“Fandom is, after all, about you–what you like, what you identify with, what happens in your imagination,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote on Rookie in a piece about boy bands. But it basically summarizes the value of examining all of pop culture, whether your feelings are fandom, hatred, or the sensation of those two extremes working together: utter fascination. At its best, pop culture writing doesn’t strive to know what we can’t about famous people, artists’ intentions, or if a movie/TV show/album is objectively “good.” Rather, it investigates what these figures, events, and works of art tell us about ourselves as individuals, and as a society.
So far this month—our six-year anniversary—I’ve shared my favorite Ask a Growns and DIYs, while a bunch of Rookie contributors shared their favorite pieces of all time. Now, to close out this celebration, I bring you my 15 favorite pieces of pop culture writing in Rookie’s history. Quick shoutout to the more playful, deeply funny, and always irreverent contributions to columns that single out unpredictable figures and characters in this realm, like Secret Style Icon, Hero Status, and Literally the Best Thing Ever. Also, our interviews with all the people making this stuff in the first place. And now, in chronological order…
1. Kevin Townley on The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “I was radioactive with yearning, but I didn’t know what I was yearning for. It frightened me, because people can be defined by the things that they desire and even trapped by them. And yet maybe this yearning I felt wasn’t for anything a person could actually hold on to—maybe it was just the desire to belong to the world.”
2. Aunt Debbie and Uncle Mitch, the fictional relatives of Pixie Casey. Debbie wants to be down with the kids while Mitch is a stubborn oldies fan. Pixie’s imagined emails from them actually make me laugh out loud, read like a 2012-2014 time capsule, and are spilling over with affection for these mind-creations and your real-life relatives they might resemble.
3. Jessica Hopper on Rihanna, Chris Brown, and the complications of leaving one’s abuser: “As much as I want her to see Chris Brown for what he is, to skateboard off into her own happier life and simpler mistakes, I can’t pretend that I don’t fully understand how easy it is to return to someone you know is bad for you and call it love. Again and again.”
4. Jessica Hopper on Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie: “In any true girl best-friendship, I think it’s natural to feel like one of you is the Christine, the competent one behind the shadows, while the other is the Stevie, the dazzling rock star with natural charm.”
5. Jamia Wilson on Quvenzhané Wallis, Amandla Stenberg, Gabby Douglas, Malia Obama, and young women experiencing racism in public: “Quvenzhané’s experience was infuriating but, to anyone who’d gone through it themselves, immediately recognizable as a tragically inevitable rite of passage: our first encounter with racism. Up until that moment most of us naïvely assume that the world is basically fair. And then someone says something that reveals what other people think of us, and we start to understand what it means to be a black girl in a racist, sexist world.”
6. Ragini Nag Rao on Aerosmith’s “Crazy” video: “‘Crazy’ represented all of the freedoms I desperately craved at 13: physical freedom, freedom for my emerging sexuality, and the freedom to be with the person I loved and to receive all of her love, all the time, to the exclusion of everyone else, especially the boys she dated. That video flipped a switch in my brain. I had a new thought: Girls could like girls the way girls liked boys. This realization turned my entire universe upside down.”
7. Stephanie Kuehnert on the 27 Club: “Back when I first read that story, I decided that the Devil had written Kurt’s, Janis’s, Jimi’s, Kristen’s, and the rest of the club’s deaths into the fine print of Johnson’s contract, and that metaphorically, this meant an early death was the price that Satan had decided all mortals should pay for artistic brilliance. I didn’t even believe in the Devil, but this made a good story, and even back then I thought of myself as a storyteller. I was also a depressed person looking to give her depression a purpose.”
8. Tova Benjamin on Lorde, Flannery O’Connor, and the grotesque: “Listening to her music, you get the feeling that she is participating in these worlds of youth, suburbia, and love, while observing them from afar. She sings about climbing under underpasses and drinking with teens with shiny mouths, then admits that she isn’t one of them. Her songs sneak their way into that private place inside me that worries it won’t ever truly belong to any world. That private place I think most of us have.”
9. Jenny Zhang on Weezer’s “Across the Sea”: “In the very back recesses of my brain, I had a general sense that the reason why people like Rivers idealize and obsess over Asian girls had a lot to do with the long history and legacy of seeing Asian girls a certain way—submissive, delicate, and mysterious—that went hand-in-hand with seeing Asian men a certain way—weak, asexual, inscrutable—and all of it went hand-in-hand with seeing Asian people a certain way—subaltern, perpetually foreign, threatening, devious, strange—and instead of pursuing this history critically and thoughtfully, I waived it off. I didn’t want my bubble to burst. Surely, I thought, there had to be a side to racism that benefitted me. I felt my only chance to survive in a world where I was considered foreign no matter how long I lived in America, where I was considered strange no matter how normal I felt, was to play along. Even if I knew deep down that to try and find love on the basis of being someone’s fetish object was damaging, I could still try. Being the idea of someone I wasn’t was better than being no one at all, I thought.”
10. Bethany Rose Lamont on Woody Allen and learning that an artist who’s saved you has seriously harmed someone else: “How do I reconcile my solidarity with other survivors, with all girls whose innocence, like mine, was stolen when we were in our single digits, with the fact that Woody Allen’s movies have, quite literally, saved my life on numerous occasions?”
11. Sunny Betz on teenage fandom: “It’s an exercise not in restraint, but its opposite, extent: You love this band/actor/personality, and you do so boundlessly. You never have to conceal your ardency for another person’s sake.”
12. Michelle Ofiwe on Missy Elliott and self-worth: “In ‘Work It,’ Missy isn’t just someone’s interest, she’s his challenge. On top of her craft, she’s only interested in dudes who can keep up—and, honestly, who can blame her?”
13. Karisma Price on Black-ish showing a parent-child talk about police brutality: “When what is known as “the talk” came up in my family, it wasn’t about the birds and the bees, it was about what to do when you’re stopped by the police.”
14. June Eric Udorie on Beyoncé’s Lemonade: “By the end of the visual album, there stands a woman who is capable of surviving on her own, but who chooses to return to her love after he has wronged her. Before she returns, however, she sings, ‘Show me your scars / And I won’t walk away,’ insisting on radical vulnerability, or nothing at all.”
15. Dylan Tupper Rupert on Lorde’s Melodrama, treating an album review like a kind of travel writing and bringing us into her own: “The slightly distorted notes that punctuate every other beat feel like a drunk body swaying in and out of focus, vulnerable to a light graze of physical affection, or to the mischievous push of social winds. The party thumps along toward risk and furtive reward.”
And because I can’t resist, I am adding five illustrated pieces. WHATEVER I’M THE ONLY ONE MAKING THESE RULES UP ANYWAY.
1. Daniella Ben-Bassat’s twisted renderings of Tiger Beat, et al. Again, while not writing, per se, the commentary offered by these incredible and ridiculous drawings of actual tabloids and teen magazines, is very incisive.
2. Esme Blegvad’s illustrations of dead stars’ last meals captured both the idolization and mortality of iconic stars
3. Your illustrated thank-you notes to Zayn Malik after he announced he was leaving One Direction, curated by Brodie Lancaster. These truly show the power a seemingly silly boy band can have on a gal!
4. Isabella Ryan’s comic interpreting my silly idea about the craze of calling celebrities “Mom” and “Dad.” In the end, the fangirls turn instead to their…SISTERS!
5. Last but certainly not least, Sunny Betz’s loving comic in tribute to Guy Fieri. No comment necessary. ♦