A decade of sore winners

The underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment — these people refused to admit they had any power, even if they had all of it.

A decade of sore winners

The underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment — these people refused to admit they had any power, even if they had all of it.

Taylor Swift began the decade well. In 2010 she took home four Grammys, including Album of the Year (the youngest artist ever to do so); she released her third album, Speak Now, which sold over a million copies in its first week. Her next album, Red, was a massive critical and commercial success. She was so successful that she took all of her work off of Spotify until she received better terms and forced her record label to adopt a revenue-sharing approach to streaming media for all of their artists.

By any objective measure, Swift also ended the decade well. In fact, she’s the artist of the decade, according to the American Music Awards. She has a net worth of $360 million, has continued to steadily release an album every two years, and, while she’s embroiled in some non-trivial disputes with her old record label, she’s also seen success in other areas (moving into acting, for instance). But if you only listened to Swift’s music, you would be hard-pressed to know any of this, for one simple reason: Taylor Swift won’t stop whining.

When I say “whining,” I don’t mean over the kind of disputes outlined above (I wish Swift the best in her clashes with Spotify, Scooter Braun, and any future unwholesome men). But Swift is always being betrayed by somebody, or, in some cases, anticipating such betrayal. Nobody needed to be told that she keeps a list of enemies. She is always rising — above the haters, up from the dead, in fame — even when she doesn’t seem to have any space left to rise to. She sings that she would be more respected if she were a man.

Misogyny, like arsenic, is always floating around in the water, and in that respect, Swift is not completely wrong. She never really got the respect she deserved for writing her own songs and playing her own guitar, or carefully managing a crossover from country to pop without alienating her old fans. But at $360 million, at what point are we dealing with what amounts to small change? At what point is it fair to say that Swift won, even if that winning does not come with universal adoration and approval?

Call the 2010s the decade of the sore winner: the underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment. It’s Taylor Swift’s decade as much thanks to her affect as her music. But it’s not just Taylor. Donald Trump is a sore winner. So is Brett Kavanaugh. Every Washington figure who blames “Washington” for their failure to deliver on their promises is a sore winner. Hillary Clinton is not a sore winner — she’d have to win — but she has, it must be said, the vibe. (Recall, for instance, her reaction to being referred to as a member of the establishment.)

New York Times columnists and billionaires who think their critics are symptomatic of a second Holocaust? Sore winners. Conservative pundits who, flush with Trump’s favorable court appointments, indulge in ever-escalating paranoia over drag queen story hours are sore winners. Directors of Marvel films who were angry at Martin Scorsese for not loving their work are sore winners. The police are sore winners. Authors of young adult and “chick” lit who feel the need to compare criticism of their work to Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of young girls are sore winners. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is crawling with sore winners. Women who choose to conform to feminine expectations around weight, grooming, and makeup while penning long defenses of high heels, shaving, and lipstick are sore winners (though they are also, in their way and on a higher level, losers). Adult gifted children are sore winners. And so on.

So — to ask the inevitable question — why all the sore winners? Let’s concede that the sore winner has always been with us. But don’t we all want to be winners? Why this elaborate charade?

For a while, I thought the answer to this question was simple: nerds ruined everything. They carried a teenage sense of grievance into adulthood and nobody stopped them and now here we are. In pop culture they gave us people who go to the mat for blockbusters and in politics they gave us the kind of technocrat who just stands around with his hand raised, waiting for the American people to call on him. However, looking at the broader scope of the problem, I can no longer really subscribe to this theory. To nerds I offer a qualified apology: I still don’t like you, but I have to admit, it’s not your fault.

Because while being a sore winner transcends partisanship, profession, and taste — the DNC is full of them, as is Silicon Valley — it is political. Americans love both underdogs and winners; these qualities cannot be combined for very long without some serious fudging of the facts. Being a winner from a place of strength means being the New York Yankees — you might be respected, feared perhaps, but fundamentally, you’re an asshole. And the disadvantages of being a straight-up loser need hardly be elaborated.

So if you want to go on winning without becoming an asshole, you need some way to always identify something bigger than you are, something holding you back. The sore winner wants acclaim, but not responsibility; respect without disagreement; wealth without scrutiny; power without anyone noticing it’s there. It’s a delicate line to walk, but not impossible. If Donald Trump can persuasively represent himself as embattled outsider, anyone can.

The sore winner operates in a shrinking world. There’s less and less of everything and there’s nothing to do about it except win.

If, in entertainment, this attitude is about respect, in politics, it is also about disavowing responsibility. In both, there is a kind of escapism. Given that everything is terrible and nobody really knows why, what you can do is watch and read and play through stories where all you need is the big good guy to knock out the big bad guy, where emotional resolutions are guaranteed and gratification is steadily doled out. Sometimes the operation of this appeal is best revealed by what we change about stories when we choose to retell them. In the book The Return of the King, the destruction of the One Ring left a damaged, crueler world behind it. Nothing was going to be the same afterward, and the entire struggle took place in a world already scarred by conflict and decay. But in the movie, these mournful qualities are edited out. Destroy the Ring. Everything’s fine. Roll credits. Best Picture.

The sore winner operates in a shrinking world. There’s less and less of everything and there’s nothing to do about it except win. The other option is losing, and if the sore winner knows one thing, it’s that most people are going to lose.

Mass media — which is posited as egalitarian by virtue of its popularity — must be defended against a vague authority figure. “I don’t like snobs,” John Hodgman said on Crooked Media’s Lovett or Leave It recently. “Those people out there saying they are better than The Mandalorian. Come on. Is The Mandalorian high art? No, but it’s great… People like what they like.” Stories are about escaping the darkness of the world, he continued.

This often-invoked adversary is (probably) male, (definitely) white; if a woman, she is catering to men in some way. He reads dead white authors, always male, sometimes David Foster Wallace; listens to Bob Dylan or goes to the opera, depending on the argument; and sometimes slums it when he watches films distributed by the Criterion Collection. He does not own a TV. “I will teach you everything you need to know to become the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, Proust-quoting, award-winning writer you’ve always known you should be,” promises Dana Schwartz’s The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon, a humorous lampooning of this type, and itself a spinoff of Schwartz’s satirical @GuyInYourMFA account.

In other cases — say, video games or science fiction — the authoritarian figure is a woman, whose moralistic standards and ham-handed feminism threatens the genre in question altogether. What these figures share is an opposition to fun. They enjoy nothing. They want everything to be work and everything to be hard and they don’t understand that people turn to narrative art for comfort from the harsh world. At the same time, their gatekeeping takes the form of forbidding certain kinds of work from the category of “serious” or “art.”

Looking around, it does not seem likely that the snobs remain in charge, if they ever were.

It would be foolish to deny that snobs exist — every type of person exists. The male snob who refuses to read women is real (I’ve met him); the white critic who doesn’t take black writers seriously is real, too. The criteria for what’s “serious” and what’s not are indeed often shaped by cultural prejudices; canons can be necessary, natural, and deficient in all the suspect ways. “At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned,” Joanna Russ wrote in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, “active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral. To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.”

But looking around, it does not seem likely that the snobs remain in charge, if they ever were. By the 2010s, everywhere they could lose, the snobs lost. Poptimism faced down “rockism”; Roger Ebert thumbed his nose at video games, to immediate and long-lasting backlash (long-lasting enough that it had to be reckoned with when he died). The Return of the King won Best Picture. By the time we got around to arguing about reading young adult literature in 2014, the conflict was mostly ceremonial. Everyone knew who had won — except, possibly, the winners.

Sections of papers and magazine dedicated to books and arts coverage continue to contract or disappear altogether. Local orchestras disappear. That’s to say nothing of the profitability of continuing to produce work in these shrinking spaces. And it’s hard to take seriously the argument that what is coming in to replace these things really is more egalitarian, more diverse, better, fairer. The New Yorker runs pieces about fast food and reality TV; superhero movies have all but taken over selections at local theaters. Disney is slowly swallowing the entertainment industry whole.

To the extent that events like GamerGate were about criticism, the demand was for “objective” criticism that would be purely descriptive: this works like this, that works like that. If you like this, you’ll like that; for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. Criticism in this instance would function a bit like reviews of lipstick: what you need to know in order to decide whether or not you wanted to consume a product. (What’s the staying power, is it moisturizing, and so on.) The desire for the legitimating stamp of art was to shut down critical scrutiny (sometimes for pragmatic reasons), not encourage it.

But that isn’t how people engage with things they take seriously, just as “consumption” is a word that begins to feel inappropriate when people are talking about things they genuinely love. Even communities like fandom quickly move past shared enjoyment to shared arguing. Fandom and fanfic are service-oriented in a way that other forms of cultural production ideally are not: they label what they are on the tin, they hit certain spots, fulfill certain needs. But even communities dedicated to liking what you like are not communities where people also agree to disagree.

The irony is that snobbishness, as marked out and defined in these conversations, is intimately linked with enjoyment. While snobbishness is not “about” enjoyment, it is often a way of demarcating the boundaries of what is found to be pleasurable, fun, or interesting and what is boring, predictable, or sloppy. But snobbery also provides a way of thinking where enjoyment is not where engagement with art and entertainment begins and ends. The bigger issue with snobbery is that — much like its poptimist rivals — it is essentially paranoid and immature. The development of a true critical sensibility lies elsewhere.

Worse still than the idea that things are for you is the extension into identification: that these things literally are you. If someone writes books for teen girls, to criticize her books is to criticize teen girls. Expressing something other than support for Taylor Swift guarantees you a place in that special hell for women who don’t support other women. If you like superhero movies and video games, and somebody outlines the reasons they think superhero movies and video games are a waste of time, that’s an attack on you, personally, not a disagreement over aesthetics.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is the voice of those left behind — even if he himself is representative of the forces supposedly leaving him behind, and even if somebody like Douglass Mackey (a Middlebury-educated financial consultant and white nationalist, better known as Richy Vaughn) is more representative of his actual voters — so to criticize Trump is to criticize poor and disadvantaged Americans. If you say that Trump is racist (true), that he is an aspiring despot who expresses free-wheeling contempt for everyone not himself (true), that he is a misogynist and probably a rapist (true) — at some point in this litany, the friend or family member or peer who voted for him will turn to you and say: How can you call me these things?

Trump, unlike Taylor Swift, is a very boring topic of conversation, but the 2010s belong to him, too. It’s Trump who was synonymous with success, sex appeal, and New York in Sex and the City (where he made a cameo). It’s Trump planting stories about being the best sex you’ve ever had. “Like a true publicity-holic, Trump repeatedly indulges in publicity and then rails against the consequences,” mused Jerry Useem in a piece about Trump’s (doomed) presidential run in 2000, about as good a description of sore winners as any. It’s Trump who introduced the birther narrative around Barack Obama, a racist Invasion of the Body Snatchers fantasy that now defines much of American discourse. It’s Trump who introduced the slogan of “making America great again,” which makes America the two things it loves best: a winner and an underdog, at the top and the bottom, powerless and powerful.

Trump’s woundedness paired off with Hillary Clinton’s unacknowledged air of special election in 2016. Both of them had the same claim to being underdogs, which is to say none. But it’s Trump, whose lament of not being able to win was so intertwined with his promise we would get tired of winning, who owned this decade, and would have whether he won or not. As it happened — in case you weren’t aware — he won.

Diagnosing a mode and offering a solution are two different skills and, needless to say, one is harder. And it would be incomplete to point out the sore winner without also acknowledging that idea of who is a powerful or public figure has been stretched thin enough that people who are essentially equals routinely accuse each other of abusing “their power.” On Twitter, every journalist makes six figures, every person who lives in a big city was born there to monied comfort, and, with enough mental geometry, everyone, in some way, has the upper hand on you.

And so people who really are comfortable and successful — who make four dollars a word, or work for the New York Times, or consulted with McKinsey — become paranoid and vengeful the moment anyone points their success out to them. They are afraid of becoming fair game. Their less successful defenders are also afraid that one day they, too, may cross the threshold of success and become fair game. So let us acknowledge that their fears are real, even if they are silly — just as people oppose taxing the rich out of the belief that they too might one day be rich — and that no one has really set out the rules of what it means for someone to be fair game in the first place.

I say this not because I think that if we are all nicer to successful people, they will, in turn, relax, and from that relaxation will come a nebulous solution from which we will all benefit. But the sore winner is a product of the hyper-surveilled and personalized world in which we all now live, one in which people feel both nebulously responsible for everything wrong while also feeling responsible for nothing at all. Power is contextual, responsibility often has to be accepted by people who aren’t at fault, and the grain of irritation around which the sore winner’s elaborate deflections and defenses occur sometimes represents something at least a little bit real.

Call the 2010s the decade of the sore winner: the underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment.

There is something to be said for developing a critical sensibility, in which passion and detachment can coexist and enforce each other, in which things are serious (sometimes deadly serious) without being about you. Politicians aren’t your friends or your teammates; neither are movies, books, or Taylor Swift. In a critical approach, in which the stakes are preserved but depersonalized, it is possible to use strong language without having to lapse into wondering how all of this makes you look, and without invoking an imagined, generally future, audience that will validate you. It means politics is about what politicians offer you, not the hazy world of electoral commentary in which politics is about an inscrutable mixture of personality, “electability,” and narrative.

In the arts, what this means is that passionate engagement and appreciation and hatred can all exist because the things you’re discussing don’t exist for you. They may be commodities, but they aren’t consumable products, like a tube of lipstick or a hamburger. They are rather objects that exist independently from you and with which you can build your own relationship. It means love without identification and hatred without rejection. It is impossible to imagine a critical sensibility that does not exist socially. But it is possible to imagine one in which social paranoia is not foundational, and in which social reception — of work, of ourselves — does not have to determine our reaction to each other.

If you are fighting for dominance, and you don’t have it, begin to ask yourself what you’ll do with it if and when you do, to whom and how you want to be held accountable. A lot has been written on the abuse of power. But think, at least a little, about how you’re going to use it, too.

B.D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review.