Top 10 Essays of 2015
I didn’t keep up with as much online reading as I wanted to toward the end of this year, but here is a list of the ten best essays I read online this year. These are obviously biased toward my own opinions and interests–focused on culture (both popular and globally), the absurd, and ways of thinking about things I had never thought about. Most of all, I find these challenging and extremely well-written. Enjoy and feel free to comment with your own.
10. “You’re Killing Us Smalls, The Only Sandlot Character Rankings You’ll Ever Need” by Shea Serrano at Grantland (RIP)
I open this up with a seemingly fun listicle celebrating one of my favorite movies as a kid that turns into an empowering story of the author finding himself in the character of Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez. Shea Serrano (who killed it this year) proves that the top ten list can be a piece of art.
There aren’t a tremendous number of movies where the main or coolest person is Latino, and there were even fewer in 1995. Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez — strong, courageous, noble, preordained for brilliance — was the first obviously cool Latino I’d ever seen in a movie. I knew kids named Benny. I knew kids with the last name Rodriguez. This guy could’ve been in my math class, for all I knew. This guy could’ve been me. I mean, to be sure, he wasn’t anything like me — he was tall and handsome and had great eyebrows and was athletic and had good teeth and cool hair and cool clothes and said cuss words — but he was Latino, so he was exactly like me. That’s a powerful thing for a kid to understand and experience.
9.”Notes on 21st-Century Mystic Carly Rae Jepsen” by Jia Tolentino at The Awl
A sprawling near-academic think piece centered around the music of Carly Rae Jepsen–I don’t think one could create a description of a writing piece that would get me salivating more. Tolentino describes Jepsen’s music as something that is seeking after a special love, while simultaneously already having obtained it and she completely pulls off comparing it to the work of 13th century mystics. It’s something that only a small part of the population would enjoy, and I am firmly planted there.
So, Carly Rae is almost everyone, and in the process she becomes no one—just not in the way that people might think. She’s not derivative but absorptive. E • MO • TIONburns three decades of pop down to a few heartstrings and plays them from a home base of pure need. And in the playing, Carly Rae becomes invisible, the Casper of pop music, this album her Lazarus machine. There’s her resolution to that paradox. If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. One way to do it is to be a ghost.
8. “What Modern Action Films Could Learn From the Original Mad Max” by Kevin Lincoln at The Dissolve (RIP) & “We All Agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important.” by Leah Schnelbach at TOR.com
A double feature of commentary surrounding the release of (the critically heralded best film of 2015) Mad Max: Fury Road. Kevin Lincoln compares the first Mad Max film to action blockbusters of today, noting how the modern movie lessens each main character’s perspective, thus lessening how much the audience sympathizes or relates to subsequent action.
Perspective has been abandoned. Instead, action films have chaos, with a million cardboard bad guys flying in every direction, the protagonists thrown in the middle so they can claw their way out. It’s nearly impossible to follow action scenes in this style, because there’s nothing to follow. When every element of the scene is in constant motion, irrelative to one another, it feels like nothing’s moving.
Leah Schnelbach does a deep dive on director George Miller’s focus, theorizing the film may be even more feminist than its obvious overtones indicate. It’s a great look at social theory within film criticism.
Miller is showing us a scene that could be sexy in the way these review describe–models in see-through clothes spraying water on each other, with the water a stand-in for a different liquid substance. But Miller subverts every aspect of that cliché. In this case the hose full of water is just a hose full of water–the most precious thing they could have in the Waste. The diaphanous dresses are their prison uniforms. (Given that no one else in the film is dressed like this, I think it’s safe to assume that these are the clothes required by Immortan Joe.) And what is the first thing they do after Furiosa lets them out? The most important thing? Even as they’re drinking water they take turns freeing each other from hideous chastity belts, reclaiming their bodies.
7. “The $100 Million Content Farm That’s Killing the Internet” by Carles Buzz for Vice
You’ll notice two “RIPs” listed above next to articles, this is to mourn the loss of Grantland and The Dissolve (who also had one article each on last year’s list) who both closed down within 2015. Buzz’s article comes in the wake of The Dissolve’s shut down and explains the way varying viral sites monetize. It laments the loss of thought provoking work for fairly un-substantive and acknowledges the complete lack of hope there is for any niche site, at least those who hope to make a living.
Over the past two years, we’ve learned that there isn’t any actual monetizable ‘cultural value’ in building a content farm with an authoritative voice or domination of a niche area. Instead, it is more important to chase quantifiable human metrics by shoving lowbrow content in front of Facebook users. This is exactly what ViralNova has done better than most content farms–it figured out the current system and #growth_hacked the hell out of it. ViralNova out-media-companied The Dissolve.
6. “Left Out” by Andrew McCutchen for The Player’s Tribune
A surprisingly smart and well scribed memoir from the Pirate’s centerfielder. McCutchen lends his thoughts about the Little League World Series scandal in which a team was outed for bringing in players out of the correct zoning area. Mccutchen offers his own experience as one who went through the exact same thing as these boys, critiquing an outrage that fails to count for a variety of racial and socioeconomic factors.
But this wasn’t a Disney movie ending. It wasn’t like Jimmy noticed me and I went straight to the top. That was just the first step. There were so many things that had to happen for me to get to where I got. If you’re a poor kid with raw ability, it’s not enough. You need to be blessed with many mentors to step in and help you. Kim Cherry, Michael Scott — I could list so many names of people who took me in and treated me as if I was their own son. When people talk about the Jackie Robinson West team and blame the adults who took in kids from outside the boundaries that the Little League organization set, remember that those adults may be saviors to those kids. They’re the ones buying them shoes when they need it or an extra protein drink after the game.
5. “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity” by Wesley Morris for The New York Times
Morris (formerly a Grantlander!) looks at how identity was an overarching theme in the year, noting the way we perceive ourselves and the boxes we check (or even the fact that we do check boxes) is quickly becoming more fluid. Morris does a great job explaining how this came to be, but also observes it brilliantly as always.
What started this flux? For more than a decade, we’ve lived with personal technologies — video games and social-media platforms — that have helped us create alternate or auxiliary personae. We’ve also spent a dozen years in the daily grip of makeover shows, in which a team of experts transforms your personal style, your home, your body, your spouse. There are TV competitions for the best fashion design, body painting, drag queen. Some forms of cosmetic alteration have become perfectly normal, and there are shows for that, too. Our reinventions feel gleeful and liberating — and tied to an essentially American optimism. After centuries of women living alongside men, and of the races living adjacent to one another, even if only notionally, our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down. There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries. We’re all becoming one another. Well, we are. And we’re not.
4. “How Minions Destroyed the Internet” by Brian Feldman for The Awl
Feldman’s piece is such a fun read, littered with Minion jokes (laughing at them, not with them), he points out everything about their ridiculous existence before going deep onto why he believes they are destroying the internet. Lest you get offended by such an anti-Minion sentiment, Feldman writes tongue-in-cheek, mocking just about everyone with any sort of opinion about Minions.
Minions have been engineered to be everything and nothing at once. They are not sexual, but they can develop romantic interest. They are androgynous but have distinctly male names. Their language is a hodge-podge of others. Their bodies have both a slender skinniness and the curves of fatness. They all need corrective eyewear.
So, really, we know frustratingly little about Minions, but do note enough signifiers which trick us into believing they are substantial. They are paper-thin archetypes that we cast our own ideas, aspirations, and worries onto.
What I’m trying to say is: Minions are the perfect meme. As one popular Tumblr post refers to them, Minions are “SCREAMING CORNPOPS WHO ARE TEARING APART SOCIETY THROUGH MIDDLE AGED MOM MEMES.”
3. “Who Got the Camera? NWA’s Embrace of Reality” by Eric Harvey from Pitchfork
A long read that is worth the effort, Eric Harvey uses the gangsta rap of NWA and reality television as a lens to discuss perception, violence, race, and pop culture. He compares the way COPS combatted hip-hop in how entire populations of the United States were represented, showing the way art and reality overlap can ultimately combine to create a new reality.
All popular music is, to some degree, a creative refraction of the social realities large and small that birth it and give it shape. What set gangsta rap apart was both the detail with which the artists directly indexed their social reality and the semiotic smokescreen of mythic toughness and violence through which they filtered it. N.W.A exploited rap music’s penchant for outsize characters and strong connections to geographical origin, and mixed in the reality claims of “COPS” to play into conservative fears that they might just not be kidding.
2. “From Afghanistan with Love” by Mujib Mashal for Matter
In Afghanistan in the midst of conservative Muslim mores, a radio show allows for escape and expression beyond the norm. The Night of the Lovers allows young Afghanis to call in and express their feelings anonymously in ways they never could outside that context. Mashal tells the story of this station and the place that it plays in conservative culture–a fascinating look at modern technology, post-modernism, and globalization’s place in the world.
The Night of the Lovers is about every shade of heartache — the predatory and vulnerable, the doomed and forlorn. I met a young university student I will call Shaadkam on a reporting trip in the buzzing city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Shaadkam has sleek dark hair and intense almond eyes, and lives in the northern province of Balkh. His story also starts with a Facebook meeting. The two of them chatted for three months straight. He flirted with her, shared songs, talked movies, but he still didn’t know whether she was an actual girl or an impostor. Then he went offline for a couple weeks while traveling, and he got a call from a voice he’d never heard. It was his beloved, and she was real.
1. “How to be American” by Eric Liu for Democracy Journal
Liu asks the question of the title, what is being American? In a world where minorities will make up a majority of the population in just a few years, what does that mean for that which we see as distinctly American? Liu suggests a creation of a new canon, one that includes contributions from minorities but also makes sure that every classic Founding Father and bit of new world history is included. No other piece this year asked more thought provoking questions, offered more cutting criticism, or excited me more than this one.
In its serious forms, multiculturalism never asserted that every racial group should have its own sealed and separate history or that each group’s history was equally salient to the formation of the American experience. It simply claimed that the omni-American story—of diversity and hybridity—was the legitimate American story.