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No Expectations 036: Night Scene
Are TikTok movie reviewers real critics? Also, a failed attempt to wade into the country music discourse.
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“On TikTok, he found that he could reach an enormous audience with relatively little effort”
There’s a fascinating and sobering profile of TikTok “movie reviewers” in the New York Times culture section. The piece interviews a handful of young people on “MovieTok,” a corner of that website devoted to film, who make 30-90 second videos about the movies they watched. These accounts all have hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers. Their most popular videos get several million views (for transparency’s sake: a good week at No Expectations is 10 to 20K clicks). Almost every “reviewer” interviewed has been paid by movie studios to promote upcoming features on their platforms. According to the story, the average big MovieTok account will get anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 per promoted post.
In a world where arts critic jobs are the first to go in newsroom layoffs and jobs are dwindling or non-existent industry-wide, it’s not great seeing short-form social media videos positioned as the future of criticism. Worse, it’s a bummer to see what’s essentially paid promotion get so much more engagement than actual text-based criticism and journalism. Social media influencing isn’t anything new but it gets even more ethically murky and potentially dangerous when it brushes up against journalism and criticism. It’s not that people shouldn’t use TikTok or short-form to engage with art: the platform allows users to go deep on a scene, provide recommendations, and discuss industry news. But what’s popular on the platform is surface-level, hyperbolic, and ethically dubious content, not criticism.
“This is not a new thought because we’ve all thought it since 2018 but the Spider-Verse movies are on a whole different level of greatness,” begins one MovieTok video from a 21-year-old creator with 1.5 million followers profiled in the NYT piece. They continue on camera seated in a Marvel Gamer Chair saying things like “it’s almost silly to think that no movies could have this good of writing [sic]” and “the animation is easily the best animation ever put to screen.” In the clip, there are no examples to back up these claims and no historical comparisons to other films, just raw unfiltered opinions. “When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it,” they said in their interview with the New York Times. “But when you have someone on TikTok who you watch every day and you know their voice and what they like, there’s something personal that people can connect to.”
This person’s negative take on criticism is held by the majority of MovieTok users profiled in this piece. “A lot of us don’t trust critics,” said another creator with 387,000 followers to the Times. “They watch movies and are just looking for something to critique. Fans watch movies looking for entertainment.” When the NYT asked a creator with 3 million followers if they self-identified as a critic, they replied, “I just don’t see myself in that light.” Several of the people profiled expressed hesitation about posting negative reviews in general, with one preferring to add any critiques in the middle of a “compliment sandwich” to soften the blow. When you take this with the fact that most of these MovieTok creators are paid by studios to hawk movies, it’s pretty chilling.
To put it nicely, this is all baby-brained stuff. The quote about fans watching movies for the sole purposes of entertainment especially lays the stakes of this thinking pretty plainly. If all of this is just entertainment, it’s not art and there’s no point in digging deeper and thinking about what works and what doesn’t. There’s no point in searching for context, connecting historical threads between what came before and what a particular film accomplishes, or thinking about how a particular thing moves the medium forward or backward. Taste without curiosity is just fluff. Using your platform to be a shill for studios without having the courage to critique is just careerism. With this kind of content, there’s no introspection or true grappling with a body of work beyond breathless assertions and bite-sized quotes that don’t mean much of anything.
While it’s true thoughtful criticism should be accessible, conversational, and engaging, I don’t think there’s much substance to these MovieTok videos beyond recommendations to people with shortened attention spans. It’s certainly not criticism and shouldn’t replace it. If I want to engage with art and learn more about it online, I don’t think a 21-year-old paid by Warner Brothers to say the Blue Beetle movie is “lowkey GOATED” is going to be worthwhile. When I first started getting into music and film, I read as much as I could from critics. Even when I disagreed, my appreciation for the art deepened by allowing different perspectives to shape my own tastes. Hell, a lot of what made me want to write in the first place was that I thought some critics were wrong about my favorite bands, and I maybe had good reasons why they were idiots.
This smarmy mindset that you shouldn’t critique or criticize works of art is probably responsible for a lot of bad art getting popular in film, music, and elsewhere. It’s a flattening of culture that comes from shilling for baseline, mass-produced mediocrity disguised as inclusive populism. When an artist or a person who ostensibly reviews art maligns criticism as an enterprise, you get worse and worse things rising to prominence. You get phoned in art and you get ill-informed people with loud opinions engaging with it. I don’t want to live in a complacent world where all of this is solely entertainment. There’s got to be more to it than that.
This Machine Shills
I originally meant for this week’s essay to be about Oliver Anthony, whose debut single “Rich Men North of Richmond” became a viral sensation thanks to messianic praise from right-wing pundits like Matt Walsh and Jack Posobiec. The song is earnest folk not dissimilar to Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan but features some odious lines about “the obese milking welfare” and “Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.” (It is pretty funny to rip off Tyler Childers yet make fun of welfare recipients when Childers and his backing band call themselves The Food Stamps from days using EBT benefits). I deleted my draft about that because it’s well-covered territory already and my heart wasn’t really in it. I also think that in a month we’ll probably forget all about this and move on to something even dumber to argue about for culture war fodder.
All I’ll say is that I am not looking forward to the culture wars being played out even more on the Billboard Hot 100 and Apple Music Charts. When Morgan Wallen was caught on tape saying a racial slur, his digital album sales increased 1,220 percent in the days following the controversy. When Jason Aldean’s politically noxious “Try That In a Small Town” was quietly pulled from CMT for being filmed at a place where lynchings occurred and its dog-whistle lyrics, the single only then climbed to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after languishing on the country charts. (It’s now at no. 21, a historic drop). While Anthony’s rise to the charts didn’t start from controversy, it did come on the backs of a well-coordinated social media blitz from right-wing trolls who rarely if ever post about music.
I’m not claiming Anthony is entirely some industry plant for conservatives because it’s obvious what he’s doing is tapping into something larger than these right-wing trolls’ platforms. Anthony claims to be “pretty dead center down the aisle on politics” and while his YouTube page links to conspiracy videos asserting Israel is responsible for 9/11 and Jordan Peterson lectures, I don’t know much about who he is or what he believes. (Though, I could probably take a few guesses with the information given). If he actually is somehow dead center politically, he won’t have much luck being a beacon for right-wing because they’ll move on to something else to get their base outraged over soon enough. Immediately being positioned as a pawn in a culture war is a weird way to start a career. I wonder if Anthony sticks around or if he’ll just become the 2023 guitar version of Joe the Plumber.
What’s a shame about these predictable outrage cycles and goosed digital sales numbers is that so many artists who are making genuinely thoughtful folk, bluegrass, and Americana in these places continue to be undiscovered and underappreciated. Artists who don’t punch down, who move the genre forward, and who interrogate where they’re from and where it’s going. It doesn’t feel right to focus on this one artist backed by politically noxious figures to further divide when there’s so much more to discover.
I was interviewed by Vincent Byas for A Little Corner
I first met the musician and writer Vincent Byas in 2022 during a show at Sleeping Village where we bonded over the band Mamalarky. Since then, we’ll bump into each other at gigs and it’s always a joy catching up and talking about what we’re into at the moment. He recently started a Substack for interviews with creatives and was kind enough to ask me to hop on Zoom for the third installment. You can read that here.
What I listened to:
No Expectations 036:
1. Ratboys, “Morning Zoo”
2. Florry, “ILYILY”
3. Sonny Falls, “Night Scene”
4. Gaadge, “No Go”
5. Versing, “Nowhere”
6. Mali Velasquez, “Bobby”
7. Empty Country, “Erlking”
8. Skyway Man, “Long Distance Healing”
9. Sun June, “Get Enough”
10. Land of Talk, “Your Beautiful Self”
11. Stephen Steinbrink, “Pony”
12. Superviolet, “waver”
13. Sufjan Stevens, “So You Are Tired”
14. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Behold! Be Held!”
15. noname, “hold me down (ft. Jimetta Rose & Voices of Creation)”
Bonny “Prince” Billy, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You
Will Oldham is 53 and has been making essential, haunting, and excellent folk music for over three decades under a ton of different monikers: Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s an overwhelming catalog but it’s all pretty good no matter where you start. His latest, Keeping Secrets Will Destory You, is honestly a great introduction if you aren’t familiar with his work. Just excellent songwriting here.
Omni, Deluxe (2016)
If you write about music long enough and talk to a lot of musicians, you’ll find that people in bands tend to love certain bands far more than critics. From 2016 on, Atlanta’s Omni was definitely at least one of “my favorite band’s favorite bands.” They haven’t put out an LP since 2019 but revisiting their three album catalog was a highlight of the week.
What I watched:
Asteroid City (Peacock)
Wes Anderson is one of the most successful working directors in the sense that he can double down on his own sensibilities from movie to movie. His unrelenting style has become so ubiquitous it’s become a meme. Just go on TikTok or search Twitter and you’ll find user-created parodies of Anderson’s visual aesthetics. Sure, most of these are poorly-made facsimiles that fail to understand why his style is so compelling. It’s not just that these scenes look elegantly composed or cute, it’s that there’s an underlying emotionality and intentionality in the way he shoots movies. Asteroid City, his latest which is now streaming on Peacock, proves that thousands of people parodying his style on social media can’t dilute his effectiveness. Without giving away the plot, which is decisively meta, this might be my favorite movie of his I’ve seen in over a decade. The ending was an emotional gut-punch and a powerful statement from an artist who even in success stays misunderstood.
During my first week at college, I made a huge mistake. Some of the guys on my dorm floor were huge film and record heads to the point where my tastes seemed practically entry-level. I remember one of them said their favorite movie of all time was Solaris to which I replied, “Oh yeah…with George Clooney, right?” Uh oh. I’ll never forget the vitriol and condescension in the way the dude said, “Umm, no” before clarifying that his favorite Solaris is the 1972 Tarkovsky original, not the 2002 Soderbergh remake. Needless to say, I eventually made different friends in college but I never got around to the first Solaris until now. Well, that dude was probably an asshole but he was onto something about this classic sci-fi film. I’ll be thinking about it for a while, especially on how so much sci-fi I love (Annihilation, Sunshine, Moon, Arrival) clearly ripped from this. I don’t throw the masterpiece tag lightly but this is it.
How To With John Wilson (Max)
HBO’s How To With John Wilson is currently in its third and final season. It’s the best one yet. If you’ve never seen this Nathan Fielder-produced documentary-comedy, it’s unlike anything on TV. The episodes are ostensibly about teaching the audience to do a simple task (“How to Find a Public Restroom”) or better themselves (“How to Work Out”) through slice-of-life visual gags and interviews with New Yorkers but really, it’s about so much more. Wilson’s always filming and he’s able to capture some incredible footage in the years he’s been doing this show. Take just the pilot episode, which features a celebrity unable to successfully swipe his transit card, Hasidic Jews vaping on a park bench, and EMT workers accidentally dropping a corpse. This season is uproariously funny (there’s a bit about a self-cleaning bathroom in episode one that I can’t stop thinking about) but it feels darker and more personal. Through Wilson’s camera work and his scripts, you often get a sense of how he’s feeling about life and work. This makes this season his most resonant yet. I’ll be sad when it’s over but I’m excited to see what Wilson does next.
What I read:
Screenwriter Cord Jefferson Explains the Stakes of the Writers’ Strike (Frazier Tharpe, GQ)
But I had left Gawker for TV and all these people thought, as you said, that it was some glamorous gig. But meanwhile, I got to go to my boss's house for handouts because I'm not getting paid that much. That’s the reality for so many writers.
And that was almost a decade ago—things have gotten even worse. There was a young Black writer who talked about writing for The Bear, which was nominated for Best New Show at the Writers Guild Awards. And the night that he attended the awards ceremony, he went there with a negative bank balance and then he won. In what world is that a reasonable situation? And that is an incredibly common story. There are a lot of people who have bartending gigs, they leave their writers room and then they go work as a waiter, or a bartender, or some other gig job. There are people driving Ubers because they can't scrape together enough money from a TV writing job.
And meanwhile, you have the executives in this industry paying themselves 50, 60, 250 million dollars a year. It's not like Netflix sells cars and food. They sell one thing, and all of it has a writer involved in some way.
Tiffany Gomas, a.k.a. "Crazy Plane Lady," Didn't Owe the Public an Apology (Parker Malloy, The Present Age)
I don't know anything about Gomas beyond the viral video: I don't know her politics, I don't know her taste in entertainment, I don't know anything. Maybe she’s a super nice person. Maybe she’s a monster. I have no clue. And while I have sympathy for the people whose flights were delayed by a few hours due to her outburst, I still can't help but feel as though the worldwide attention with an audience of millions was unwarranted.
She wasn’t a celebrity or a politician. She wasn’t a public figure. She’s just a person who has now been thrown into the public spotlight and who will have to live with the whole world knowing her as the “crazy plane lady,” as she said.
The evolution of Steve Albini (Jeremy Gordon, The Guardian)
The musician Steve Albini and I had been chatting for about a half hour, going over the particulars of his daily routine, the financial viability of his business, and various other prosaic and uncontroversial subjects, when it suddenly seemed appropriate to ask about the decades-long stretch of time where he’d sort of seemed like a giant asshole. Several months before, on Twitter, he’d felt moved to explain some of the terrible things he’d said in public over the years. This might not seem so remarkable: many people – the famous, the semi-famous, the completely insignificant – have spent a lot of time apologising on Twitter for their former selves. But when Albini decided to acknowledge his past in direct terms, with no qualification or defensiveness – “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them” went one line in what became a viral thread – it engendered a somewhat astonished reaction along the lines of: “Damn, if Steve Albini is saying this, then nobody else has an excuse.”
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar:
Friday, August 18: Sonny Falls, Deady, Sunshine, Mister Goblin at Gman Tavern. Tickets.
Friday, August 18: Dogs at Large, Valentiger, Ladders at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Friday, August 18: Sweeping Promises, Spread Joy, Clickbait at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, August 18: Charlie Hill, Ari Lindo, Anna Jordan at The Red Room. Info.
Friday, August 18: The Swell Season, Malinda at The Salt Shed. Sold out.
Saturday, August 19: Old 97’s, Angel White at Thalia Hall. Tickets
Saturday, August 19: Lin Brehmer Day: A Celebration at Metro. Sold out.
Saturday, August 19: Chance the Rapper, Saba at United Center. Tickets.
Tuesday, August 22: William Matheny, Jaik Willis at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Tuesday, August 22: Fontaines D.C., Been Stellar at Metro. Tickets.