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How to create a public-relations disaster: Cee Lo Green and Twitter

I’m not usually in the habit of giving advice to celebrities, but last Friday I did so. On Twitter, I wrote to someone called @ceelogreen, saying “Seriously, call your PR people. You’re obviously not prepared to handle this yourself.”

@ceelongreen is, of course, Cee Lo Green, the singer for Gnarls Barkley who recently had an unlikely hit with a classic-sounding American soul song based around an angry expression of contempt, repackaged for radio as “Forget You.” Green had been in Minneapolis on June 16, opening for performer Rihanna, and Andrea Swensson reviewed the show on City Pages’ Gimme Noise blog. Swensson was unimpressed by Green’s performance, finding the performance to be error-riddled and uninspired. Further, she opened with a paragraph quoting Green’s blatantly sexual onstage banter, which she did not enjoy. “Gross, Cee Lo,” she wrote.

Cee Lo Green
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Cee Lo Green

Green took issue with this on Twitter — and I think he had reason to. Aggressively sexual banter has a long history in American soul and rock and roll music — to such an extent that Minnesota native Har Mar Superstar’s entire career seems based on parodying it. And while it’s fine for Swensson to be uncomfortable by it, it’s also part of her job description to examine that. What was it about Green’s banter that was especially displeasing? Was it his language choice? The degree to which it was graphic? Is there something about Green that makes this sort of banter unappealing, whereas it might pass without comment from somebody else? But no such analysis was there, just a single-word expression of approbation.

So Cee Lo Green was within his rights to call for Swennson to explain herself. It’s usually not a good idea to take issue with the press over anything other than factual errors — it runs the risk of making an artist look thin-skinned — but sometimes a well-considered response can be the starting point for a conversation about how art is covered, and what responsibilities come with that coverage.  And then, sometimes, they can be a public-relations disaster. As it was with Green.

Green has scrubbed his Twitter account of his response, but, of course, not before everybody made their own copy. And what Green tweeted was as follows: “I respect your criticism but be fair! People enjoyed last night!!I’m guessing ur gay?and my masculinity offended you?well f—-k you!!!” The preceding passage is exactly as written, of course, or, as we say in the journalism business, sic.

This sort of tottered around for a while, with Swensson herself expressing puzzlement, and tweeter Jason Zabel pointing out that, based on the number of dashes Green put in place of the curse word in his Tweet, he apparently thinks that particular four-letter word contains five letters. But mentions of its homophobic content started popping up as well, especially one from Chris Riemenschneider, who wrote, “I for one am not going to let @CeeLoGreen’s semi-homophobic message to @gimme_noise slide.” With that, he linked out to an article. His own, on the Star Tribune’s blog, called “Cee Lo Green sends crazy tweet to City Pages over bad review.” And from there, the story started to snowball. Swensson wrote up her confusion about it on City Pages, other media followed, and people began confronting Green on Twitter.

Green, in the meanwhile, responded with bewilderment. “Apologies gay community!” he Tweeted. “what was homophobic about that? I said I was guessing he way gay which is fine but its nice to what you think of me.” Sic, again, and the degree to which this Tweet doesn’t make sense I think reflects the panic with which it was written.

It’s not a very good time to be publicly homophobic right now. Comedian Tracy Morgan just had a very uncomfortable week in which he apologized to nearly everybody he could think of when his comedy routing contained some vicious anti-gay comments, making him the subject of national censure. In addition, country star Blake Shelton recently got himself in hot water with a tweet that suggested he would become violent against any gay man who touched him; it was the second time in a month he had made a comment that could be read as homophobic, although he claims he miscommunicated. Shelton, I should point out, cohosts the television show “The Voice” with Cee Lo Green. Regardless of what Shelton intended, his comments, and Morgan’s, have flung these sorts of moments into high relief, and this is exactly the wrong time for Green to create his own moment.

Green went into a self-defensive tizzy, explaining that he has gay coworkers, and that his tweet was meant as a joke. Many in the press also seemed unsure about the content, refusing to label it as homophobic, but instead reporting it as controversial. This is the sort of structure these stories use: “Cee Lo Green is the subject of criticism for a tweet that some say was homophobic.”

Well, let’s get this out of the way. I don’t know what Green’s own feelings are about gays or lesbians; I believe him when he says he works with them and respects them. But his tweet was, in fact, homophobic. Green, assuming the author of the story was a man, accused the author of being threatened by his masculinity, and therefore asked if he was gay. The assumption that there is something unmasculine about gay men is a homophobic assumption. Full stop.

Additionally, assuming Swensson is a man — even though her name is on the byline — is a sexist assumption. (Worse still, when somebody suggested that had he known Swensson is a woman, he would have hit on her, Green tweeted back in the affirmative.)  It was, in every aspect, an ill-considered tweet. Worse still, when members of the LGBT community responded to Green, explaining to him precisely why his tweet was homophobic, he became defensive. One respondent finally asked, in exasperation, whether he actually meant it when he asked “what was homophobic about that?”

This is when I suggested to Green that he walk away from his smart phone, call his PR agency, and let them get to work. After all, the story had already been picked up by The Advocate, an LGBT magazine, and it wasn’t afraid to call his tweet homophobic. The story was picking up a lot of national momentum, which can happen in just a matter of hours nowadays. I pictured a PR guy running toward Green in slow motion, seeing him go to type something on an iPhone, screaming “NOOOOOOOOO!,” leaping through the air, and slapping the phone out of Green’s hand. And something like that must have happened, as Green eventually typed, “I’m not tweeting again … goodbye” and deleted all the preceding tweets, and then, eventually, deleted that one.

In truth, I am not sure who Green’s PR people are, but they are not very good at their job. Green should have crafted a clear mea culpa apology. Instead, they got him a high-profile interview with US Magazine, and Green just muddled the message further, simultaneously saying that he is not homophobic, that he should be able to defend his work, and that he assumed people would take his tweet as being a joke, consistent with a sort of characteristic outrageousness associated with his persona.

All this, I am sure, is true. I don’t believe Green is fundamentally homophobic. I think he was stung by Swensson’s criticisms and responded with what he assumed would be taken as a joke. I still think a mea culpa is required — mea maxima culpa. However he intended it, Green told a joke that relies on reinforcing negative stereotypes against gay men, and for that he should apologize, and, since he seems a bit confused about why this joke might be seen as homophobic, he should meet with leaders of the LGBT community to discuss the subject, and his mea culpa should contain an explanation as to how he now understands why his joke was a problem.

Were I his PR person, I would insist on it, because if Green really doesn’t understand what went wrong, and why this sort of thing cannot be excused away with claims that he was defending his work and being outrageous, there is a risk it will happen again. And the next time Green tells a gay joke, people aren’t going to be very quick to say, well, perhaps it was a thoughtless mistake. It’s going to start to seem like he really is homophobic.

Also, keep him the hell away from twitter.

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