I went to university. I studied what would be termed a “liberal arts” degree by the American definition. When I graduated, I had exactly zero marketable skills. Until the internet thinkpiece revolution happened.
Back in the early 2000s when apps, video, and “content” in general got a “New Media” tag, thinkpieces were the exclusive province of the magazine. They soon found their way to the internet. We’ve dedicated entire platforms to the thinkpiece: Medium, Vox, and Australia’s own Junkee comes to mind.
When I began my own journalism career, the thinkpiece was the easiest piece of copy I could pitch and write. It required no research, little in the way of fieldwork, and I could knock it out over coffee and an afternoon. A thinkpiece requires a thesis, a vigorous defence of said thesis, a bit of pre-emptive rebuttal, and a (hopefully) thought-provoking conclusion. 99% of such pieces are pretentious, self-unaware, and full of cultural markers demonstrating the author’s position as a “cultural interlocutor.” My biggest criticism of self-declared “pop culture critics” is they call it a real job with a straight face. But they do have a function. They are the unacknowledged marketing conduit through which “highbrow” culture circulates.
The quest for organic, i.e., unpaid reach and engagement among marketers is endless. How does one market to a well off demographic, trained in the black arts of advertising and marketing, and emerge on the other side as a squeaky-clean, “authentic” expression for little to no outlay? You market to the thinkpiece crowd, of course.
As of writing, the thinkpieces on American rapper Childish Gambino (aka actor Donald Glover) new video for This Is America, number in the dozens; and that’s just page one of Google search results. The Atlantic, TIME, High Snobiety, AdAge, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and even the conservative National Review have all penned pieces in response to the violent, symbol-laden video. Their interpretations don’t even have to be correct, thanks to a liberal arts theory called “Death of The Author.” That is, a creator’s intentions should have no bearing on its final meaning. Even if Glover gives a definitive explanation, it won’t invalidate these competing viewpoints. Pretty neat, huh?
I KNOW WHAT YOU MIGHT ALREADY KNOW
Even still, do we need these people to tell us what it all means? Of course we don’t. But savvy marketers are in silent league with these haughty writers; give them fodder to write about, and they justify their own existence. Academia confers “high art” upon “pop art” through intense critical study; the thinkpiece does the same, in a compressed way.
McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and the message is buy this record, or at least consume this content. After the honeyed glow of the late 60s and early 70s “counterculture” wore off, sociologists Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their 2004 book The Rebel Sell declared it a “pseudo-rebellion.” The gospel of sexual liberation and generational identity became a “smug ritual.” This is what we’d now term “virtue signalling”; expressing a generic viewpoint to gain acceptance with a certain crowd.
It makes sense to produce “thinkpiece” inspiring content. It has to appear to have some deep underlying message which these “cultural interlocutors” can ferret out with their critical theory skills. Whether it has a message or not is beside the point. When it comes to creating content, there is no non-commercial part of it, especially for rappers riding on big investments in their craft.
The least cynical but most ironic part of marketing in the 21st century, seems to me the “thinkpiece”. What’s your interpretation?