Back in the '90s and early '00s, the British indie music press was known for changing its opinions—fast. Guardian and VICE journalist Sam Wolfson recently called this phenomenon “buttocking,” or “Building Them Up To Knock Them Down”; magazines like The NME would create buzz around a band on the come-up, then cut them down the moment they became popular. Take Razorlight, indie darlings of your dad’s CD collection, whose second album was given an 8/10 by the publication upon its release in 2006, only to be nominated for “Worst Album” at the NME Awards the following year.
Now that music journalism has moved online, though, an artist doesn’t have to release a sub-par album to receive a backlash; everything they do is up for grabs. And whenever something headline-worthy happens, there seems to be some sort of an unwritten rule that every publication has to declare whether they’re down with it or over it. In July alone, it felt like this cycle of praise and outrage reached a peak. When Rihanna released her “Bitch Better Have My Money” video at the beginning of the month, Refinery29 declared it “Not Safe For Work, Or Feminists,” but The Guardian hailed it as the “return of the ingenue.” When Taylor Swift misconstrued a Nicki Minaj tweet about music industry racism as a personal jibe and responded pretty tastelessly, Flavorwire declared a moratorium on all pop feminism, while Glamour UK asked, “WHEN will someone make [Swift] PM [Prime Minister]?” As Minaj herself pointed out, "white media" were quick to pit her against Swift personally instead of interpreting her wider comments as being about racism in the industry; the media's lust for a "feud" narrative quickly turned the issue into one you had to take a side on, using inflammatory headlines and confrontational images like the one at the top of this piece.
In the midst of Meek Mill and Drake’s feud over the former’s allegation that the latter uses ghostwriters, Twitter was overrun with people claiming Meek had committed “career suicide." Even in the context of an accelerated media climate—where outrage against outrage and backlashes against backlashes are common—it was a lot to take in. You’d be forgiven for deactivating your Twitter for a while.
But even in a world where everybody’s talking, it can feel like more nuanced and diverse perspectives about pop culture are passing us by. It’s like a modern-day iteration of German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Numan's spiral of silence—a 1974 communications theory suggesting that people are more afraid of isolation than anything else, and that’s the main factor that governs their public voicing of opinions. People who believe their opinions might be in the minority are way less likely to speak up, and so a monopoly of opinion takes hold. Ever watched a sexist TV show with a group of men and decided not to bother voicing how sexist it is? Nobody wants to be the killjoy or the outcast.
There’s a general belief that the internet has created a more even playing field for unpopular opinions or marginalized voices. In reality, one study by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that the spiral of silence theory actually applies even more to online self-expression than off. Of over 1,800 Americans studied, those who were willing to discuss a political issue IRL were less than half as likely to want to post about it on social media.
Of over 1,800 Americans studied, those who were willing to discuss a political issue IRL were less than half as likely to want to post about it on social media.
Even in an era where everybody has the opportunity to weigh in, it's still the voices backed by major media platforms that get amplified the loudest. Still, in the midst of July’s perfect outrage storm, a peculiar trend stood out: some columnists have begun to speak from the perspective of the marginalized. Writing for the New Statesman, Helen Lewis began her criticism of “BBHMM” with a lament: “Apparently, unlike all other artistic output ever, writers are not supposed to respond to Rihanna’s video.” Janice Turner at British newspaper The Times, meanwhile, complained that she had been “silenced” when she attempted to critique the video’s “misogyny.” Piers Morgan wrote a disgusting Daily Mail column on Nicki Minaj in which he positioned himself as an underdog, up against the “bile” of “Black Twitter.” While it is likely true that all of these writers received some online backlash for their opinions, their words suggest that they are fighting a brutal, bitter battle to speak their minds. In reality, all write for major publications, and thereby possess a very real sway over popular opinion. They don’t have to shout to be heard.
Still, even as mass media outlets attempt to out-yell one another with “for” and “against” arguments, we're surrounded by people standing up on smaller online soapboxes in order to challenge majority ways of thinking. GHE20G0THIK founder Venus X responded to the Meek Mill and Drake story by raising uncomfortable questions about society, tweeting: “This @MeekMill vs @Drake beef speaks on so many more issues than we might want to accept. Issues of privilege, access, race, class.” When other tweeters called her “stupid as fuck,” and accused her of “reaching” and being “fake deep,” she replied: “SAYING FAKE DEEP IS A WAY FOR PPL WHO CANT EXPLAIN THEIR POPULAR OPINION TO TRY & SHUT DOWN PPL WHO CAN EXPLAIN THEIR UNPOPULAR OPINION.” Whether or not you agree with Venus, she’s got her own ideas to back up what she’s saying; rather than pick a side, she’s attempted to start a wider conversation on the implications of this headline story. “You sound like you don’t formulate your own opinions,” she wrote in response to another commenter; it was such a succinct, perfect put-down that it gave me pause. How many people, in an age where you can literally see which views are popular by glancing at what’s trending, can truly say they formulate their own opinions?
Elsewhere, Mykki Blanco criticized the use of “Hashtag activism” to promote not fully thought-out opinions or stances. In a series of tweets concerning police brutality against Native Americans and high suicide rates on reservations, Blanco called for black activists to also support Native Americans and other people of color within the purview of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “If you opened your eyes theirs not a NATIVELIVESMATTER hastag because those people are even more silenced than you could ever IMAGINE,” the NYC rapper wrote. “The social consciousness of this current generation and political climate is a blessing. But...some of yall wanna BARK without being INFORMED.”
Blanco is right: the potential for social media to drive activism and justice is huge. In New York magazine’s new cover story, showcasing the narratives of numerous alleged victims of sexual assault by Bill Cosby, one woman—Tamara Green—sums that potential up in a line: “It’s 2015, we have social media now. We can’t be disappeared.” This month, Texas authorities opened a new investigation into the death of Sandra Bland after more than 31,000 people tweeted her name. This week, Instagram users simply refused to allow Sandra Bland to “be disappeared” by the platform, insisting that the company lift the restrictions it had placed on the #SandraBland hashtag (Instagram, for its part, says it did this to limit hate speech). But Blanco is also spot-on in suggesting that it’s all too easy to support a hashtag, and harder to form opinions that go deeper than reactive, knee-jerk tides of public opinion. Perspectives like Blanco’s and Venus X’s are disruptive, difficult to process, and frequently unrepresented in a mainstream mass media that’s obsessed with quickly digestible content. But these are the kinds of unpopular opinions that we need to drive culture forward.
So what comes next? A moratorium on thinkpiece culture, and the spirit of outrage that fuels it? As Spencer Kornhaber noted in The Atlantic earlier this year, “the attacks on online culture have become at least as histrionic and imprecise as the outrage they're targeting.” Anti-outrage is not only just as exhausting as outrage culture itself; it fosters an environment in which those with complicated or agenda-challenging opinions become even more discouraged from voicing them from before.
By way of a solution to this Catch-22, Kornhaber suggests that everyone just needs to to quiet down a little—”If anyone is policing anyone's speech, it should be each of us to ourselves...out of common courtesy.” To that, I'd say that those of us with the most visible platforms need to slow down and listen harder, and those without them need to be encouraged to speak louder.
At the end of the day, the world will only benefit from a dynamic, conversational culture; there’s plenty to be outraged about, and that power can be channelled for good. And if we're feeling mistrustful of think piece culture these days, it's not because we're over-saturated with analysis and critique; it's because we don't really have enough of those things. To simply declare something amazing or terrible seems like little more than a shadow of an old journalistic trick. When we rush to pick a side on an issue, we skip over all the shades of grey that make that issue political meaningful. We build people up just to knock them down.