“The midlife crisis is the moment in a man’s life when he realizes he can’t (or won’t) any longer maintain the pose that he thought was required of him.”

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis. Autograf session in Milan

Bret Easton Ellis

Charlie Sheen: American Meltdown

We’ve all been watching a drug-induced breakdown, but is that all it is? I was just as mindlessly – thoughtlessly – mesmerized as everyone else, until Bret Easton Ellis (Author: Less Than Zero, American Psycho) suggested that there may be a broader point that we’re all missing. And if anyone knows about the mentality behind nihilist narcissism of L.A., it’s this man.

Ellis, while promoting a new book in 2010, started terming our current pop-culture status as “post-Empire.” I understand now that this term is in reference to Gore Vidal‘s use of the word, and Ellis uses it to call to mind a decaying and dying old order being replaced by a new reality.


“Empire,” in Ellis’s frame, refers to the framework of social expectations that govern pop culture, or did govern it until recently. Those artists and icons deemed “Empire,” are those who play by the rules of conformity to these norms, and usually hypocritically so.

In the sixties, they would have probably used the word “establishment,” but even anti-establishment icons like Hendrix or Mohammad Ali were still not transparent. They still in some way conformed to acceptability. Even Jim Morrison was not completely unguarded with us in the way pop culture is unguarded with us now. They were all sanitized to varying degrees, and therefore they all belonged to – and reinforced – the Empire sensibility.


The post-Empire era, in Ellis mind, started in about 2005, and is much more transparent, unguarded and disturbing than we are used to experiencing. He cites Eminem as a prototype of the “more raw, less diluted” new pop reality:

On The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem rages much more transparently than Dylan against the idiocy of his own flaws and the failure of his marriage and his addictions and fantasies than any Empire artist (and let’s include Empire Bruce Springsteen and his great Tunnel of Love album while we’re at it) by recording fearlessly the fake murder of his ex-wife at his own enraged hands, a defying act that Bob or Bruce would never have even considered.

Charlie Sheen in March 2009

Charlie Sheen: Very post-Empire

Other examples of post-Empire (from Ellis) include Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes (for the transparent, deserving contempt), Lady Gaga telling Anderson Cooper (almost defiantly) that she likes to smoke pot while writing music, and the participants of Jersey Shore (having made no attempt whatsoever to sanitize their ids).

Had he not peaked in the 90’s, I think Stern might have been post-Empire. Tiger Woods, flaws notwithstanding, is very, very Empire. Were he not, he never would have apologized…he would have been honest about his frame of reference and said something very close to what Charlie Sheen said: “F#@& you all, I’m better than you.”

Bypassing the Filters

The post-Empire era is ushered in by way of reality programming, but much more by social media. Now celebrities can talk directly to us, bypassing any filters. Will they still tend to be guarded and put up a front? Sure. But because of the direct conversation, we can see actual honesty peeking through the cracks.

More so, certain cultural icons who have no problem dispensing with Empire’s false solemnity can now openly defy and ridicule it. For their defiance, they actually become more popular than they were before. And this, folks, may be as close to Rock ‘n Roll as our generation will ever get.

Cover of

Movie Cover for Less Than Zero – but DON’T RENT THE MOVIE! Read the book!

Our brand of icon narcissism is evolving. As Ellis says, “Tastefulness and elegance no longer have meaning. We’ve moved on.” We now want undiluted, raw, disturbing, contemptuous, transparent reality. That is what Charlie Sheen has given us. Will this make him popular forever? Probably not. The stronger the stimulus, the quicker the returns diminish.

Moving From Beer to Tequila

It does, however, mean we are now drinking our tequila straight and we will move on the instant it no longer keeps us buzzed. We, like Sheen, want a stronger and stronger fix, and are increasingly numb and bored.

There is nothing noble about this trend, just like there is nothing really redeeming about Ellis’s characters from Less Than Zero. But they bring up a good point: that all the world, except for post-Empire Sheen, is posing. We all are.

It may have taken a drug-induced breakdown to finally see it, but Sheen is actually the only one being honest with us about who he believes he is, in defiance of our expectations and at the expense of any measure of comfort he could have built instead.

Less Than Honest

So what does this mean for us, other than the fact that we’re way too plugged into this crap? Well, for starters, it’s interesting to see things in terms of the Empire. This is not a new concept, but one that bears checking-in with every once in a while.

I read this Ellis article on my iPad, and after I was done, I flipped by other articles on lifestyle and luxury living and such. While I normally get a kick out of reading about the yuppie stuff I can’t afford (as opposed to the less expensive yuppie stuff I already own), this time I felt rather nauseated with myself. That’s probably a good reaction.

It’s probably also good to connect with our honest selves in the face of all the posing that we have to do every day just to keep the boat from rocking. My wife is in the professional services (creative) industry, and that whole industry deals heavily with impression management so as to appease the whims of capricious clients.

Shiny Happy People

The other night, she and I were having a conversation about when we want to start a family, and it reminded me about the self-sanitizing necessary for raising a well-adjusted kid.

My parents abstained from alcohol (around me) until my brother and I were in college, just so we wouldn’t develop a premature curiosity about it. I was shocked to learn the degree that their perspective on alcohol was a white lie for my benefit. Either it worked, or I was simply too much of a geek to hang around the experimenting crowds. But now I’m cringing about holding back that self-truth for eighteen years, lest I not live up to my parents’ parenting.

MisanthropySo should we all be misanthropes? A planet of Dr. Gregory Houses? That would be fun…for about two minutes. Nor is it the point.

The point is that in the normal course of human events we do have to sanitize and pose to a point. The world would come to a halt if we didn’t. But when does the posing become too much?

The job seeker you’re interviewing isn’t nearly as capable as he comes off (if he’s interviewing correctly), and we understand that. The potential next ex-Mr.-or-Mrs. that you’re viewing on Match.com is at least ten to fifteen pounds heavier than their picture would have you believe, and we understand that. But this all adds up, until one day we look around and say, “I could honestly walk out this office door, pick a direction, and keep walking forever.”

Or, in a more Sheen style, we tell the world, “I’m sick of pretending I’m not this thing that I am!” What’s so fascinating about Sheen’s diatribe is that he’s giving us, in Ellis’s words, “a mesmerizing and refreshing display of midlife-crisis honesty.”

Dropping the “Instagram-Scrubbed” Image

I read Less Than Zero about four or five years ago. The people who don’t get it believe that it glamorizes or espouses moral bankruptcy. There have been many Gordon Gekko-quoting douchebags over the years who have read into that text that which they wanted to hear.

But there is a certain subspecies of humans (to which I belong) who can feel paradoxically alone in a room full of people. We have a difficult time connecting or fitting, for a variety of reasons. Less Than Zero is a wail of pain from that place, and pings a secret and difficult-to-articulate resonance within us.

When we choose to self-medicate in order to cope, we used to turn to Empire. It was the status-centric version of the American Dream. “What would it be like to be one of them?” we wonder as we listen to the reassuring strains of the flavor of the month.

Well, Empire is no longer doing the job for us, so we need stronger, post-Empire hits. That’s what we’re asking of Charlie Sheen, and he’s satisfying the need, and he knows it, but doesn’t give a f#@& whether he does or not. And it’s the not-giving-a-f#@& that makes the hit so potent.

Cask-Strength Drama

Empire and post-Empire (if you buy the premise) are both systems of narcissism that we willingly validate. We could disavow them if they weren’t so damn shiny. We could, instead, get more skillful at connecting with the actual human beings in our circles, and so outgrow the medication by addressing the source of the pain.

Because we all know in our hearts that the Emperor has no clothes. The Oscars are a pure self-love fest of diminishing entertainment value. There is nothing there for us behind the next version of whatever tablet computer we own. There is nothing there for us inside a slightly more upscale house, etc.

Except now, since the Empire rules of civility and solemnity are no longer of any use to Charlie, he is free to speak the truth from his perspective: the idols are false, the worshipers are sheep, and network executive are probably trolls.

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