Rethinking Thinkpieces: Pop Criticism as Pop Culture

Curator's Note

Like any parody or remix, critical cultural commentary is itself a form of recontextualization — and in this moment of ‘the internet thinkpiece,’ it is a particularly popular and pervasive one.

We’re seeing an explosion of content produced at the rapid pace of internet journalism, but with the trappings of academic cultural analysis. Facebook serves up BuzzFeed and HuffPo headlines featuring terms like “privilege” and “appropriation,” promising thoughtful commentary about music released just hours earlier. Last week, Prince’s death and Beyonce’s Lemonade occasioned a flurry of articles analyzing these artists’ performance of race and gender, for example.

The often pejorative term “thinkpiece” has long referred to journalism where rumination trumps reporting. Still carrying dismissive connotations, today the term points to digital content characterized by clickable headlines, timely topics, polarizing perspectives, and thin research. Defined by what they lack, it’s easy to deride thinkpieces as bad journalism, amateur editorializing, or unscholarly appropriation of academic concepts. But can we also take them seriously as an emerging space for critical engagement with contemporary culture?

Looking to the internet thinkpiece to provide reasoned critical dialogue may prove disappointing. At best, the mechanisms of internet content circulation ensure that these articles, if they’re read at all, are read only by those who agree with them. At worst, they’re additional noise that makes thinking harder.

But maybe it’s not just about “reading” and “thinking.” The practice of posting, sharing, and liking is itself significant, even when we never get past the headlines. Each post is a resource for building community, policing values (‘If you don’t like this, unfriend me!’), sharing news, expressing grief, advancing agendas, and performing identity (‘I care about gender equality; posting this article about Beyonce allows me to show that’). 

It’s also free labor we do for the brands and platforms that host this content. We’re driving traffic. We’re generating copious data for advertisers about our interests. And we’re publicizing even those texts we mean to critique.

Thinking about thinkpieces helps us appreciate how blurry the lines are between culture and critique, between academic criticism and popular commentary, between text and practice, between writing and posting, between critical reflection and commodified content, between thinking and clicking. We must work not only to extend the space for critical reflection about popular culture, but to rethink, endlessly, our idea of what that looks like.


Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Great slideshow and post

Great slideshow and post Mike, thank you.

Do you think that the rise of the “think piece” is at all correlated to the rise in an academic emphasis on “critical thinking” at the collegiate level? It seems to me like there’s been an increasing emphasis on critical thinking in the last 10-15 years. What are all of those “critically thinking” alumni to do once they’re out in the world to scratch their newfound itch? Isn’t this what we academics have wanted from our students—engaged members of society who can think about cultural phenomena beyond the surface level (if only just beyond that surface level sometimes)?

I appreciate making the connection for how this work is productive of something, whether it’s community formation, value policing, or just free labor for marketers.

I’m wondering if you could also say a little bit more about the significance of the recontextualization of popular culture that happens via the think piece.

Michael Lawrence's picture

ripple effects

Thanks Aaron —

Yes! It does seem like we’re seeing the ripple effects of what we’ve been teaching for the last few decades — coming back to haunt us, as it were.

Though I’d disagree on one point — I think the “teaching critical thinking” movement may actually be on the wane, giving way perhaps to new kinds of fundamental literacies — coding, “design thinking,” etc. See for example this editorial by the president of Wesleyan

As for the significance of the recontextualization of pop culture by way of think pieces — In some ways, they’re just allowing, say, a pop song, to be “more” than a pop song the way that pop songs always have been ‘more than.’ They’ve always been shared as an expression of love (mix tapes), experienced together with a group of friends, etc. But perhaps the think piece can make that secondary function spread faster than exposure to the text itself. For example, my first exposure to any new Beyonce song is likely to be by way of a social media post about the song — and that post is likely to take the form of a link to a think piece. By the time I actually get around to hearing the piece of music, it’s already been framed for me by the various headlines about it. One might argue that the space for both “my own thinking” and “my own experience of the song” gets truncated.

Another possible significance, which connects back to the first point you raise, is that in the context of the sometimes thin, poorly developed pop criticism offered by think pieces, we see very important kinds of critical engagement with culture get made to look rather vapid — perhaps adding fuel to the fire of various crusades against teaching critical thinking, cultural studies, etc.

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Thank you for the link to the

Thank you for the link to the article by the Wesleyan President. Does that count as a think piece? It’s funny to think that as an approach on the wane, and thus myself as a bit behind the times, given that it still feels like there is resistance to helping our students think for themselves in many circles in academia.

I appreciate the focus on the way that think pieces frame the meanings we may make out of popular culture, and particular pop culture artifacts, and thus have a “truncating” or limiting effect on our own “authentic” (problematic quotes) experience of the text. A useful historical parallel for this might be the rise of art, lit, and film critics as mediators and even arbiters of what art, lit, and film mean and how they are valued. Perhaps what the think piece does is simply de-specialize (I hesitate to use the term democratize) that function, making it widely available for use by almost anyone with internet access and on almost any object or text.


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