What You Need to Know to Think Like a Pop Culture Expert
Pop culture writing is one of the things that drew me to sharing ideas on the internet. Web forums devoted to interpreting movies like Mulholland Drive or The Shining led me to early television show recap communities. By the time the Internet was collectively enduring Lost, I knew I had found my people.
Entertainment writers and pop culture sites gave me daily watercooler experiences, insider information, informed critiques, and access to other engaged viewers who liked to talk about what they watched. These pop culture experts inspired me to hone my own personal expertise that had already been nurtured by a love of the art of television and movies, a reliance on media to buoy me during dark times, and a belief that pop culture is an avenue into greater societal and personal understanding.
We are what we eat, after all, and these days we consume screens more than anything else.
I finally gave in and started my own blog during the years when I needed a place to park some thoughts on a random Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.
I’ve written for a number of sites since then, including serving as Entertainment Editor here at BlogHer. Along the way, I’ve learned two key things about using your expertise as a pop culture writer. One is super easy, and the other takes some thinking, planning and experimentation.
The easy tip is to make sure you watch and read media outside of your habitual interests. By the time we are adults, even the pop culture fans who think they have diverse interests have preferences and ruts.
Maybe that’s fine and good, and maybe your preferences bolster the way you have become an expert in Disney villains, Star Trek or contemporary prestige TV. But looking outside of your faves will only bolster your expertise because it will give you comparison examples and inspiration, and it will give you a richer lay of the land.
It’s also essential to know that you have been exposed to some movies and television shows because of all sorts of things, including your race, class, income and educational level as well as the disproportionate attention mainstream media gives to the stories of straight, white men.
Give yourself access to the stories, characters, franchises and formats that resonate for others, and your own underlying expertise will be enriched with nuance, perspective and the beauty of cultural diversity.
That’s easy. Seek and enjoy. Done.
The second tip requires a bit more thought. The most important thing that expert pop culture writers do is have clarity about their intentions. All too often, newer writers are all over the place because the topic is so broad, and this dilutes their currency.
There are many different ways to approach any given pop culture topic, and the best thing you can do is write with intention toward one of these formats. You might tell me that you want to write about Orange is the New Black, for example, but that doesn’t tell me how you want to explore this topic. Do you want to inform your readers, review the newest season, or write a think piece using OITNB as a jumping-off place?
Taking time to figure out your motivation and the best use of your expertise is the best thing you can do. Let’s look at some examples using OITNB so you can see what I mean.
Inform Your Readers
Editorial that focuses on informing readers is valuable content, and it allows you to be an expert without being a critic. If you are writing informational pieces about OITNB, this could be anything from updates and trailers about new storylines to interviews with writers or actors to information about the Women’s Prison Association charity that is supported by the show.
Or you might branch out but still stay focused on information, like using your OITNB expertise to write about television shows fans might like in between their binges.
Tip for Info Experts: If this type of content is up your alley, you’ll want to get on lists to receive press releases from Netflix, follow the show’s stars and showrunner on Twitter, and set some Google Alerts. Feed your expertise, and then package and share it. Information experts are essential in our loud, busy word.
Any information that helps your readers fan their fandom flames and/or decide what to watch, when, and how to watch it is super helpful given our contemporary media glut.
Review and Program Commentary
Reviewing adds another dimension to pop culture writing. Deploy your expertise to assess the quality of a program or to discuss its relative merits and shortcomings. Ask yourself what the show was trying to accomplish and what its audience expected, and take it from there.
For an episodic show like OITNB, you could look at the entire season, or you could review each episode in order. With commentary pop culture writing, you are applying your knowledge to an attentive viewing of the material, and then discerning what matters to you or to other viewers. Make a case that is interesting!
Tip for Reviewers: Experts tend to watch their subject matter at least twice before doing reviews: first to experience it as a viewer, and second to research, to double check your memory of what happened when, to observe more, and to transcribe quotes or examples. You might also need to grab some screenshots.
By watching a second, third or subsequent time, you’ll gain a facility with what elements contributed to successes and failures, and you’ll move beyond your personal surprise, fear, dislike or delight in something and into a defensible opinion that will be more interesting to your readers.
Reviews can be focused on the bad, the good, or a bit of both. Maybe you want to tear into horrible plotlines (I agree with you if you think Season 3 had way too much Caputo.) Or maybe you want to elaborate about the changes in a character arc (Pennsatucky, for example.)
Some shows led themselves to thematic reviews. (Like how does the way Season 3 handles issues of race compare to the critiques it earned on that front in Season 1?) You also might want to compare OITNB to another show about prison (like Wentworth) or another related dramedy (like a contrasting class-based show such as Girls) to describe and elaborate on how it met its goals and audience’s needs as a television show.
Overall, when writing reviews, consider your biases or other points of view, have confidence in your opinions about quality or the direction of the show have value, and back your opinions up with solid examples that illustrate your point.
Recap the Action
Recapping is a specialized form of reviewing that tends to include a lot of information and expertise about the world of your show, and then usually includes your own reactions as a viewer. You can recap an entire season, or (more commonly) go episode-by-episode.
Recapping is a big commitment! It tends to take even the quickest experts several hours to recap an episode of a one-hour show. Some fans read multiple recaps after an episode, and some read recaps INSTEAD of watching shows because recapping is a cool artform of its own.
You need a deep knowledge of the show’s previous seasons/episodes and canon. If you make a mistake on the spelling of Big Cindy’s name or if you forget the context of the chicken’s appearance in Season 1 when you are writing about it in Season 3, your readers will let you know their displeasure. Post consistently and reliably, though, and you can stretch the form to work with your voice and point-of-view.
Tip for Recappers: Keep a style sheet in Google Doc or other notebook that includes character names, timeline milestones, links to wikis and info pages, and anything else that will make your job easier.
My favorite pop culture writing explores the societal trends below the surface text, takes note of trends in media, or searches for messages in a show’s popularity.
You need to possess an expertise in analyzing the text (plot, characters, themes, format, presentation) of pop culture, and then take it at least one step deeper into meaning. This is one of the most magical uses of pop culture, because it allows media to serve as a shared vocabulary into the important issues of our time.
For example, OITNB Season 3 delves into varying stories about the hardships of motherhood for women in prison and explores their various reproductive issues, choices and outcomes.
Why are these stories relevant to lives of women now? Are the portrayals accurate or not? What does it mean for these types of stories to be told? What can OITNB prompt us to discuss or understand about class and race as it relates to motherhood?
If you are creating cultural analysis, you don’t need to recount blow-by-blow accounts of the show. You probably won’t be concerned, either, with talking about things like the quality of the acting. Save that for your reviews.
In cultural analysis, the issue comes first, and you’re going to use OITNB as your entry point, your lens and as your examples. You also might want to weave in real statistics or outside information (for example, that the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that at least 11% of children with mothers in prison will need services from the foster care system.)
Tip for Analysts: Take your time. There might be a rush to publish for news, reviews or recaps, but your expertise will shine in contemplative pieces if you actually give yourself time to research and contemplate.
Tributes and Reflection Think Pieces
A special sub-category that marries analysis, review and recap is the tribute. These think pieces often are published at challenging times like celebrity deaths or show finales, or at celebratory times like in award show season or when a special honor is bestowed. What makes them unique is that you try to pull the lens far and away to look at your show or topic in context with its entirety and the context around it.
Why did OITNB matter, you might ask yourself? What did they do first, better, or different? Why will people care five or ten years from now?
You might look back at an entire season of a show and comment about what made it your favorite or gave it cultural impact, or examine the choices made in the finale as it links to the whole. You’ll likely delve into what makes the loss particularly poignant.
Tip for Tribute Writers: Curate your thoughts. It’s tempting to honor your entire expertise while shining a light on every last detail of a show, finale or career, but readers can’t take that all in, at least in one piece. Select highlights and examples that make your point, and consider a series if you need room to cover lots of information or ideas.
You will cross and mix these areas many times over as you find the right mix of information, review and analysis to convey your expertise. It’s a blast to find your voice and add to the media about your favorites.
Pop culture is also serious business. We all swim in wave after wave in rough seas and storms of media content that shapes and reflects us, and pop culture experts provide essential services. While everyone can add to the conversation, getting out of your own viewing ruts and making some intentional choices will guide your work if you are called to write about pop culture with authority.