Dawson really has been my favorite of the producers of YouTube content.  It might be because there's clearly talent behind what he's doing on his channel.  Dawson tries it all: music video parodies, skits, vlogs, confessionals, collabs-if it's a YouTube stock-and-trade, he's done it (I think he's even done a makeup tutorial).  And by-and-large he's been relatively successful-it's rare that Shane is in a video and he doesn't make you laugh or smile at least once.

This trailer, though, reeks of more of the same, and doesn't give me a lot of comfort for Dawson.  The film looks almost like a Wayans Brother parody of a high school movie it relies so heavily on clunky expositional dialogue and cliche (all you're missing is Anna Faris).  Dawson, at 26, doesn't look young enough to be playing a character lost in the world, and while there's clearly some winks to his YouTube audience (I spot you Aunt Hilda!), for someone that has spent so much time saying that he's going to leave behind his YouTube roots and what is in front of the camera isn't really him, he seems to be relying pretty severely on them as a crutch in this movie.

It's worth noting that even the most casual of his fans couldn't see that Dawson has clearly changed quite a bit in the past year from the personality we've known and loved for so many years.  Some would cheekily blame it on his haircut, but the guy who has spent most of his career working on self-deprecating humor has gotten a little more cock in his walk, as it were, and is frequently recognizing that he has ended up being pretty damn good-looking.  His videos don't seem to have the same level of time investment as they used to (he's done only three music videos this year, and only one of them in the past five months, a parody of Avril Lavigne's "Hello Kitty").

He also seems temperamental regarding failures, which has made him seem a bit whiny.  I'm speaking specifically regarding his Bomb(dot)com segments on Sundays, where he doesn't appear and it is instead hosted by Alexis G Zall, a tween with a filthy sense of humor who says lines clearly written by Dawson.  Viewers have hated the series, complaining both about the misdirects in the adverts (Shane was featured in almost all of the screen grabs but had little to nothing to do with the videos) and the content (Zall is grating and doesn't seem at home in Dawson's world and has become the Cousin Oliver of his channel).  The fact that he not only hasn't ended the series but has shamed his viewers about not liking the installments (in an ill-advised vlog that I believe was eventually taken down) says that he's starting to become tone deaf to why people tune into him every day.  Quite frankly, while I don't know Dawson, and this seems pretty high school to speculate on his mood, I do get the feeling that he is largely over the YouTube phase of his career but knows it would be foolish to end it without establishing himself more strongly in another medium like film or television, particularly considering the incredible amount of money he's making on the site (he still gets 3-4 million views a week).

The problem is that Dawson's talents, if the film is any indication (and I could eat my words here in two weeks-it's rare, but on occasion a trailer is not remotely indicative of the quality of an actual movie), may not be enough to make it into the world of mainstream movie or television.  Looking at Dawson's channel, it's hard not to see that the best and most interesting character on the channel is not one of his one-note wigged creations, but Dawson himself.  A complicated, introverted young man with a troubled childhood and weight problems, the actual Dawson has frequently said in interviews that he doesn't bare a lot of resemblance to what comes across onscreen, and that shows a solid willingness to go the distance in creating a career.  The problem is, though, that if you build your entire brand around a specific personality you have trouble transitioning into other mediums.  Look at how difficult it is for successful TV actors to move into other venues or other TV series, and they have a more universally-acknowledged fame-people want more of the same, a lesson that Dawson is learning.

And quite frankly, it's a lesson that all of the "older" (born in the 1980's) YouTube personalities are starting to learn as their fans grow up.  It's frequently joked about by all of them that they are making their videos for tweens, but I would be willing to be that the bulk of their audience is older and more in their early twenties, certainly older than the fans of up-and-coming personalities like Cameron Dallas.  As a result of this, there is a ticking clock on their YouTube careers.  They are not TV shows that people are going to be fine tuning into at any age-there's a shelf life for when you are going to be cool on the internet, and I think most of these personalities are aware of this.  It's why you saw Camp Takota earlier this year from Grace, Mamrie, and Hannah (which at this point seems like a best case scenario for Dawson, who won't have the novelty advantage that those three women had of "YouTubers! In a Movie!").  It's why you've seen shifts to scripted content from Joey Graceffa and Sawyer Hartman.  It's why Tyler Oakley has made a point of interviewing larger names on his channel like Michelle Obama and One Direction and is starting to make more television appearances.  These personalities know that in order to survive as long-term entertainers they're going to have to expand their marketability, just like any actor.

And this is why I'm truly worried about Dawson's career.  Honestly-we've never really seen him expand or get out of his comfort zone and so much of his comedy and bits are based on him being a screw-up figuring himself out.  That just doesn't fly as you near thirty (for the record, this also doesn't fly on dates either-you can not have your life completely in order at thirty, trust me, but don't lead with that-you should have it figured out for the most part, or at least have a clear action plan), and if Dawson cannot expand past that he's going to be in trouble maintaining this level of fame.  The reality is that most of these personalities, like almost all child stars, are going to become forgotten within five years time.  Only a couple will have the moxie, determination, and let's face it, luck to make a true career out of what they started on YouTube (for the record, I think Tyler Oakley, who clearly gets how the game is played and always puts 100% into everything he puts out in all avenues, is probably the most likely to succeed), and if this is all Shane Dawson can put out, I worry he might not be one of the lucky ones.

Those are my (admittedly harsh-I really do like him, but sometimes you need to bring the hard truth) thoughts on Dawson.  I'm hoping I am wrong (I'll definitely be seeing Not Cool), but what about you.  Have you noticed a recent change in Dawson's personality/channel?  Are you excited for Not Cool?  And which YouTubers do you think will go the distance and still be relevant five years from now?  Share in the comments!

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