Years from now, when the history of the internet is studied in universities across the globe, students everywhere will raise their hands and ask, “Who was the Crying Man?” The wise professor will explain that it’s kind of complicated. He was the greatest basketball player of all time. He won six championships with the Chicago Bulls. But 15 years into the 21st century, his other accomplishments were pushed to the side by a photograph.
In this photograph, the greatest basketball player of all time is crying. His eyes are red, his cheeks puffed, his face slick with a torrent of tears. Internet users, some of them very funny in a way that was impossible to explain, figured out you could use this photo as a synonym for sadness — particularly, an easily mocked sadness. The Crying Man soon could be found everywhere. He was there when Ronda Rousey was knocked out for the first time, when the New York Mets lost the World Series, when the 2015–16 Los Angeles Clippers suffered a rough start to their seasons. Pretty soon, people forgot the Crying Man ever played basketball. For all his athletic superiority, he became just another casualty of the internet.
We’re still a while from that moment, but in 2015 it’s not insane to say that Michael Jordan, among the most famous people on the planet, is most relevant to youth culture thanks to the popularity of the Crying Jordan meme. And while he might be the most prominent, he’s not the only celebrity whose cry-face is as famous as any other. Kim Kardashian’s pinched sobbing is a pioneer in the field. “Dawson Creek crying” is the first result when you Google “Dawson’s Creek.” (James Van Der Beek has since attempted to turn various newly shot videos into intentional reaction GIFs, but nothing will ever beat his cry.) Selena Gomez, Lil Mama, Russell Wilson, Claire Danes, Chris Pine, Chrissy Teigen — their lachrymal dribbling is now part of our national lexicon. There don’t have to be actual tears for sadness to be repurposed for humor, either — Sad Jack White, Sad Billy Corgan, and Sad Keanu Reeves are evidence of that.
There is, apparently, a booming market in unmediated celebrity sadness, of which there has not been a historically available surplus. You don’t have to think very hard to draw a line from the collective thirst for celebrity sadness through the desire to take them down a notch. Celebrities: They’re so much richer and more famous than us! Why shouldn’t their aura be punctured?
It’s unavoidably cruel, in a way; it involves pointing fingers at someone because they had the temerity to appear unguarded in public. But today’s celebrities have greatly consolidated the access given to the outside world. An actor or a musician or an athlete doesn’t have to sit for an interview or detail themselves when asked. They can share a photo to Instagram with a lengthy caption, or tweet at their fans. When something that hasn’t been massaged to a milquetoast whatever is allowed to slip out from behind the veil, it’s genuinely fresh. If it’s something as raw as misery, it tastes like ambrosia.
This goes part of the way toward explaining the popularity of Crying Jordan, which is otherwise difficult to comprehend if your brain hasn’t marinated in raw internet. It also helps to be familiar with his career: The photograph was snapped during the 2009 ceremony where Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, during a notorious speech where he shit on his rivals and embarrassed his children before becoming briefly overwhelmed by the moment. It was first meme-ified in 2012, but it didn’t reach its apotheosis until 2015, when Crying Jordan was Photoshopped onto the head of anyone who had a reason to be sad in a public event. Triangulating the appeal of these things is imprecise, but it’s something about the juxtaposition of Jordan’s basketball immortality with the plain fact of how unappealing he looks here. He doesn’t just look sad — he looks enormously drunk, like he soiled himself while sitting on the train and decided to ride the rest of the route in abject misery.
The irony is that Jordan is obsessively protective about his image and the way he’s perceived by a generation of fans that didn’t grow up watching him dominate the competition. Every now and then, he pops up to claim that LeBron James isn’t really all that, a means of elevating himself as it becomes increasingly clear that LeBron is the best post-Jordan player. During his playing career, Jordan was never selectable in basketball video games, but a few years ago he loaned his likeness to the NBA 2K series, which included a mode in which one could play through his greatest moments. He wants badly for today’s 15-year-old to know he was the GOAT, but after all of those public statements and polygonal nostalgia tours what’s finally given him his desperately sought ubiquity is a mocking, embarrassing meme — a yawning gap between intent and outcome that inadvertently argues for the irrelevance of branding consultants.
This is an era where the internet has enabled endless recontextualization. It doesn’t matter where a joke originated or what its original context or the facts of production were — only that I’m laughing at it this moment. It’s simply unrealistic for anyone to maintain a one-way flow of information — to have total control over how his image or identity is used. Even Beyoncé, perhaps the celebrity most sensitive about her image (to the point where she’s filmed her day-to-day life for the last several years), is susceptible to a camera snapping at just the wrong moment. I’m sure Michael Jordan is aware of the Crying Jordan meme. I would also bet he’s made a private promise to never put himself in that position again, for all the good it’ll do him, or whoever the future Crying Man will be. Five years passed between when that photo of Jordan was taken and when it became shorthand for a joke. That suggests the next Crying Jordan probably already exists.
One man who will not be the next Crying Jordan is Drake, who actively participates in his own meme-ing, whether he’s dancing like a dork or lint-rolling his pants. Drake knows that if you give your fans the full range of emotions, there’s no way you’ll ever be caught off guard by a shift in your public persona. When you’re constantly in motion, your context is always your own. (Take Prince, who’s one of the most secretive and most variegated celebrities of all time; upon signing up for Instagram, all he did was post Prince memes for a week.) As such, Drake is at the point where he can accidentally look like a loser, and save for a brief round of jokes, remain reputationally intact.
The best anyone else can do is pretend they weren’t hurt. “It was awesome,” said Ariana Grande when she was nearly plonked by the wing of a Victoria’s Secret model and captured looking like Wendy Torrance as Jack busts through the door with an ax. “I can’t make that face again,” said Jack White (allegedly) after looking like an over-it goth teen at a Chicago Cubs game. “But I’ll smile for you.” But my favorite rejoinder comes from Billy Corgan, who was seen looking very bummed during a trip to Disneyland: “What the fuck do you want from me?”