In Solidarity(?): A Critique of the K-pop Industry’s Support for Black Lives Matter
Dayna Chatman / University of Oregon

Rapper CL posts list Instagram dedicated to favorite hip-hop artists
Rapper CL posts on Instagram about how hip-hop has influenced her.

The title of this piece, “In Solidarity(?),” foregrounds a question raised by some K-pop fans in the wake of an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Movement from Korean and Korean American idols and their companies, following the murder of George Floyd. In posts on social media, idols revealed how listening to Black American music genres like hip hop and R&B influenced their interest in music. K-pop has been and continues to be heavily influenced by Black American music, dance, and performance styles (see Anderson, 2020; Lie, 2014; Song, 2019). The recognition of the connection between Black American culture, K-pop, and K-pop idols, functioned as a bridge to explain why the racial unrest happening in the US mattered personally to these artists. However, apart from this connection, how ready is the K-pop industry to reconcile its current support for Black lives with its history of signifying blackness in marginalizing ways? 

K-pop fans often talk about idols confronting their “dark history” or “dark past.” These phrases function in two different senses. First, to talk about an idol’s “dark history” can refer to misbehavior in their lives before they were famous (e.g., childhood bullying, scamming people, etc.). It is also jokingly used to refer to idols reliving their most embarrassing or cringe-worthy public moments. In this latter sense, revisiting one’s dark history is meant to elicit laughs from both idols and fans. However, the expression should extend to include a reflection on those actions that have generated racialized conflicts amongst fans. At times, Black American K-pop fans find themselves traversing a music genre and fandom communities that register both appreciation for and hostility towards their culture and experiences. K-pop groups, or their companies, have been called out for the following:

  • blackface performance
  • cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles
  • mockingly using African-American vernacular English
  • using the “n-word” in songs, and
  • perpetuating stereotypes that project a negative image of Black people

This post highlights examples of K-pop’s dark past, discusses Black American fans’ experiences responding to perceived racially insensitive behavior in the genre, and closes with a suggestion for what solidarity might look like within the K-pop industry and in fan communities. 

Remembering K-pop’s “Dark Past”

The examples I introduce in this section are illustrations of the types of things that have happened in K-pop that need to part of reckoning with the genre’s treatment of blackness. In some instances, the companies or idols did offer apologies; in others, they did not. 

screen shot of group Mamamoo in blackface
Quartet Mamamoo parodying Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

In 2017, the female quartet Mamamoo faced backlash after a photo taken at their Seoul concert was posted online. In the picture, the four members appeared dressed in suits with darkened skin and goatees drawn on their faces. They had intended to parody Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” music video, which features Bruno Mars alongside Black male backup performers. The group, and their management company, Rainbow Bridge World, issued a formal apology (see Herman, 2017).

Wendy on Talkmon.

Wendy, from the girl group Red Velvet, was the subject of online criticism in 2018 after she appeared on a South Korean talk show Talkmon (tvN & O’live, 2018). Asked about different English dialects since she grew up in both Canada and the US, Wendy proceeded to mimic how white and Black girls speak. It was her impersonation of Black women, in which she snapped her fingers while making big motions with her hands, pursed her lips, and shook her head while sassily saying, “what did you say, girl?” that angered Black fans (1:30 mark in the video above). There was never any apology statement from Wendy or her agency, SM Entertainment, released. 

Zico, “I’m Still Fly.”

Artists have used the “n-word” during performances when covering American hip-hop and R&B songs that use the word. In 2010, rapper Zico, from the boy group Block B, released a remake of “I’m Still Fly” originally by Big Page and featuring Drake. While he re-wrote much of the lyrics, Zico kept the chorus, which meant that he did not omit the n-word. 

Shinhwa, “T.O.P.”

The single “T.O.P.” represents an example in which a boy group, Shinhwa, released an original K-pop song that used the n-word. The song appeared on the groups’ 1999 album, “T.O.P (Twinkling of Paradise), and contained an English rap verse performed by member Eric Moon. In his verse, he raps: “This is how we do it, you n****s better know / Do you want to see the light or stand alone?” As the track pre-dates the contemporary period of global visibility of K-pop, not much is known about whether it received any criticism at the time. However, when BTS did a cover performance in 2014 on the music program Show Champion (MBC M, 2012–), they did not censor the lyrics. Subsequently, there was a debate amongst fans about their decision not to. 

BTS, cover of “T.O.P.”

Struggles in Fandoms: The Experiences of Black K-pop Fans

Although fandoms can and do feel like community for individual fans, Lori Morimoto (2019) argues that they are also “contact zones”—spaces where cultures meet and clash. When Black American K-pop fans address insensitive actions in K-pop, they are often dismissed by other fans. A typical reply from non-Black fans is that Korean idols are unaware of America’s racial history (see Han, 2015). Consequently, Korean idols nor their management companies can be expected to know that someone will view their actions as offensive or harmful. This explanation may be acceptable if the K-pop industry was in its infancy, but repeated infractions throughout its history suggest that management companies and their artists have not sufficiently prepared for the global stage. 

An example of a recent dismissal of Black American K-pop fans’ concerns occurred following rapper Agust D’s—known more widely as Suga from the idol band BTS—release of his second mixtape D-2 on May 22, 2020. The track “What Do You Think?” sampled a speech by Jim Jones, an American cult leader who orchestrated the mass suicide of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1979. Some Black ARMY (BTS fans) criticized the samples’ use by highlighting that Jones was a mass murder whose actions led to 900 people’s death, many of them Black. For several days, a debate raged on Twitter about artistic freedom and whether Black fans were, once again, creating a problem that did not exist. In response to fans’ debate over “What Do You Think?” Agust D’s management label, Big Hit Entertainment, stated on May 31 that producers selected the speech for “aesthetic reasons” (Hong, 2020). The company acknowledged that while they had a review process for all sampled material, they did not thoroughly vet the speech. To remedy the situation, Big Hit removed Jones’ voice and re-released the track. However, the company’s actions only momentarily curtailed the debate which was reignited following news of Big Hit and BTS’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

@Portaeble’s reply to @BTS_twt’s #BlackLivesMatter support tweet from June 4, 2020.

Beyond Superficial Solidarity and Towards Action

Should the K-pop industry’s expressions of support for Black lives and racial justice in America be written off as performative wokeness? It’s too early to tell. There are some signs that the industry is at least listening to fans and empathetic to some concerns. For instance, fans expressed discontent after a promotional photo of a member from the group ATEEZ revealed a blue-dyed cornrow hairstyle. The management company for the group quickly responded with a statement acknowledging fans’ concerns and took action to ensure the member would not have his hair styled in that manner during promotions for the groups’ album (see Stich, 2020). However, in general, the industry’s track record of addressing racially insensitive mishaps is the source of some fans’ cynicism about companies’ and individual idols’ efforts to align with Black Lives Matter’s aims. Moreover, responses to present controversies do not acknowledge previous points of criticism that went ignored. 

The following questions remain: Are individual idols, entire groups, or their management companies willing to reflect on how K-pop has contributed to the marginalization of Black Americans? What are they committed to do going forward to ensure the same mistakes do not occur in the future? Genuine solidarity must go beyond symbolic gestures on social media and monetary donations. It must first take the form of critical introspection. Secondly, it must manifest in the acquisition of consciousness about the markets the K-pop industry aims to reach. Absent of these actions, showcasing of support on social media amounts to window-dressing. 

Image Credits:

  1. Rapper CL posts on Instagram about how hip-hop has influenced her. (Original IG Post here)
  2. Quartet Mamamoo parodying Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk.” (author screenshot)
  3. Wendy on Talkmon.
  4. Zico, “I’m Still Fly.”
  5. Shinhwa, “T.O.P.”
  6. BTS, cover of “T.O.P.”
  7. @Portaeble’s reply to @BTS_twt’s #BlackLivesMatter support tweet from June 4, 2020.


Anderson, C. (2020). Soul in Seoul: African American popular music and K-pop. University of Mississippi Press.

Han, G. S. (2015). K-pop nationalism: Celebrities and acting blackface in the Korean media. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 29(1), 2–16.

Herman, T. (2017, March 6). K-pop girl group Mamamoo apologizes for blackface ‘Uptown Funk’ performance. Billboard.

Hong, C. (2020, May 31). Big Hit Entertainment releases statement about Suga’s mixtape sampling controversy. Soompi.

Lie, J. (2014). K-pop: Popular music, cultural amnesia, and economic innovation in South Korea. University of California Press.

Morimoto, L. (2019). From imagined communities to contact zones: American monoculture in transatlantic fandoms. In M. Hills, M. Hilmes, & R. Pearson (Eds.), Transatlantic television drama: Industries, programs, and fans (pp. 273–290). Oxford University Press.

Song, M. (2019). Hanguk hip hop: Global rap in South
. Palgrave Macmillan.

Stich. (2020, July 14). ATEEZ parent company KQ Entertainment issues apology for Hongjoong’s cornrows. Teen Vogue.

Getting Misty-Eyed: Misty Copeland And The Representational Politics Of Black Fandoms
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. / University Of Iowa

Misty Copeland on Cover of Time Magazine
Copeland on cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”

Without question, Black ballet dancers infrequently occupy the upper echelons of American ballet companies. My own experience as a ballet dancer often found me as the only Black person (and frequently the only person of color) in a room filled with white swans and their equally white cavaliers. As such, when Copeland was promoted at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) becoming the 75-year-old company’s first Black female principal dancer on June 30, 2015, it was undoubtedly a big deal within the politics of representation—and something I felt compelled to research. Using three interviews with Black female Misty Copeland fans, my aim here is to illuminate the ways Copeland’s Blackness (and rank within the company) has worked to bring African American non-ballet fans into the white world of ballet. In particular, I briefly highlight the ways these Black fandoms rely on a politics of visibility driven by an engagement with paratexts and affect.

Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994.

For the Black women I interviewed, the entry point for Copeland is her paratexts. As Jonathan Gray suggests “rather than simply serv[ing] as extensions of a text” paratexts help to shape “our first and formative encounters with the text” (3). Some Black fans, like Courtenay, first saw Copeland on a magazine cover. She says, “It wasn’t even that I read the article, but I saw her pose in the magazine and it drew my attention.” Courtenay illuminates the ways Misty Copeland’s celebrity has extended beyond the relatively elitist walls of the ballet world. Capturing the attention of some Black fans as a dancer for Prince while “moonlighting” from ABT, these fans used their affective response to her to begin driving popular discourse about her “only” being a soloist at ABT. Those who saw Copeland dance for Prince and in any other number of venues including The Arsenio Hall Show(Syndication, 2013-2014) wondered why Copeland was “only” a soloist based upon their affect that what they were seeing was good, rather than their understanding of classical ballet.

position within ABT was inextricably linked to the possibilities of Blackness
within the typically lily-white world of ballet. As Keisha illuminates, she,
like Courtenay, found Copeland through news stories, only having had a previous
dance familiarity with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Keisha told me:

I heard about Misty and how magnificent she was as a ballerina and she was a woman of color and that’s something you don’t hear about every day. And any time that you hear about anyone of color rising to the pinnacle of their craft, a lot of people put their eye on it. And I was one of those people… She was absolutely phenomenal. And… just to see the amount of Black people that were there, because when I’ve been to other ballets, really, you never really saw a lot of Black people.

For Keisha, the politics of Copeland’s brown body is important, as it was seemingly for the number of Black people within the audience at the Washington, D.C. performance of “Whipped Cream” at which I met Keisha. In other words, it is the very presence of Copeland in a white ballet world that, regardless of her talent, instills a sense of pride among the Black people I interviewed.

Jordan, although she is a dancer herself, discovered Copeland not through ballet but via the Today show. Jordan says, “On Today they were discussing [Copeland] as a ballerina who was breaking barriers and that was important to me.” The notion of “breaking barriers” is a chief part of Copeland’s star text because it gestures toward the centrality of Copeland’s position within ABT. As Stephanie argues, “I think you’re talking about her basically pushing her way into a white space.” Keisha adds that “I think [Copeland] sets herself apart from the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey dancers because of the fact that… if she were to be in the Dance Theater of Harlem, she would be just another number… but she would definitely stand out among the rest. But the level of talent that she has… That’s why she’s in American Ballet Theatre. I’m thinking that she just would be another number if she was in another predominantly Black dance company.” In other words, Copeland would still be undoubtedly talented, but her Blackness within a white ballet company carries a greater sense of pride for the Black women I interviewed. At the same time, the discourse of “breaking barriers” discursively untethers Copeland from a history of Black women in ballet, including, but certainly not limited to Lauren Anderson, Debra Austin, Virginia Johnson and Raven Wilkinson.

Collage of Black Ballerinas
Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet).

Much like the discourse about Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States, Copeland’s brown body within ABT is understood as being aspirational for children, whether they want to be ballet dancers or not. Stephanie says, “I like her because I have two little girls… I’m always happy to see Black representation in fields that we have not historically been in, because I think it’s important for little Black girls to not feel like there are things that they can’t do.” Courtenay adds, “The fact that she is in a genre of dance that has typically been considered only for a certain type of person. A certain type of body structure, a certain type of look. So that has gained my respect because you’re representing young girls who have a dream and they may not look like that but they’re trying to do it anyway. And so that makes me just like aww, come on girl, open the door for people.” In this way, Courtenay demonstrates the ways that Black fans’ investment in Copeland is not just about Copeland, but is also about encouraging the future generations of Black children to reach for seemingly unattainable goals.

In the same vein, Jordan extends Copeland’s import to Black women as well. She forwards, “Misty Copeland is a young woman who basically defied the odds and is a really good example for a young Black woman, like myself, who are pursuing dance… when I was growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of Black dancers in my dance classes. Maybe two dancers… So, seeing that story about her and how she basically kind of went through the same thing I did… And her getting a chance to become a principal ballerina… it inspired me to continue to press through and take dance classes even though I might not be represented in those types of styles of dancing, but to really go for it.” Copeland is not an empty signifier who allows others to map their desires onto her. Rather, through a series of inspirational soundbites, Copeland encourages such a mapping. But in such inspirational messaging, Copeland veers dangerously toward bootstrapping ideologies given that her success is not just about her hard work, but about her luck. In the act of “inspiring” others, she concomitantly forwards the dangerous discourse that “teaches” that if one does not succeed, one simply did not try hard enough. In short, Copeland becomes, whether by accident or by design, the perfect “test case” for an allegedly post-racial era. The failure of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Black ballet dancers who did not “make it” (and certainly not within major international ballet companies) failed because they did not try hard enough, not because there are, and have been, systemic barriers to their entry into such companies.

Closeup of Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland circa 2014.

Copeland’s celebrity is also pedagogical. Even as the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale (Nelson George, 2015) served as a paratext to Copeland, for Keisha, it also served as a “trailer” that made her want to see Copeland perform. She says, “I saw the documentary on Netflix and that was definitely great, and that allowed me to learn more about Misty and appreciate her craft–appreciate her work and the amount of dedication that she put into her career. I just had to see it for myself. I was there, and it was definitely a way of seeing it for myself, but also as to support her.” Similarly, Jordan saw A Ballerina’s Tale which she “came across that by accident. I wasn’t watching it because it was hers. That was probably when I first kind of became familiar with her. I was like, oh yeah, this is the girl I saw on that news story, so I went ahead and watched it.” Shortly after that, Jordan had the opportunity to perform as an extra in ABT’s Detroit engagement of Sleeping Beauty, in which Copeland performed Aurora, the lead role. Jordan recalls that during that time, she has an opportunity to meet Copeland. In that meeting Jordan says she “wanted her to know how important it was for me to just meet her” and that Copeland inspired Jordan to keep dancing.

The confluence of Copeland being in a space that has not historically welcomed Black dancers (although Latinx and Asian-descended dancers have frequently been within ABT’s ranks) and Black fans’ general lack of knowledge around ballet technique shapes Copeland’s Black fandom. Thus, like many fandoms, Copeland’s Black fandom is largely affective. Her Black fans are left Misty-eyed when discussing Copeland because of what she means within the politics of Black representation.

Works Cited:

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press, 2010.

Image Credits:

  1. Copeland on Cover of Time magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People.”
  2. Me in ballet class at the Joffrey Ballet circa Summer 1994. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Collage of Black ballerinas (from top left, clockwise): Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Lauren Young (Houston Ballet), and Debra Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet). (author’s screen grab)
  4. Misty Copeland circa 2014.

What Is “Good” Digital Media Work, Anyway?
Austin Morris / University of Wisconsin, Madison

Cameron staring at a monitor
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).

In the opening manifesto for the new cooperatively owned, subscription website venture Defector, editor-in-chief Tom Ley declares that the site’s staff “aren’t here to gratify ourselves or churn out ‘content,’ a word wholly devoid of ideas and values, but to create good work that will earn your loyal readership.”[ (( Tom Ley (2020) “How We Got Here,” Defector. Defector. 8 September 2020. Last accessed 9 October 2020. ))] As Ley goes on to elaborate in a later section of the manifesto, the website must promise this value proposition because: “Everything’s fucked now. Newspapers have been destroyed by raiding private equity firms, alt-weeklies and blogs are financially unsustainable relics, and Google and Facebook have spent the last decade or so hollowing out the digital ad market. What survives among all this wreckage are websites and publications that are mostly bad.”[ (( Ibid. ))]

Defector was born from the ashes of Deadspin, a G/O Media website that imploded when its staff—now the staff of Defector—rebelled against its new management, appointed by G/O Media’s new private equity owners, Great Hill Partners.[ (( For more on the rise of private equity ownership in the media industries, read Matthew Crain (2009) “The Rise of Private Equity Media Ownership in the United States: A Public Interest Perspective.” International Journal of Communication 3, 208-239. ))] To the Deadspin staff, new editor “[Jim] Spanfeller and Great Hill weren’t really interested in preserving what we had spent the last decade building. Maybe a few components would remain to keep up appearances, but Deadspin’s demolition was coming, and we couldn’t stop it. What we could do was refuse to participate in its destruction.”[ (( In addition to complaints that Spanfeller installed his friends at key positions within G/O Media, passing over qualified women within the company in the process, Deadspin staffers found his mandate to “stick to sports” content untenable. While Deadspin had originated as a sports website within the Gawker Media umbrella, it had since undergone multiple iterations into a wide-ranging website that antagonized established sports brands like ESPN and SBNation, ridiculed other upstart brands like Barstool, and frequently exposed the racialized political economy of the sports media industrial complex. It also contained lifestyle content, like a dedicated cooking column, and wide-ranging cultural criticism, including one of the best assessments of the Gamergate controversy published contemporaneous to those events. ))]

But the promise to do “good work” as opposed to “churn[ing] out content” is not a simple one. In Ley’s framing, it consists of rejecting the logic of social media or search-driven traffic and gross ad sales in favor of the slower work of growing a loyal audience, and likely exploring new and innovative—which is to say, old-fashioned—business models like direct subscription. It is also, according to Ley, a labor project: a commitment to paying reporters to work on beats and training new hires, paying salaries and benefits, and preventing ownership from cashing out on the business even as its workforce faces dramatic pay cuts.[ (( Ley (2020). ))]

Ley’s first argument is consistent with political economic critiques of the platformized web from scholars[ (( For instance, Mark Andrejevic (2007) iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press; Victor Pickard (2020) Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society. New York: Oxford University Press; Philip M. Napoli and Robyn Caplan (2017) “Why Media Companies Insist They’re Not Media Companies, Why They’re Wrong, and Why That Matters.” First Monday 22:5, ))] and industry trade press[ (( For instance, Gilad Edelman (2020) “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” Wired. Condé Nast. 22 March 2020. Accessed 12 October 2020. ))] alike. For content producers, the economy of the commercial web is largely dependent on pulling traffic to their website, against which they can sell direct or indirect advertising. However, Google and Facebook have made themselves the arbiters of the vast majority of web traffic.[ (( On October 13, 2020, ranked Google and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, the first and second most trafficked sites on the web. Facebook was ranked sixth, ahead of Yahoo and Amazon but behind several Chinese sites. ))] Because these companies own and operate integrated user-facing content delivery interfaces, back-end advertising sale and delivery systems, user data aggregation business, and content production arms, changes to the ways these companies operate their businesses necessarily change the way content producers operate.[ (( Ben Thompson (2015) “Aggregation Theory.” Stratechery. Ben Thompson. 21 July 21 2015. Last accessed 13 October 2020. ))] Facebook was sued for inflating viewership metrics for their video player product from 2015-2016 by a group of advertisers, a lawsuit the company settled for $40 million last year. Content publishers chasing those advertising dollars made pivots to video, cutting editorial staff in favor of smaller video teams hired on different, less stable contracts.

Carrie looking down at her laptop with her arm over her head
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).

Meanwhile, the labor justice argument voiced by the Defector staff is consistent with renewed efforts across the digital media industries to unionize.[ (( Digital media workers have unionized and are currently struggling to negotiate contracts at (among other companies) The Ringer, Huffington Post, and various individual Condé Nast companies. Hearst Magazines recently ratified a unionization vote. G/O Media successfully unionized in 2019, alongside the staffs of New York Magazine and Vox Media, shortly before the former was acquired by Vox. ))] It also moves the argument against “content” considerably beyond its traditional dimensions, which have emphasized labor only insofar as it relates to the work of autonomous creative individuals being mistreated by consumers,[ (( This is essentially the complaint of Doc Searls, one of the authors of the influential early web book The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000), who said the following in an interview around the time of the book’s original publication, “The plain truth is that ‘content’ insults the nature of what it labels… like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks.” ))] and into a more necessary—and necessarily structural—critique of the digital media industries in the platform era. How does one do “good work” in the digital content industries when contingent employment relations and traffic-chasing work assignments are the norm?

Jughead sitting in a restaurant booth with a laptop open to a blank word document
Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).

This is one of the questions I’m trying to answer in my dissertation research, which has involved interviewing queer workers at various levels and in various parts of the digital content industries—writers, editors, advertising creatives, programmers, digital strategists, and influencers. I want to answer the key question—“what does good digital media work look like?”—by answering it with an eye toward labor justice. In a 2010 article, David Hesmondhalgh performed a prescient, critical re-reading of debates within cultural studies literature between Marxian and post-structuralist theory about the nature of good work.[ (( David Hesmondhalgh (2010) “Normativity and Social Justice in the Analysis of Creative Labour.” Journal for Cultural Research 14:3, 231-249. ))] While these theorists debated whether autonomy and self-realization were the core components of good work in the creative industries, Hesmondhalgh observes that the debates tended to reject normative frameworks for evaluating creative labor in favor of bickering about whether working subjects did or did not really experience autonomy and self-realization in their working lives.[ (( For the record, here’s Hesmondhalgh’s verdict (2010: 247-8): “Post-structuralist studies of management and organisations, and cultural studies critiques of creative labour, raise the important possibility that autonomy and self-realisation might be used as techniques for control, by making negative features of work bearable and even (on balance) desirable for workers. Yet autonomy and self-realisation should not be abandoned as normative criteria for evaluating work because of this danger.” ))] In response, with aid from theorists in political philosophy, Hesmondhalgh offers two normative frameworks. First, “Those concerned with equality and social justice need to consider ways in which access to the means of cultural production might be broadened in order to make these forms of pleasure and self-esteem more widely available to other population groups” than the typical profile, which remains “highly educated and… from middle class backgrounds.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 246). ))] Second, Hesmondhalgh argues for “a shift in social conventions so that it may be considered a matter of social shame to leave a mess for the less privileged to tidy up” in creative workplaces, with “cleaning here stand[ing in for] a whole set of routine tasks that are generally granted little esteem in modern societies.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 247). ))] Following a summer of very public accusations (with receipts!) of structural racist and sexist operations at major media companies, the first norm is now a common refrain across the digital content industries. This reckoning itself was informed by years of industrial self-reflection about the role of unpaid internships in keeping the media industries white and upper-middle class.[ (( See, for instance, Thomas F. Corrigan (2015) “Media and Cultural Studies Internships: A Thematic Review and Digital Labour Parallels.” tripleC 13:2, 336-350. ))] And now, after six months of homebound work due to coronavirus outbreaks, a consideration of all the other contingent laborers supporting the work of digital content producers—especially restaurants—seems warranted.

I am interested in Defector’s manifesto for the same reason I am interested in talking with queer workers and queer workers of color in the trenches of the digital content industries. I want to know how we could build a media industry that wants “good work” as a norm, not as an anomaly. For the queer media ecosystem, I think good work is a significant struggle. For one, working at queer media brands seems not to be a very sustainable career. Workers at queer media companies have found themselves let go as those properties dissolve or restructure. Gay dating app Grindr launched an online magazine, Into, only to shut it down after 17 months of existence. Long-running lesbian website AfterEllen shut down in 2016. Publications remaining independent, like lesbian website Autostraddle, increasingly depend on direct funding from their audience. The struggle of these websites to maintain a profitable business may be indicative of the pressures of the digital content business generally, or a particular problem with the way advertisers and media companies regard the value of queer content. How queer content is defined, located, circulated, valued, and evaluated as such by all stakeholders within the digital content industries in the platform era thus has real material effects, not just on the continued viability of queer content, but also on the lives of queer and queer of color workers in the content industries.[ (( I am inspired in this line of inquiry by Charlton McIlwain (2017) “Racial Formation, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Web Traffic.” Information, Communication and Society 20:7, 1073-1089. ))] Enabling good work necessarily entails building a sustainable industry that supports its workers in doing that good work, but industrial motives at major social network and advertising technology platforms will likely need to change significantly to make that happen. 

Image Credits:

  1. Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).
  2. Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).
  3. Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).


Transnational Chills: A History of Latinxs’ Love of Horror
Orquidea Morales / State University of New York, Old Westbury

Dracula in black and white
Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Universal’s first horror film.

Author’s Note:
This column is the first in a three-part series that examines Latinx horror
film and television. Here, I delve into the relationship between Latinx
communities and the horror genre focusing on language, nationality, and generic

My relationship with horror films started at a very young age. I watch them hoping to be terrified, looking for that adrenaline rush. The first moment I remember being scared by a movie was when I was a little girl. I was watching Dr. Giggles (1992) at my aunt’s house in Reynosa, Tamaulipas in northern Mexico and the titular character’s evil cackle has been burned into my memory ever since. My aunt lived right next door to a video rental shop, so we were always watching dubbed American horror films.

Trailer for Dr. Giggles directed by Manny Coto. Stuff of nightmares!

Of course, I am not the only Latina in love with the genre.  On the October 31st, 2015 episode of NPR’s All Things Considered correspondent Vanessa Rancaño talked about Latinos love for horror films.[ ((Rancaño, Diana. 2015. “Why Latinos Heart Horror Films.” NPR All Things Considered. ))] When I first listened to Rancaño’s piece “Why Latinos Heart Horror Films” I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

Latinxs’ love has led to big profits for horror films. A 2012 Nielsen study found that Latinxs make the highest audience share of horror/thriller film releases. This fact has held true. In the 2016 article “Scare up Success with Hispanic Horrorphiles,” Diana Rasbot notes “Hispanics are 42% more likely than non-Hispanics to be horror fans—and it’s only one of many genres enjoyed by Hispanics.”[ ((Rasbot, Diana. 2016. “Scare up Success with Hispanic Horrorphiles.” Univision Communications.] Such is the power of the Latinx horror fan that the 2018 horror film, The Nun, which starred Mexican actor Demian Bichir broke box office records for the Conjuring universe thanks to Latinx audiences that made up 36% of theater goers.[ ((Hunt, Darnell, and Ana Christina Ramón. 2020. “Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods.” UCLA College of Sciences.))] Unfortunately, the love is not reciprocated by Hollywood. Representation of Latinxs in front and behind the camera in film continues to be significantly low. Thus, Hollywood profits from Latinx audiences yet doesn’t tell Latinx stories or include Latinx actors and creators. 

Scary woman screaming in the dark
The Curse of La Llorona scared up profits in 2019 thanks to Latinx Horror Fans.

In these three columns, I wrestle with a few
questions: What is Latinx horror? What is the relationship between Latinx horror
and Latin American horror? What role does language play in horror? This is not
an attempt to answer these complex questions, but rather to fuel a conversation
about this long-lasting love affair.

A logical place to start is the 1931 release of Dracula and Drácula. These two films really set the groundwork for questions we still have today.

Multilingual Draculas:

In 1931, the addition of sound was changing filmmaking in Hollywood. Many actors and actresses with accents lost roles or were no longer able to play protagonists. At the same time, Hollywood producers worried that monolingual English films would lose international audiences. Facing this conundrum, Universal Studios took a unique approach to their monster movie, Dracula.

Newspaper clipping
A 1931 article published in the Los Angeles Evening Express announces upcoming Spanish language releases including Drácula.

Dracula and vampire tales are one of Hollywood’s most popular undead monsters. In the U.S. alone there have been roughly 120 films starring this monster since the release of Dracula in 1931.

The plotline is simple: Renfield, an English solicitor travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula in order to help him lease an abbey in London. Dracula turns Renfield into a vampire. Renfield’s hunger for blood drives him crazy and he is institutionalized in London while Dracula looks for more victims, now in the city. His two victims are Mina and Lucy. Lucy dies, but Mina slowly starts to turn into a vampire. Van Helsing, after treating Renfield at the asylum, discovers Dracula is a vampire and hunts him down and kills him. Dracula’s death returns Mina to her human state. What is less known is that at the same time in 1931, the film was also being produced in Spanish. The Spanish version has the exact same plot with a few minor differences including the names of the female protagonists. Mina is now Eva and Lucy is Lucia.

Carlos Villarías as Drácula.

The English language version of the film that starred Bela Lugosi in the titular role was directed by Tod Browning. At night, the same sets would be used to film a Spanish language version of the film starring Carlos Villarías as Drácula and Lupita Tovar as Eva that was directed by George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos (who was uncredited for his work). Melford did not speak Spanish so Tovar Ávalos served as translator and co-director.

The films have had very different trajectories
particularly when the Spanish version was considered lost. In the 1970s, a
print of it was found in Cuba. Since then, Drácula has been given a new
lease on life. However, what is important to note is that from very early on in
the birth of the horror genre Spanish-speaking audiences were a primary concern
to the Hollywood film industry.

Why are Dracula/Drácula so important for our conversation on Latinx horror? The multilingual vampires show how important Latinx and Latin American audiences have been for Hollywood. However, they also show the strange conflation between the categories of Latinx and Latin American that still happen today. For example, many Latin American audiences criticized the fact that Spanish language Hollywood films during this time had mixed accents. In the case of Drácula, Eva was Mexican while Drácula was Spanish. The lack of awareness or lack of care that these differences highlight show the continuing erasure of Latinx and Latin American differences.

The blurring of these linguistic differences aside, Dracula/Drácula show how important Latinx and Latin American audiences were for Hollywood. Scholars such as Colin Gunckel[ ((Gunckel, Colin. 2015. Mexico on Main Street: Transnational Film Culture in Los Angeles Before World War II. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.))] and Lisa Jarvinen[ ((Jarvinen, Lisa. 2012.  The Rise of Spanish-Language Filmmaking: Out from Hollywood’s Shadow, 1929-1939. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.))] have documented the way Hollywood saw Latin American audiences as one of their biggest consumers and saw Spanish language productions as a necessity to cultivate that audience at home and abroad.

The uneven presentation of Latinidad by Hollywood did provide crucial access for Latinx and Latin Americans interested in filmmaking. Hollywood often borrowed Latin American talent and vice versa, thereby creating a complicated and unequal transnational filmmaking history. At the same time, though, these linguistic differences and the attempt to garner audiences in the U.S. and Latin America exemplify how Latinx horror is inherently a transnational genre. No case exemplifies this better than another vampire tale, the film From Dusk till Dawn (1996) directed by Robert Rodriguez. The movie stars Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium, a vampire at the Titty Twister bar on the Mexican border that entices men with her dancing. The name Santanico is borrowed from the 1975 Mexican nunsploitation movie Satanico Pandemonium-La Sexorcista. That film, directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares and starring Enrique Rocha and Cecilia Pezet, is about young Sor Maria (Pezet), the purest of the nuns living in the convent, who after encountering Beelzebub (Rocha) slowly succumbs to the temptations he sets in front of her. The name shows one small example of how Mexican horror films can and do influence the creation of Latinx horror.

On the left you see young Sor Maria and on the right Santanico.

I would like to conclude by going back to the story of Dracula/Drácula. Two movies I had never seen until a few years ago when in conversation about early Latinx horror with a friend the title came up. Yes, I knew of Dracula, but my mind was blown when I learned of Drácula. Now that it had seen the light of day, Drácula was a darling for scholars and fans alike. The Hollywood history was fascinating for many of us. And it served as a reminder that even though Latinx and Latin American audiences have been a financial asset for Hollywood for decades, our dollar is rarely worth access to producing our own stories.

Image Credits:

  1. Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Universal’s first horror film. Author’s screengrab from Dracula (1931).
  2. The Curse of La Llorona scared up profits in 2019 thanks to Latinx Horror Fans. Author’s screengrab.
  3. A 1931 article published in the Los Angeles Evening Express announces upcoming Spanish language releases including Drácula. Wed, Feb 18, 1931. Page 19.
  4. Carlos Villarías as Drácula. Author’s screengrab from Drácula (1931).
  5. On the left you see young Sor Maria and on the right Santanico. Author’s screengrab from Satanico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (1975) and From Dusk till Dawn (1996).


Activism or Performative Activism?: Investigating Jimmy Butler’s “No Name” NBA Jersey
Jas L. Moultrie and Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington, seattle

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Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.

The recorded murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020 of 46-year-old  George Floyd generated an unprecedented global response to Black racialized violence. While the sheer grotesqueness of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds are reason enough for widespread condemnation of anti-Black violence, the physical isolation and virtually simulated connection of #quarantinelife compelled more communities to pay attention. Conscientious media users, even those for whom race had not previously registered as “an issue,” had little room for willful ignorance with everyone indoors and attached to our screens. Before long, brands and corporations began to respond as well.

One of the brands to acknowledge such anti-Black violence was the multi-billion dollar industry of the NBA. For the NBA’s 2019-20 season restart, players could choose from an approved list of 29 social justice slogans to place on their jerseys, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” “Vote,” “Say Her Name,” and “Education Reform.”

image description
NBA social justice jerseys.

Jimmy Butler, thirty-one year old star of the Miami Heat, wanted to go an entirely different route. He petitioned for anonymity.

“I have decided not to [wear a jersey with a social justice slogan]. With that being said, I hope that my last name doesn’t go on there as well. Just because…I love and respect all the messages the league did choose, but for me, I felt like with no message, with no name, it’s going back to like who I was, and if I wasn’t who I was today. I’m no different from anybody else of color, and I want that to be my message, in the sense that just because I’m an NBA player, everybody has the same rights no matter what. That’s how I feel about my people of color.”[ (( Friedell, N. (2020, July 14). Heat’s Jimmy Butler wants no name on back of jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from]

In this conference call with reporters, Butler does his due diligence by giving “love and respect” to the NBA’s version of social justice, but he also resists their version of branding. Butler identifies himself not as an exceptional athlete who might then escape from the forces of anti-Black violence. Instead he firmly names himself as “no name,” “no different from anyone else of color,” and as such, part of a resistance collective who also remains vulnerable to violence. And indeed, Black NBA players have not remained invulnerable to police brutality as the cases of Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks and Thabo Stefolosha of the Houston Rockets demonstrate.

After submitting his petition, 30 additional players requested to perform nameless. All of their requests were denied. Just before tipoff, however, in an early August game against the Denver Nuggets, Butler decided to wear the anonymous jersey anyway. This act of defiance was quickly quelled as he was made to change in order to play.

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Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless was denied.

Following the game, Butler posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts a photo of him wearing the “no name” jersey alongside a quote from recently deceased civil rights leader, John Lewis.

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Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.

A month later, other NBA players continued to feel the implications of his actions. Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets noted,

“Jimmy Butler did one thing, he took his name off of his jersey. I think that was so powerful. Because if he is just another Black man, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Could be homeless, could be walking on the street, you would never know.”[ (( Youngmisuk, O. (2020, August 29). Nuggets’ Jamal Murray: ‘My skin color should not determine whether I live or die.’ ESPN. Retrieved from]

Clearly Butler’s actions have been influential to his fellow players, and a countless number of NBA fans. But were they “activism,” what Cooper et al. conceptualize as the intentional disruption of oppressive systems of power,[ (( Cooper, J.N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S.H. (2019). Race and resistance: A typology of African American sport activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 54(2), 151–181. ))] or “performative activism,” a mere guise of such disruption towards change-making, as defined by critical race scholar and activist, Maia Hoskin?[ (( Hoskin, M.N. (2020, June 10). Performative activism is the new ‘color-blind’ band-aid for white fragility. Zora. Retrieved from ))] Butler’s identities as a Black man, professional athlete, celebrity influencer, and business owner, among others, speak to his distance from and proximity to power. Such simultaneous distance and proximity complicates our question of “activism” versus “performative activism,” proposing an answer of not either one or the other, but both together, simultaneously.

Minoritized people, or those who are “smaller in power in a racialized economy that systemically denigrates people of color,”[ (( Joseph, R.L. (2017). What’s the difference with “difference”? Equity, communication, and the politics of difference. International Journal of Communication, 11, 3307. ))] challenge opponents through disruption, empowerment, and demands for change. In the sports world, Black athletes resist using raised, black-gloved fists at the podium, linked arms on the field, and dropped knees along the sideline. A legacy of Black athlete activism traces back to the 1900s. Sociologist Harry Edwards locates today’s efforts within a fourth wave of activism that concerns the transference of power.[ (( Edwards, H. (2018). Afterword to the 50th anniversary edition. In The revolt of the Black athlete: 50th anniversary edition (157–175). University of Illinois Press. ))] This wave was preceded by eras in which we strove to gain legitimacy (e.g. Jack Johnson), acquire access (e.g. Althea Gibson), and demand dignity, respect, and equal treatment (Muhammad Ali).

Today’s orchestrated, collaborative efforts between sports leagues and athletes feel different from even the fourth wave in which we are purported to be. For instance, further investigation of Butler’s protest revealed the NBA and Heat organizations’ awareness of his plan beforehand thereby allowing, and appropriating, his dissent. Furthermore, while a discussion of differences between activism versus performative activism in the WNBA compared to the NBA are outside the scope of this short column, we do want to note the ways in which the WNBA’s social justice activism, of individuals in concert with the league, illustrates what sports historian Amira Rose Davis calls the WNBA’s “pattern of commitment to social justice.” Because such a pattern has not been long-established in the NBA, the NBA’s league-managed efforts, backed by corporate interests, overshadow impromptu moments of individual resistance. Butler’s attempt at a “no name” jersey versus the NBA-approved social justice jersey messages are but one example.

The approved list of social justice messages was negotiated by the NBA and the players union (NBPA). Interestingly, players could endorse a message on a jersey without their last name, but only for the first four days in the “Bubble.” Players were also limited to choosing from the list. Several, including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, opted out of the initiative for this very reason, noting:

“I would have loved to have a say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey. I had a couple things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process, which is OK…I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to understand my mission or know what I’m about and what I’m here to do.”[ (( McMenamin, D. (2020, July 11). Lakers’ LeBron James to go without social justice message on jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from]

James’s statements critique the performative activism of wearing jerseys alone, and gesture, instead, to his own activism, including his philanthropy through the LeBron James Family Foundation which, for example, opened the “I Promise School,” and his new nonprofit More Than a Vote which donated to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in order to allow formerly incarcerated Floridians the right to vote.

Other players, including Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers, both of the Houston Rockets, wanted to inscribe Trayvon Martin’s name on their jerseys, but were not allowed to. Reportedly, the league and NBPA decided against using the names of victims to forgo the process of obtaining permission from their families and to avoid offending the families of victims not included. Imagine, reading their actual names in place of league-approved “Say Her Name” and “Say Their Names” inscriptions. Explicit, directed attention towards murdered Black people (Trayvon, Tamir, Sandra, Eric, John, Michael, Akai, Walter, Freddie, Atatiana, Korryn) extends their stories and fosters dialogue in a way that would limit the NBA’s control of the narrative.

What also differs in the discursive movement between activism and performative activism is the simultaneous discursive movement from explicit acknowledgement of systemic racism to colorblind and postracial rhetoric. In June 2020, before the season restart, the NBA and NBPA announced their shared goal of addressing systemic racism and racial inequality. Two months later, after the shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent player labor strikes, the organizations revealed their strategy. In a joint statement, the NBA and NBPA detailed three commitments for the 2019-20 playoff games. These included establishing a social justice coalition, converting team facilities into voting locations, and producing advertisements which promote civic engagement and raise awareness surrounding voter accessibility. The strategy communicated here is voting as the challenge to systemic racism. And while voter suppression is a systemic issue, championing voting initiatives fails to imagine a transference of power, and ultimately shifts responsibility to the individual. Those of us watching at home bear the responsibility instead of the organizations of power (NBA, Turner Broadcasting System, The Walt Disney Company).

Instead of the hyper-visibility of the jerseys, we wonder what might have happened had the NBA and NBPA made their own equity negotiations more visible. We wonder, what if, instead, the NBA had bravely and transparently distributed an audit of their own practices of a more casual form of anti-Black violence that happens through Black exclusion in their own organization? What if they provided data investigating racial disproportionality in all levels of the NBA, not just focusing on players’ jerseys but on the hiring and retention of Black coaches, trainers, front office staff, and even owners? What could fans learn of what disproportionality looks like in terms of recruiting, hiring, mentoring, and promoting Black people internally? Do these numbers approach the proportion of Black players (74.2%)? And if the answer is no, could they share out what is their plan to change their structurally anti-Black practices?

But this didn’t happen. A buried press statement about broad “social justice efforts” and a well-publicized performance of social justice jerseys did. The jersey example of corporate and performative activism represents an unsettling trend. Neoliberal capitalist enterprises are subtly co-opting social justice movements in pursuit of social and financial capital. Termed “cooptations of consciousness,”[ (( Moultrie, J.L. (2019). Commodifying consciousness: A visual analysis and discussion on neoliberal multiculturalism in advertising [Master’s thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. IDEALS, 61, ))] the people’s pain, anger, and demands for change materialize the sell. Going nameless prevents Jimmy Buckets and the 30 additional players, the ultimate commodities, the NBA’s Black athletes, from being identified, coded, and packaged. Commodified Blackness must be named and marketed to the masses.

Through the lens of the NBA, Black bodies are accepted and validated by their ability to perform, by their entertainment value. Basketball, however, is not the only space through which we are presented as spectacle. The consumption of Black death is a normalized pastime that has been intensified by digital and social media.[ (( Williams, S. (2016, July 11). Editorial: How does a steady stream of images of Black death affect us. NBC News. Retrieved from ))] Through these lenses, unacceptable Black bodies are subject to premature death.[ (( Hong, G. (2015). Death beyond disavowal: The impossible politics of difference. University of Minnesota Press.))] In one context, the male Black body is admired, even fetishized. In the other, the same body is vilified and justified as threatening. The case of Jimmy Butler’s jersey activism makes this very paradox of Black masculinity visible.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks. These are just some of the victims whose murders occured after the NBA announced it would postpone the season in March. In the aftermath of these hypervisible Black murders, it was necessary for basketball to return. For things to go “back to normal.” White supremacist hegemony depends on its resurrection to balance the spectacle of Black death with Black performance. Examples like Jimmy Butler’s demand for a “no name” jersey complicates this spectacle, combining moments of performative activism with activism.

Image Credits:

  1. Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.
  2. NBA social justice jerseys.
  3. Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless is denied.
  4. Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.


Race and The Unintended Consequences of Musical Reaction Videos
María Elena Cepeda / Williams College

image description
The Williams brothers’ YouTube reaction video to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

Musical reaction videos are a popular YouTube form that has been around for some time but that has been regularly going viral for perhaps more complex reasons in 2020, a year indelibly marked by a relentless pandemic, a toxic U.S. political landscape, and global calls for racial justice.

like many other Gen-Xers, I absolutely love them.

What I didn’t fully appreciate as I first began to seriously dive into musical reaction videos was it was an extension of my day job as a scholar of contemporary Latina/o/x popular music and media. I have always loved watching other people informally engage with music – on the street, in elevators, on public transportation, at concerts. Apparently, millions of others share my passion, as the growing popularity of musical reaction videos by YouTubers illustrates. Why then is the musical reaction video having such broad appeal at this precise cultural and political moment?

Many of the most popular recent music reaction videos tend to follow a standard formula: young, Black male creators are featured responding to classic popular selections that they have purportedly never heard before. Often, the music video or some other clip of the performer(s) are shared and viewed as the creators hear the song for the first time – a move that inevitably complicates the reaction. Simply put: we are not lot merely witness to the commentator’s auditory impressions in these instances; we note their visual reactions as well. The ubiquity of music video has rendered the divide between the sonic and the visual experiences of popular music razor thin if not obsolete, and altered the musical listening process irrevocably. We might argue that musical reaction videos themselves wield the potential to forever change our understanding of the relationship between music and race as well.  

Any nuanced understanding of just why much of the older, white, YouTube adult viewing public is enthralled with musical reaction videos at this time also begs at least a nominal reminder of the explosive racial landscape of 2020. It is therefore difficult to ignore the fact that in an online context marked by the circulation of countless videos detailing everyday acts of violence aimed at African-American men and women, musical reaction videos offer an alternative view of Blackness, one marked by an emphasis on one of the most pleasurable of human acts: listening to music. Enter the Williams brothers.

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The Williams twins holding their 100,000 subscriber YouTube Creator Award in July 2020

Tim and Fred Williams, 22-year old twin brothers from Gary, Indiana, became active in the digital realm when they started their YouTube channel three years ago. Reaction videos to rap and hip-hop tunes quickly became part of the channel’s standard fare, but around a year ago the twins began to react to a broader range of musical genres. The Williams brothers rose to Internet fame late this past July with their reaction video for the dark 1981 Phil Collins drum solo classic “In the Air Tonight.” Notably, shortly after the “In the Air Tonight” video went viral in early August, the song shot up to number two on the iTunes singles chart (Rosen 2020). Featured in no less than a recent New York Times article, a New York Times Magazine essay, and a piece in Rolling Stone, the Williams brothers are posited as central figures in the YouTube trend, and the “In the Air Tonight” reaction video is cast as a milestone moment in the trajectory of musical reaction videos. The “milestone moment” in question, or the moment when many white media consumers encountered the musical reaction format on YouTube for the first time, constitutes an instance of musical discovery of sorts, with all of the racial connotations that narratives of discovery in the Americas have always implied. Here, however, the discovery is not made by YouTube viewers (whose acts of discovery extend no further than finding the Williams brothers), but rather by the young brothers themselves. Indeed, judging from their comments the viewers responding so enthusiastically to the Williams’ reaction video for Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” are already familiar with the tune. Instead, the pleasure they experience is vicarious; it is rooted in the thrill of (someone else’s – specifically, a young Black male’s) discovery. During my years of research, I have learned that these particular narratives of musical “discovery” are always informed by relationships of power. The logic is simple: musical reaction videos start existing, they literally come into being, once they become legible to dominant U.S. culture. And the songs themselves, never “discoveries” for anyone but YouTube creators like the Williams brothers, become a form of cultural collateral, assuming different meanings and values to diverse parties. 

Tim and Fred Williams react to Phil Colin’s “In the Air Tonight”

Despite their ubiquitous nature, musical reaction videos are actually quite rare in some key regards: for one, they offer the opportunity for highly fragmented media audiences to engage each other over their shared appreciation for a common media text. With the persistent movement in recent decades towards ever more fragmented media markets – and the intense political fragmentation of the United States in recent years – this is not a minor issue.  The music industry has been no exception. By the very nature of the industry’s current construction, it is not necessarily easy to leave one’s musical listening bubble on services like Spotify, a streaming service that deploys algorithms to select the next artists that consumers can listen to. However, as Jonathan Bernstein (2020) contends, musical reaction videos can also contribute to the breaking down of traditional, and often racially informed, musical genres in the marketing process. What then does the potential influence of YouTube creators have on the organization of the US music industry and its conceptualization of the nexus between music and race? How might these shifts someday shape the manner in which we as global citizens approach the act of listening to music? And how might it encourage us to question the impact of race on musical histories, specifically our understanding of how musical forms originate and where they have racially resided across time?

Music reaction videos made by young Black creators also offer the opportunity to contest the historic racial dynamics of the music industry, in particular the politics of co-option that have shaped the historical trajectories of many musical genres. They make it possible to observe young Black creators like the Williams brothers encounter white stars like Dolly Parton or George Michael for the first time – both artists who worked in genres that were essentially grounded in African-American musical forms, yet packaged as “white music” for white audiences. In this regard, as young Black men, the Williams brothers could be said to be recuperating the elements that were originally incorporated from African-American music into their listening practices and into those of many of their listeners (García 2020).

These are but a few of the complexities that musical reaction videos introduce. As Jody Rosen (2020) conjectures, musical reaction videos also attract middle-aged Gen Xers enthralled by a “satisfying twofer: a chance to cluck their tongues at clueless youths while confirming the supremacy of their own touchstones.” The article also makes a compelling argument for the “racial anxiety” underlying the relationship between musical reaction video creators and (read: white, older) YouTube viewers: that the Williams are but one of many Black performer-entrepreneurs who are recognizing and monetizing the online demand for “Black affirmation of white viewers’ cultural worlds” (Rosen 2020). In 2020, we still live in a country in which many non-Blacks are less threatened by Black people who agree with them, and who confirm their worldview. Yet the exchange is not unidirectional: the Williams brothers also receive validation for their open-minded attitudes towards unfamiliar music, their skillful listening, and everything else. In the midst of the very real racial traumas of 2020, it is something of a relief. Beyond that, musical reaction videos just might forever alter the way future generations understand the relationship between music and race. This, my fellow Gen-Xers, is why we should be paying attention. You can certainly bet that the music industry is.

image description
Promotional poster for the participation of the Williams brothers in the 2020 Billboard Music Awards

Image Credits:

  1. The William brothers’ YouTube reaction video to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (Author’s screengrab)
  2. The Williams twins holding their 100,000 subscriber YouTube Creator Award in July 2020
  3. Tim and Fred Williams react to Phil Colin’s “In the Air Tonight”
  4. Promotional poster for the participation of the Williams brothers in the 2020 Billboard Music Awards


Bernstein, Jonathan. “How YouTube Reaction Videos Are Changing the Way We Listen.” Rolling Stone, August 24, 2020.

García, Sandra E. “What Phil Collins and the YouTube Twins Tell Us About Music.” New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2020.

Rosen, Joy. “The Racial Anxiety Lurking Behind Reaction Videos.” New York Times. August 27, 2020.

Domesticity Again, Domesticity Forever: Cottagecore and Domestic Media History
Caroline N. Bayne / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Cottagecore photo by Sonya Pix on Unsplash

I first learned about “cottagecore” during quarantine from its persistent appearance in popular press articles from Vox, The New York Times, and NPR. Cottagecore is a decor, food, and overall lifestyle aesthetic in which its practitioners lean into (seemingly) simplistic, pastoral home life, often rural, or, at the very least, a city bedroom or corner of an apartment draped in lace and dried flowers. Additionally, cottagecore appears premised upon the familiar myth of slow time associated with agrarian living and escaping the hectic pace of city life. It, too, according to these articles, possesses a contemporary quality as it is often described as a result of quarantine living in which home serves as the space where all life occurs. This contemporary quality is also likely attributed to much cottagecore content belonging to video platform TikTok, yet as I discuss below, I find the medium to be of lesser importance than the content. Cottagecore, like domestic practices before it, belongs to a media history dating back to the nineteenth century and the rise of industrialization. As such, popular press articles published this year can’t encapsulate the longevity of cottagecore aesthetics and the ways in which such content reflects and continues a long past of imbuing domestic space with sacred, mythical meaning.

Cottagecore is particularly salient due not only to its current popularity and the intrigue it has generated but also due to its reflection of the trend cultural critic Emily Matchar calls “New Domesticity.” Scholars such as Diane Negra (2009), Elspeth Probyn (1990), and Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush (2011) offer similar analyses of women “returning home” after unsatisfying attempts to privilege professional life over growing a family. “New Domesticity,” as discussed by Matchar in her 2013 book Homeward Bound (the same title of historian Elaine Tyler May’s book on the domestic containment culture of postwar America) is “the re-embrace of home and hearth,” described by its followers as a lifestyle alternative for those who “are sick of long work hours and crappy convenience foods” and who are “ready to return home” (12, 7). 

While Matchar’s book centers interviews with new domestics and her media analysis is limited to blogs, lifestyle and cookery programs, too, have tapped into this discourse of simpler living with several examples of high-profile career women moving to rural settings to start their families. Ree Drummond, the star of Food Network’s Pioneer Woman (2011-), and Molly Yeh of Girl Meets Farm (2018-) have both largely abandoned traditional career life for homesteading and raising their children on familial farmlands in Oklahoma and North Dakota, respectively. Tisha Dejmanee (2019) notes the ways in which such programs “subtly reinforce relationships between nostalgia for the wholesome simplicity of traditional comfort foods and histories of White land ownership and conservative politics” (81). Lineages of family recipes and family lands create a backdrop for programs such as The Pioneer Woman and Girl Meets Farm, part of a group of programs on Food Network, which Dejmanee describes as “Heartland Kitchen” shows.

Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond serves food for her family
Food Network’s Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond

Programming on Food Network reveals the discrepancies between postfeminist domestic time and the need to “have it all” regarding work and family and “new” domestic time. The ordering of postfeminist time is premised upon balancing the duties of home and work, with tips and tricks provided by domestic advisors for capturing and maintaining this elusive balance. Elizabeth Nathanson (2009) names Rachael Ray and her popular program, 30 Minute Meals (Food Network, 2001-12; 2019-), as representative of such. Programs like 30 Minute Meals and their celebrity advisors demonstrate “[finding] pleasure in everyday tasks by carefully balancing multiple demands” (Nathanson 2009, 318). While shortcut and time conscious programs continue to prosper across lifestyle and home networks, “New Domesticity” focuses less on balance and more on taking back one’s time from the demands of neoliberal, late capitalist living. Living in the postfeminist “time crunch,” in which family time is often sacrificed to the demands of work is the precise escapist alternative purportedly offered by new domestic living. While “New Domesticity” and cottagecore living appear to offer satisfying alternatives to the grind of existence under neoliberalism, it is important to identify the ways in which these “alternate” lifestyles look quite familiar. 

In studying “New Domesticity” on television, a term I don’t particularly prescribe to but has come to represent burgeoning questions about contemporary domestic practices, I found that much of this content takes place beyond television screens, despite the intimate relationship between domestic content and television programming since the 1950s. While domestic content continues to thrive on television via Food Network and HGTV, new media platforms like TikTok proliferate with new domestic content. In looking at domestic trends across media, it becomes necessary to frame cottagecore content on TikTok as an immediate relative, borrowing a longstanding and ubiquitous media blueprint for idyllic home life.

The #cottagecore tag on TikTok currently has 3.9 billion views and the homepage features content from popular creators. The videos on this page, from users lillies.apothocary (217.4k followers), hereatthecottage (324.4k followers), and jesca.her (249.k followers) feature content with recurring themes and imagery: rustic home cooking, home/property tours, and aesthetically saturated posts featuring flowers, candles, and warm lighting; cozy and hyper-aesthetically curated spaces make up most of the content. The comforts of home in cottagecore living are very much on display and while these comforts might not look like the most desirable conditions of contemporary homes, such as open floor plans and gleaming white kitchens, the desirability for highly curated and aestheticized space remain the same. The pace of the videos is often leisurely and gaiting, with soft melodic music and voiceovers barely above a whisper.


What’s your favorite part of Fall, dear? 🍂 I love the coziness and autumn food 🐻 ##fall ##cottagecoreaesthetic ##cottagecore ##autumnvibes ##fyp

♬ Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone – Harry’s Wonderful World – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & David Arnold

@jesca.her‘s cottagecore aesthetics

Much like domestic content on television, the lengths of time, necessary skill, and money to achieve such spaces is left out as to not disturb the mythic aesthetics of slow time and the stark separation between home and work; home as sanctuary or oasis, as cleanly cleaved from the realm of labor is the premise of new domestic content. Home ownership and what Melissa Gregg (2018) calls “temporal sovereignty” are yoked to expressions of home as sanctuary and the bedrock of much cottagecore content. While cottagecore living likely doesn’t imagine the suburbs as its ideal location, the move from cities to suburbs and increases in home ownership after WWII looks quite similar. Lynn Spigel (1992) notes that massive migration of young married couples to the suburbs “offered, primarily to the young adults of the middle class, a new stake in the ideology of privacy and property rights” (5). As such, “the home functioned as a kind of fall-out shelter from the anxieties and uncertainties of public life” and “was predicated upon the clear division between public and private spheres” (Spigel 1992, 6). Cottagecore and new domestic content follows a similar trajectory insofar as private property provides middle-class families and individuals with the space to perform the rituals of manifesting “the good life.” Additionally, cottagecore, much like newly minted suburbanites, in addition to being middle-class are largely white, sustaining the achievement of a nationally recognized “good life” as the domain of a small fragment of the population. In addition to home ownership is temporal sovereignty and the ability to choose how to spend one’s time, which in new domestic content equates to the ability to opt-out of the pacing of neoliberal life, to spend one’s time refurbishing a cottage and baking bread from scratch.


Cottage Tour part 1 ##cottagecore ##farmcore ##cottage ##aesthetic ##fyp ##foryou ##country ##uk ##england ##nature ##house ##tour ##farm ##home ##room ##cosy ##cute

♬ 千与千寻 口琴版 – 口琴伟宝

@hereatthecottage‘s home tour

A life that doesn’t center work is, in my estimation, a radical and necessary exercise in thinking. Kathi Weeks (2011) proposes what she describes as “antiwork politics and postwork imaginaries” in which “The goal is … to claim the time to reinvent our lives, to reimagine and redefine our spaces, practices, and relationships of nonwork time” (168). However, she cautions against adhering to false dynamics that imagine the home as void of labor in the vein of new domestic content. “New Domesticity” does not, it seems, afford the possibility of time being unscripted by nostalgia for “simpler” times, nor the possibility of cultivating new pleasures and ways of being that don’t follow the familiar tread of domestic trends prior. 

Image Credits:

  1. Cottagecore photo by Sonya Pix on Unsplash
  2. Food Network’s Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond
  3. @jesca.her’s cottagecore aesthetics
  4. @hereatthecottage’s home tour


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