In 50 or 100 years, when armchair social theorists look back on 2017, they may be able to identify the precise moment when the full absurdity of 21st-century cultural criticism as practiced on the internet finally revealed itself. It was after the Manchester Arena attack on May 22nd, when Twitter commentators and online op-ed writers responded to the tragedy by diving into analysis of Ariana Grande.
What a juxtaposition. On the one hand, the specter of international terrorism and innocent lives lost. On the other, opinions about the craft of a pop star who happened to be at the center of the calamity. It is true that the Grande concert was likely targeted because of the density of young women and girls in attendance. But if ever there were a moment that encapsulated the inadequacy of pop-culture criticism as a means to address all the social and political problems of the day, this was it.
I’m not dismissing the importance of pop culture, or the way it can influence broader discussions about critical issues ranging from race, class, and sexuality to the military’s use of torture and mental health. I can remember the exact day I fell in love with pop culture. At age seven on November 26th, 1991, my father surprised me with a copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Jackson’s lyric “I ain’t scared of nobody, I ain’t scared of no sheets” on “Black or White” inspired the first of many conversations I had with my dad about racism in America.
Introducing me to the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” meant that I was instantly tied to other members of my generation. Pop culture was more than just the medium through which my young mind absorbed messages about the state of the world; it was substance, as well as style.
Twenty-five years later, cultural criticism has become the internet’s go-to framework for talking about political and social issues. The language of what writer Jay Caspian King has called “woke pop culture writing” is everywhere: LeBron James as a symbol of American racism and anti-millennial sentiment. Taylor Swift as a symbol of the problems with white feminism. Drake and Dev from Master of None as symbols of male entitlement. The takes are scorchingly hot, the opinions often on point. And yet the pronounced progressiveness of opinionated pop culture writing stands in direct contrast to the increasingly regressive nature of America’s actual politics. What accounts for the discrepancy?
The reality is that while criticism can turn into meaningful political engagement, the two are not necessarily linked. Barriers to civic participation include discriminatory voter ID laws, misinformation campaigns, and unappealing candidates. In the face of these hurdles, leftist critiques of media, music, and movies circulate and recirculate on line, while a retrograde wave of Republican voters continue to consolidate their power in real life. In the latest presidential election cycle, the well-worn feedback loops of online opinionating didn’t inspire American millennials to do better than a paltry 33% voter turnout.
The challenge of trying to convert criticism into political action is not a new one. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote, “philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it.” Marx was making a distinction between people who study signs and representations for the defects of the world, and the organizers and activists who strive to build a better one. In theory, it’s possible to do both—but how many of us actually will?
Consider the Frankfurt School—a cadre of German-Jewish intellectuals who, exiled from Nazi Germany, moved to the United States in the early 1930s and critiqued what they saw as signs of authoritarianism in jazz, cinema, and magazines. In his 2016 study The Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries writes that “Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and the leading members of the Frankfurt School were virtuosic at critiquing the viciousness of capitalism’s spiritually crushing impact, but not so good at changing what they critiqued.”
In its modern guise, “woke pop culture writing” can reinforce a depressive state in which there are no visible alternatives to war, recession, debt, and other hallmarks of capitalism. Like the tragic Greek figure Narcissus, we find ourselves frozen in front of reflections of our own flawed society, unable to separate ourselves from representations of the wreckage long enough to refashion the mirrors surrounding us.
Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism, written in the midst of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, illuminated this condition. Searching hip-hop, Terrance Malik films, and the music of Nirvana, Fisher flirts with the fatalist conclusion that—in the words of Margaret Thatcher—“there is no alternative” to capitalism’s ravages. It may be true that searching pop culture for viable alternatives to capitalism is demoralizing. But it is also possible that occupying the position of constant spectatorship itself breeds a sense of hopelessness about the future.
Passive spectatorship—and not politics—is a preferred mode of civic engagement in our historical moment; the moment that began when capitalism remade itself after being besieged on all sides by protest and social movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. In their groundbreaking 2006 opus The New Spirit of Capitalism, authors Eva Chiapello and Luc Boltanski describe the difference between a “social critique” of capitalism (preoccupied with questions about wealth and redistribution) and an “artistic critique” that addresses concerns about authenticity and aesthetics. It was on the latter basis that capitalism recreated itself—by sidestepping the conversation about wealth and resources, and embracing the one about representation.
Pop-culture criticism belongs to the world of the “artistic critique”—the world where we parse just how feminist Ghostbusters is, scrutinize Survivor for celebrating late-capitalist individualism, and diagnose other societal illnesses. But when the arena where we allow ourselves to imagine a culture better than what we inherited is bound up in consuming, rather than acting, there’s only so far our intelligent insights can take us.
Certainly, critical thinking about media can be a form of resistance. In the 2001 essay “Their Fiction Becomes Our Reality,” published in the collection Black Feminist Cultural Criticism, scholar Mary Helen Washington notes that imagined utopias—and the conversations we have about them—can provide inspiration for real-world change. When I think back to my first brush with Michael Jackson’s music, I’m aware that the all-black music video for “Remember The Time” helped shape my understanding of history. And I’m cognizant of the fact that conversations about Beyonce’s “Flawless” are having the same impact on youths today.
And yet the limits of criticism remain intact, as author Andi Zeisler explains in her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once. Differentiating between substantive anti-misogynist social reforms and a “marketplace feminism” based on consumption and viewership, Zeisler expresses regret over the extent to which our love affair with spectacle has compromised our discourse:
“There are problems that can’t and won’t be solved by marketplace feminism. They don’t care what a big deal it is that Inside Amy Schumer beat out all those late-night network sausage parties for an Emmy. They don’t care what new thing Taylor Swift said about feminism. And now I can’t help but worry that those of us who hoped that the marriage of pop culture and feminism would yield deliciously progressive fruit might have a lot to answer for.”
Cultural criticism can be an avenue for change. But let’s not confuse the path with the purpose. Even Drake has expressed his doubts. “I’m really scared for my generation,” the titan of 21st-century pop culture wrote in a blog post in November 2011. “Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re living vicariously through other people’s moments. It’s a scary simulation life that we’re living in.”
Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based writer and historian. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present,” available for pre-order here.