Rage, Hoedowns, and Justin Bieber: The Week's Best Pop-Culture Writing

The most intriguing articles about entertainment we've come across in the past seven days

Click the links in the article titles to read the full pieces, and let us know what we've missed:

Elaine Thompson / AP

How Richard Sherman Became America's Newest Thug
Cord Jefferson

Sherman had been out-and-out called nigger, of course, on the internet and elsewhere. But "thug" was different. "Thug" was okay. "It's like everyone else said the N-word, and then they say 'thug' and they're like 'oh, that's fine,'" he told the assembled reporters.

"Thug" in its modern usage, as Sherman was saying, has come to mean a black person—generally a black man—who has committed any perceived infraction a white person can think of. "Thug" might have once described people actually deserving of the term—Wall Street swindlers or cops who harass and kill citizens with impunity. But now it's mostly deployed to attack the character of black Americans, many of whom have done nothing wrong but be offensive to a white person's sensibilities.

"Talking loudly," as Sherman had put it. "[T]alking like I'm not supposed to."

John Shearer / Invision / AP

The GQ Cover Story: Katy Perry
Amy Wallace

She is, in every way, a California gurl. “I see everything through a spiritual lens,” she says. “I believe in a lot of astrology. I believe in aliens.”

Uh, what?

“I look up into the stars and I imagine: How self-important are we to think that we are the only life-form? I mean, if my relationship with Obama gets any better, I’m going to ask him that question. It just hasn’t been appropriate yet.”

Relationship with Obama?

“I might have won Wisconsin for him,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t do too much, but he called on me a couple of times. Which was very nice.”

Wikimedia / Flickr user The SABR Office

What Grantland Got Wrong
Christina Kahrl

But we’re not here because Hannan and his editors blew a pronoun and that’s rude and we have some very thoughtful style guides from GLAAD and the Associated Press to recommend that deserve your perusal to avoid this kind of mistake in the future.

We’re here because Essay Anne Vanderbilt is dead.

And she’s dead because — however loath she was to admit it — she was a member of a community for whom tragedy and loss are as regular as the sunrise, a minority for whom suicide attempts outpace the national average almost 26 times over, perhaps as high as 41 percent of all trans people. And because one of her responses to the fear of being outed as a transsexual woman to some of the people in her life — when it wasn’t even clear the story was ever going to run — was to immediately start talking and thinking about attempting suicide. Again.

Parkwood / Columbia

Beyonce's Muse
Jayson Greene

"'Haunted' was the first thing she ever heard from me, and she heard it in a very innocent and pure way, without any label heads or any of that," he says. "It was originally called 'I'm Onto You', and I'll be honest, I didn't get it at all at first. I was like, 'What is she hearing in this?' because it was just me sounding sad as fuck, singing by myself. I recorded the piano with my iPhone as a voice memo—and that shit made it onto the damn album, by the way. It was a loose idea, but the feeling was there. I had written a bunch of songs that could have been 'Beyoncé songs,' whatever that had meant before now, but she wasn't interested in those. There was something about what I had to say that resonated with her."

He singles out playing Beyoncé the stream-of-consciousness rap on "Ghost" as another early communion moment between the two of them. "When she heard that, her eyes widened, and she was immediately like, 'That's exactly what I feel like,’” he says. “She just started talking about her experiences in the record industry, people telling her what they think her sound should be. She got signed to a crazy contract when she was young."


Why Is Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” No. 1?
Chris Molanphy

What happened next was even more bizarre: Having coexisted alongside club-pop on the radio, folk-pop then went to the club, thanks to Avicii, the Scandinavian EDM deejay and hit record producer. His “Wake Me Up!”—a collaboration with soul vocalist Aloe Blacc—merged folk-and-country-flavored acoustic guitar with electro-club beats, to produce a crossover smash that spread from triple-A to rock to dance to Top 40 formats. The song eventually peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 last fall and, by Christmas, became the most-played song at U.S. radio.

Which finally brings us to Pitbull’s “Timber,” a club-hoedown hybrid so hokey—it’s even got faux squaredance calls in it—it makes the Avicii track sound utterly organic. With its prominent harmonica and bro-country-savvy lyrics, “Timber” can best be understood as the unasked-for sequel to the mid-’90s Jock Jam staple “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex. It’s several steps down the Americana-manqué food chain from the Mumfords, and it owes its existence to Top 40’s shift since 2012 toward vaguely rootsy pastiche—you can tell that its creators, including hit-music mastermind Dr. Luke, have been paying attention.


Hooray for Joan Watson: Why Well-Rounded Asian-American Characters Matter
Estelle Tang

Ricky was an endearing physics Ph.D. whose dad-style jokes (“I used to always say physics is fun, but I would spell it with a ‘ph’: phun”) and slightly incorrect syntax (“I’m known for a very comedy style around the lab”) struck delighted recognition into the hearts of Asian viewers like me. Lilley’s Cantonese-inflected English was pitch perfect, and capped off a character that was clearly a loving portrait. The mockumentary followed Ricky in his pursuit of efficient solar power, but also on a personal journey: starring in a university drama production. While there was a recognizably “Asian” twist to the tale – that he yearned to act, despite his parents’ disapproval – it read as a specific, individual story rather than a cliché. This is a testament to Lilley’s unforced performance and the emotional resonance of the good-hearted, optimistic Ricky.

On the other end of the Asian-representation spectrum is Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, on “Elementary.” In the show, a modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes’ detective stories, Watson’s ethnicity is never an issue. Minor characters don’t blink an eye when she gives her obviously Anglo name, and nor do they subject her to racial taunts or innuendoes. Not that they should, but this kind of non-issue treatment means Watson is almost as far from a caricatured Asian character as you can currently find on TV. Sure, Watson trained as a surgeon (as did Arthur Conan Doyle’s original version of the character, John Watson). But when we meet her, she’s Sherlock Holmes’ live-in sober companion while he recovers from heroin addiction; she then becomes a partner in his detective work.

Miami Dade County Jail / AP

The Week
The Right Way to Talk About Justin Bieber's DUI Arrest
Scott Meslow

But if the oncoming onslaught of Justin Bieber stories makes you decry the state of journalism, remember: There are smart ways to cover a stupid story. To borrow from another recent headline-grabber, take the response to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's post-game interview with Erin Andrews. The initial, disproportionate reaction to the 20-second interview tended to be glib and lazy. But as the story evolved, the conversation Sherman's interview generated — which has offered an unexpected platform for discussions about everything from the coded message behind the word "thug" to the consequences of society's unspoken expectations for black men — has been revealing and valuable in ways the original story wasn't.

We're still in that glib, lazy first stage with Justin Bieber right now — but we don't need to stay there. As unseemly as it might be to ride the wave of Bieber clickbait, it's equally cynical to roll your eyes and ignore. The right response is one that recognizes even the most sensationalized stories can elevate issues that don't get nearly enough spotlight. (Like, say, the staggering cost of drunk driving, which causes nearly 30 deaths in America every day, or the impact that the downward spiral of an idol has on his millions of young, adoring fans.)

Wikimedia / Flickr user Jose Serrano

Against the Rage Machine
n+1 Editors

We’re familiar with the engines of the rage machine: “click bait” in publications, fearmongering in official political statements, the “scandalous” in mainstream performance, the “problematic” in academia and art. These are fury genres, inexhaustible genres, genres that will always drum up attention. It is understood that a reader’s emotional investment in any of these will produce a “contribution,” which circulates the subject of conversation and keeps it, and its platform, relevant and therefore alive. Under these conditions, caring becomes a liability. We pity the suckers who fall for the rager of the week, those mad-for-a-day people who can’t see how much the latest outburst is “news” but not news.

We pity them, and we are them. We are also, at other times, the minds who suffer worse: the people whose passions and priorities, as real and relevant without the news peg, become fodder for the rage machine whenever there’s a slow day at Buzzfeed. We’ve been caring about this stuff for years, we think. Where were the angry people then? Of course this is the stupidest rage of all. It’s embarrassing and regressive, like teenage possessiveness, as if our favorite group just got picked up by a major label. We cared about Pussy Riot when they were still a band! But it’s not so hollow as that, since the music does get worse: the debate stales, the emergency fades. Everyone grows bored but us, and we feel used.

Eric Charbonneau / Invision /
Open Road Films / AP

Calm Down About Justin Bieber’s Arrest
Jody Rosen

The most surprising thing about the news of Justin Bieber’s arrest on DUI charges is that it’s surprising at all. Bieber’s Miami Beach drag-racing spree is the latest in a series of antics that include alleged hotel graffiti tagging, alleged monkey smuggling, alleged public urination, alleged “egging,” and an alleged visit to an alleged Rio de Janeiro brothel. These incidents suggest that Bieber, 19, is going through an assholish phase, as young men often do. They are also, in the annals of famous-young-male misconduct, pretty tame, and may tell us more about the magnifying effect of the Internet’s omniscient eye than the wanton character — or as some are whispering aloud today with a vampirish gleam in their eyes, the inexorable death spiral — of Justin Bieber.

They certainly tell us something about how well-mannered our popular musicians have become. Not long ago, we expected pop stars, particularly male ones, to do asinine things, like take leaks in mop buckets while exiting Manhattan restaurants, as Bieber apparently did sometime last year. This, and far worse, was expected, even encouraged, and viewed as part of the gig — relished as rapscallion and “rock ‘n’ roll.” It is pleasant to think that, today, we’re more spiritually evolved: That we hold stars to higher standards, that we’re no longer charmed by young men (or, much less frequently, young women) swaggering around, treating people badly, and acting like morons. The more likely case is that (with some infamous exceptions) pop stars have become, like the rest of us, careful careerists — too focused on brand management to risk the dip in market share that would come if, say, TMZ aired cell-phone footage of a television being lobbed through the window of a hotel suite. These days, when stars act out, they do it like Miley Cyrus: onstage and in video, in meticulously plotted, big-budgeted product relaunches. For Cyrus and others, “bad behavior” is careerism in action.

Rick Rycroft / AP

Sports Illustrated
Rafael Nadal's Game Can Scarcely Be Described as Normal
Jon Wertheim

Rafael Nadal was speaking casually to an acquaintance in the players' lounge the other day when he tripped up on a word. "Sorry," he said. "What I speak, is not always English."

Which is funny, because what Nadal plays on the court is not always tennis. It's akin to some kind of tribal dialect. Yes, it bears a resemblance to the court game involving a racket, balls and a 78-by-27-foot grid of boxes. But it is wildly different from any other player's game -- past, present and, we can safely say, future.

Nadal, a natural righty, holds his racket with his left hand when he plays. He pounds his shots, but also imparts unholy amounts of spin, on his forehand in particular. You think the bathwater here swirls down the drain in a strange direction? It has nothing on Nadal's shots, what with their ducking and dipping and swerving. He hits serves that land in the court, often on the lines, and then bounce at an altitude three times higher than the net. Mentally, he is impregnable.