Corey Feldman and some of Corey's Angels (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Last Friday, Corey Feldman appeared on Today, dressed in a ruffled vampire shirt and black medieval cowl and surrounded by his all-female backing band Corey’s Angels, who were themselves clad in white stockings, wings, and party-store halos. Like the double album they were all there to promote, the decade-in-the-making Angelic 2 The Core, Feldman told Today’s audience that this visual dichotomy represented “good versus evil, heaven versus hell, that sort of thing”—the eternal struggle that has captured the imagination of artists since the days of Milton, and whose fray Feldman subsequently entered through “Go 4 It,” a song of empowerment and EDM burbles about the importance of going for it on the nightclub floor of life, even in the face of your harshest critics.

In between the same Michael Jackson-inspired moves he’s been flaunting since Dream A Little Dream, Feldman interpreted this constant push-pull between light and dark, faith and doubt, through dance: desperately flapping his arms like a caged bird, jerking about like a marionette on its strings, and finally, twerking like a man whose ass has at last been liberated from oppression. At one point, there was a rap breakdown from Whodini’s Doc Ice, which consisted of him sort-of shouting over Snoop Dogg’s prerecorded backing track.

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Let me now say something controversial about this performance: It was not very good.

As with the rest of Angelic 2 The Core—which also features guest appearances by Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst and a Pussycat Doll—“Go 4 It” feels very much like a song that has been obsessively tinkered over for 10 years, blithely ignorant to time passing outside your bedroom studio. Mashing up dubstep, hip-hop, emo-goth-whatever, and Max Martin-derived dance-pop into a single song feels less like “literally a sound of the ages”—as Feldman put it while begging for help funding its completion—than a sound of algorithms, incubated within an echo chamber full of fawning sycophants. And as a performance, Feldman’s tuneless seething while robotically shimmying, dabbing, and slapping the floor like it just nixed a Goonies sequel suggested this was all similarly tested on a focus group composed of Corey Feldman’s mirror. It was not, objectively speaking, a musical moment that most people would genuinely enjoy.

That I would have this opinion isn’t especially controversial. Even the most gracious of media responses tended to characterize it as “unusual”—though far more common was some variation on “bizarre,” “insane,” or “batshit.” Meanwhile, social media spent the weekend playing alley-oop with its own easy jokes, to the point where Feldman eventually became a trending topic on Facebook—likely for the first time since the site’s launch. But this backlash, as expected as it was seemingly universal, also did something unusual: It took Corey Feldman—a successful movie star who’s parlayed his fame into a music career, as well as the rare opportunity to perform that music on national television—and turned him into a victim. And it made Corey Feldman cry.

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“We just wanted to tell everybody that, like, it’s been really painful,” Feldman said in a since-deleted Facebook Live post quoted by People. Attended by his “maingel,” Courtney Anne, Feldman defensively proclaimed that “we tried really hard” and “did the best we could,” lamenting of the online chatter that he’s “never had such mean things said about me. Like constantly.” As he began to sob, Feldman went even further, likening all those negative write-ups to out-and-out bullying:

It was a song, okay? It wasn’t that weird. I’m sorry if it’s not good enough for you, but you don’t have to beat us up. I just want to say that, like, why is it okay to, like, publicly shame us? … I don’t understand … It’s, like, not PC to, like, say somebody is fat or somebody is white or somebody is black or somebody is yellow or green or if they have a short leg or if they have a missing finger. Like we can’t talk about these things. But it’s okay to bash Corey Feldman and the Angels… Public shaming should not be accepted, no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if they’re a celebrity or not. We deserve love and we deserve, like, normal life … It’s not okay, it’s not acceptable to call us freaks, weirdos, losers, whatever.

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“We can’t get out of bed right now. We’re petrified to even go out,” Feldman concluded. “And I’m sorry, but we just wanted the world to know, like, we’re really freaked out over this and it’s really not fair.”

Whether that backlash is “fair” has become an unexpectedly contentious topic this week, and it’s one that evokes the soul-searching the internet has been undergoing lately—pretty much ever since the shaming of public figures became a sad social media norm. When it’s something like Leslie Jones being sent racist Photoshops or having her personal images disseminated by hackers, all for the lulz of bored, self-proclaimed “shitlords” who didn’t like that she was in a movie, it’s easy for most non-sociopaths to agree that it’s disgusting and undeserved. But when it’s a former child star being mocked for making deliberately weird music while surrounded by lingerie models, playing a song that would never have seen the light of morning shows were he not able to leverage that fame, it becomes slightly more difficult to say where the legitimate criticism ends and bullying begins. And it’s there that the internet has found itself so unexpectedly divided.

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As some of his defenders have pointed out (including our own Nathan Rabin), complicating matters is the fact that Feldman is a special case, with that fame coming at the price of a lifetime of personal shit far more compelling than any of his films. You’d know this if you read Feldman’s memoir, Coreyography, which is not the self-aggrandizing, pun-filled romp its title suggests. Rather, it’s a surprisingly gripping, thoroughly depressing glimpse into a Hollywood that preys upon its young, from the parents who ruthlessly exploit their children to the producers who molest them as part of the alleged pedophile ring Feldman has spent years threatening to expose.

Similarly, the reality series The Two Coreys quickly devolved from a whimsically self-aware portrait of two child stars attempting a comeback to become an unnerving document of two thoroughly broken men: Feldman, who felt used and mistreated by everyone in his life, including his wife and best friend; and Corey Haim, whose addictions would push his partner’s loyalties to their breaking point again and again, right up until the moment Haim died.

Knowing that Feldman has been more or less abused by everyone his whole life, and with no one ever looking out for him beyond what he could do for them, it’s easy to see why other former child actors like Mara Wilson have come to his defense this week, along with ex-co-stars like Sean Astin and Jerry O’Connell. With the sad public spirals of people like Haim—and more recently, Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan—never far from our minds, it’s natural to find nothing particularly funny about another person whose life has been forever stunted by an industry designed to do just that.

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My Brother @Corey_Feldman I LOVE U. I celebrate ur talent & I have come 2 appreciate the power of your music. Keep Dancing & Singing 4 ever!

— Sean Astin (@SeanAstin) September 19, 2016

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Still, does Corey Feldman want our pity? Granted, his Indiegogo campaign certainly played on those sympathies, beginning with reminding potential donors that acting was forced upon him at a young age even though “Music is the thing I feel I was truly meant 2 do, had my parents not made the choice 2 throw me in front of cameras at the tender age of 3.” Feldman also dramatically detailed the many rejections he got from record labels, describing how “doors were continuously slammed in my face” and how he was preemptively written off as a “joke” thanks to other, less passionate movie stars who’d made vanity albums as a lark. But despite all this, the overarching theme behind Feldman’s campaign—as reiterated in the lyrics to “Go 4 It”—is refusing to be cowed by people trying to put him down. And with that in mind, it seems unlikely that Feldman would want his music to be received with the same gentle, forgiving empathy as a high school talent show. From his own words, he wants to be taken seriously as an artist, removed from the context of who’s creating it.

More pointedly, does he deserve that pity? Knowing the complete lack of control Feldman has had over his life, and the fact that just about everyone he’s ever cared about has used and left him, it becomes easier to see how Feldman has become so insulated and eccentric, and why he clings to positive affirmations about “overcoming” and “ascension” as tightly as anyone trying to stave off a completely understandable depression. But it doesn’t fully explain or excuse Corey’s Angels, which Feldman described to Today’s Billy Bush as a nigh-charitable program aimed at keeping young, taut ladies off the streets and in his house, where they can “find their way to get their opportunities, their dreams and make them realities.” But of course, that’s only after first signing a contract that strictly regulates their diet and dress code, forbids meat and fraternizing with other men, and—in language that rings as particularly alarming, given Feldman’s Hollywood history—demands that they be “coachable and teachable.”

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Similarly, knowing his lack of true friends adds an extra layer of sadness to his charging $250 a head to spend his birthday partying with him and his hired harem. But it doesn’t make it feel any less crassly exploitative of other naïve innocents’ own desires for fame (even the tangential, hanging with Corey Feldman kind), at any cost.

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Nevertheless, there is something naturally pitiable about Feldman’s life—and it’s something he’s happy to declare he’s risen above or to hide behind as it suits him. Vice’s Jamie Lee Curtis Taete, the writer who first brought Corey Feldman’s parties to national attention, found this out firsthand in 2013 when he was the subject of a series of harassing tweets that were followed by a full-blown press release from Feldman accusing him of “bullying.” As Taete recounted, Feldman “falsely accused me of lying, tweeted out my personal phone number, retweeted hundreds of negative comments about me, indirectly accused me of trying to buy drugs in his house, implied I sexually harassed his female friends, implied I sexually harassed him, and then, without any hint of irony, accused me of being a bully.” Crying “bullying,” it seems, has become a familiar defense against anything Feldman doesn’t like to hear about himself, even as he practices a more familiar version against those who say it.

It’s also a hypocritical coopting that actual bullying experts, like Dr. Chuck Williams from the Center For The Prevention Of School-Aged Violence, decried as “horrible,” saying Feldman should “apologize” for reducing such a serious issue to somebody saying something mean about a celebrity’s lingerie party. Nevertheless, three years later, it’s a platform Feldman has taken up again—including during his Tuesday appearance on The Talk, where he managed to overcome his fear of leaving the house in time to come remind another television audience, “I am made of blood and flesh and I cry,” while Sara Gilbert commended him for his “bravery” in “putting your soul out there” when so many of his cowardly critics plainly don’t.

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Whatever sympathies you may or may not have for Corey Feldman, specifically, it’s this last argument that has driven so much of the backlash against the backlash—and it’s the one that best encapsulates the argument the internet has been having with itself all week, if not for years now. Pink, echoing Gilbert and Feldman’s other online defenders, was moved to praise Feldman simply for having the courage to “get up there and do your thing.” Similarly, Kesha—whose trial against Dr. Luke exposed her to a far more extreme, sadly recognizable form of bullying—reminded Feldman’s detractors that “it’s easy to sit at a computer and talk shit. It’s not easy to perform in front of millions.”

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Indeed, take it from me: Any idiot can sit at a computer and write snarky things about Corey Feldman. But while there’s some value to the argument that Corey Feldman shouldn’t be subject to such criticism or ridicule, simply because he’s following his own singular passions—and hey, can he live?—that doesn’t change the fact that “He’s just doing his thing!” is a defense that can be applied to literally every artist doing dubious things in any field. From arenas to Guitar Centers, summer blockbusters to indie film festivals, Kevin James sitcoms to improv showcases, we’re confronted every single day with people who are just “doing their thing.” Should their every fart joke or whammy-bar solo be similarly safeguarded against negativity? Just because you “go for it,” should you be immune to hearing whether you actually got it?

It’s a tricky and contentious question in these socially precarious times, when even the lightest of mockery can be tarred as “shaming,” and the relentless push for positivity in the face of so much incessant, readily available nastiness so often spurs people to conflate criticism with personal attack. In that way, the debate over Corey Feldman this week has become an unlikely symbol of this cultural cold war we’re in, where the old, Gen-X-bred instincts to ridicule our media figures as a way of fighting back against their presumed superiority have brushed up against a new generation, steeped in “Haters To The Left” empowerment and enough variety of entertainment to wonder why anyone would ever waste the energy talking shit about something they don’t like. Theirs is a world where Kim Kardashian, waist trainer spokesperson, should be lauded as a role model for body positivity, and YouTube and Snapchat have made anyone who practices any self-expression—no matter how banal or self-serving—into someone to be admired on some level. It’s a world where our radios are littered with anthem after anthem about fighting through the nameless, faceless “them” who are always trying to bring you down.

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And for some, it’s a world where that goes even for movie stars who defiantly cling to a life of arrested development and questionable creative choices, then get mad when someone makes fun of them for it. “Go 4 It” seems unlikely to join those anthems, even after Feldman accepts Today’s invitation to return for what will likely be seen as a far more triumphant second performance. Nevertheless, it did succeed in getting us thinking about the never-ending battle between light and dark—even if it’s not the one Corey Feldman intended.