Last week, we ran an interview with Big Boi, in which he appeared to answer everyone’s questions regarding the future of new collaborations between him and Andre 3000. He said that while working on his upcoming Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, he gave Andre as many as five tracks to rap on, but that his onetime partner “had to do some Gillette shit.” The Internet promptly blew up, with countless posts, re-posts, shares, and brand new articles proclaiming from the digital mountaintop: Gillette is keeping OutKast apart! The thing is, Big Boi was clearly joking. As the man himself tweeted on Wednesday: “The Gillette Statement was me being Sarcastic, man y’all slow as hell.”
This is a state of life and media in the 21st century, the daily Internet version of “Dewey Defeats Truman” where countless sites spread misconstrued or incorrect info due to two main factors: needing to be first, and wanting to drive a lot of traffic. That goal itself isn’t the problem; traffic is integral to a site, as more page hits mean more (and bigger) advertisers and, well, we all need to make money. Still, many decry the journalistic shortcomings we give into in the name of page hits. Perhaps what has been less considered is the detrimental effects this culture has on us as not only as writers, but also as readers and listeners.
In my nascent career, I’ve been involved at a few publications, and the situation’s often the same. Everyone would like to do more serious, long-form stuff, really go in-depth with the subject at hand while also getting at some big ideas. We just feel like we have our hands tied, sometimes by editorial dictate, sometimes by some abstract sense that the internet has decreed lists and sensationalism to be our sole purpose. Some of this is purely practical. Lists are often built from easily repackaged content, and will someday themselves be poached for new lists. They’re fun, readable over a lunch break or subway commute. Sensational headlines function similarly, eye-grabbing gossip that fills a breather between tasks and provide fodder for office banter, but don’t require the attention, time, or reflection of digging into a 3,000 word think piece.
Just because something’s practical doesn’t mean it should remain an unquestioned status quo. While an Internet media culture anchored to click-baiting content provides frustration for young writers put in danger of being relegated to recycling, it also encourages questionable developments in our behavior as readers and listeners. Lists and sensational headlines don’t do much to augment our experience of music. They become akin to the noise of gossip magazines–lots of ephemera and trivia, but little truly thought-provoking material. This, in turn, also affects our relationship to music, exacerbating an already superficial relationship in the era of Spotify and YouTube. Not only do we not spend as much time with our music, but we don’t get to read thoughtful work as much as we should either. Everything gets cheapened. I saw Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield speak last month, and he talked about how, when the internet was newer, he and other writers were actually hopeful that it would free them from the overly release date-centric magazine culture of the ’90s. Of course, it became the opposite, an even more intense race to be first and to rack up the most traffic, which doesn’t allow for much real thought or consideration on what you’re writing. Websites are too often treated as something frenetically mercenary, simply a mechanism to make enough money to shore up flagging magazines.
Sheffield said he actually saw things currently going in that initial direction he had imagined. There’s some evidence in sites like GQ.com and Grantland that balance out their lists and occasional sensational headline with original, in-depth essays. David Greenwald and Daniel Siegal’s upcoming project Uncool also shows promise–they’re using a Kickstarter to try to fund a site that will feature only long-form, critical pieces of music writing. Without advertisers, no lists or cheap headlines will be necessary to drive traffic.
Maybe all this borders on being utopian in its vision of what music writing can be and what people will actually read. But think about it. Just because the Internet has made us so connected that we consume media and news immediately, constantly, why does that mean what we publish has to be so integrally linked to the newest release? Who decided something needs to be read during 15 minutes at Chipotle? The Internet is infinite. There are no page limits and no objective laws when you have to read or write about something. It’s time we aspired to a system beyond this click-baiting madness, one that capitalizes on these new frontiers of writing on the Internet.