Recommended Reading: Janet Jackson, ‘Taxi Driver,’ and Really, Really Fake News


Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, fresh reappraisals of an influential album and film, a peek into the world of Facebook fake news, and a deep dive into the ads that aren’t ads on Instagram.

Amanda Petrusich on Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814.”

This piece is, admittedly, catnip for your editor-at-large, because Rhythm Nation has been one of my favorite albums, purchased on release day in 1989 and spun countless times since. It’s the kind of big, bold, take-no-prisoners record that an artist can only make after a mega-hit like Control, and while Janet’s made plenty of great records since, she never swung for the fences like she did here, fusing dance, social commentary, rock, ballads, and sex without missing a (or, more accurately, the) beat. As part of the New Yorker‘s “Touchstones” series, Petrusich puts the album in context, and breaks down its methodology and influence.

The citizens of Rhythm Nation are universalists, rallying only for the greater good, which makes “Rhythm Nation 1814” feel, in some ways, like the last major pop record that could credibly be described as optimistic. Already by the late nineteen-eighties, Jackson’s entreaties sounded gentle and idealistic compared to those of more radicalized consciousness-raising artists. Public Enemy and N.W.A. arguably had a more profound influence on pop culture today; it’s hard to imagine a contemporary pop star, who came of age in an era when intersectionality is the dominant critical framework, successfully insisting that we’re all more similar than we think. The vision of a world in “Rhythm Nation,” in which societal ills such as poverty, drug use, and unemployment are merely individual problems, not inextricably linked to systemic injustice, hasn’t aged especially well. The colossal empowerment anthems of our time—such as Beyoncé’s “Formation,” from 2016—are less about erasing difference than claiming and celebrating it.

Eli Saslo on Facebook “satire.”

Christopher Blair is a liberal who writes and operates “America’s Last Line of Defense,” a Facebook page satirizing viral conservative “news” sites; every day, he posts numerous stories about godless libs, encroaching Sharia, illegal immigrants, and brave President Trump, manufacturing each out of whole cloth, on a page branded with 14 satire disclaimers, including one that literally reads “nothing not his page is real.” In this razor-sharp piece for The Washington Post, Saslo spends some time with Blair, and with a member of his target audience: Shirley Chapian, a Nevada retiree who likes and shares his posts without question because they’re “probably true.” Or “true enough.”

Blair didn’t have time to personally confront each of the several hundred thousand conservatives who followed his Facebook page, so he’d built a community of more than 100 liberals to police the page with him. Together they patrolled the comments, venting their own political anger, shaming conservatives who had been fooled, taunting them, baiting them into making racist comments that could then be reported to Facebook. Blair said he and his followers had gotten hundreds of people banned from Facebook and several others fired or demoted in their jobs for offensive behavior online. He had also forced Facebook to shut down 22 fake news sites for plagiarizing his content, many of which were Macedonian sites that reran his stories without labeling them as satire. What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a single person’s mind. The people he fooled often came back to the page, and he continued to feed them the kind of viral content that boosted his readership and his bank account: invented stories about Colin Kaepernick, kneeling NFL players, imams, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrants, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Michelle and Malia Obama. He had begun to include more obvious disclaimers at the top of every post and to intentionally misspell several words in order to highlight the idiocy of his work, but still traffic continued to climb. Sometimes he wondered: Rather than awakening people to reality, was he pushing them further from it?

Paris Martineau on the Instagram influencer economy.

If you’ve spent any time at all on Insta, you’ve seen the sponsored posts that pop up between your friends’ baby pictures and you’re favorite celeb’s “candids.” But that’s far from the only paid, branded content on the social media platform. At Wired, Martineau investigates the world of Instagram and YouTube “influencers,” and the big bucks they make casually shilling for beauty products, mattresses, and more.

Influencers with millions of followers usually have management teams or agents dedicated to identifying the best advertising deals. Most others turn to sites and apps that operate as digital marketplaces, connecting brands with content creators looking to craft the perfect #ad. There are thousands of these marketplaces; two of the most popular are FameBit and Grapevine. FameBit in particular took off after YouTube bought it in 2016. Brands interested in hiring YouTubers as promoters post an ad on FameBit detailing their goals for the campaign, then influencers on the service can submit proposals detailing how they’d tackle the ad. The marketplaces have grown more popular since YouTube limited content creators’ ability to generate revenue from preroll ads in 2016. Through FameBit, YouTube has partnered with over 9,000 brands and countless influencers, generating revenue from each deal. Common sense would suggest that these marketplaces operate like, well … marketplaces, where buyers—brands—and sellers—influencers—agree on a price. But the influencer world often defies economic logic. Recently, at least, influencers seem to have all the bargaining power, and prices have skyrocketed to meet their demands. Bennett, the influencer marketing consultant, says that in 2016 an endorsement from a top-level influencer would generally cost about $5,000 to $10,000; now, brands are expected to pay “well over $100,000 for the same placement.”

Lindsay Zoladz on Taxi Driver in the age of Incels.

Since its release in 1976, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has shaken viewers with its visceral portrait of a lonely, dangerous man (Robert De Niro) whose social ineffectiveness and mental instability drive him to violence. Its story and messaging has been interpreted (and misinterpreted) since its release, but The Ringer’s Zolandz has a fascinating new reading: she sees Travis Bickle as a prototypical Incel.

There’s a creepy air of propriety to the way Travis sees Betsy from the start. His sole justification for believing they should be together is that she is “the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen,” a quality that leads him to stalk her at work until he gains the nerve to ask her out. In reducing her to an impossible ideal, he is setting himself up for the kind of disappointment that only furthers his frustration. He is utterly uninterested in the qualities that make her a three-dimensional human and the kinds of things that, when shared—common interests, a sense of humor—can lead to the kind of connection he craves. “You’re raised to worship women,” Scorsese has said, explaining his character’s motivations, “but you don’t know how to approach them on a human level, on a sexual level. That’s the thing with Travis.” One old-fashioned aspect of Taxi Driver is that in 2018 Travis would not be writing into the silent void of his journal: He’d be posting his rants on subreddits and incel forums, his anger most likely stoked and his misogyny deepened by the kinds of extremists he’d find there, who would give him new justifications to hate women like Betsy rather than tools to connect with them on a human level. That is probably the most difficult part of the film to stomach in a modern context, especially for female viewers: 42 years later, the same kind of logic that drives Travis to kill is alive and well, recognizable in the manifestos of men like Elliot Rodger (who killed six people and injured 14 all because he believed that women were “depriving [him] of sex”) and Alek Minassian (who earlier this year carried out a van attack in Toronto that left 10 people dead and 15 injured, a part of what he called the “Incel Rebellion”) and the disturbingly visible online communities of people who praise them as vigilante heroes. To live in America in 2018 is to endure a steady and desensitizing barrage of news stories about massacres that make Travis Bickle’s actions look chillingly tame. The common denominators in nearly all of these stories—whether they happened yesterday or 50 years ago—are so obviously misogyny and social isolation, but point that out and see how the Greek prophet Cassandra felt. Nobody’s listening.