On Why I Write About Pop Culture
Pop music is affecting and affective, spawning influence, agenda and possibilities for both artist and consumers. Its prolific reach is both terrifying and exciting, and its infiltration into the ‘everyday’ and mundane, enhanced by technology and social media, makes it near impossible to ignore, and I love that. The ubiquity of pop culture (and everything it encompasses) makes it both potent and in the background of almost everything we do. Popular images and culture are in constant tension and struggle. That is, it is responsible for upholding the damaging, isolating and narrow confines of identity — but it is also a site where artists, particularly artists of colour, can actively construct identities and temporarily overhaul their styles and personalities to harness creative and political possibilities and capital.
Though, this also means that artists, ideas and art are ripe for rapid consumption and commodification, sometimes forgotten as quickly as they are disseminated. This is often the case for artists of colour, particularly women of colour — where their labor is often erased from collective consciousness and cultural canons, despite forming the backbone of artistic, political and cultural movements. My engagement with pop music in the last few years has shifted to an active emotional and material effort of unearthing this erasure of women, queer and non-binary people of colour and their contribution to music; sifting through archives and whitewashed mounds to essentially find a representation of myself.
Most of the ‘biggest’ artists of our time are women of colour: Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna; but their popularity is somewhat conditional. The stakes are higher for these artists, where talent and beauty rests on a binary: you either have it or you don’t. People are waiting for slippages, breakdowns, plagiarism (‘yeah she can sing but she didn’t write it’), failure, and deviance; whilst upholding rigorous standards to social norms that governs what an artist can and cannot do. Further, the fame of artists of colour permits people to justify a sort of post-racial fantasy, where the popularity of these artists means that racism and other oppressive ‘isms’ are over because Beyoncé kind of rules the world, so we must have reached the endpoint of whatever it was we for fighting for, right? The crucial reality is that artists of colour — more so, black artists — are in demand for their art, labor, everything but their humanity. This exploitation is arguably the foundation of colonialism and capitalism, and discursive structures that are still manifest today, no less in ubiquitous popular culture.
Though women, queer, non-binary people of colour continue to carve space into popular music discourses, sites of politics and opinion remain nonetheless dominated by White Men With A Lot Of Opinions. A glimpse into the columns of left-leaning music sites and ‘taste-makers’ such as Pitchfork, Noisey, and (less so) Fader Mag who continue to prioritise the voices of these people, effectively creating a hierarchy of ‘coolness’ and ‘taste’ that naturalizes the dominance of their voices and, I feel, is bolstered by classed and racialised inequalities. There is something strange and jarring knowing that the expression and identity of people of colour are authenticated and rewarded by these people, and that the credential of ‘cool’ can also be contingent on discrete categories of identity (for example engaging with queer artists of colour when they are #fabulous but ignoring ongoing inequities that frame these identities).
Though I still engage with these publications, I believe the creativity and politics of people of colour has always managed to deploy itself in confined spaces, especially on the Internet; and using these platforms to provide vital intervention of damaging mainstream discourses with their own narratives, thoughts, commentary and feelings. With social media, the distance between artist and audience is seemingly closer, with the tool allowing fans to interact, sometimes converse and even hold our favourite artists accountable. These interactions made me realize that I have responsibility as a spectator, and sometimes even the opportunity to enact my beliefs and exert this without conventional political or economical capital.
It is too easy to dismiss pop music as vapid, consumerist and fleeting (and this is not to say that it is not these things, sometimes it is). But it also erases the fact that dynamics of power, resistance and the political potentiality are deeply seated in the production and consumption of pop music. I think I sounds weary and frustrated writing this, but I am not (entirely), I actually find deep solace and hope in pop culture and its potential to make complex ideas and identities engaging and relevant without the need to understand without the need to grasp theory. I once read that ‘superficial things can be deeply meaningful, they can be expressions of underlying societal conditions’ — any sort of critical engagement with the ubiquitous image of artist/celebrity and pop culture unearths and complicates the submerged political potentiality of pop.