Where’s Ja? Pop Culture Criticism Is Politically Pointless

by R.L. Stephens II on January 21, 2015

Dave Chappelle’s classic stand-up performance, For What It’s Worth, is filled with so many quotables, like the bit about the Black kid in the Sunny D commercial. But, ten years later, one joke in particular is noticeably relevant today. Chappelle asks a simple question: Just why do we care so much about what celebrities have to say?

I remember right around September 11, Ja Rule was on MTV. That’s what they said: “We got Ja Rule on the phone. Let’s see what Ja’s thoughts are on this tragedy.” Who gives a fuck what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this? This is ridiculous. I don’t want to dance. I’m scared to death. I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now. You think when bad shit happens to me, I’ll be in the crib like, “Oh! My God, this is terrible. Could somebody please find Ja Rule? Get hold of this motherfucker, so I can make sense of all this. Where is Ja? Help me Ja Rule!” Dave Chappelle, For What It’s Worth

Let’s face it, pop culture is a business, and pop culture critiques are just a part of it. These think pieces draw web hits, which in turn generate revenue for the sites. At the end of the day, web traffic, not political movement-building, is what drives these pieces. There’s not much of a difference between my article on Lupe Fiasco’s song “Bitch Bad” (Bitch Bad, Patriarchy Good: Lupe Fiasco Starts Conversation, But Misses the Mark) and Marc Hogan’s post that appeared on Spin Magazine’s website a few days later (Lupe Fiasco Mansplains Misogyny on Counterproductive ‘Bitch Bad’). Well, except that Marc Hogan got paid for his. 

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t write about pop culture at all. I like to write about it myself, as in this very article. People’s personal consciousness can grow for any number of reasons, so if an article about pop culture helps in that regard, that’s a good thing. Nonetheless, there’s a wide gulf between personal consciousness and political action, especially in a neoliberal context where everything is commodified and reading (watching, listening to) the “right things” becomes just another thing we buy. Again, pop culture is a business first and foremost.

Media Criticism is Safer than Politics

Let me make it personal. Suppose an employer asks me what I write. Let’s compare two completely honest answers; which one do you think is the greater risk? 

  1. I used quotes from people on the scene before and after the Ferguson riots to argue that segments of the Black underclass have political sophistication, so as to legitimize their use of property destruction as a political act.
  2. I’ve written media criticism where, for example, I’ve pointed out misogyny in rap music and the historical inaccuracies of Django Unchained.

Both of these things are true, but only one has political implications. My article “In Defense of the Ferguson Riots” was read thousands and thousands of times. It’s my biggest media accomplishment to date, but I can’t exactly put that on a resume.

Remember the article claiming that “white feminists” just didn’t understand the “black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work”? This was the absolute worst that pop culture criticism has to offer, but you know what, I can’t prove that the author is wrong. The article’s interpretation is just a personal opinion — besides, what’s the consequence of a person thinking that Beyoncé is radical? These pop culture arguments are almost the definition of illusory.

A couple years back, I had a TFA friend ask me my thoughts on education. I talked to him about neoliberalism and its connection to the data-driven testing regimes that he so enthusiastically embraced. He didn’t know what neoliberalism was, and he rejected my perspective out of hand. I passed him some research on the subject, but to this day, he thinks that my ideas are “extreme”.

The impact of privatizing education systems is a measurable phenomenon, and it is politically consequential. Unlike Beyoncé, it’s not just a matter of personal taste. Look at Obama’s new “free community college” program. While it sounds nice on the surface, it’s actually just an extension of the capitalist restructuring of education that extracts wealth upwards, rolls back labor standards, and pushes more and more people into poverty.

Understanding that process makes a difference and affects our ability to win. Understanding that Beyoncé isn’t radical has no such impact. It’s the Where’s Ja of would-be political analysis.

The Danger of Pop Culture Politics

Frankly, these pop culture articles just don’t have much political value. There are no stakes. So what if you disagree with my interpretation of Dear White People? If I critique Django Unchained, and you disagree, what happens next? It’s all inconsequential because they’re just opinions about a piece of media. Today, when talking about media on social media is big business, how much can we possibly be subverting with these articles?

That’s not to say that web clicks are the only outcome of pop culture criticism. Sometimes these pop culture thinkpieces create PR controversies that require companies to reconfigure their images. But again, there’s limited to no true political utility in all of this handwringing when corporate re-branding and web clicks are pretty much the only outcomes. I believe we need a re-think when our pop culture criticism gets Rick Ross dropped by Reebok for saying something that promotes abusing women, but leaves Reebok’s sweatshops — where women are actually abused — unmentioned and unchallenged. Reebok gets the PR gold without any real challenge to its power. So who’s the real winner?

When pop culture criticism attempts to assert itself as legitimate politics, then we’ve got a problem. Adolph Reed says it best in his essay, Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why.

[P]roponents of ‘cultural politics’ are… inclined to treat the products and production processes of the mass entertainment industry as a terrain for political struggle and debate. They don’t see the industry’s imperatives as fundamentally incompatible with the notions of a just society they seek to advance. In fact, they share its fetishization of heroes and penchant for inspirational stories of individual Overcoming. This sort of ‘politics of representation’ is no more than an image-management discourse within neoliberalism. That strains of an ersatz left imagine it to be something more marks the extent of our defeat. Adolph Reed, Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why

Again, the Reebok and Rick Ross episode is a perfect example of what Reed calls “the image-management discourse within neoliberalism”. Is that really what we want? Of course a lot can be gleaned from pop culture analysis/criticism. However, given that a culture industry has emerged, at least in the United States, where the dissection of popular celebrities and meaningless controversy is just another part of the news cycle, I think our would-be “Left” analysis is merely a dump into the void. 

In that climate, the pop culture story-of-the-week becomes a stand-in for critiques of the institutions and policies that actually hurt us. Those institutions and policies need to be attacked and eliminated, but I’m not really sure how criticizing the latest pop culture outrage/controversy gets us closer to that objective.

Young Thug’s “Where’s Ja?” Moment

For example, the rapper Young Thug was ripped apart for his comments on Ferguson. When a reporter asked, “What do you think needs to be changed in the way black men are policed in America?”, the Atlanta rapper responded, “Leave that up with the critics and the laws and all that other shit. We having fun, we iced out, we having money. That’s how we doing it.” Internet outrage ensued.

There is nothing in Young Thug’s entire discography that would suggest that he’s even remotely capable of parsing the nuances of police brutality. So why do we need Young Thug’s remarks on Ferguson? He rightfully defers to the “critics and the laws and all that other shit”, and that’s precisely where we need to spend our energy. Yet, how receptive would we be to critiques of the NAACP or Dream Defenders? I have my doubts that we’d be as open to those critiques as we are to skewering the Young Thugs of the world.

We need to find ways to create institutions capable of providing a substantive political challenge to both the broader power structure and the treacherous organizations that offer false hope and faulty solutions. I’m just not convinced that pop culture criticism helps us get there.

One response to “Where’s Ja? Pop Culture Criticism Is Politically Pointless”

  1. Marquita says:

    Good work.