Creator Highlight: Spencer Kornhaber, “On Divas”

I most likely wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t for Spencer Kornhaber. Not simply this text, however perhaps in any respect — discovering his popular culture evaluation at The Atlantic throughout my first journal journalism class in faculty in early 2020, which I’d taken solely as a result of it fulfilled a requirement, I used to be struck by how all-encompassing journalism may be. Rising up with my dad and mom tuned into the strict voices on CNN and MSNBC, internet hosting panels with consultants in fits speaking about uninteresting topics, I used to be shocked that you might write about something after studying excerpts from The New Yorker and The Atlantic. It may be humorous and informative , and you’ll actually infuse character, wit, and humor into something you do and the conditions you search out. I found him after class, scrolling The Atlantic’s archives, together with the work of Amanda Mull, Jia Tolentino, Kaitlyn Tiffany, and different writers who had the identical transformative impact and helped me by way of the pandemic the place, a yr and a half later within the first glimpse of a brighter future forward in the summertime of 2021, I made a decision to be a author.

All this to say, once I say that Kornhaber was popping out with a e book that I might interview him about, it was a full-circle second in all its entirety. On Divas, his first full-length, is a group of essays from 2017 to final yr centered round divas, a surprisingly broad time period. Individuals like Björk, Donald Trump, RuPaul, Lana Del Rey, Britney Spears, and Jack White all present up right here, by means of profiles or investigation. Enjoyable, insightful, and by no means taking itself too significantly, On Divas examines essentially the most attention-grabbing stars of our time and why we’re so drawn to their spectacle.

Our Tradition sat down with Spencer Kornhaber to speak concerning the pull of divas, his time with Björk, Donald Trump’s fabulousness, and all issues popular culture. 

Congratulations in your first e book! How was the method placing collectively these essays round this theme?

Yeah, this e book is part of a collection The Atlantic has been doing, spotlighting totally different writers alongside themes. When the chance got here up for me to do it, I used to be excited and flattered. I’ve been at The Atlantic for greater than a decade now. Loads of the writing is for the net, quite a lot of it’s about ephemeral information occasions or popular culture moments, however I put quite a lot of thought into every of my items, some greater than others. It was a cool alternative to return by way of my archive and see which items stood the check of time, or a minimum of, a pair years. I labored with nice editors at Zando who additionally went by way of my archive and had an analogous feeling about which items labored for e book kind. We threw round some themes, however for me, it at all times needed to be divas. Perhaps ‘pop music’, however ‘divas’ particularly turned out to be extra of a shocking beat of mine at The Atlantic. It wasn’t what I anticipated to be a lot of what I used to be writing once I began. However they’re fascinating.

In your view, what makes a very good diva, and why do you assume you’re so drawn to a lot of these folks?

I attempt to not over-gatekeep what a diva is, a minimum of for this assortment. It’s useful for me, too, to outline the time period very broadly. Loads of totally different figures may be within the combine. It’s a gendered time period, and one factor I wished to do in gathering these items is mess with that, as a result of it shouldn’t be a gendered time period. You throw folks like Donald Trump or Jack White in there, and it raises the query of, ‘If you happen to’re calling these folks a diva, what about these different ones?’ 

So what makes a diva: I got here to the concept it’s largely about asserting your self, your will, identification, wishes, in a means that’s unapologetic and disruptive, and isn’t actually tied to different peoples’ concepts of respectability. There are different archetypes of performers, just like the rockstar, the singer-songwriter, which is much more concerning the old-school or tutorial concepts of self-expression. The diva is just not so nervous about that. The diva simply needs to announce themselves to the room, and it’s fabulous, and we find it irresistible. A great diva is somebody who will make you perceive who they’re in a short time and can maintain your consideration whereas doing it. 

As to why I’ve been drawn to writing about them, as I write within the intro, there’s undoubtedly been a lineage of me being drawn to those figures. As a child, I used to be at all times obsessive about them. Annie Lennox’s album Diva, which was type of a meta-take on the diva, perhaps. It’s additionally actually nice pop music. I felt for a very long time like I couldn’t embrace my curiosity in them. Having my thoughts blown in sixth grade watching Britney Spears on MTV or VH1 for the primary time, even figuring out, as quickly as I noticed “…Child One Extra Time”, feeling that magic everybody feels after they hear that music for the primary time, figuring out I wasn’t allowed to love it. Loads of this can be a repressed fascination that, later in life, I’ve let myself indulge. 

Had been there any folks that you just had wished to jot down about, however as a result of time or the editorial calendar, you weren’t capable of?

Yeah, there’s folks on a regular basis that I want I might write extra about. On this e book, there’s surprisingly little Taylor Swift. She’s just like the diva of our lives, though I might say she straddles that and different classes. There’s a little bit Taylor, however not as a lot as one would possibly assume, studying me. Different folks I want I might have written about, you already know, the diva is a convention that has actually been honed and formed by Black ladies, and I wouldn’t say I’ve executed the deep historic dive on that lineage, which perhaps I or another person will. After which additionally, the little divas of the second. If I used to be simply writing a music weblog, I’d be writing about Hannah Diamond or Chappell Roan proper now, the girlies that aren’t actually that well-known however all of the queers in Brooklyn are listening to, and I’m one among them. This mini-diva archetype that has risen previously decade is simply great.

So, onto the e book, which is compiled of essays out of your time at The Atlantic. I need to discuss Björk as a result of I hardly ever can in actual life — how was it like assembly her, adapting to Iceland’s climate and adhering to the recording studio’s six-hour tide cycle?

It was undoubtedly one of many cooler experiences I’ve executed on the job. Intimidating. Assembly a well-known particular person, there’s at all times the shock of simply, like, ‘They are surely only a particular person.’ You instantly choose up on her vitality, which is a little bit anxious. She’s somebody who has quite a lot of ideas in her head, analyzing the dialog when you’re in it, but in addition needs to study and perceive you. You get on their stage finally, however it throws you for a loop at first. She was nice, and I didn’t know the place we have been occurring the day I met her. She took me to a lighthouse in Reykjavík the place she typically data. It felt like a little bit safari into her world, though it wasn’t distant. It was August in Iceland, and it was comparatively heat there, which isn’t heat in any respect. The island is wild. It undoubtedly has a perfume to the place, it smells volcanic. She wished to have a back-and-forth about music, the album, and a few cultural points surrounding it. It was such a private album that I wished to speak concerning the private stuff too, and it was attention-grabbing that she stated, ‘That’s for different interviews. For you, I need to discuss this.’ She’s such a author and a scientist.

Yeah, I used to be nearly to ask — it was so attention-grabbing she steered the dialog away from her mom. Does that make it simpler or tougher for an interviewer, for his or her topic to be so observant?

It’s higher to have an interviewee who needs to have an genuine dialog, and that’s what she was making an attempt to do. Despite the fact that it’s additionally utilizing the instruments of media administration, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna discuss that.’ I actually don’t begrudge it in any respect. I assumed it made for an attention-grabbing second. And it may be higher if somebody’s up entrance should you ask them a couple of delicate problem, as a result of typically you will get into a clumsy scenario in an interview. And it’s a very good tip for a way we work together with our associates, too. There’s an authenticity to it.

Let’s discuss Lana Del Rey — within the e book, you will have this essay written across the time of her magnum opus, 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, analyzing if she was counting on a persona or not. In the course of the time that adopted, she’s launched these actually private albums, particularly her glorious one earlier this yr, which I really feel like dispels the notion she’s appearing. What do you consider how time acted on this essay?

You assume she actually lives on the Ramada Inn? [Laughs]

There’s simply a lot extra private stuff now! Perhaps in different songs she’s taking part in it up, for positive.

That essay was written at a second the place this flip was occurring, and it was actually clear how issues have shaken out since then, the place we have been shifting from pop stars who had a transparent and outlined relationship to the thought of persona — I make a comparability to Girl Gaga in that essay. Lana is straddling a line, and I feel she nonetheless is. What meaning is that perhaps there isn’t any line, or residing in between that blurry house between actuality and fiction, which is a singer-songwriter factor. That’s how she needs to be perceived, and perhaps the tradition is bringing the bags, placing her into this pop star lane, when it’s form of assumed you might be taking part in this character, and it’s not a lot concerning the act of writing. However since then, the tradition has shifted in a outstanding means in direction of this narrative-driven, diaristic-specific and private mode of stardom. Of us like Olivia Rodrigo, now there’s a era of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo knockoffs — everybody is de facto making an attempt onerous to look like they’re of their bed room, actually telling you what’s occurring of their lives, and in addition doing it in a means the place the listener can go to the web and discover out what ex-boyfriend they’re speaking about. I nonetheless assume Lana is extra attention-grabbing than that, even on these later albums, doing a mystical, poetic factor the place the connection to her life isn’t that clear, though there are these sharp moments the place she’s bringing her father in.

Equally, your profile of RuPaul was revealed in 2017, and now, we’re coping with ludicrous backlash to tug, queer training and academics, and mainly something they don’t perceive. There’s this parallel as a result of Season 9 of Drag Race was filmed earlier than the 2016 election, and now, Drag Race seasons that aired this yr have been filmed earlier than the conservative backlash broke out. What do you make of this parallel?

Within the story of Drag Race, there’s this kinda overwhelming, mind-blowing success. There’s only a few cultural merchandise which have tangibly modified the world, and in the best way that Drag Race did within the 2010s. It’s not the one motive we now have so many extra younger folks figuring out as queer, however it’s not not a part of that shift. It’s a very highly effective instance of what it means to say ‘illustration issues.’ It is a present that confirmed younger folks there have been alternative ways of being on this planet, after which they began to experiment with them greater than they have been in earlier generations. To not say it’s the one consider that taking place, however it’s a part of it. Its success was so outstanding that even watching it unfold, I assumed, ‘Are we actually getting away with this?’ It was by no means like there was no homophobia round that present, however it simply felt prefer it was blowing previous that entire dialog. After which, there was simply this echo growth of homophobia, conventional gender concepts being enforced, as soon as that present was being felt in society. It’s doable we’re residing by way of this inevitable means of social progress or liberation, however we additionally dwell in a time the place the suitable wing may be very canny and uncompromising and will discover methods to make us greater than a little bit dying rattle of previous concepts, and extra of a real and personally harmful rollback.

I hope the piece made clear that the resistance rhetoric Ru was utilizing, that the present was advertising and marketing itself with, actually deserves a slight little bit of scrutiny, or must be seen as a little bit corny and optimistic [“We need America’s next drag superstar now more than ever”]. I imply, it’s not mistaken, it actually was resisting, and there’s battle round it for a very good motive.

Popular culture is at all times altering, and I used to be simply fast sufficient to catch your essay revealed this morning about Lizzo and the way the time period ‘diva’ has now turned. If you’d like, you possibly can speak a little bit bit about that piece and why it was so apt on your e book.

I’ve wished to jot down a bit that was new and that might publish alongside the e book. And perhaps the e book doesn’t fairly spell out the plain query of the thought of a diva proper now — which is that they’re vital. It is a second the place they’re setting the cultural agenda in a means that feels totally different from earlier generations. I assume I didn’t dwell by way of the heyday of Madonna within the 90s, or one thing like that. However what’s occurring with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, these two very totally different careers on a parallel monitor, it’s wild. Simply the financial and cultural energy they yield. I can’t consider how a lot folks wanna discuss Taylor Swift. It’s like, ‘Have you ever by no means heard about one other particular person on Earth?’ So, I wanna discuss why that was and what it meant. 

It seems like there’s a starvation of their rise for a brand new form of movie star chief. It’s sorta like when folks say that if ladies ran the world there wouldn’t be any battle, which is a misogynist thought in its personal means and undoubtedly not true, however it’s a fantasy, and within the rise of those ladies there’s a little little bit of that craving — a kinder, smarter cultural management. However on the similar time, we additionally need to have them be badasses and do all of the issues that, in earlier generations, would have simply been known as ‘diva habits.’ It simply would have been written off. However then you will have somebody like Lizzo, who’s type of the last word instance of an entertainer making an attempt to be a frontrunner, a social revolutionary, and these allegations come out that she’s not very sort to folks in her interior circle, not very delicate or the kind of caring that you really want from the last word diva protector woman. Behind the scenes, allegations of mistreatment of underlings by well-known persons are very routine, and lawsuits get filed on a regular basis. Nobody actually talks about how Girl Gaga’s assistant made some wild allegations in opposition to her. However proper now, particularly with the persona that Lizzo constructed up, it’s not only a demanding diva overly aware of her subordinates — which was the type of factor we celebrated with Madonna doing that in her Fact or Dare documentary — now it’s an actual undermining of what we anticipate from Lizzo and from this class of cultural chief she represents. My query is that if we’re a little bit delusional about what we anticipate out of those folks. 

Talking of, the 2 singers Noname and Róisín Murphy have been sort-of ‘canceled’ lately, the previous as a result of platforming an anti-Semetic rapper, then justifying his actions, and the latter for saying anti-trans rhetoric on her Fb web page. Simply the opposite day, the infinite provocateur Doja Cat wore a shirt with a neo-Nazi on it. We’re in an period the place we will know the opinions of everybody we glance as much as as artists. What do you assume this impact has on the music business?

Yeah, we actually do anticipate extra of those folks proper now. We anticipate them to be politicians in addition to entertainers. However that’s type of been within the works for some time. You recognize, early 2007 Gaga was so political and actually was a part of this wave of singers all about empowerment and feminism in a means that wasn’t express earlier than. That began the expectation that these stars be leaders, and because it goes alongside, their viewers begins to consider it, and it begins to succumb to their very own requirements. In order the youthful era turns into extra progressive, it’s form of assumed that their entertainers are with them on all their political beliefs, they usually’re not going to be. We’re gonna have extra conditions like this, I’m gonna say. And the factor about what you do while you disagree together with your entertainer’s politics is a separate query about cancellation that I by no means know how one can reply.

I liked the piece about how Donald Trump is that this unlikely reviver of camp, from his rallies to his grandiose statements, and even now, his diva vitality is severely missed on the Republican debates. There’s even a quote going round the place he says that the issue with Ron DeSantis, one other candidate, is that he wants a character transplant, that are “not but accessible.” What do you make of this injection of humor and immediately viral quotes into politics?

It’s been one of many extra destabilizing issues for all of our psychological well being, to have this one who is simply straightforwardly magnetic, and even when he’s by many accounts vile and harmful, it does present that humor, charisma and revolutionary leisure worth is energy. The explanation Taylor Swift is so highly effective is that she’s entertaining and charismatic. That’s a part of the Trump factor. With Trump’s humor and campiness, which is what I used to be writing about within the essay, is that it’s destabilizing in relation to the reality. It permits his aspect to speak in methods which can be complicated and efficient for his or her positive aspects. Form of in the best way that, for instance, sure queer communities have needed to do. There’s a very weird parallel there. Like, when he’s dancing to the Village Individuals, it’s important to level this out. It’s form of ushered us into this post-camp second, in response to Susan Sontag’s definition the place camp can by no means be this intentional factor you go after. Now, there’s nobody that’s not calculating the best way they need to be seen or the extent of humor you’re working at. Aside from Nicole Kidman when she did the AMC advert. That was truly pure camp.

There’s additionally this humanizing issue to him. I discover myself speaking to associates saying, “I like Trump, he’s so humorous!” when, in fact, he’s one of the vital evil folks on the planet. Do you assume being a diva is part of his technique?

Yeah! I don’t know if he’s consciously saying, ‘I’m making an attempt to be a diva,’ however the factor folks react to with divas is that they flatten an area with their very own charisma and personal sense of self, ego. It’s thrilling to see. It’s fabulous — the phrase involves thoughts while you consider a diva’s efficiency. A few of these moments at a Trump rally, they’re horrible, however he’s simply being so fabulous. He’s being a campy queen proper now. However, they’re essentially the most divisive cultural figures for that motive. It’s like sandpaper to some folks, and it causes battle.

You do carry this up in your essay about how musicians are being pressured to advertise their music by way of TikTok. Despite the fact that it’s an app loved due to its authenticity, do you assume it might now have the other impact?

Yeah, anytime there’s a starvation or advertising and marketing for authenticity, it’s type of a contradiction, and it in the end eats itself. Whether or not it’s when Kurt Cobain got here and swept away hair metallic within the 90s, with this new genuine sound that in a short time grew to become corny and ripped off, the identical factor is going on on TikTok the place it’s sweeping away a era of entertainers that have been actually polished and produced that had very coordinated advertising and marketing campaigns, in favor of the man or woman taking part in guitar of their toilet or no matter. Now, persons are making an attempt to reverse-engineer that, and quite a lot of the outcomes are cringey. It may be cringey if somebody is de facto earnest and genuine, however it may also be cringey if somebody is making an attempt to look that means. It’s nearly worse, in that case. It’s very complicated for that earlier era of stars who grew up worshiping the extravagant music video, and now they’re being requested to do a lot much less.

Lastly, do you will have any plans for a full-length nonfiction e book? If that’s the case, what would it not be about?

That’s a very good query. I don’t have any plans, I feel I most likely ought to do one, however they’re onerous. What I liked about this one is that I already had written it! I actually like journal journalism, that’s what I obtained into this for, so I actually really feel very excited and within the potentialities in that, and don’t really feel like I’ve topped out but. To not say it’s important to prime out of one thing earlier than you go to one thing else. However when you have any concepts, ship them to me and I’ll not pay you royalties!

On Divas is out now.

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