Why Do I Own This? is a column exploring the weirder pop-culture flotsam and jetsam that washes up in the lives of A.V. Club writers, the impulses that drive us to acquire such things, and the motives for clinging to them long after their ephemeral eras pass.
What is it? A certificate officially deeming mountainous, disgraced boy-band Svengali/confidence man Louis J. Pearlman—he of the Jabba The Hutt physique and Fagin-like sense of personal ethics—“a distinguished 20th Century Republican Leader.” (Presumably of well-muscled, underage boys, in a conga line leading to his bed.) It’s signed by now-disgraced former Senator Trent “Wouldn’t things be swell if segregation was still the law of the land?” Lott and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.
The text announces, in tortuous prose, that this deliciously meaningless document was “Presented in grateful recognition of your dedication and commitment to the Republican Presidential Roundtable and in acknowledgment of your faithful support for our Republican Presidents, Republican Senators and Republican candidates who have endeavored to promote and protect our American freedoms [such as our right to run-on sentences], strived to advance our Republican values and ideals [such as the right to early tee-times, top-flight pool-cleanings, and non-sassy servants], and are continually working to set America on a new course of freedom for the 21st century and beyond. Presented in the city of Washington, District of Columbia, this 24th day of June, in the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight.” Images of Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Richard Nixon adorn this certificate, which is shellacked onto a handsome faux-mahogany backing board. It also features a gold embossed eagle carrying a banner reading “Our rights and our liberties.”
How did I get it? I believe it was a Friday Buzzkill that alerted me to a treasure trove of über-kitsch: an eBay auction selling off the sad ephemera of Louis J. Pearlman, Chippendales bigwig, star-maker to Britney Spears, ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and LFO, as well as many lesser artists (if that’s even possible) following his imprisonment and bankruptcy once his decades-long trail of con-artistry and financial chicanery was revealed. Before becoming the king of teens, Pearlman sold fraudulent shares in a fraudulent blimp company. Who does that? He’s less a colorful music-world figure than a mustache-twirling 19th-century pulp-paperback villain.
I bid heavily and indiscriminately on the wreckage of Pearlman’s sad life, and ended up picking up quite the haul. In addition to Pearlman’s 20th Century Republican Leader award, I also own his Bachelor and Masters degrees, his blimp license (which I gave to editor Keith Phipps as part of a decades-long campaign of blatant suck-uppery), and most queasily, a “Pearlman’s Palace” homemade bar sign. Creepy!
What’s its cultural significance? I’ve long been fascinated by Pearlman, even before it was revealed that he was a world-class criminal, not just an oily music-business scumbag. It’s not much of an exaggeration to call Pearlman one of the preeminent architects of ’90s pop culture. Can you imagine a world without Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, or the boy-band explosion of the Clinton era? Pearlman transformed a bunch of apple-cheeked, lithe teens into some of the biggest stars in the world.
Pearlman’s blatant pandering and sexual objectification of jailbait pop tarts, male and female, opened the floodgates for the tween mega-stars of today and provided crushes for an entire generation of boys and girls. Factor in his ham-fisted patriotism and clumsy arch-Republicanism, and you have pop-culture flotsam for the ages. I also dig the rich historical irony of a legendary creep whose reputation devolved steadily from “shady and disreputable” to “unambiguously monstrous” being honored as a great American leader. I can only imagine how much money Pearlman had to donate to the Grand Old Party to be honored in such a campy fashion.
Why would I get rid of it? I have purchased a lot of random-ass shit on eBay in my time, from a 2Pac beer cozy to a Dream Warriors sand-sieve that I lost interest in the moment I bought it. I’ve also bought some pretty cool stuff, like original paintings from Wacky Packages and the Garbage Pail Kids, statues and street signs from The Royal Tenenbaums, and Wall Street Journal wood-carvings of my personal heroes, Aaron Spelling and Bob Guccione. Is it possible that this certificate will someday mean as little to me as my 2Pac beer cozy? Perhaps, but to quote Clint Eastwood in In The Line Of Fire [Adopts steely rasp.] “That’s not gonna happen.”
How much could I get for it? I paid about $125 for it on eBay. I don’t know whether it will increase in value as a perversely fascinating artifact from a Colonel Tom Parker-level scoundrel, or will become worthless as society as a whole decides to develop collective amnesia regarding Pearlman’s unlikely ascent to pop-culture prominence. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, as there’s no way I would possibly sell this singular union of pop-politics, pop-culture, and pop-criminality.
What are the chances that I’ll keep it? One hundred percent. I love this certificate so much, I want to be buried with it, and have already stipulated so in my will. Can’t take it with you, my ass.