OPE! Mixtape #8: Buzz, Feed
Tiberius b, PJ Harvey, Steve Miller Band, Number Girl, RADWIMPS, The National, The Clientele, and more. Also, a goodbye to BuzzFeed News.
Well, hello there. How are you?
May is upon us, and I’ll be out of town for most of this month. I’ll be all over the place and often away from my computer, so I’ve decided to take the rest of May off from this newsletter. I’ll keep my ears open throughout, of course, and hope to share some cool new tunes when I return.
This also has been a weird week. One of those weeks when the days are long but the week itself feels like a blur. A lot of emails. A lot of rain. A lot of staring out at the window, not sure if I wanted the rain to stop.
This has been a weird week for a lot of people, too, right?
For those who follow the media world, this is another one of those weeks that feels like the end of an era. The BuzzFeed News layoffs felt especially notable to me, though I understand if you might not care as much.
(I’m about to spit out a few thousand words on my first-draft feelings on BuzzFeed’s impact on the media world that I came up in; if this isn’t your thing, feel free to skip down to this week’s links and mixtape.)
It definitely felt like another era ending to me.
I started my first blog the same year BuzzFeed News started. My experience writing in a more professional and social capacity always involved being mindful of what BuzzFeed was up to and how it was adapting to changing technologies and trends, for better or worse. BuzzFeed was always off in the distance, just in view of my own little corner of the world. I was never a big BuzzFeed reader. I never pitched them. But, in my more ambitious moods, when I was first starting out, I wondered if I would ever be “big” enough to be known amongst that crowd.
This all sounds silly to write now. “All my teenage feelings, and the meanings, they seemed too see-through to be true,“ sang the great philosophers American Football. But I’ve also been stupid lucky to hit the jackpot and achieve a level of writing success that 18-year-old me would have never dreamed of — all while being a freelancer dancing around the lines of media, jumping in and out whenever I pleased. How I describe my writing life to my friends: I’m not famous, but I have a career. I realize now that what I mean by “I’m not famous” is 1) I’m a nobody on Twitter and 2) no one who cares about BuzzFeed knows or cares about who I am. Still off in the distance, I see.
And I love it. The distance can have “it.”
I know BuzzFeed News was technically a little different from BuzzFeed. It was all a wash in the end (to me) regarding leadership and who was doing the actual reporting. I never wrote for BuzzFeed but I have plenty of friends who worked for them over the years. Some are lovely, ambitious people. Some are just lovely people who wanted a cool job and move to a big city. Some are those jerks you hear about who always fail upwards. Some are those who didn’t last more than a year or two and happily moved on to the next adventure. We were all around the same age. That’s what stood out to me. This was our thing. Even if we hated it, it was ours. Employed by them or not, we (“we” again being my circle of colleagues and friends) were aware that BuzzFeed had become an easily-understood symbol of post-Great Recession Millennial Something, in which serious reporting, Harry Potter quizzes, and first-person essays about tweets were all mushed together and asked to all be taken with the same amount of seriousness and urgency.
This was how the world saw our contribution to the world, it quickly dawned on me. An era where in order to reach a wider audience, you had to know as much about the Arab Spring as you did Dril. Everything was important. It was all equally important. Put it all on the feed. Get readers to the feed. The feed was the most important thing. The
medium feed is the message. Anger sells, and picking fights with self-righteous assholes online gets great traction. So do that. Always be reactionary, but only while saying the right things from that person you follow on Substack. The This Is Fine-ification of online writing. Again, for better or worse.
All this constant urgency. No wonder so many of us are burned out.
Competing media of different ideologies and political flavors would always spring up, some better than others, some even pointing to possible viable options to sustain needed reporting for real-life communities. Yet often (not always, but often) it seemed like it was all just a race to the bottom to reach this same audience: that educated and ironic and self-aware and very online audience that always seems to populate the most influential pockets of the media class. The just-asking-questions crowd that despises this audience has a few names for their great enemy (anger sells, and everyone needs an enemy to direct their anger), most notably “The 9.9%,” a spin on the failures (some real, some imaginary) of Occupy Wall Street, or just simply “The Bobos.” There’s truth to both terms, though this crowd is also a part of the 9.9% just with different fits of anger. The commonality between the two: Loving to be offended and speaking on other people’s behalf, and just loving to talk shit in general.
[Takes off my Jon Stewart hat]
Wow, that thing is smelly.
OK, so I think a more appropriate term to define all of this — all the worst people of this era media from all sides picking at each other’s digital scaps — is a term I’ve heard from a few other writers called “The 5%,” the 5% referring to the approximate percentage of the world’s population that uses Twitter. Obviously, this percentage changes with the years, and “5%” doesn’t sound as mysterious as “9.9%.” But this might be the lasting legacy of the media era that I came up in and know best: Datamining the worst parts of ourselves into an imaginary 5%, and then putting them all in the same room.
It turns out that Marx was right. (No, the other Marx) The results felt like a mess. And it feels like that era is finally ending. No one wants to be a part of the club anymore. But we’ve made the other clubs obsolete.
The great task for the next generation: What do we do with this mess?
I wish I knew. But I do know that journalism and media existed before BuzzFeed News. It’ll exist after all of BuzFeed is gone. It’ll exist after you and I are gone. There is a vacancy now, and Gen Z will fill its void. I know they’ll come up with something. It’ll probably be strange and feel like too much for me. It’ll probably just be a different room for the 5% to continue yelling at each other. It’ll probably make me feel like Grandpa Simpson. And that’s probably how it should be, right?
I’m rooting for the kids. I really am.
There are two jokes I often tell to sum up what it’s like to be in the music industry. The first one has always been my go-to: the music industry is 26-year-olds trying to impress 16-year-olds.
It’s a bit that makes me laugh, and I tend to get a knowing nod or even a laugh when I tell it to anyone else who works in music. It’s an acknowledgment that the arts have always been a chaotic industry that attracts certain people, usually idealistic folks who have the means or stubbornness to pursue passions over (more) viable long-term career paths.
This is not a diss on these folks, of course. I’m one of them. These are my people. And I know my people well enough to know that if we replace whatever “big bad” is hurting the music industry (AI, streaming services, labels, whatever), it’ll just be replaced by another “big bad” that’ll cater to an industry full of fans who are willing and able to put up with a lot of bullshit in order to follow their dreams. The music industry has been hanging by a thread for a few decades. It’s always failing and ending — or maybe it’s just failing and ending for the people who don’t want to put up with it anymore. And then they leave and make room for the next generation that’s willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a chance at the dream. Times changes. People don’t.
So this is the other joke, and it’s one I’ve been telling more often: Is the music industry fucked, or am I just turning 30?
I’ve been telling the second joke more often because I turned 30 this past year. And though these two jokes are about the music industry, you could say the same thing about media.
I know many of you are older than me and are laughing as I write like a 100-year-old. It’s fair. Still, it’s weeks like this that make me feel my age. I find myself more tired, more often. This 5% business no longer even feels fun to joke about while wearing my Jon Steward hat. I also find myself enjoying silence more. I’m more mindful that I need to eat better and exercise more. I’m not reading as many books as I used to — that energy is being spent elsewhere — but I’m more enjoying the books that I am reading. I find myself not caring as much about the things that I used to really care about, which, if I’m being honest with myself, revolved around impressing a 12-year-old me who wanted to write for Rolling Stone and be a writer. But what if you don’t want to live life for your 12-year-old dreams anymore? What if you just want to … live? I think whatever the answer is may be the key to transitioning gracefully into this new decade.
This is not a lust for life that’s now been drained and not replaced by anything else. At first, that’s what it felt like. Now I realize it’s just a transition into a new stage of life. I now tend to shrug off most Internet noise. I deleted my Facebook and Instagram years ago. I rarely go on Twitter anymore and will likely delete it within the year. I probably won’t join any of its competitors. I still haven’t been on TikTok beyond my friends and family sending me clips. I miss seeing a lot of news from my friends — I know I’ve missed a lot of announcements for engagements, weddings, and new kids — but this energy now goes toward the people directly around me. My world has grown incredibly small over the past few years. It turns out, that a small life isn’t ideal (not impossible, but not ideal) for a life committed to the 5%. And I think that’s OK.
This is all a very long way to say that as of this past week, once again, I feel completely washed. I feel great. I’m not saying you should listen to me and do what I do, or that I have some great insight into my generation. I am suggesting this to everyone else who graduated from this BuzzFeed era of media and feels extremely mixed feelings about this past week: it’s OK to feel weird. We work and hustle in a world that’s very unlike the world we graduated into, back when times may have felt easier for us to navigate. I’m suggesting that different doesn’t have to be scary.
So while everything I just wrote can seem sad or bitter or make me feel like I’m 100 years old, I write it all with positivity. I’ll always write and do the dang thing, and I appreciate y’all for wanting to check in with whatever makes me tick.
The real highlight of this past week, too, was what inspired me to do this little word vomiting in the first place: I gave a talk with my good friend and amazing writer Michelle Delgado at the University of Virginia. We presented to a writing class on how to break into media without a journalism degree. The students seemed eager and engaged. They asked great questions. There was a sense that these students wanted to do good work and make a difference in the world while also understanding the shortcomings of this current media landscape and the compromises they’ll have to make. We tried our best to convey a message that I really do believe: the media world has always been a traveling circus. The bad news is that you have to play the game in order to join. If you’re in it just for the pay or the fame, your reward will often be peanuts. The roar from the audience can turn from cheering to jeering and back again in an instant. It’s a shifty spotlight.
The good news: you can play the game as much or as little as you want. You can make your own rules. You can define your own definition of success. And you can come and go any time you want.
I’m excited about the future, even if it doesn’t involve me in the next era of whatever will attract the next 5%. It’s their turn. I’ll be here, still writing and publishing and reaching out in the ways I can. I say this without any irony: the kids are alright.
So yeah, a little longer intro, but wanted to sneak in some more words before I took a few weeks off. If you liked this longer intro, these are the kinds of essays I’ll be doing more of in the paid version of this newsletter. And if you’d like Michelle and me to speak to your class, we’ve perfected our slides and presentation and would love to spread the good word. Reach out and we’ll see what we could do!
So before the long break, let’s check out some great tunes.
In praise of being washed. (I’ve shared this article many times over the years, and it’s still evergreen; it pretty much relates to everything I just wrote about above.)
2010s media bet its future on Facebook. Did it learn from that mistake? (One of the better closing paragraphs I’ve read in a while.)
Speaking of social media, what was … Twitter?
A pro-capitalist on what Karl Marx (the other other Marx) got right about capitalism’s wrongs. (Sharing this as someone who politically identifies as “groaning at the Peanut Factory while trying to tend to his garden.”)
The evolution of Sonic games. (This is a very long video, but it’s one of the best videos I’ve ever seen on video game design.)
The still-evolving legacy of Magnus Carlsen.
Anna Codrea-Rado breaks down how she made money in Q1 2023 as a freelance writer. (I always appreciate when other writers are transparent about how they navigate their finances in good and bad times.)
THIS WEEK’S MIXTAPE
Listen to this week’s mix on Spotify.
NOTE: As always, not every song is available via streaming services.
Tiberius b - “Jetski”
The most artful song I’ve heard yet about jetskis.
Edgar Jones - “The Walls Came Tumbling Down”
Edgar Wright-core tends to sound great in a pub, right?
Deer Tick - “Forgiving Ties”
Jumped back onto the Deer Tick train thanks to Josh Terry’s newsletter reminding me about this band that I used to enjoy a lot. Tom Petty-indebted zone, indeed.
Tiny Ruins - “The Crab / Waterbaby”
Love love love this guitar tone. I still remember the era when every 500 Days of Summer rip-off was including songs like this. Somewhere, Noah Baumbach is losing his freaking mind. The twee of it all. Thanks, New Cue, for reminding me about this song (and for Edgar Jones).
PJ Harvey - “A Child’s Question, August”
I haven’t felt like listening to PJ Harvey in a long time, but I know she’s smarter than most artists I listen to and usually has the last laugh. I won’t pretend “A Child’s Question, August“ is a great song, but I have a feeling this will sound amazing within the context of the album.
Steve Miller Band - “Jet Airliner”
Is there an Internet-era equivalent to Steve Miller??
Number Girl - “タッチ”
These drums. This whole album is fantastic. Kicks the butt of most American emo nerds.
RADWIMPS - “Date”
I saw Suzume this weekend (it was just fine), so I’ll take any chance to talk more about how much I loved Shinkai’s previous masterpiece Your Name, and its wonderful soundtrack.
The National - “Where Is Her Head”
The new National album is so boring. So boring that I don’t even want to share any of its songs on this mix. Reading all the latest reviews, however, I disagree with the general sentiment among my peers that the National’s last album, I Am Easy to Find, was a miss. Gah! As someone who still stands by “Apartment Story” as one of the best songs of the 2000s, I now come back to I Am Easy to Find the most among National albums. It feels the most widescreen of National albums, even if some of the lyrics are sillier than usual. I also loved the accompanying Mike Mills short film, which I still think about often.
The National - “Apartment Story”
Yeah, still perfect. A different kind of widescreen feel.
The Clientele - “Blue Over Blue”
New Clientele alert! This band made one of my top 10 albums of all time, though I also enjoy most other Clientele albums.
The Beach Boys - “Surf’s Up: 1st Movement”
The Beatles were the better band, but they never made anything as good as this. And this is a rough demo of one part of one song!
Michael Hurley - “Hog of the Forsaken”
Fellow Deadwood fans: If you know, you know.
Dismemberment Plan - “Spider in the Snow”
Still perfect. The lyric “the trash goes out on a Tuesday now / You got to make a note about that” and its delivery blew my high school brain: You could write about the mundane like that?
Drive-By Truckers - “The Fireplace Poker”
I still think The Dirty South is the best Truckers album, but I’m coming around to Go-Go Boots being the album with the best Truckers songs.
Beat Happening - “Godsend”
So simple and beautiful. Ten minutes with pretty much the same verse and chorus structure. It’s like watching a flower bloom in real-time.
And that’s it! Until next Monday (when I get back).
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OPE! logo by Claire Kuang. words and cartoons by yours truly. all typos are intentional.