The week of November 29, 2015

How Macaulay Culkin’s Pizza Underground became my personal online disaster

By Eugenia Williamson

Three years ago, Macaulay Culkin and some other, considerably less famous people banded together to sing the songs of the Velvet Underground, adding lyrics to make them about pizza. They called themselves The Pizza Underground. A year later, just before they set out on a North American tour, the band released its first and only music video, a pastiche of tracks like “Take a Bite of the Wild Slice” and “All Pizza Parties.”

As art goes, the concept hovers somewhere between Warhol’s cans and Duchamp’s urinal, but far, far too late to be interesting. In the realm of Internet news, however, The Pizza Underground proved irresistible. Outlets from Rolling Stone to the Guardian gleefully reported on the former child star—who, let’s face it, hasn’t been looking so hot these last few years—and his eccentric musical pursuit. The overworked bloggers at Jezebel (“Macaulay Culkin Has a Pizza-Themed Velvet Underground Cover Band”) and Pitchfork (“Listen: Macaulay Culkin Has a Pizza-Themed Velvet Underground Cover Band, The Pizza Underground”) had been gifted a headline that wrote itself.

For many, The Pizza Underground was clickbait, a goof, something to be chuckled about and instantly forgotten. For me, however, The Pizza Underground has become part of my daily existence, keeping company with stray cat hair, my love for my family, and the deadened nerves beneath the scars on my left index finger. It is my pride, my shame, and may very well become my epitaph. Above all else, for better or worse, The Pizza Underground is my disaster.

Pizza Underground Pastiche
Photo via the Pizza Underground/Twitter

My irrevocable collision with Macaulay Culkin’s joke pizza-band began one afternoon at a coffee shop near my apartment outside Boston. I was in the final stages of writing a very long story for a very big-deal magazine that I had been working on for nearly a year. As such, I found myself dicking around on the Internet. I discovered Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band would soon be coming to town.

At that point, I had been a freelance writer for a little over a year, my first and only staff writing job at the Boston Phoenix having disappeared shortly before the paper did. Although I was making a steady, if modest, living writing book reviews, feature stories, and the occasional essay—things that take a slow writer like me days, sometimes weeks to research, report, and write—the appeal of covering The Pizza Underground’s Boston appearance beckoned like a dollar bill on the ground. Or, more accurately, a hundred-dollar bill, the standard amount for a 300 to 500–word Q&A. To earn that much, I could spend 10 minutes on the phone with Macaulay Culkin, another 30 typing out our conversation, and about 30 minutes more editing it and slapping on an intro. Journalism!

Within minutes, I had found a local editor who would run the story and was on the phone to the booking agent of the club at which he would appear. He gave me the publicist’s information, and after dashing off a quick interview request through the proper channels, I went about my day.

I can’t remember how long it took the publicist to get back to me. I can, however, remember her response as clear as day. It was a form letter, written in purple Papyrus font, requesting that I respect The Pizza Underground’s artistic integrity by sending her five questions, “pizza-themed, of course,” to be answered not by former child star Macaulay Culkin, but by two members of the band; she couldn’t say which ones.

What was this nonsense? This was a joke band fronted by a wealthy former actor, a stunt not even worthy of Vincent Gallo, with a response whose level of pretension was unmet by any I had yet received in my many years of sending out mundane publicity requests—in purple Papyrus, no less. I was kind of appalled, but mostly amused: What could be more diffident, more punk rock, than this level of calculated absurdity? I couldn’t help but laugh. I said goodbye to that hundred-dollar bill, since no editor in his right mind would commission an email interview with anyone less than an A-list celebrity or some towering genius of letters.

I was kind of appalled, but mostly amused: What could be more diffident, more punk rock, than this level of calculated absurdity?

If only I had deleted that purple, squiggly email and called it a day. If only I had turned my attention to the actual work ahead of me. Maybe it was deadline anxiety, or a holdout from my basement-dwelling college years spent lobbing sundry objects at lousy bands. Whatever the cause, I started to write back:

“Dear Publicist,” I began. “I’d be happy to ask questions in any manner Mac and the band sees fit. Here’s one: If you were a very large (but, admittedly, very dried-out) piece of sausage on top of a mediocre pizza surrounded by much smaller pieces of sausage hoping to receive some of your reflected glory, would you do interviews or make journalists email the pizza as a collective?”

I chuckled to myself, tickled by my own insouciance, and closed out the tab. When I got home, I told my husband about the hilarious affectations of the pizza band. He thought it was as funny as I did, and we spent the next hour cracking each other up with increasingly outrageous, increasingly inappropriate personal questions—but with pizza. Questions about Michael Jackson and the Neverland Ranch. Questions about parents who defraud their famous children of millions. Questions about heroin use, about Lindsay Lohan. How we laughed at our own meanness.

Later, at the library, I went back online and saw little green lights next to my old Phoenix editors’ names. They’d appreciate this. Heck, had the paper still existed, they would have published this. I sent them my questions and they loved them. In fact, one of them, now the editor of Boston Magazine, agreed to publish the questions and pay me a hundred bucks, but only if I actually sent them. Well, here was a thing.

After a brief internal debate about what sending these questions might do to my immortal soul, I sent them along. Surely Ms. Purple Papyrus would read the email and promptly delete it, and I would get my hundred dollars and a small byline and that would be that. But that’s not what happened, not at all.

My first surprise was that Mac’s publicist asked me to call her. Although our conversation was strictly off the record, suffice to say she was displeased. Still, the post went up a few days later and immediately became the most popular story on the site. Thousands of shares, thousands of pageviews. Kudos from friends of friends of friends piled up, giving me a swelled head. A friend at a music magazine sent along an email from her boss saying he wanted to hire me. It had been a good idea after all.

After two days of viral glory, I met my friend Chris for lunch at an overpriced bakery near Harvard.

“How are you feeling about the Scharpling thing?” he asked.

“What Scharpling thing?” I asked back.

He went on to explain that Tom Scharpling—beloved comedian, host of WFMU’s The Best Show, friend of Jon Hamm—had railed against the piece on his Facebook page, calling me out as a symptom of the decline in music journalism. His friends (including John Darnielle, lead singer of the Mountain Goats and lauded literary novelist) expended hundreds of words agreeing with him. People I listened to, people I admired, all seemed to hate me for something I had written in an hour, and they had expressed that hatred in a public forum. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.

We left the coffee shop. Both of us needed to get back to work. Chris must have noticed I turned green because he patted me on the shoulder.

These were, for lack of a better word, “cool” guys, guys who made their living working in opposition to corporate tomfoolery. Wasn’t I on their side? Weren’t they supposed to be on mine?

“Huh,” I said. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s not like these people could help your career.” At this point, my career was the least of my concerns. Instead, I was wholly preoccupied with the fact that people whose work I enjoyed had only become aware of me because they disapproved of a stupid email I had sent to a faceless Hollywood publicist. To make matters worse, these were, for lack of a better word, “cool” guys, guys who made their living working in opposition to corporate tomfoolery. I come from the world of alt-weeklies, a dying media intended to question the same power structures. Wasn’t I on their side? Weren’t they supposed to be on mine?

At the time, I was spending my workdays at Harvard University’s Widener Library. Months earlier, I had discovered that published magazine writers got free access to its vaulted reading rooms and bountiful trove of research materials. It was there, among the well-dressed students and academics staring plaintively into their silver MacBooks, that I learned the blog of NPR’s On the Media—a show I listened to religiously, and listen to still—had published a post admonishing my mean-spirited approach. What had I done?

It only got worse. The next day, Patton Oswalt—comedian, professional troll, wildly outspoken opponent of Internet outrage—sent several tweets to his millions of followers criticizing my tone. “Way to topple the mighty,” one read.

I couldn’t help but think that if I was a comedian myself, Patton Oswalt—someone who pretends to mock oppressed people (like the transgendered) in service of proving that nothing in comedy should be out of bounds—wouldn’t have been so disapproving; that my blog post would have fallen under the welcoming umbrella of free speech in comedy. Instead, I was a journalist trying to be funny and therefore not allowed to hurt anyone’s feelings, even those of millionaire celebrities and their well-compensated publicists. I wasn’t part of the protected comedy class, and so I wholly deserved the scorn he heaped upon my feeble attempts at mean-spirited humor. Or so it seemed.

By that Friday, it felt like the entire Internet had turned against me. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, maybe millions, thought I was a jerk. Hundreds told me so on Twitter, dozens on Facebook, a few over email, including a producer of The Drew Carey Show. Civilians, journalists, famous comedians like Nikki Glaser, comedy fans: all came out against me, saying I was bitter, a failure, jealous, fat, a terrible journalist, a terrible person, a bitch, an asshole, a cunt, that I would rot in hell, that nobody would ever take me seriously again, that I was covered in cat hair (this last one was true). This was objectively insane behavior, even on behalf of a beloved child star. Only one remark stands out enough for me to remember it verbatim. “You are a bad person and you should feel bad,” it read.

What story had these people told themselves? That I was a washed-up music journalist lashing out against some damaged adult because of my personal and professional inadequacies? That I was a fat Goliath stomping out the fun of some kids trying to have a good time?

The very last part, at least, turned out to be true. When I recently asked Alex Goldman, the journalist behind the On the Media blog post, he confirmed as much. “I suppose I felt a little protective of Macaulay Culkin’s feelings,” he emailed. “He seems like a kid who has been sort of chewed up and spit out by show business, and he’s gone through some hard times, and this band was the first time I’d seen him, as an adult, behaving in a way I could identify with. Just having harmless, goofy fun with his friends.”

Needless to say, I saw things a little differently. I never intended my questions to reach Culkin, and I thought I was the one having harmless, goofy fun. But Goldman—who, for the record, apologized for any personal strife he may have inadvertently caused—was just doing his job. “At the time I was just churning stuff out because I had a quota,” he wrote. “Whatever I felt about your article about Macaulay Culkin’s Velvet Underground cover band, it certainly wasn’t so strong that I would have written that article in pretty much any other context.”

This I can understand. What I still cannot grasp, however, is the rancor of hundreds of people who had no quotas to fill. I do, however, know this much to be true: I was a nobody making fun of a somebody. I was a woman making fun of a man. I was a middling freelance writer making fun of a celebrity millionaire. I believe I was scorned for not respecting the order of things.

However many of my tears streaked across my cat hair-covered cheeks during the week the Internet hated me, there is no way anyone, including myself, can see this as a tragedy. Journalists get pilloried on Twitter every single day. Whatever its magnitude, this hadn’t even been my first or worst tango with the outrage machine: Years before, when I misread a passage in a book I reviewed, a bunch of people on Twitter called me a racist. That was worse. But what catapulted PizzaGate from workaday pratfall to outright disaster was the aftermath.

Not the immediate aftermath. The weekend came around, I got off the Internet, the outrage died down, and I moved on with my life. Since then, I have published 10,000 words in Harper’s on the history and misdoings of public broadcasting in the United States and, in The Baffler, wrote the last word on Normcore. I haven’t done any further harm to the state of music journalism because, well, I’m not a music journalist, and in fact, I got to interview my idol Kathleen Hanna.

The real tragedy here is the fact that this story remains the most controversial, widely discussed thing I’ve ever written, as well as the piece with the greatest impact. To this day, I get emails and tweets about it, some congratulatory, some critical. The total number of emails I received about a stupid little blog post dwarf the response I’ve gotten to my actual criticism and reporting—things germane to public policy, cultural politics, classism, feminism, y’know, things I write about as part of my real job—by an order of magnitude.

For a story about Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band to have gained such traction, there’s something terribly wrong with journalism in the Internet age.

If the world doesn’t see value in my sincere and labored contributions to the public discourse, so be it. No great tragedy there. But I can’t help but think that for a story about Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band to have gained such traction, there’s something terribly wrong with journalism in the Internet age. Something has to be broken.

Since PizzaGate, I have formulated my own story about why those 300 words caused so much antagonism. It involves the fact that, in our culture, women are assumed to be artless and unironic and not very funny, that everything we create has to come from deep within us and express some truth about ourselves. Women, unlike men—unlike, say, Patton Oswalt—are inherently confessional, incapable of doing things merely for shock value or a cheap laugh.

For proof, look no further than Lena Dunham, whose jokey essay about messing with her little sister put her alongside Michael Jackson in the child molester hall of fame, at least for a time. Look at how critics use dismissive words like “twee” and “childlike” even in praise of Miranda July or Joanna Newsom, talented artists, neither of whose work seems particularly personal and is suffused with abject darkness.

Does Web journalism facilitate sexism? Does the cottage industry of using green writers to spill their guts for pageviews hurt women? Is the proliferation of “It Happened to Me!”–style personal essays about long-forgotten septic tampons discrediting actual reportage and measured, impersonal arguments?

PizzaGate and other experiences tell me this is probably true. Writing well-considered, thoroughly researched pieces is how I am able to pay rent, but this sort of work, however opinionated, comes across as reasonably objective and impersonal, and as we all know, the objective and impersonal is the provenance of men. If more male-authored pieces on the Internet centered around their hygiene peccadilloes and personal journeys towards wholeness and confirmed a long-held cultural bias that men are, in fact, irrational, emotional, and not capable of thinking about the big picture, would the idea that a woman could only make fun of a child star’s joke band—for money—out of a place of deep personal pain seem… outlandish?

My questions for Macaulay Culkin’s publicist, although they reveal nothing about my day-to-day existence and are written in the assumed voice of an exasperated hack, allowed readers to project whatever personality flaws they wanted upon me. I became a stand-in for all the smart-ass women who don’t know their place, for all the jerkwad lady journalists with the temerity to have a negative opinion about some kids having a good time. In this, I am certainly not alone; witness what happens the next time a female critic writes anything but a glowing review of a superhero movie.

When Gamergate happened some months after the Internet’s fatwa against me subsided, I couldn’t help but be reminded that things could have been a whole lot worse. Its targets were women who had not only criticized traditionally male recreational activities, but dared to dissect the ways in which they might be harmful to the culture. For this, they get death threats, rape threats, bomb threats, even to this day. Thank goodness I only wrote a few snotty questions.

When I saw The Pizza Underground on the Boston stop of their North American tour some weeks later, I went in disguise. I ditched my glasses, wore a headband to hide my bangs, and thickened my eyebrows to Bert-level fullness. This turned out to be largely for nothing: The promoter, thanking me for for selling out his show, gave me whiskies on the house all night, but in the end, nobody else knew who I was. And I am thankful for that.

Illustration by J. Longo