Why No Singer Has Replaced Lady Gaga
Spencer Kornhaber’s culture picks include BeReal, online comedy stars, and an irresistible Nigerian singer.
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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.
Today’s special guest is Spencer Kornhaber, a staff writer who covers music and pop culture. Spencer traveled this fall to Reykjavík, Iceland, to profile Björk, and he just published his list of the 10 best albums of 2022. He is absorbed in the BeReal fad, loves the acting in The Empire Strikes Back, and says there’s no new superstar singer as thrillingly meaningless as Lady Gaga.
But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
Culture Survey: Spencer Kornhaber
What my friends are talking about most right now: A disclosure I will not treat as embarrassing: My friends and I have killed a number of chilly afternoons watching my boyfriend play through God of War Ragnarök. The latest installment of the slashy and stabby video-game series applies an HBO level of sophistication to a fantasy story about destiny, fatherhood, and forgiveness. It has also taught me about delights of Norse mythology, such as Ratatoskr, the sassy squirrel who climbs the tree of life. [Related: Kratos is an inspiration to potential older dads.]
My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: Star Wars occupies at least a quarter of my brain at any given time, and my favorite rewatch from that galaxy is the consensus pick: The Empire Strikes Back. On recent viewings, I’ve been strangely mesmerized by the acting, which is typically the least loved part of any Star Wars film. Without Harrison Ford’s burly charisma and Anthony Daniels’s comic timing, the set design and twisty plot wouldn’t have any … force? Sorry.
As far as art movies go, I’ve always loved I Heart Huckabees, a surreal 2004 comedy about “existential detectives.” It stars—and this whole ensemble really does deserve to be listed—Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts (plus bit parts for Jean Smart and a teenage Jonah Hill!). Really, the movie’s best asset is its sprinting pace: The viewer’s brain goes untickled for not one second. [Related: How Disney mismanaged the Star Wars universe]
A song I’ll always dance to: This eight-minute, flute-forward remix of Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep” has been in rotation since I first heard it at a rooftop party where a smoke machine pumped, with glorious impracticality, into the afternoon breeze. [Related: The nation that Janet Jackson built]
A favorite quiet song: “Tinu Ewe,” and the rest of the recent album by the Nigerian singer BOJ, has a kind of rippling smoothness that I can’t get enough of.
A favorite angry song: Nine Inch Nails is one of my GOATs, and long ago, I gave myself a nosebleed blasting “Terrible Lie” from the live album And All That Could Have Been.
Online creators that I’m a fan of: Everyone needs to sign up for a class by Marnie T., the unusual wellness instructor who’s been elevating consciousnesses all pandemic. The other characters created by comedian Brian Jordan Alvarez are worthy of study too; recently, we met Timothy, a small-town kid whose visit to West Hollywood set him on an exciting new path.
An album that means a lot to me: Annie Lennox, Diva. As a young kid, I pretended to be a legend in my living room to these songs. (Thank the fates for a pre-social-media childhood.) As an adult, I remain enthralled by Lennox’s blend of rigid synth pop and sensual gospel.
A painting that I cherish: The print of Jasper Johns’s Map over my couch has provided years’ worth of fun: The boundaries within North America reveal new shapes with every glance, thanks to Johns’s mingled tributaries of oranges, reds, and blues. Johns’s 2021–22 retrospective at the Whitney Museum further deepened my appreciation. This man has painted variants of the same images, in outrageous quantities, over decades. Both apart and together, those works liquefy reality, revealing the harmonies of the universe. Plus, pretty colors!
A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: Typically, it’s the last thing I’ve read by James Parker, but I’ll single out his 2010 Lady Gaga appraisal, which I have spent more than a decade ripping off poorly. He captures the essence of pop (“an ecstatic and superheated Nothing”) and of Gaga (“paradoxical elegance”). He also predicts who her replacement will be: “nobody.” It’s true—early Gaga blew out the circuits of what pop once was. No superstar singer since her has been as thrillingly, commandingly meaningless.
My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: Put me in the camp of people happily absorbed in the BeReal fad. Authenticity is an unattainable ideal even on this supposedly no-bullshit photo app, but I still love the way it encourages the user to take fresh interest in their everyday surroundings.
The last debate I had about culture: Was about whether or not to put Rosalía’s Motomami on my list of the year’s 10 best albums. I adore her and have played the spit out of “Saoko,” but something about the album’s sequencing makes it fall into my “impressed but not obsessed” category. So I’m the one critic who left it off. [Related: How flamenco went pop]
The last thing that made me snort with laughter: A good Christian woman and a great interviewer/antagonist of celebrities, the TikTok persona known as Terri Joe puts on livestreams that are kind of like the Colbert Report of our present era of queer panic. I last snorted at the transit of her facial expressions inspired by a Taylor Swift song.
Read past editions of the Culture Survey with Jenisha Watts, David French, Shirley Li, David Sims, Lenika Cruz, Jordan Calhoun, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert.
The Week Ahead
- Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s period comedy-drama (in theaters Friday)
- Weezer’s SZNZ: Winter, the fourth and final in a series of seasonal EPs from the band (Wednesday)
- Season 3 of Emily in Paris (on Netflix Wednesday)
Steven Spielberg’s Movie Magic Has a Dark Side
By David Sims
The final act of Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, revolves around what should feel like a triumph for its teenage protagonist, Sammy. A budding filmmaker in early-1960s California—and an obvious Spielberg analogue—Sammy screens a movie during prom that he shot of his classmates. The project’s apparent “hero” is Logan, a Teutonic athlete whom Sammy depicts as a golden god, even though Logan has tormented him all year.
“Why’d you make me look like that?” a distraught and bewildered Logan asks Sammy after the screening. “I’ve been a total asshole to you. I broke your nose. And then you make me go and look like that! What’s wrong with you?” Sammy’s reply is simple: “All I did is hold the camera, and it saw what it saw.” But it’s also a lie masking a far more complex reality, which is why this scene has stuck with me. Sammy’s film, and his exchange with Logan, captures a bigger tension that runs through the entire back half of Spielberg’s oeuvre—casting a skeptical light on his reputation as a purveyor of pure movie magic.
More in Culture
Read the latest culture essay by Jordan Calhoun in Humans Being.
Catch Up on The Atlantic
Check out the photos of the week.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.