On “pop writing”

I’m gonna repeat the chorus, and I’m gonna sing it ’til I’m blue in the face

This is a note in response to various posts written on Medium in the last few weeks: one of which was effectively a ripoff another, one of which brought up the fairly obvious point that top content producers (by means of likes & shares, not quality, which is subjective) might simply rip each other off, and a final one which brought to light the inherent problem with all of this.

The problem described isn’t specific to Medium: virtually all written nonfiction on the Internet that gets clicked on by the masses is specifically meant to get clicked on by the masses. A great subset of writers on Medium are no different. Original, interesting writing gets shoved into obscurity while the majority of readers see these repetitive listicles, hollow advice columns and “thought pieces” about Startups, Wanderlust and Life Hacking – because that’s what people appear to want to read. The numbers show it.

I’m fine with that, sure, in small doses. These days, you need some positive motivation to deal with the shitstorm mess that is modern reality. But after a while, as Ben Belser suggests, it gets old. Thousands of “influencers” circlejerking on hearts and fuzzies to promote themselves without giving a shit about what they’re actually saying, robbing the Internet of its soul.

I realized something the other day: Isn't this basically the same as pop music?

Hundreds of thousands of songwriters, composers and performers over generations, mostly working within the same general realm of tonality, mostly attempting to portray the same general emotions and ideas, oftentimes even ripping each other off for the sake of marketability. There are millions of blog posts, ironically enough, about how to do this.

Think about it: all of the most popular songs in the US right now can be confined to a tiny number of styles (hip hop, synth pop, country, with a few rock hits and retro throwbacks). Almost all of these songs are about the following: love, sex, drugs, partying, loneliness, angst. Many even feature the same ideas (emotional or musical) or even the same artists (looking at you, Tay Swift). There are incredibly few exceptions to this rule in the past 15 years – nu metal was an incredibly dumb angry fad, but even Limp Bizkit’s lyrics largely stayed within the confines of the aforementioned 6 topics.

How is this any different from going on Medium one morning and seeing virtually the exact same blog posts you saw 2 weeks prior? The posts are obviously not the same – maybe a different author, a different sponsor, a different tip to make you fitter, happier, more productive – but they're largely interchangeable. Sometimes they are even virtually the same. Like pop music.

So I’ve started to call the majority of what Medium feeds me something else: pop writing. Marketable, interchangeable writing to satisfy the masses. Blogs (at least the most popular ones on Medium) are no longer personal or honest or catering to a particular interest – their sole purpose is to maximize the marketability of the writer’s brand. Not unlike any top 40 artist, CamMi Pham (whose writing and general vibe mostly infuriate me) has a carefully curated personal brand, which draws elements from positivity-pumping wellness and advice writing (and sometimes, directly from other writers). She’s trying to be the Tay Swift of your Medium feed. This fine – millions of people love Taylor Swift, and thousands of people love CamMi Pham’s deliberate, speech-like writing on learning and unlearning and bettering oneself.

You want to figure out how her written brand works? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Come up with a really fucking edgy, attention-grabbing title.

Start with some one-sentence paragraphs.

Write increasingly powerful and emotional statements in those paragraphs.

Maybe a sentence implying initial self-doubt.

Then throw out a big initial thesis.

Usually in bold or headline style.

Then repeat that thesis verbatim, followed by a supporting reason.

The repeat that thesis verbatim again, with further reasons.

What about this other reason? No need to worry, because here’s that thesis again. With another supporting reason.

And that is the thesis, verbatim once more.


Pure, unadulterated crap.


King Crimson (which most people probably know, sadly, from when Kanye West sampled them) have this great song called “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” which is basically a brilliant exercise in hollow meta-songwriting. Most of the lyrics discuss the structure of the song itself:

And when I have some words

this is the way I’ll sing

through a distortion box

to make them menacing

It makes for a great commentary on the cookie-cutter nature of pop music construction – there are tropes that one can follow to clearly evoke some kind of emotional response, so we exploit them for maximum feeling. Adrian Belew (the singer) clearly describes the section of the song, what emotion must be evoked within it, and how he intends to portray that emotion; by the time he’s in the second chorus, he’s made it clear the song itself has no meaning: “I’ll brew another pot / of ambiguity.” The bridge, “you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with,” just reinforces that – it’s a nothing statement, weirdly urgent but pointless, endlessly repeating like the advice pieces on my Medium top feed.

(Ironically, that song was written music-first, and the lyrics were thrown in last minute as placeholder. Do you think Adrian Belew cares about what I think the song means? He’s not even making pop music.)

Like how pop music leverages chord progressions and romantic/lonely/excited feelings, Pop Writing leverages the nurturing nature of self-help, the inspiring nature of startup culture & life disruption, pandering political fluff and a few other obvious topics. Let’s call them “subgenres.” Each subgenre, and some artists within that subgenre, have particular conventions that are proven to be more effective than others. It’s already obvious that clickbait article titles is a common theme among all subgenres of pop writing. Some others: pick an icon and find an obscure fact about him or her; pick a bad quality about yourself and gradually turn it good; pander to the founders of an amazing product; respond to that pandering by shitting on said product; give advice to the most blogged-about professionals.

Like how pop music is hard to pigeonhole by conventions but easy to pick out, pop writing is hard to pigeonhole by topic to easy to pick out. One can easily pick up on the writing style of a blogger and exploit it for their own gain. Just pick a topic (even if it’s been beaten to death), read a few popular articles on that topic and pick up on the sentence and paragraph structure. Write a few test-drive articles to hone your skill, and then start marketing your brand. You’re basically doing what Taylor Swift did when she decided she wanted to move into pop music – developing your brand to reach a new audience.

If that’s what you feel like doing with your spare time, weirdo.

Medium is going the way of the music industry, but that's fine.

Nothing should stop CamMi Pham from writing like she does. Medium definitely shouldn’t stop her. That's the free market blogging economy at work. Instead, let's just call it what it is: happy, cookie-cutter, highly targeted pop blogging that will gain her new followers. The market demands it.

The problem seems to ultimately lie in the writer’s convictions. Yann Girard might be more genuine in his writing, but he might not be. Someone writing about a life tip they just discovered might genuinely be so excited about it that they’re compelled to share it with the world. S/he might also be plagiarizing someone else. Who knows?

Maybe the problem ultimately lies in the newfound stigma for content marketing and “social influencers” – people who are paid to get clicks and followers, and thus the honesty of their writing is instantly called into question. Maybe these people could rebrand themselves to appear more honest. CamMi Pham is unapologetic – she admits to being a total fraud and attempts to justify it (within her standard writing convention, of course). Yes, she might be encouraging young writers to steal ideas from others and develop a contrived style of writing that eschews honesty for marketability – but again, if that’s what people want to read, then more power to the writers.

For those who don’t like it: welcome to the beginnings of literary snobbery. Three immediate suggestions for you:

  1. If you don't like pop writing, simply don't read it. Just as I usually avoid the Top 40 like the plague, stop reading the Top Posts on Medium and find writing you like via other means: use Medium's tags, start curating who you follow, or look elsewhere entirely.
  2. If you think Medium isn’t listening and want to help out writers you care about, start your own subculture. Radio failed to capture many niche music genres and scenes, so music blogs popped up to try and promote music in those niches. Maybe fans of certain types of writing will subscribe to a blog or network that heavily caters to a certain niche of fiction or nonfiction. There doesn’t need to be one blogging platform.
  3. If you do genuinely have some honest advice or learnings to share with the world, do so genuinely. Please refrain from marketing tropes, because people can see through that shit. Tell the world what you know, how you feel about it, and if you pulled it from somewhere else, be honest about it. I love reading Jason Fried’s posts for this reason – he’s honest, witty and daring and has legitimate reason & experience to pull off all three.

I’m going to tag this post and hope it gets some likes and shares (which, by the way, you should do if you think it’s useful). It probably won’t, though, because I’m not a digital influencer with 500+ followers on Medium.

Yet.

Because I’ll keep trying.

Maybe I should read one of those “Top 10 Ways to Find Success on Medium” posts for help.