There's Booze in the Blender
Adam Goodall stumbles on an unexpected series of videos in a neglected corner of YouTube … and goes digging into the Lonely Web to find their creator.
Tucked away in the wealthy suburbs of Northern Virginia, there’s a stream. It’s stagnant and muddy and there’s a pile of boulders in the shallows. Standing on one of those boulders, one right in the water, there’s a woman. She’s wearing a sky-blue golf visor, denim shorts, cheap velcro sandals and a polo shirt lousy with pastel-coloured hibiscus flowers. She’s got a microphone and she’s lip-syncing to Jimmy Buffett’s timeless single ‘Margaritaville’. She seems drunk, or high, or possessed, or something. There’s a blender sitting on a smaller rock nearby. Its power cord trails off into the water.
At one point, the woman finds a dead fish on another rock. Then she kicks it off.
This is margaritaville39, a video I had no right finding.
There are at least several points where a smarter person would have stopped. A smarter person wouldn’t have listened to the comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, heard co-host Griffin McElroy laying into his brother Justin for liking Jimmy Buffett and thought, “I need to get on that.” A smarter person wouldn’t have done a Youtube search for ‘Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville dance remix’ and clicked on the first result. A smarter person definitely wouldn’t have been absent-mindedly clicking on the ‘suggested videos’ for viewers of DJ Pooky’s Margaritaville REMIX.
I found it, though, and like a pop radio station during the summer of ‘Get Lucky’, I couldn’t stop playing it. I had margaritaville39 on loop in my office, ate up my phone data watching it on the bus, rolled it again when I got home. I tried to get all my friends to watch, sat there and watched them while they watched it, raised my eyebrows at them so they knew it was time to laugh. None of them really laughed, though. None of them really understood.
This was my fault.
I didn’t tell them that there were other videos.
There are six margaritaville videos in total. margaritaville39 through to margaritaville45 were all uploaded in September 2014. In every video, this unnamed sun-seeker stumbles around American suburbia, half-heartedly mouthing along to ‘Margaritaville’. The difference is where she’s doing it. In 40, she’s lurching around the top of a multi-storey carpark in the middle of the night. In 41, she’s in and out of someone’s pool. She’s being thrown around the back of a minivan in 42, and she’s throwing herself around a Little League pitch in 43. 44’s shot in someone’s driveway, eerily lit by the headlamps of a car, and 45’s shot in and around a massive, half-finished subdivision. 45 is my personal favourite. Our heroine does some shitty yoga on a gravel pile, shoves her head into a green mass-produced letterbox, fucks around with a digger. At the end, she throws the microphone into a giant puddle of run-off – her sad, temporary liberation.
Running around behind this woman, trapped in her beachy loop with her, is an unidentified person with a shitty turn-of-the-millennium video camera and an even shittier attention span. He crash zooms on his subject as she fake-bellows into her mic then whips his camera around to catch a pool cleaner trundling through the water; he does a grand, sweeping pan around her, using a fence as an improvised dolly track, then three shots later fucks up a zoom when he tries to catch her jumping over that same fence. Sometimes our lip-syncing protagonist embraces the camera; other times, she’s unaware of it, lost in her own woozy trip. Then, occasionally, it’s a spotlight, exposing how low she’s sunk, like in margaritaville43 when she spends two seconds sitting in a rubbish bin and eyeballing the camera like a dog that’s just torn up the carpet.
Each margaritaville is a hyperactive home video, Tim and Eric but for the dumb shit all the drama nerds made in high school with their parents’ Sony Handycam. That whole aesthetic, that whole thing? Newsweek Culture Editor Joe Veix, writing earlier this year for Fusion, calls it the Lonely Web. “It’s best described by what it isn’t,” he stresses, trying to establish ground rules for the hopelessly vast idea he’s summoning. “Most sites have “best practices” – encouraged or implied – and most of what’s on the Lonely Web violates them. It is weird and of shoddy quality, amateurish, with impossible-to-search titles. Some of it is charming and candid and unpolished. A lot of it is incomprehensible garbage. It varies in length – either too short or too long – and eschews cohesive narratives.” It’s the stuff that the algorithms miss, either by mistake or by design.
margaritaville’s not quite that, even if it has the right number of views. At time of writing, margaritaville39 has 381 views. Margaritaville REMIX, an unwieldy 29-minute mash-up of all six margaritaville videos set to a loop of Disclosure’s white noise for dancehalls ‘The Mechanism’ has 730 views, but that’s definitely down to it being the kind of name that pops up in the ‘suggested video’ sidebar. That’s how I found it, anyway.
With its skittish editing and its numbered titles hinting at a whole series of unseen videos, the margaritaville series is the Lonely Web for cultural insomniacs, the kind of people that stayed up with Adult Swim infomercials and lost hours on deep dives into YouTube. It repurposes this weird, vulnerable visual language, ramps it up, and then buries it within a haystick of .avi files distinguished only by the string of numbers at the top of their thumbnail. The ‘Margarita Ville’ YouTube account even has them set up in a playlist, each one blurring into the next, a weird dream where you jump from location to location but the action never changes.
I started with her Google Plus account. A lot of YouTubers are just average joes and janes using their real names, especially now that Google’s brand synergy means they have to tie the two together. Margarita Ville, on the other hand, is an island, a creation with no existence outside of those six YouTube videos. Each video’s description is some variation of “there’s booze in the blender”. The channel’s profile reads, “drinks anytime my xoxoxoxo”. The only uploads on her Google Plus page are the margaritaville videos with different, equally perfunctory names – woods, Town center, drivewayh2642 – and a video for Kanye West’s single Only One that’s been DMCA’d off the face of the internet. There’s no record of her anywhere else online. Low on options, I commented on one of her videos.
Blenders sent and contact made, we agreed to a Skype call. Months after first stumbling onto these videos, I was finally going to talk to Margarita Ville face to face.
The woman behind Margarita Ville (who I’ll call Ville for expediency) answered the video call in a pitch black room lit only by her laptop. All I could see for the first three minutes was her blender, the same one she had in the pictures. She’d set it to blend and was going to town. She’d peek out from behind it from time to time, golf visor and Hawaiian shirt on lock. It was like Skyping with an NSA mole who was sending a coded message that, when shit went down, they wanted a one-way ticket to the Caribbean.
The videos are a coded message, in a way, a dispatch smuggled out of the soulless urban sprawl of Northern Virginia. “Everyone works for a corporation,” Ville explains. “People are stressed out, always, and they have the one week where they go to the beach, and instead of going on vacation they just drink and just, like, die, slowly. They recognise that they’re not living. So I was channelling all of these older adults.”
Ville knows this scene well. She pays the bills as a contractor for an architecture and civil engineering firm, the kind of place where people have job descriptions like ‘Senior Business Administrator’ and ‘Executive Officer – Sales’. “It’s a super-wealthy developed area,” Ville says. “There’s banks everywhere; there’s no personality, really.” Virginia has the ninth-highest median household income of all the 51 states; the three counties with the highest median household income in the US – Falls Church, Loudon and Fairfax – are all located in Northern Virginia. “There’s a bunch of people that I work with and we sort of have nicknames,” she tells me, “and the older women, the older white women, are all named ‘Malibu’ or, these beachy names that you’re like, ‘that’s all you live for’.”
If there’s any musician who’s synonymous with ‘beachy’, it’s Jimmy Buffett. ‘Margaritaville’ – “a super sad song, in the happiest way” – is the pinnacle of this. A song about a man drinking himself into oblivion in a tropical tourist trap, ‘Margaritaville’ has evolved into a cultural phenomenon, spawning a collection of short stories, a radio station, a chain of restaurants and an outdoor furniture brand. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year alongside ‘Heart of Glass’ and Miles Davis Quintet’s Miles Smiles. Wasting away in ‘Margaritaville’ never went out of style.
Waiting to pick up a friend at the airport late one night, looping the domestic terminal at 2am, Ville was listening to the song when it unlocked something in her. “The song came on and it was like uhhhhhhhhh,” she explains. “It just hit me then. It was like, why am I here.” In that moment, the project became a compulsion, something to do “because I have to”.
Ville strong-armed her brother into the project. (The pair have a tiny video production company together.) “We did location scouting, then we would play the song and …” Ville trails off as she tries to find a way to describe the process. “There’s a way of channelling the space’s energy, basically, to sound shaman-ish-y about it. You channel that space and interact with the environment based on what it’s giving you.” Ville’s brother shot the performance with an old-school camcorder.
Both camera and character – “I don’t know if it has a name, I don’t even know if it has a gender” – are intensely aware of and engaged with the space around them, exaggerating the lifelessness and drabness of each space. Sometimes, the even take that literally: towards the end of margaritaville41, the camera crash-zooms for a few seconds on a cockroach floating on its back across the pool, struggling to keep itself from drowning. “The camera’s a little bit of its own character in that it has a wandering eye,” Ville explains. “It’s filming the ‘Margaritaville’ person but it will trail off and get focussed on some small detail and then whip back. But what’s so important in this project, when I went in, was making sure that the character was super-interactive with their environment, just improvving off their environment and feeling those vibes.”
Each session in these drab, often commercial spaces resulted in at least an hour of footage to be edited down, jagged and distracted, around Buffett’s opus. “I wanted to put it on the internet and be like, ‘yo, this is pretty weird’,” Ville says. “You know, you find people who do songs and they’ll shoot a video for the song once, but to do it seven times and in different spaces and to repeat that?”
“There’s, like, two comments on the video,” Ville continues, “and one of them’s just, ‘uhhh, what am I watching’.” That’s the Lonely Web: the feeling that you’ve stumbled onto something you shouldn’t have, that you’ve opened the curtains and the light’s hitting all of these weirdly candid little performances of real life. This manifests itself in a very specific way on YouTube. “It’s the weirdest platform to put work on because there’s hardly any context as to what you’re going to be viewing,” Ville says. “There’s this base form of a video … there’s just the weirdest stuff on YouTube. You can put some really really complex, interesting, cool stuff on there but people won’t be able to engage with it at that level, hardly, just because you’re watching it on YouTube.”
Part of that’s the digital aesthetic. “It’s a different type of mental process when you’re shooting on digital, compared to film,” Ville tells me. “It creates a different quality to what’s being captured,” not necessarily because it’s cheap or infinite, but because it’s not premeditated. In an email sent the day after the interview, Ville goes into incredible detail trying to put this intangible quality into words. “[It’s] more ‘id’ in a way,” she writes. It’s shot and edited with no regard for mise-en-scene or lighting or picture quality: “if the camera turned around and starting zooming on a mailbox 20 feet away that would be fine and great and you know that the margaritaville soul is still gyrating behind you but like fuck it, zoom away, fuck shot design.”
“It’s just a matter of trying to keep the human and thing of interest in frame at all costs.”
Mostly, though, it’s the way that lack of premeditation intersects with the platform itself. To Ville, and to Veix, there’s something more honest about that spontaneous way of filmmaking, and it’s profligate in the dark corners of YouTube that get sub-1,000 views. “Deep-diving on YouTube,” she says, “there’s just some stuff that’s, like, ‘why did anyone ever shoot this, why did anyone ever upload this’. It’s so weirdly personal, but it’s being displayed and shared.” Ville describes one of her favourite videos on YouTube, a video of a young girl introducing the internet to her stuffed animals, as if it were a case study for her conclusions. “It’s just so intimate. It’s like you’re in the person’s bedroom.”
In an interview on the WNYC radio show Note To Self, Veix offered up several of his own hidden gems: a family going trainspotting, two old people dancing to their Samsung washing machine, an audition tape for the MTV reality series The Real World. In his original article, he echoes what Ville says about these types of video and the people in them: they’re such “unnervingly candid windows into people’s lives, browsing through too much of it at once can feel invasive and emotionally exhausting.”
The margaritaville videos are made for and in response to Lonely YouTube, built for an audience to receive without context or preconception. They’re an online installation in an ephemeral gallery, tucked in amongst all these unmapped, inscrutable portraits of other peoples’ clumsily-framed realities. They’re in dialogue with all those snippets of life that never crossed over the threshold into saturation let alone supersaturation, reinforcing their value through thoughtful and admiring mimicry. “Break the code,” Ville writes, “of keeping the person speaking or performing or point of interest CENTER FRAME.”
At the end of the Skype call, I was about to ask Margarita Ville for her real name. Not for verification purposes – the Skype had been a video call, so I was able to verify that she was the person in the videos pretty quickly. But then I tripped over myself.
“I don’t know whether you’re interested in being credited by your real name,” I thought out loud. “I’d be keen to maintain the mystery.”
“Oh, for sure,” Ville responded.
It wasn't really about the mystery, though. The pseudonymity was just another weird part of this weird thing I'd accidentally dropped in on. Another blur in the playlist. I didn’t want to break down the distance. I didn’t want to be invasive.