Pop Culture Criticism: A How-To For Beginners

It seems like pop culture criticism is everywhere these days, from Twitter threads and newsletters to podcasts and critical essays. If you want to write pop culture criticism but have no idea how to get into it, here is a quick guide to getting started.

If you’re really new to the form, start by reading some pop culture criticism—and lots of it. Part of learning how to write well is reading as much as you can, and it’s true even for a specific type of writing like pop culture criticism. Bitch Media—which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a publication that I contribute to semi-regularly—is, in my opinion, the gold standard of in-depth pop culture analysis and an excellent place to begin. Their diverse roster of contributors and commitment to intersectionality is particularly impressive, as is the variety of pop culture properties that their writers cover. The A.V. Club is great, too although they tend to publish more reviews and recaps than criticism.

Know the difference between a puff piece, a review, and a critical piece. These things are distinct, and knowing the differences between them is important! Puff pieces tend to be about celebrities, and while some purple prose on celebs’ beauty and talent might be okay for entertainment magazines (ask me how many yawn-inducing Vanity Fair profiles of celebs I read growing up), a more critical piece by design will not share many characteristics with a fawning profile. The point of a review is to communicate to the reader whether the book, movie, or other property being reviewed is worth the reader’s time and/or money invested in that thing. A piece of pop culture analysis might contain elements similar to a review, but pop culture criticism is really its own form – and an important one. As Emily VanDerWerff wrote in a 2018 piece for Vox on why cultural criticism is necessary: “We need cultural criticism not just to tell us which movies to go see and which ones to avoid, but to tell us things we already knew but didn’t know how to express. If reporting can explain the world to us, cultural criticism can explain us to us.”

Choose your scope — and the format for your analysis — wisely. If you’re analyzing a TV show, will you focus on one episode? A character’s arc through several episodes? An entire season of the show? If you’re new to pop culture analysis, you’ll probably not want to just start an entire podcast on the thing you want to examine; a tweet thread, a newsletter installment, or blog post might be a better starting point if you’re new to the form.

Make sure to pitch a fully developed idea to editors rather than just saying that you want to “write about [pop culture thing]” as your lede. I’m suggesting this because I have made this exact mistake many, many times. In general, it is best to have a specific angle that you want to take on a pop culture property instead of just wanting to write about a pop culture thing that interests you. To use a more specific example, let’s say you want to write about the character Bucky Barnes from the Captain America and Avengers movies; if you have a strong angle, such as “I want to examine the character arc of Bucky Barnes in [name of Marvel property] and how the Marvel universe portrays acquired disability, in the following ways: x, y, and z” — that is going to be much more interesting to an editor than writing a more general “I want to examine the character arc of Bucky Barnes in [Marvel property].”  

Remember, every pop culture criticism writer, no matter how successful, was once new to the form. Not to sound like a banally “inspirational” meme image from Instagram, but you have to start somewhere. And if starting somewhere is writing lengthy rants about music that no one will read — something that I did as a 16 year-old, although my definition of “successful” might not match yours — I’ve done it, and your favorite pop culture critics may have done similar things while starting their writing careers.