Earlier this year, a clip went incredibly viral and exposed James Corden as the fraud that he is. There he was, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Carpool Karaoke SUV, as a production truck towed him and Justin Bieber along for their episode of singing the hits and making untold variations of that one rubbery face. Despite the latent excuses — almost no one actually drives when filming a movie, are you kidding me — Corden doubled down on his commitment to driving for the segments, clearly detailing which few artists’ episodes he required towing.
I have never quite voluntarily watched an episode of Carpool Karaoke or appreciated Corden’s work outside of the Cats cinematic universe, but I think I understand his anxieties behind setting the record straight. Everyone secretly wants to be a car camera guy, even if they don’t have the moral fortitude to admit it.
Even as fame has established itself as the most crushing cultural force, the tools for recording shoddy phone videos while driving remain pretty fundamental. Most everyone has a variation of two or three different smartphone brands, and isn’t putting Steven Soderbergh-grade lenses on them to film. There’s an equalizing element to these videos — anyone from sitting U.S. Senators to vloggers and SoundCloud rappers will produce the same quality as you might in your own car.
Once hailed as the Republican Party’s savior, Marco Rubio has unceremoniously emerged as a car camera guy. Last month, after Bernie Sanders seemed to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Rubio posted a panicked video about the dangers of democratic socialism while driving through anonymous suburbs, his seatbelt bunching up a plain blue t-shirt across his chest. As these things go, the ratio on Twitter accumulated with people faulting the alarmism and an equal number pointing out that if they were driving they would simply watch the road. It’s a good reminder that the best part about podcasts is you don’t have to see anyone’s face.
Car camera guys — they’re almost always guys, and for the sake of argument over 40 — require a certain level of comfort with mortality, but also a brazen confidence in the driver’s ability to drive safely independent of other cars suddenly eating shit. It’s also the most ridiculous aesthetic for asserting this sort of tossed-off masculinity, and makes the video an afterthought to wherever they’re going. They’re never not going to end up somewhere else where they can sit down and prop that camera up, but these boys are far too blasé about the dangers of the road to stop now.
It all reminds me of a striking photo the hip-hop duo Death Grips released at the height of their whole thing, in which frontman MC Ride was standing on the ledge of a roof, shirtless with middle fingers up. He was maybe a strong wind or stumble away from death, but that’s the fun of it all right? Car camera guys, while often in Columbia pullovers and driving home to their second wife, are living a close enough analogue to this life. I’ll never forget a close childhood friend arguing that his 16 year old brother was a better driver than his dad for how easily he could flip through the CD cases while driving. Filming in the car’s just like that.
If there’s anyone with a disturbing relationship to their own mortality, and generally the guy you look to when this sort of trend arises, it’s Jeremy Renner. Last year was a strange one for the star actor, which included a series of Jeep-sponsored music videos, shuttering his personal app, also called Jeremy Renner, amid an insurrection of trolls, and ending with a bitter custody battle involving incredibly dark allegations. Take a look at his Twitter account, and you’ll find any number of music teasers, bizarre Super Bowl appreciations, and crucially, this video recorded in the car with a brand new puppy on his lap. The reactions in the replies ranged from what a cute puppy to deep, perturbed concern for Renner’s safety, given the driving without a seatbelt with a dog on his lap with a camera in his hand part.
There are obviously more extreme cases of the car camera experience, like this guy who recently livestreamed a 100 mph crash in Connecticut — and lived — but the underlying forces are the same. They simultaneously reflect tacit invincibility and the steely embrace of death, while needing something other than the radio to pass time. There’s rarely the urgency of a high-speed chase, as is expected when you have guys being dudes on camera. If the prevailing aesthetic of our time is refined voyeurism, there’s no more amusing and unnecessary counterbalance than a clumsy glimpse into someone’s car who likely has enough money to not be driving themselves, putting it all on the line for your likes.