Basics of Smart Pop Culture Writing

Pop culture writing is a much-maligned profession in certain literary circles. I once went to a Paris Review party where I mentioned what I do for a living and the guy I was talking to — it was in the lead-up to the 2008 election — said, hiding none of his snark, “Oh, you write for Entertainment Weekly? Who are they endorsing in the election?” Yes, because media coverage of elections is so much smarter than anything I read about pop culture, right? Sorry, but if it were, The Daily Show and Colbert Report wouldn’t have enough material to go on four nights a week. And guess what! The Daily Show and Colbert Report do have an important impact. And guess what they are! Pop culture.

I understand: A lot of entertainment-related coverage is embarrassingly insipid. No one hates gossip magazines more than us overly defensive pop culture writers who aim to say something real and strive for truth and fairness in reporting. And even a lot of the “smart” pop culture writing, particularly with the daily grind of blogs, is becoming strident, over-dramatizing the impact of every little event. (What does Beyonce’s tour name mean to feminism? What does this one Girls episode mean for racism?)

As I prepare to teach my (free!) online class in May, How to Write (Smart) About Pop Culture, I’ve been analyzing what makes good, great, and bad pop culture writing. Here are a few things I’ve learned through that, as well as through attempting to write my own pop culture pieces:

1. Analyze something bigger; make sense of something fans may have noticed. The Atlantic recently ran an irresistible piece, “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?” Writer Christopher Orr took an observation one might just moan rhetorically on the way home from seeing Playing for Keeps, and he analyzed it. He walked through the evidence — the terrible Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler movies, the box office receipts, and the stars’ careers, as well as the social trends and the theories of experts — to offer some real, interesting conclusions.

2. Translate strong emotional reactions into explanatory or opinion-driven pieces. Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance launched a zillion Tweets, even from luminaries like Michelle Obama and Martha Stewart. Everyone had an opinion about it, one way or another. A good next-day blog post asks, “Why?” Many concluded: Feminism. (I’m in the business of feminism, so I know: Feminism gets blamed a lot, and inflames a lot of message boarders.) Okay, great. There’s nothing wrong with a reaction post that explains “why” or exemplifies a writer’s bigger point. A non-Beyonce-related example of this was The New Yorker‘s piece on Seth MacFarlane’s sexist Oscars, which took the analysis a step beyond just shouting “Sexism!” Writer Amy Davidson drew a connection between the specific kind of sexism displayed at the Oscars and continued hostility toward women in the workplace. That made her piece stand out. That being said …

3. Don’t force analysis and connection. I particularly worry about something I’ve noticed happening in these pop feminism related pieces (a genre that I personally traffic in quite often). We’ve been drifting toward victim-blaming, essentially, under the pressure to say something significant about the hot online issues of the day. There is a world of difference between, say, Seth MacFarlane doing a musical number making fun of actresses showing their boobs in artistic, often deadly serious movies like The Accused, and a teenage Taylor Swift writing lyrics about Prince Charming. MacFarlane and the Oscar folks who hired him are grown people who should know better, and who ended up poking fun at rape, possibly, among other things, triggering victims among the millions watching. Not cool. Swift wrote some catchy songs that happened to reflect the fairy-tale-princess culture she was raised in. A little different. We can point out stars’ missteps as part of larger systemic problems, but let’s not end up blaming, say, Beyonce or Swift for all of sexism. In fact, I wrote a post pointing out this exact situation.

4. Write into your passion. Feelings matter deeply here. All of us in the entertainment blogging biz have been forced to write about something we barely know/care about, and it always shows. On the other hand, I started writing a piece yesterday ostensibly about a Taylor Swift interview in Vanity Fair, and ended up working out all of my feelings about her intersection with feminism. I had written 500 words before I knew it. (I eventually cut back once I found my way.) Of course, this doesn’t mean we ignore facts. Facts help make your case. But the best essays and posts always start with passion.

5. Listen to what you talk about with friends. If you’re not totally aware of where your passion lies, a good starting point is to notice: What do you discuss with your boyfriend after you watch Girls together? What do you post on Facebook? What do you react to on Facebook? All of these are great fodder for ideas.

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