…Pop singer—he’s not so much a person as a puppet, whose strings are pulled for a scheme of total nightmare!
…A terrifying and withering exposé of the misuse of power in an age of illusion!
For the past year, I’ve been working hard on a book project, which is going to offer insight into a lot of the bigger contemporary political trends. One of the main threads is this: many of the political conflicts we see are the result of internecine struggles between ruling class-power blocs, and many of these are the result of Silicon Valley taking its place among the monopoly industries. In order to illustrate the concept of deep politics, one chapter discusses conclusions we can draw from two of the best on the subject: Crypto Cuttlefish and Dave McGowan.
One of the first things to say about the value of their respective research is that they illustrate how to identify a network. Unless you’re studying counterinsurgency or something, you probably won’t have an opportunity to learn this academically. So the best way to grasp this is by seeing patterns identified, so you can recognize the signs yourself. The world’s richest people constitute a class, but the composition of this class isn’t laid out formally, the way a corporation has a neat-and-clean org chart. Fortunately, the world’s richest people have patterns that are quite predictable—like having the same jobs, attending the same institutions, and marrying one another. Some of the best resources for figuring these things out are obituaries and marriage announcements in major newspapers like the New York Times. Since these patterns are easy to recognize once you know what they are, people with a stake in confusing us dismiss these things as either conspiracy theories or coincidences. They do so because things like family and intelligence connections are not insignificant data points, they’re actually a really big deal.
Cuttlefish’s work on Silicon Valley, in particular, is invaluable for grasping the nature of the newest monopoly industry. Cuttlefish first introduced me to the fact that the Internet was actually not started by a bunch of idealistic nerds who wanted to share college papers—it was a decentralized communications network developed by the RAND Corporation in order to help wage nuclear war. Professor C. turns the tech industry’s utopian mythology rightside-up, showing that the Internet is a tool for social control because that’s exactly what it was built to be all those years ago.
Cuttlefish also illuminates how the ruling class’ human terrain maps onto the physical geography of the military/intelligence-industry. The sergeants and lieutenants of the world’s richest people go to Washington, DC, they graduate from spy-heavy universities, they staff think tanks specializing in social engineering like RAND, they work at military bases and for intelligence fronts, etc. Particularly as it relates to Silicon Valley, they often ended up next to US Air Force installations, working at computers powering missile bases, signals intelligence facilities, and targeting stations. The Air Force was born in 1947, at the advent of the digital age, and its development was rooted in the high-tech industry. That’s why the USAF is overwhelmingly the military branch of the Silicon Valley clique.
This is where the work of Dave McGowan comes in, specifically his fascinating and though-provoking book Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops, and the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream. McGowan starts from one essential premise: when something “comes out of nowhere” to great acclaim and “suddenly” dominates the public eye, this must be cause for great skepticism. Unfortunately, this sort of fundamental insight—which separates the actual radical thinkers from the fakes—seems to be in short supply these days. I blame Noam Chomsky for teaching so many people that something can simultaneously be extremely famous and also “marginalized.” Anyway…
McGowan applies this scrutiny to the Laurel Canyon music scene, which spawned the hippie movement, which itself came to be synonymous with the radical era. McGowan proposes that it might be no coincidence that hippie/New Age/woo-woo stuff drew attention from and gradually supplanted the progressive political movements of the era—no coincidence that “turn on, tune in, drop out” replaced “up against the wall, motherfucker!”
Weird Scenes points to the fact that most of the luminaries of the scene were sons and daughters of military/intelligence people. The anecdote which opens the book tells the story of Jim and George Stephen Morrison. That’s Jim Morrison of The Doors fame; at the same time he was made the Lizard King, his father was the commander of US naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was more the norm than the exception. McGowan discusses the case of Frank Zappa, who was actually born and raised at Edgewood Arsenal, headquarters of America’s chemical warfare program. Zappa’s wife, Gail, attended a US Navy kindergarten with Jim Morrison, since her dad was a naval officer, too.
There’s plenty more where that came from, and McGowan points out that all these people congregated to Laurel Canyon for no apparent reason, and started a “movement” which was then identified as the voice of the generation. The biggest draw would appear to be an extremely suspicious installation called Lookout Mountain, an Air Force station that was, of all things, an above-top-secret movie studio. Lookout Mountain successfully remained secret for decades. As is usually the case, discussion of this extremely strange place was relegated to fringe “conspiracy” discussions, until at one point, mainstream publications got in on and act and said, sure it does exist, but there was nothing weird going on.
So imagine my great surprise when I read that Lookout Mountain had been purchased in 2015, by oddball actor/musician Jared Leto. I had few opinions about Jared Leto, and I thought even less about his band Thirty Seconds to Mars. The few occasions that his band entered my consciousness, I usually confused it with the band fronted by fellow actor Russell Crow, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts.
I was downright astonished when I learned that not only did Jared Leto purchase the installation in 2015, he has also started his own cult. This is after developing at least an academic interest in the subject: “When he isn’t playing in 30 Seconds to Mars,” writes IndieWire, “Jared Leto keeps busy by producing documentaries about cults.”
Someone who knows what a covert action looks like will recognize that this is extremely spooky. “Spooky” is the best word for this—it not only means “spy-like,” but captures the feeling of something being not only unsettling and abnormal, but menacing. Weirder still is the fact that, when he bought Lookout Mountain, Leto told publications that his grandfather was in the Air Force. This is even more suspicious, since the ruling class promotes from within, so family connections are a huge tell. Leto says that he and his brother Shannon lived with that grandfather on and off over the years.
This is quite a bit more banal, but I always found it a little odd that Jared Leto—who is really quite boring and not very good—has been around for a very long time and seems to be promoted well out of proportion with his talent or even box-office success. Weirdest of all is filmmaker Denis Villeneuve discussing the day Jared Leto arrived on the set of Blade Runner 2049, to play the role of tech-messiah Niander Wallace:
It was like seeing Jesus walking into a temple. Everybody became super silent, and there was a kind of sacred moment. Everyone was in awe. It was so beautiful and powerful—I was moved to tears.
This was a role originally conceived for David Bowie, the greatest rock star of all time, and Jared Leto made this guy weep? This is the sort of promotion one would expect to come from a clickbait-mill, not a serious art-house filmmaker. I saw one movie site refer to Leto as an “acting titan.” I mean, the guy who singlehandedly ruined method acting by mailing condoms to Will Smith and Margot Robbie—a titan?
It’s particularly strange when you consider that Leto claims to be a nobody from nowhere. But when you dig into his life and career, you see that this isn’t true. Leto may be the spookiest celebrity of all time, and he and his cult are the product of the aerospace/intelligence complex. The name Thirty Seconds to Mars actually hides this in plain sight. The band is named after a phrase from a techno-futurist from Harvard, and guitarist Tomo Miličević says Mars is “really a metaphor for the impending advancement of technology.” Shannon Leto says it nods toward “the evolution of man and how [technology] plays a role” and “the exponential growth of humans.” The name obviously isn’t that important, but it’s another instance of how the material conditions create the social outcome. Base, superstructure, all that.
Leto’s mother was born Constance Metrejon, and her father is the Air Force vet, Edmond William Lee Metrejon, known as William. While William served in the military branch of the aerospace complex, his brother served in the technological wing. William’s twin brother, Preston L. Metrejon, was an electrical engineer at the birth of the digital age—right around the same time that the Air Force and RAND were covertly developing the embryonic Internet at radio stations around the country. Preston was a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and he seems to have spent most of his career in Louisiana and Missouri. The deep south might not typically be associated with America’s military industry, but it is indeed. After World War II, a group of Nazi scientists was sent to the Fischer-Tropf chemical plant in Louisiana, Missouri to jump-start America’s synthetic fuel program. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri was one of the colleges that received federal grants in return for employing Nazi scientists.1
This is actually extremely significant, since it places the Metrejon brothers at the heart of the military/aerospace/tech industry at its inception. We would have a clearer picture about the flyboy William if we knew details like his rank and service history, but Preston is obviously a person of some minor distinction in the young Silicon Valley milieu. The Internet is usually described as an evolution of ARPANet, but it was developed by the engineer Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation on behalf of the US Air Force. Baran came up with a technology called “packet switching,” which transmitted signals through radio waves, so that the military could co-ordinate a retaliatory response after enduring a nuclear strike. According to Baran, the first “packets” were sent by AM stations, which covertly transmitted modulated frequencies over their regular broadcasts. A high-ranking radio engineer during this period would be very likely to have participated in this program in some capacity. Baran told Wired magazine in 2001 that many radio engineers knew they were working for a top-secret military project at the time:
I didn’t get involved with it, but I saw a piece in an amateur radio magazine where somebody said that it was a hush-hush program at the time. It’s sort of wild. Here are radio stations, who are the ultimate blabbermouths, and you use them as your channel of extremely secret, extremely important communication.
There’s a bit of misinformation out there that conspiracies can’t happen because people would blab. When you get down to it, though, you see how silly this idea is, because most conspiracies do end up getting successfully concealed for a long time. Even the “ultimate blabbermouths” can keep quiet, when they know their freedom or lives depend on it. On that note, it’s worth pointing out at the outset that few famous people seem better at keeping their secrets than Jared Leto. He probably has the most devoted fan-base in the world, and even with this level of scrutiny, they have trouble pinning down even such basic details as who his siblings are.
Once Leto finally committed to divulging some biographical details, he said that he grew up in Louisiana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Virginia. When I first learned about the childhood life of Jared Leto, I did a double-take. I had to make sure I wasn’t reading about his mother’s upbringing, since his this sound most like the youth of an Air Force brat. Both Jared and his brother Shannon were born in Bossier City, Louisiana, home to Barksdale Air Force Base (a Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War). Cheyenne, Wyoming hosts Francis E. Warren AFB, one of the few strategic missile bases in the continental US. Colorado is almost the heart of the US Air Force: home to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; NORAD in neighboring Cheyenne Mountain; and three other USAF bases, one of which hosts an NSA ECHELON outpost. Another air base hosts a local branch of the National Reconnaissance Office, which maintains America’s spy satellites. According to the Leto brothers, they lived in a series of communes, which is how they managed be dirt-poor but still have a never-ending series of music instructors and new instruments to learn.
As for Virginia, well, that’s even more odd. Apparently the family drifted around until Constance met a doctor named Carl Leto, who “decided to take her and her sons in” in 1979. Leto moved the family to McLean, Virginia, next door to Langley, and they adopted his last name. Jared credits Dr. Carl with much of his creative impulse. As far as Leto’s biological father, the only details are that his name was Anthony L. Bryant, born 1951, fathered Shannon and Jared, divorced Constance, remarried, committed suicide in 1978.
After a couple years together, the newly rechristened Letos “lived in a commune” in Colorado for three years, until Constance decided to move the family to Haiti, of all places, where she claims to have worked for an unnamed medical charity circa 1983. “Keen US interest in Haiti rises not only from humanitarian attitudes toward one of the world’s most poverty-stricken nations,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor in September 1982, “but also from its proximity to Cuba. One of the Reagan administration’s earliest-enunciated foreign policy aims was to stem expansion of Soviet influence in the Caribbean and Central America.”2
After less than two years in Port-au-Prince, they returned to the Beltway. Somehow, Jared attended three very wealthy high schools in the DC area: first McLean High School, then an elite private school called Flint Hill, and then Emerson Prep School. The timeline is fuzzy, and he plays down this detail in his rags-to-riches myth. If you were to summarize the weirdness of all this period with one question, it might be this: how did an itinerant, divorced hippie go from feeding three mouths with food stamps to moving her family to one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the United States—with no readily apparent reason?
Unfortunately, details that can be nailed down are few and far between, since the screamo-savior “usually refuses to talk about his personal life,” because “I tend to keep my life stories to myself. You’ve got to keep some things for yourself.” In fact, Jared and his brother Shannon qualify as extraordinarily secretive, particularly by celebrity standards. He’s “joked” about being so private that he could very well have a wife and children somewhere, and said that everything he does is “designed to distract people” from learning real details about his life and family. He dated Cameron Diaz for years, and they were so clandestine that the stars were almost never photographed together. Diaz is another star who shot to the top of the A-list “out of nowhere,” with a background much like Leto’s. Her career “sounds like a far-fetched plot”, and she is also the product of itinerant parents: Emilio L. Diaz, who traveled the world for decades as a UNOCAL employee, and Billie J. Early, an “import-export businesswoman.” Emma Forrest, a journalist who profiled Leto in 2002, said “He won’t even talk about why he won’t talk about her.” When pressed further, he warned Forrest: “I’ll tell ya this: I carry a big gun. This is America; it’s the Wild West. I wouldn’t suggest following me around.”
Leto’s story, as it were, only firmed up with his 2014 Oscar speech. He started unveiling it around 2010, going from vague, ever-shifting tales of a hardscrabble upbringing to one endlessly recycled creation myth: “we clawed our way out of the muddy banks of the Mississippi with food stamps in one hand and instruments in the other.” As one New York Magazine columnist put it: “holy shit he has a stump speech.”
Once he settled on this bayou-bootstraps myth, though, there were a number of inconsistencies. Leto explained them away with this:
Jared has always been vague about his childhood in interviews, and admits he learned to lie about his personal life after reading that River Phoenix did the same thing.
He said: “I lied about it so much, I don’t know what the truth is. I remember River Phoenix saying in an interview that he tried to lie as much as possible, and I just took that approach ever since.”
The officially sanctioned version, for instance, now says that the Leto clan lived in Haiti, but earlier versions say somewhere in South America. That’s according to Emma Forrest’s 2002 Telegraph profile of the star, anyway. Her interview with Leto is fascinating for numerous reasons, beyond just him threatening to shoot her if she snoops too closely.
The early aughts were not a particularly promising time for Jared Leto. I mentioned at the outset that Leto’s public presence feels more manufactured than that of the average star, and Forrest’s piece captures some of that. He was trying to move beyond teen heartthrob-status, but “Leto’s career ran into serious problems after the cancellation of My So-Called Life.” Prefontaine was supposed to be his big break, but that role “was barely noticed,” and then he seemed “to have made a series of ill-fated choices.” His work had “hardly set him apart from the pack,” despite the fact that “he was always expected” to become a “major-league star” (By whom? Why?). Forrest profiled him for the 2002 film Panic Room, which was the latest effort “to make him an A-lister, and it has been a long time coming.” I don’t think most people who watch Panic Room even register that Jared Leto is in it, and you might notice it’s been more of the same ever since. Other than winning an Academy Award for a platonic Oscar-bait role, audiences generally greet Jared Leto with a shrug, if not an eye-roll. But someone just keeps at it. They’re still talking about getting his Joker franchise off the ground, even though everyone hated that movie, and there’s already another Joker franchise hitting theaters now. Good work if you can get it.
Millionaires spending years trying to turn someone into a star makes sense for a guy like Armie Hammer, who’s heir of one of America’s oldest fortunes. But it makes little sense for an alleged “nobody” who came from “nowhere” like Jared Leto, particularly given that his music career was, like film superstardom, off to a flaccid start.
Thirty Seconds to Mars was a bit of a damp squib with the kids around the time of their first album. They were relegated to opening for little-loved post-grunge alt-rockers Puddle of Mudd, and the ultimate indignity: being compared to Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar. In 2002, Forrest’s Telegraph profile didn’t see fit to mention the band at all, and a Rolling Stone review called their debut “utterly forgettable,” “hollow,” and derivative of other, now-forgotten bands.3 A contemporary article in a small local newspaper suggests that he “hang onto the day job,” and quotes one unimpressed teenager who just watched the band perform: “It’s a pretty good song and the singer’s really cute but they’re not Incubus.”4
At this point, Jared’s super-stardom was yet to be, and as a result, he was much less polished, much more clumsy in his affectations, even petulant. As a result, Emma Forrest’s profile captures a moment where the future deity is still learning the tricks of the trade. Forrest notes his amateurish propensity for “trailing off” and “making up stories, cagey and cool, except with Leto one gets the impression that the silences and half-sentences are hiding more rather than less.” He clearly has a way to go in order to master his craft, and he conducts himself more ineptly than he ever would again:
He is fascinated by Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers, and can’t quite remember how he came to be an actor… According to him, he basically materialized in the industry, or it in front of him.
Ask him to expand on his childhood and he repeats your question back to you like the words to a nursery rhyme that he can’t quite remember. ‘Yeah, I was born in Louisiana, yeah Louisiana, yeah, yeah… moved around a lot, lived all over the place.’ He claims to have spent time in every state in America. ‘I haven’t been to, um, where haven’t I been? I mean as far as states… I’ve almost been to every state, like I don’t think…’ His blue eyes cloud over and I don’t think I’ll ever get him back. He’s like a helium balloon that someone has let go of.
His family is shrouded in mystery. Ask him about his absentee father and he answers by asking the waiter for a glass of water. Ask him what his brother does and his eyes shift from the tape-recorder to his napkin, as though he is searching for cue cards. ‘He, uh, works for a government agency.’ Really? ‘Yes.‘ Really? ‘No. My brother does a lot of things. He’s an artist.’
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say what government agency Shannon Leto may or may not have worked for, since the elder Leto is even more vague about his past than his more-famous brother. Shannon has successfully managed to have an almost nonexistent radar signature, as nearly all of his adult life is a blank spot which he chalks up to a drug addiction and a sexy life of petty crime and rebellion. Check this out: even with as much attention on this band as there is, millions of fans can’t scrape together more than 56 words to discuss his life between age ten and age 28 for his Wikipedia page. Shannon actually confirms that he was living in Washington, DC when he was supposedly working “for a government agency”—although he chalks that up to being “in and out of art school,” if you believe that.
The two claim to have started Thirty Seconds to Mars around the mid-‘90s, and they got a record deal in 1998, four years before the release of their self-titled debut. But even in their more formative state, it looks like the band was being groomed for something big.
In 1999, for instance, Shannon Leto was invited to join a rock supergroup called The Wondergirls, a side project started by Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. But what plausible reason is there for this? In 1999, Thirty Seconds to Mars was a band in name only. It would be years before they would release their first single, and unlike his brother, Shannon was not famous or even an established performer. His entertainment career prior to the mid-2000s is a few film roles in his brother’s movies, like “Bar Patron” and “Kid #2.” Officially, he had only recently kicked a nasty drug habit, and his music career was limited to jamming with his sibling. Why would he have been asked to join a rock supergroup with such actual stars as Weiland and, uh, Mark McGrath? Say what you will about Sugar Ray, but at the minimum they’d actually released at least one song. For good or ill.
The clearest explanation is that they shared a talent agency—quite a strange agency called the Firm, Inc., co-founded in 1997 by an executive named Jeff Kwatinetz.
It’s never enough for rich people to just do something. They always have to talk about how humble their origins were: in this case, Kwatinetz claims he started the Firm in his bedroom. Only a few years later, the LA Times described the company as “racing through the music industry with the velocity of a bullet train.” With little more than some savvy hardball, and an indeterminate amount of funding, it was only a few years before this odd little company was managing many of the biggest pop stars, rock musicians, and actors in America. All of this in addition to rumors of unusually high overhead costs, according to the LA Times.5
Onto the question of where all this money came from. As for the co-founder himself, “Unlike most Hollywood megalomaniacs, Kwatinetz, 36, prefers to remain under the radar.” Most profiles of the Firm from this period emphasize Kwatinetz’s great secrecy, with one paper calling him “obsessively media shy.” One of the earliest investors was tech billionaire Ted Waitt, who dated Ghislaine Maxwell after she broke up with Jeffrey Epstein. Another early employee was Steve Bannon, who left Walt Street for Hollywood. He became a movie producer and joined the Firm, and it was in this capacity that he was introduced to the Breitbart empire. There were plenty more figures at the firm straddling finance, entertainment, and tech. The secretive Kwatinetz was actually part of a clan of Silicon Valley gentry. A 2001 Financial Times article explains that his younger brother Mike was “once Wall Street’s top technology analyst and a co-founder of Azure Capital Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.”
[Their mother’s] influence over the Kwatinetz family has clearly filtered down the generations. While her oldest son became a stockbroker, his younger brother Mike made his name spotting growth stories like Microsoft, Dell Computer and Gateway for the likes of Sanford Bernstein, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse First Boston. Now, her granddaughter, Danielle Kwatinetz Wood, has teamed up with her dad to write a book on investing in technology shares.6
This, in other words, was a very well-connected clan. This strange anecdote from 1997, for one, illustrates the sort of odd dispensations afforded to the Kwatinetz family.
The Firm may have looked like an odd duck, but it was part of an intensifying trend in the mid- to late-‘90s. At this point, an increasingly ambitious tech industry was flexing its muscles and grabbing up pieces of other industries. This was when billions were being poured into the young Amazon.com, for instance, in the long-term hope that it would obviate stores. From a para-political perspective, it looks like the Firm, Inc. was Silicon Valley’s first major grab for the entertainment industry. A 2002 Washington Post article explains that the Firm had very quickly gone from a “music management company” that “few in Hollywood had heard of,” to a formidable outfit effecting “a shift in the Hollywood pecking order.” “In four brief years the Firm had already established a remarkable beachhead,” explained the Post.
The evidence points to the Firm, Inc. being Silicon Valley’s forward operating base in Hollywood, in order to wrestle part of the entertainment industry from Wall Street. That’s probably why the Firm’s offices are five minutes away from the headquarters of the RAND Corporation.
Kwatinetz was one of the earliest industry figures to speak in the sort of dehumanizing language that social media makes us take for granted today: he proposed turning people into “brands” all the way back in 2002. “With all the focus on the short term, on making immediate profits, people sacrifice building brand credibility. I have a different approach. I want to build credibility behind entertainers. Credibility is another word for brand equity.” A cornerstone of the Leto brand is authenticity, which is why Jared does all the things he does, and why Shannon goes to great lengths to emphasize the band’s independence from—well, seemingly everything: he says he never took lessons or even trained, “walked away from drumming” for many years, and mostly just concerns himself with “being free.” The Letos were also, somehow, innovators in turning themselves into a brand through the use of digital marketing channels. “At the turn of the millennium,” writes Forbes, “The band wanted to start a website and message board to better communicate directly with fans and sought help. It was an atypical request at the time.” This happened “long before Facebook or MySpace or any of those other things,” Jared says, which he chalks up to his own entrepreneurial ingenuity.
Despite being described by as a DIY operation, the Letos have always had the resources to spend years creating slick, heavily produced albums that were meticulously arranged and professionally performed. Modern Drummer magazine also pointed out to Shannon that “It’s pretty rare for someone to basically have been in only one band from the start.” It’s also rare for anyone to just keep getting money from investors without turning a profit, unless there’s some sort of long-range goal that’s yet to be achieved.
But that’s what happened to Thirty Seconds to Mars: money just kept pouring in. In 2006, guitarist Tomo Miličević said, the band had mostly not made any money, yet Virgin Records continued to sink millions of dollars into the band and their extravagant productions. “We have all the attention. We produce hardly any profit for them, but they still put all the money and time into us because they believe that we’re going to eventually produce a career.” Miličević also pointed out that Muse had actually sold four times as many albums as Thirty Seconds that year. But Muse didn’t get anything close to the astonishingly generous promotion enjoyed by Leto’s increasingly weird project.
Thirty Seconds to Mars quickly became known for its uniquely expensive and wildly elaborate music videos, which were epic and “ground-breaking” things “better suited to the big screen.” Their video “Up in the Air” premiered on the International Space Station. One video was filmed at both the north and south poles. In 2010, music publications reported that the group’s new video, “From Yesterday,” was the most expensive music video of all time. Not only was it the most expensive, but at $13 million, it cost nearly twice as much as the previous title-holder, which features both Michael and Janet Jackson. And, incidentally, all of this was happening after more than a decade of plummeting music industry-profits—a time when “one headliner doesn’t cut it anymore,” and even the Rihannas and Katies Perry of the industry had to embark on double-billed tours. Despite all this, ever more money was being pumped into a band that allegedly worked hard to break even.
Leto, for his part, dismissed “From Yesterday’s” exorbitant price tag as “Internet rumors,” and said the video was actually “relatively inexpensive.” OK. But all the videos are expensive and dazzling:
From Yesterday, shot entirely in China, employed 400 Chinese soldiers; Up in the Air called on gymnasts, a wolf, a lion, Damien Hirst and Dita Von Teese on a trapeze in “a celebration of art and movement”; City of Angels tried to capture the spirit of LA with testimony from Kanye, Lindsay Lohan, James Franco and many more. This time, rather than snapshot of a city, Leto’s aiming for a full-length documentary that encompasses the whole country, and is currently editing down, for a planned July release, a shining sea of film shot across the US on the 4th of July last year, with extra footage sent in by fans asked to show their American reality.
“It was impossible – nearly impossible – to pull off,” he says. “We had just a couple of weeks and we’d hired 92 film crews to shoot in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and DC, on a single day in 24 hours.
There was another, equally important commonality in all these videos. That would be the band’s trademark mixture of spiritual/religious symbolism, political/revolutionary imagery, and—of course—sex. One “controversial” video generated a lot of media hype by featuring stuff like a “woman’s finger running over other woman’s bottom in G-String and touching anus.” That particular video, 2013’s “Hurricane,” is perhaps most on-the-nose with what the band’s putting forth: occult imagery, a gesture towards important social events, outré hedonism, nudity, and sexy sexy sex.
It was clear from the outset that this was a group that aimed to have the grandest possible meaning, and was casting the widest possible net to be all things to a lot of people. In their very first interview as a band, the Letos described their music as “oblique,” “atmospheric,” and infused with “metaphors.” Ever since then, Jared makes it clear that his music is meant to be a universal statement on seemingly everything in existence: “Everything on this album is about real human experience. That is the single most inspiring source for us, the human struggle,” he said in 2002. “It’s more the collective consciousness than it is just us,” he said in 2009.”7
Leto’s grandiose statements about the band’s significance dovetailed with the band’s heavy use of arcane, cryptic imagery, all of which seemed perfectly designed to ignite the imaginations of a subset of fans. “We have always been interested in iconographic images, signs, and symbols, and their relationship to cultures, Jared said in 2002. “We have symbols called GLYPHICS that represent different elements in our band.” At the beginning of their career, one video instructed viewers to “Find the Argus Apocryphex,” commanding their fans to start treating their work like sacred texts. The band ensured that they brought in as many people as possible by drawing from seemingly everything that had ever associated with New Age culture: Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; esoteric Christianity and the Knights Templar; Satanism and witchcraft; Freemasonry and (of course) the Illuminati; with a little of the Manson family for good measure.
The ingredients of Leto’s cult are essentially twofold: 1) occult and spiritual imagery which can be all things to all people, and 2) power-of-positive-thinking pop-psychology. One 2012 profile, titled “Prophet in a sleeveless tee,” elaborates:
There’s nothing more galvanizing than shared outsider status, and that’s what Leto…offers “The Echelon Nation” [the name for their fans]. Everything he creates—the lyrics, the websites, the tweets—is infused with inspirational aphorisms. Many people find this off-putting, even silly, but Leto doesn’t care. “I have this drive to help deliver all of us—me included—to a place where we can feel free,” he says. “We spent time in art colonies as kids, where there was a real sense of community, and I think it came from that. People forge bonds at a bar, at church, at work. It happens in Scientology, it happens in Catholicism, and it happens with us.”
The weird glyphs tell fans that this is something extremely deep and meaningful, in which they should invest themselves, and the feel-good aphorisms are what really keeps people emotionally enslaved. The most common grift is for a charlatan to offer banal insights about positivity or self-reliance spiced up with a lot of mystical stuff: see Rhonda Byrnes’ The Secret franchise, the work of Jordan Peterson, self-help cults like est and Landmark, etc. “Positivity” is the war cry of capitalist hucksters, because at the end of the day, people will pay for stuff that makes them feel good, and there’s little arguing with “it makes me feel good.” And who could object to all this positivity? Only someone “curdled with cynicism,” according to MTV. One sad blog from a teenager in England shows what the loneliest fans stand to gain from converting:
30 Seconds To Mars give me the feeling that I actually belong somewhere and have a purpose in life. Before I came across them, I got depressed and thought “What is the point? Why am I even here??” But Mars taught me that you should follow your dreams and always fight for what you believe in no matter what. I realised I can get through this, it’s not that hard.
I try to be the best Echelon I can possibly be. I do as much as I can to promote them…. I was born to be an Echelon. I just wish I’d discovered them sooner. But at least I have now. 🙂 They have brightened my life, made it feel worth living.
Leto overwhelmingly emphasizes the concepts of family and community in relation to his music. Their record This is War “is really a large part about fighting for what you believe in… I think the thing about music is it’s empowering. It provides a sense of community. It lets people know that they’re not alone.” That album had 2,000 separate covers featuring images of fans in order to foster the communal feeling. Leto’s accounts pump out pictures of the star looking very deep, coupled with portentous quotes from famous thinkers. His army of fans act like a force-multiplier in putting out messages like “Family doesn’t necessarily mean you share DNA. It means you share memories, dreams, and love.” Shannon has said their fans “are Thirty Seconds to Mars, we are the Echelon, that’s our secret, we are one, that’s what makes us. This is a shared experience. We are not selfish with our art, it’s about a community, about family and that’s the way it’s always been and will be.” This is what’s known in cult psychology as “love-bombing.”
With cult indoctrination, a lot of people are turned off by things like bizarre mythology and controlling tactics. Others, though, like what they see and become increasingly devoted as things get weirder. The response to Leto’s increasingly eccentric antics followed this predictable pattern. Back in 2002, Emma Forrester concluded her profile of Leto by saying “Either you dismiss Jared Leto as a big jerk, I realize, or you go with it, like eating novelty sweets with no nutritional value—irritating and addictive at the same time.” As the years went on, many naturally dismissed Leto as a joke. A 2017 article titled “Try not to cringe watching 30 Seconds to Mars’ deeply uncomfortable performance on Ellen” captures the band’s current aesthetic:
30 Seconds to Mars recently stopped by the Ellen show to perform their new quasi religious/protest song “Walk On Water”, and it was really, really fucking awkward. The song is already an odd mashup of religious imagery and political references about having your fist up in the line of fire and which informs us that “the times are changing.”
From there, things digress quickly. The choir in attendance awkwardly sings along, positioned behind a group of audience members who are sitting on the stage—which, again, has zero band members on it—and, for some reason, Ellen is standing awkwardly in the choir’s midst, also singing. Befitting the song’s lyrical content, Jared Leto rocks both a massive beard and a poncho like the guru of some LSD soaked religious cult that lives in the parking lot of a Phish show.
Sure, Jared Leto pretending to be Jodorowsky on Ellen will look ridiculous to a lot of people. But those people primed to think this is mind-blowing will be very interested in what Leto has to say. Here it is the dynamic at work—a tale of two tweets. One tweet quoting Frederick Douglas was so “douchey” that he actually deleted it. However, while a lot of people laughed at this behavior, it connected with a small but increasingly fervent core of fans. Leto also tweeted a picture with an unattributed Paulo Coelho quote about persistence. To a lot of fans, that became a Jared Leto quote.
Now, it would be one thing if Leto were being discussed as a joke across the board. However, many publications were ratifying Leto’s now-wildly grandiose ideas about himself, his band, and relationship to his fan-base. Sometimes, it even seemed like the result of a conscious promotional effort: “According to many notable publications, This Is War received critical acclaim upon its release. However,” says Wikipedia, the album actually received “mixed or average” reviews. How odd.
A recent Rolling Stone piece vouched for Leto’s self-conception as some sort extra-temporal guru standing above humanity: “there is something alien, almost unnerving, about Leto, and it’s not just the freaky gemstone blaze of his greenish-blue eyes, currently obscured by aviator shades. He’s warm and engaging, with none of the solipsistic remoteness that often comes with years of fame. But he also seems curiously self-perfected, as if he’s gone clear in some one-man Church of Letology, and sleeker than any Homo sapiens should be, moving with serpentine ease.” Then there’s Denis Villeneuve describing how he literally wept when Leto first arrived on set, a comment which is so jaw-dropping that I need to mention it twice. It’s interesting to note that the Niander Wallace character in 2049 is basically the ideal image of himself that Jared Leto is trying to project: “Niander Wallace, the man, fancies himself a god. Although he has built himself a fortune on Earth, his eyes have now turned off-world, to the stars.”
It’s now been about a decade since the Leto brothers began comporting themselves like a mind-control cult. In 2010, Thirty Seconds unveiled a new motto—“Yes, this is a cult”—in their video for “Closer to the Edge.”
As is so often the case when rich, well-connected people shock the conscience, a lot of people dismiss this all as a joke. Leto himself tried this, in a New York Times interview where he makes quite clear that this is no joke:
Jared: It’s a joke, a response to journalists saying, ‘‘You have such a cult following.’’ We have always had incredibly committed people following us. If people like 30 Seconds to Mars, they really, really, really like it.
Interviewer: Seeing all those fans screaming and crying, I guess I didn’t quite understand where the joke ended and where the actual messianic business began, you know?
Jared: Well, I’ll push back a little bit. The joke isn’t really for you. It’s for the believers who get the joke.
Interviewer: You never use the word “fans.” People who like you are “the echelon.”
Jared: I hate the word ‘‘fan’’; it just seems so dismissive. Because we have this cult, this family, these believers who understand, it seems fitting that there was a name to reference them.
Regardless of what Leto or anyone else says, hundreds and probably thousands of people treat the Echelon family like a cult. Social media is home to an unnervingly large number of people like this woman here, whose mind seems exclusively devoted to loving Jared Leto. I found one interesting case where you can see Thirty Seconds to Mars fandom take over someone’s brain from 2014 to 2019. If the hundred of people who flocked to Camp Mars are not in a cult, that would be a huge surprise to many of them.
To be fair, some fans swear that they aren’t in a cult, even though that’s what everyone in a cult says. Many were unsettled by the sight of hundreds of people in identical white robes following a suddenly-divine Jared Leto in rapt devotion. One young lady tells the naysayers that “For anyone saying this is ‘scary’…the scariest thing about it was the heat. I had to sit out of the second set of pictures with @ShannonLeto because I felt sick by that point (and guilty for potentially ruining @JaredLeto’s creative vision by not feeling 100% into it)…!”
What we have here is a young lady apologizing for 1) having a normal biological response to excessive sunlight and 2) “potentially ruining” the guru’s “creative vision by not feeling 100% into it.” I think most objective people will agree that if this is the argument that it’s not a cult, this is actually pretty goddamn scary.
The idea of elite interests manufacturing a cult around a pop star for the purposes of social control is not new. Such a subject has been explored both by radical filmmaker Peter Watkins in his film Privilege, and schlockmeister Menahem Globus in The Apple. The Apple may be considered one of the worst films of all time, but the two-tiered pyramid logo of the film’s cult did anticipate that of 30 Second to Mars by several decades. If this were to happen in real life—if rich people conspired to turn a pop star into a god for some reason—it would look exactly like what happened with Jared Leto.
To what end, though? At this point, the best I can do is offer informed speculation. There’s an obvious utility to having an army of zealots at the beck and call of thoroughly spooky rock star. Leto told CNN that he was interested in forming a digital “summit” in response to the 2009 “Green Revolution” attempt in Iran, a favorite cause with the Silicon Valley oligarchy. “For the record, Thirty Seconds to Mars fully supports the youth of Iran. You know, we’re right there backing you guys, and we encourage everyone to fight for what they believe in.” In fact, Leto is on his way to becoming a Silicon Valley oligarch himself: he says he’s struck gold investing in Uber, AirbBnB, and Slack. Or, if he’s not a tycoon himself, he’s at least a great cut-out for some other entity’s money.
But even regime change seems like a small-minded application of such an elaborate intelligence operation. These sorts of ops are rarely undertaken for one single purpose, but my guess is that one of the aims has to do with Jared Leto’s interest in the cause of climate change, particularly promoting the Paris Accords.
In her excellent series on the manufacturing of Greta Thunberg, Cory Morningstar describes a variety of recent ruling-class scams. The purpose of these propaganda and astroturfing operations is to manufacture consent so that the world’s richest people can privatize nature and steal as much as $100 trillion from not only us, but the Earth itself. It’s difficult to summarize Morningstar’s expansive work, but this small extract explains some of the concepts most germane here:
When one contemplates the non-profit industrial complex, it must be considered the most powerful army in the world. Employing billions of staff, all inter-connected, today’s campaigns, financed by our ruling oligarchs can become viral in a matter of hours just by the interlocking directorate working together in unity toward a common goal to instill uniform thoughts and opinions, which gradually create a desired ideology. This is the art of social engineering. Conformity and emotive content as tools of manipulation has been and always will be the most powerful weapons in the Mad Men’s toolbox.
I’m guessing that spinning-up Jared Leto’s cult in earnest, at the same time Greta Thunberg is getting a full-court press campaign, is not a coincidence. The enormous resources that are being poured into promoting “green capitalism” indicate just how much the super-rich want this to happen. As is usually the case, the point of an operation like the Echelon family will likely not be clear for some time. But the tech oligarchy has left fingerprints over both of these very loud spectacles, and Morningstar has given us a very good idea of what their goal is. We should pay attention to this in that context.
Regardless of what’s next, everything about this should be seen with as much skepticism as someone can muster. This 30 Seconds to Mars cult is not only bizarre, it’s maybe the most obvious intelligence operation of all time. Why is not yet clear, but the fact that Silicon Valley has manufactured a cult of zealots who are literally willing to die for a rock star should be cause for maximum scrutiny and considerable alarm. When you consider that Leto has been leaning into increasingly violent imagery, it’s little exaggeration to think that there are a few who would kill for him, too. When a CIA spy starts a cult and begins talking about beheadings, then as DCI George Tenet once said, the system is blinking red.
They have made dystopian movies about this very subject, and it can’t be allowed to play out first as farce, then as tragedy.
1. Linda Hunt, Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1944-1990, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
2. “Haiti; Little to live on but hope; US set conditions on aid to Haiti in ’82,” The Christian Science Monitor, 20 Sep 1982. https://explore.proquest.com/elibrary/document/1038369239
3. Peter Relic, “30 Seconds to Mars: Actor Jared Leto makes utterly forgettable rock,” Rolling Stone, 19 Sep, 2002
4. Stuart Derdeyn, “Leto’s mission to Mars: Jared puts films on hold to tour with 30 Seconds to Mars,” The Providence, 4 Sep 2002. https://explore.proquest.com/elibrary/document/269324565
5. Geoff Boucher and Corie Brown, “THE NATION; Hollywood Sizing Up Firm’s Grasp; Entertainment: Deal with Ovitz Gives Music Management Company a Broader Base of Power.” Los Angeles Times, 07 May 2002. https://explore.proquest.com/elibrary/document/421919067
6. “Keeping it in the family, AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS,” The Financial Times, 7 Feb 2001. https://explore.proquest.com/elibrary/document/248961229
7. Ayala ben Yahuda, “6 Questions with 30 Seconds to Mars,” Billboard, 21 Feb 2019. https://explore.proquest.com/elibrary/document/227247370