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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 6 minutes (1,674 words)
I didn’t do my homework last weekend. Here was the assignment: Beyoncé’s Homecoming — a concert movie with a live album tie-in — the biggest thing in culture that week, which I knew I was supposed to watch, not just as a critic, but as a human being. But I didn’t. Just like I didn’t watch the premiere of Game of Thrones the week before, or immediately listen to Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. Instead, I watched something I wanted to: RuPaul’s Drag Race. What worse place is there to hide from the demands of pop culture than a show about drag queens, a set of performance artists whose vocabulary is almost entirely populated by celebrity references? In the third episode of the latest season, Vietnamese contestant Plastique Tiara is dragged for her uneven performance in a skit about Mariah Carey, and her response shocks the judges. “I only found out about pop culture about, like, three years ago,” she says. To a comically sober audience, she then drops the biggest bomb of all: “I found out about Beyoncé legit four years ago.” I think Michelle Visage’s jaw might still be on the floor.
“This is where you all could have worked together as a group to educate each other,” RuPaul explains. It is the perfect framing of popular culture right now — as a rolling curriculum for the general populace which determines whether you make the grade as an informed citizen or not. It is reminiscent of an actual educational philosophy from the 1930s, essentialism, which was later adopted by E.D. Hirsch, the man who coined the term “cultural literacy” as “the network of information that all competent readers possess.” Essentialist education emphasizes standardized common knowledge for the entire population, which privileges the larger culture over individual creativity. Essentialist pop culture does the same thing, flattening our imaginations until we are all tied together by little more than the same vocabulary.
The year 1987 was when Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Simpson family arrived on television (via The Tracey Ullman Show), and Mega Man was released on Nintendo. It was also the year Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. None of those three pieces of history were in it (though People published a list for the pop-culturally literate in response). At the back of Hirsch’s book, hundreds of words and quotes delineated the things Americans need to know — “Mary Had a Little Lamb (text),” for instance — which would be expanded 15 years later into a sort of CliffsNotes version of an encyclopedia for literacy signaling. “Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community,” Hirsch wrote. He believed that allowing kids to bathe in their “ephemeral” and “confined” knowledge about The Simpsons, for instance, would result in some sort of modern Tower of Babel situation in which no one could talk to anyone about anything (other than, I guess, Krusty the Klown). This is where Hirsch becomes a bit of a cultural fascist. “Although nationalism may be regrettable in some of its worldwide political effects, a mastery of national culture is essential to mastery of the standard language in every modern nation,” he explained, later adding, “Although everyone is literate in some local, regional, or ethnic culture, the connection between mainstream culture and the national written language justifies calling mainstream culture the basic culture of the nation.”
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Because I am not very well-read, the first thing I thought of when I found Hirsch’s book was that scene in Peter Weir’s 1989 coming-of-age drama Dead Poet’s Society. You know the one I mean, where the prep school teacher played by Robin Williams instructs his class to tear the entire introduction to Understanding Poetry (by the fictional author J. Evans Pritchard) out of their textbooks. “Excrement,” he calls it. “We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” As an alternative, he expects this class of teenagers to think for themselves. “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life,” he tells them. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Neither Pritchard nor Hirsch appear to have subscribed to this sort of sentiment. And their approach to high culture has of late seeped into low culture. What was once a privileging of certain aspects of high taste, has expanded into a privileging of certain “low” taste. Pop culture, traditionally maligned, now overcompensates, essentializing certain pieces of popular art as additional indicators of the new cultural literacy.
I’m not saying there are a bunch of professors at lecterns telling us to watch Game of Thrones, but there are a bunch of networks and streaming services that are doing that, and viewers and critics following suit, constantly telling us what we “have to” watch or “must” listen to or “should” read. Some people who are more optimistic than me have framed this prescriptive approach as a last-ditch effort to preserve shared cultural experiences. “Divided by class, politics and identity, we can at least come together to watch Game of Thrones — which averaged 32.8 million legal viewers in season seven,” wrote Judy Berman in Time. “If fantasy buffs, academics, TV critics, proponents of Strong Female Characters, the Gay of Thrones crew, Black Twitter, Barack Obama, J. Lo, Tom Brady and Beyoncé are all losing their minds over the same thing at the same time, the demise of that collective obsession is worth lamenting — or so the argument goes.” That may sound a little extreme, but then presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren blogs about Game of Thrones and you wonder.
Essentializing any form of art limits it, setting parameters on not only what we are supposed to receive, but how. As Wesley Morris wrote of our increasingly moralistic approach to culture, this “robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art.” Now, instead of approaching everything with a sense of curiosity, we approach with a set of guidelines. It’s like when you walk around a gallery with one of those audio tours held up to your ear, which is supposed to make you appreciate the art more fully, but instead tends to supplant any sort of discovery with one-size-fits-all analysis. With pop culture, the goal isn’t even that lofty. You get a bunch of white guys on Reddit dismantling the structure of a Star Wars trailer, for instance, reducing the conversation around it to mere mechanics. Or you get an exhaustive number of takes on Arya Stark’s alpha female sex scene in Game of Thrones. One of the most prestige-branded shows in recent memory, the latter in particular often occupies more web space than its storytelling deserves precisely because that is what it’s designed to do. As Berman wrote, “Game of Thrones has flourished largely because it was set up to flourish — because the people who bankroll prestige television decided before the first season even went into production that this story of battles, bastards and butts was worth an episodic budget three times as large as that of the typical cable series.” In this way, HBO — and the critics and viewers who stan HBO — have turned this show into one of the essentials even if it’s not often clear why.
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Creating art to dominate this discursive landscape turns that art into a chore — in other words, cultural homework. This is where people start saying things like, “Do I HAVE to watch Captain Marvel?” and “feeling a lot of pressure to read sally rooney!” and “do i have to listen to the yeehaw album?” This kind of coercion has been known to cause an extreme side effect — reactance, a psychological phenomenon in which a person who feels their freedom being constricted adopts a combative stance, turning a piece of art we might otherwise be neutral about into an object of derision. The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman called it “cultural cantankerousness” and used another psychological concept, optimal distinctiveness theory, to further explain it. That term describes how people try to balance feeling included and feeling distinct within a social group. Burkeman, however, favored his reactance as a form of self-protective FOMO avoidance. “My irritation at the plaudits heaped on any given book, film or play is a way of reasserting control,” he wrote. “Instead of worrying about whether I should be reading Ferrante, I’m defiantly resolving that I won’t.” (This was written in 2016; if it were written now, I’m sure he would’ve used Rooney).
Shortly after Beyoncé dropped Homecoming, her previous album, Lemonade, became available on streaming services. That one I have heard — a year after it came out. I didn’t write about it. I barely talked about it. No one wants to read why Beyoncé doesn’t mean much to me when there are a number of better critics who are writing about what she does mean to them and so many others (the same way there are smart, interested parties analyzing Lizzo and Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame and Rooney). I am not telling those people not to watch or listen to or read or find meaning there, I understand people have different tastes, that certain things are popular because they speak to us in a way other things haven’t. At the same time, I expect not to be told what to watch or listen to or read, because from what I see and hear around me, from what I read and who I talk to, I can define for myself what I need. After Lemonade came out, in a post titled “Actually,” Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak wrote, “It’s easier to explicate what something means than to illustrate what it does. If you want to know what it does, watch it or listen to it. It’s at your fingertips. … Right is right and wrong is wrong, but art at its purest defies those binaries.” In the same way, there is no art you have to experience, just as there is no art you have to not experience. There is only art — increasingly ubiquitous — and there is only you, and what happens between both of you is not for me to assign.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.