Author Spotlight: Spencer Kornhaber, “On Divas”

    I probably wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t for Spencer Kornhaber. Not just this article, but maybe at all — discovering his pop culture analysis at The Atlantic during my first magazine journalism class in college in early 2020, which I’d taken only because it fulfilled a requirement, I was struck by how all-encompassing journalism can be. Growing up with my parents tuned into the stern voices on CNN and MSNBC, hosting panels with experts in suits talking about uninteresting subjects, I was shocked that you could write about anything after reading excerpts from The New Yorker and The Atlantic. It can be funny and informative all at once, and you can certainly infuse personality, wit, and humor into anything you do and the situations you seek out. I discovered him after class, scrolling The Atlantic’s archives, along with the work of Amanda Mull, Jia Tolentino, Kaitlyn Tiffany, and other writers who had the same transformative effect and helped me through the pandemic where, a year and a half later in the first glimpse of a brighter future ahead in the summer of 2021, I decided to be a writer.

    All this to say, when I say that Kornhaber was coming out with a book that I could interview him about, it was a full-circle moment in all its entirety. On Divas, his first full-length, is a collection of essays from 2017 to last year centered around divas, a surprisingly broad term. People like Björk, Donald Trump, RuPaul, Lana Del Rey, Britney Spears, and Jack White all show up here, by way of profiles or investigation. Fun, insightful, and never taking itself too seriously, On Divas examines the most interesting stars of our time and why we’re so drawn to their spectacle.

    Our Culture sat down with Spencer Kornhaber to talk about the pull of divas, his time with Björk, Donald Trump’s fabulousness, and all things pop culture. 

    Congratulations on your first book! How was the process putting together these essays around this theme?

    Yeah, this book is a part of a series The Atlantic has been doing, spotlighting different writers along themes. When the opportunity came up for me to do it, I was excited and flattered. I’ve been at The Atlantic for more than a decade now. A lot of the writing is for the web, a lot of it is about ephemeral news events or pop culture moments, but I put a lot of thought into each of my pieces, some more than others. It was a cool opportunity to go back through my archive and see which pieces stood the test of time, or at least, a couple years. I worked with great editors at Zando who also went through my archive and had a similar feeling about which pieces worked for book form. We threw around some themes, but for me, it always had to be divas. Maybe ‘pop music’, but ‘divas’ specifically turned out to be more of a surprising beat of mine at The Atlantic. It wasn’t what I expected to be so much of what I was writing when I started. But they’re fascinating.

    In your view, what makes a good diva, and why do you think you’re so drawn to these types of people?

    I try to not over-gatekeep what a diva is, at least for this collection. It’s helpful for me, too, to define the term very broadly. A lot of different figures can be in the mix. It’s a gendered term, and one thing I wanted to do in collecting these pieces is mess with that, because it shouldn’t be a gendered term. You throw people like Donald Trump or Jack White in there, and it raises the question of, ‘If you’re calling these people a diva, what about these other ones?’ 

    So what makes a diva: I came to the idea that it’s mostly about asserting yourself, your will, identity, desires, in a way that is unapologetic and disruptive, and is not really tied to other peoples’ ideas of respectability. There are other archetypes of performers, like the rockstar, the singer-songwriter, which is a lot more about the old-school or academic ideas of self-expression. The diva is not so worried about that. The diva just wants to announce themselves to the room, and it’s fabulous, and we love it. A good diva is someone who will make you understand who they are very quickly and will hold your attention while doing it. 

    As to why I’ve been drawn to writing about them, as I write in the intro, there’s definitely been a lineage of me being drawn to these figures. As a kid, I was always obsessed with them. Annie Lennox’s album Diva, which was sort of a meta-take on the diva, maybe. It’s also really great pop music. I felt for a long time like I couldn’t embrace my interest in them. Having my mind blown in sixth grade watching Britney Spears on MTV or VH1 for the first time, even knowing, as soon as I saw “…Baby One More Time”, feeling that magic everyone feels when they hear that song for the first time, knowing I wasn’t allowed to like it. A lot of this is a repressed fascination that, later in life, I’ve let myself indulge. 

    Were there any people that you had wished to write about, but due to time or the editorial calendar, you weren’t able to?

    Yeah, there’s people all the time that I wish I could write more about. In this book, there’s surprisingly little Taylor Swift. She’s like the diva of our lives, even though I would say she straddles that and other categories. There’s a little Taylor, but not as much as one might think, reading me. Other people I wish I could have written about, you know, the diva is a tradition that has really been honed and shaped by Black women, and I wouldn’t say I’ve done the deep historical dive on that lineage, which maybe I or someone else will. And then also, the little divas of the moment. If I was just writing a music blog, I’d be writing about Hannah Diamond or Chappell Roan right now, the girlies that are not really that famous but all the queers in Brooklyn are listening to, and I’m one of them. This mini-diva archetype that has risen in the past decade is just wonderful.

    So, onto the book, which is compiled of essays from your time at The Atlantic. I want to talk about Björk because I rarely can in real life — how was it like meeting her, adapting to Iceland’s weather and adhering to the recording studio’s six-hour tide cycle?

    It was definitely one of the cooler experiences I’ve done on the job. Intimidating. Meeting a famous person, there’s always the shock of just, like, ‘They really are just a person.’ You immediately pick up on her energy, which is a little anxious. She’s someone who has a lot of thoughts in her head, analyzing the conversation while you’re in it, but also wants to learn and understand you. You get on their level eventually, but it throws you for a loop at first. She was great, and I didn’t know where we were going on the day I met her. She took me to a lighthouse in Reykjavík where she often records. It felt like a little safari into her world, even though it wasn’t far away. It was August in Iceland, and it was relatively warm there, which is not warm at all. The island is wild. It definitely has a fragrance to the place, it smells volcanic. She wanted to have a back-and-forth about music, the album, and some cultural issues surrounding it. It was such a personal album that I wanted to talk about the personal stuff too, and it was interesting that she said, ‘That’s for other interviews. For you, I want to talk about this.’ She’s such a writer and a scientist.

    Yeah, I was just about to ask — it was so interesting she steered the conversation away from her mother. Does that make it easier or harder for an interviewer, for their subject to be so observant?

    It’s better to have an interviewee who wants to have an authentic conversation, and that’s what she was trying to do. Even though it’s also using the tools of media management, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna talk about that.’ I certainly don’t begrudge it at all. I thought it made for an interesting moment. And it can be better if someone’s up front if you ask them about a sensitive issue, because sometimes you can get into an awkward situation in an interview. And it’s a good tip for how we interact with our friends, too. There’s an authenticity to it.

    Let’s talk about Lana Del Rey — in the book, you have this essay written around the time of her magnum opus, 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, analyzing if she was relying on a persona or not. During the time that followed, she’s released these really personal albums, especially her excellent one earlier this year, which I feel like dispels the notion she’s acting. What do you think of how time acted on this essay?

    You think she really lives at the Ramada Inn? [Laughs]

    There’s just so much more personal stuff now! Maybe in other songs she’s playing it up, for sure.

    That essay was written at a moment where this turn was happening, and it was really clear how things have shaken out since then, where we were moving from pop stars who had a clear and defined relationship to the idea of persona — I make a comparison to Lady Gaga in that essay. Lana is straddling a line, and I think she still is. What that means is that maybe there is no line, or living in between that blurry space between reality and fiction, which is a singer-songwriter thing. That’s how she wants to be perceived, and maybe the culture is bringing the baggage, putting her into this pop star lane, when it’s kind of assumed you are playing this character, and it’s not so much about the act of writing. But since then, the culture has shifted in a remarkable way towards this narrative-driven, diaristic-specific and personal mode of stardom. Folks like Olivia Rodrigo, now there’s a generation of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo knockoffs — everyone is really trying hard to seem like they’re in their bedroom, really telling you what’s happening in their lives, and also doing it in a way where the listener can go to the internet and find out what ex-boyfriend they’re talking about. I still think Lana is more interesting than that, even on these later albums, doing a mystical, poetic thing where the relationship to her life isn’t that clear, even though there are these sharp moments where she’s bringing her father in.

    Similarly, your profile of RuPaul was published in 2017, and now, we’re dealing with ludicrous backlash to drag, queer education and teachers, and basically anything they don’t understand. There’s this parallel because Season 9 of Drag Race was filmed before the 2016 election, and now, Drag Race seasons that aired this year were filmed before the conservative backlash broke out. What do you make of this parallel?

    In the story of Drag Race, there’s this kinda overwhelming, mind-blowing success. There’s very few cultural products that have tangibly changed the world, and in the way that Drag Race did in the 2010s. It’s not the only reason we have so many more young people identifying as queer, but it is not not part of that shift. It’s a really powerful example of what it means to say ‘representation matters.’ This is a show that showed young people there were different ways of being in the world, and then they started to experiment with them more than they were in previous generations. Not to say it’s the only factor in that happening, but it’s part of it. Its success was so remarkable that even watching it unfold, I thought, ‘Are we really getting away with this?’ It was never like there was no homophobia around that show, but it just felt like it was blowing past that whole conversation. And then, there was just this echo boom of homophobia, traditional gender ideas being enforced, once that show was being felt in society. It’s possible we’re living through this inevitable process of social progress or liberation, but we also live in a time where the right wing is very canny and uncompromising and may find ways to make us more than a little death rattle of old ideas, and more of a true and personally dangerous rollback.

    I hope the piece made clear that the resistance rhetoric Ru was using, that the show was marketing itself with, certainly deserves a slight bit of scrutiny, or should be seen as a little corny and optimistic [“We need America’s next drag superstar now more than ever”]. I mean, it’s not wrong, it really was resisting, and there’s conflict around it for a good reason.

    Pop culture is always changing, and I was just quick enough to catch your essay published this morning about Lizzo and how the term ‘diva’ has now turned. If you want, you can talk a little bit about that piece and why it was so apt for your book.

    I’ve wanted to write a piece that was new and that could publish alongside the book. And maybe the book doesn’t quite spell out the obvious question of the idea of a diva right now — which is that they’re important. This is a moment where they’re setting the cultural agenda in a way that feels different from previous generations. I guess I didn’t live through the heyday of Madonna in the 90s, or something like that. But what’s going on with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, these two very different careers on a parallel track, it’s wild. Just the economic and cultural power they yield. I cannot believe how much people wanna talk about Taylor Swift. It’s like, ‘Have you never heard about another person on Earth?’ So, I wanna talk about why that was and what it meant. 

    It feels like there’s a hunger in their rise for a new kind of celebrity leader. It’s sorta like when people say that if women ran the world there wouldn’t be any war, which is a misogynist idea in its own way and definitely not true, but it’s a fantasy, and in the rise of these women there is a little bit of that yearning — a kinder, smarter cultural leadership. But at the same time, we also want to have them be badasses and do all the things that, in previous generations, would have just been called ‘diva behavior.’ It just would have been written off. But then you have someone like Lizzo, who is sort of the ultimate example of an entertainer trying to be a leader, a social revolutionary, and these allegations come out that she’s not very kind to people in her inner circle, not very sensitive or the type of caring that you want from the ultimate diva protector lady. Behind the scenes, allegations of mistreatment of underlings by famous people are very routine, and lawsuits get filed all the time. No one really talks about how Lady Gaga’s assistant made some wild allegations against her. But right now, especially with the persona that Lizzo built up, it’s not just a demanding diva overly familiar with her subordinates — which was the sort of thing we celebrated with Madonna doing that in her Truth or Dare documentary — now it’s a real undermining of what we expect from Lizzo and from this category of cultural leader she represents. My question is if we’re a little delusional about what we expect out of these people. 

    Speaking of, the two singers Noname and Róisín Murphy were sort-of ‘canceled’ recently, the former due to platforming an anti-Semetic rapper, then justifying his actions, and the latter for saying anti-trans rhetoric on her Facebook page. Just the other day, the endless provocateur Doja Cat wore a shirt with a neo-Nazi on it. We are in an era where we can know the opinions of everyone we look up to as artists. What do you think this effect has on the music industry?

    Yeah, we really do expect more of these people right now. We expect them to be politicians as well as entertainers. But that’s sort of been in the works for a while. You know, early 2007 Gaga was so political and really was part of this wave of singers all about empowerment and feminism in a way that wasn’t explicit before. That started the expectation that these stars be leaders, and as it goes along, their audience starts to believe it, and it starts to succumb to their own standards. So as the younger generation becomes more progressive, it’s kind of assumed that their entertainers are with them on all their political views, and they’re not going to be. We’re gonna have more situations like this, I’m gonna say. And the thing about what you do when you disagree with your entertainer’s politics is a separate question about cancellation that I never know how to answer.

    I loved the piece about how Donald Trump is this unlikely reviver of camp, from his rallies to his grandiose statements, and even now, his diva energy is severely missed at the Republican debates. There’s even a quote going around where he says that the problem with Ron DeSantis, another candidate, is that he needs a personality transplant, which are “not yet available.” What do you make of this injection of humor and instantly viral quotes into politics?

    It’s been one of the more destabilizing things for all of our mental health, to have this person who is just straightforwardly magnetic, and even if he is by many accounts vile and dangerous, it does show that humor, charisma and innovative entertainment value is power. The reason Taylor Swift is so powerful is that she’s entertaining and charismatic. That’s part of the Trump thing. With Trump’s humor and campiness, which is what I was writing about in the essay, is that it’s destabilizing in relation to the truth. It allows his side to communicate in ways that are confusing and effective for their gains. Sort of in the way that, for example, certain queer communities have had to do. There’s a really bizarre parallel there. Like, when he’s dancing to the Village People, you have to point this out. It’s kind of ushered us into this post-camp moment, according to Susan Sontag’s definition where camp can never be this intentional thing you go after. Now, there’s no one that’s not calculating the way they want to be seen or the level of humor you’re operating at. Other than Nicole Kidman when she did the AMC ad. That was actually pure camp.

    There’s also this humanizing factor to him. I find myself talking to friends saying, “I love Trump, he’s so funny!” when, of course, he’s one of the most evil people on the planet. Do you think being a diva is a part of his strategy?

    Yeah! I don’t know if he’s consciously saying, ‘I’m trying to be a diva,’ but the thing people react to with divas is that they flatten a space with their own charisma and own sense of self, ego. It’s thrilling to see. It’s fabulous — the word comes to mind when you think of a diva’s performance. Some of these moments at a Trump rally, they’re horrible, but he’s just being so fabulous. He’s being a campy queen right now. But, they’re the most divisive cultural figures for that reason. It’s like sandpaper to some people, and it causes conflict.

    You do bring this up in your essay about how musicians are being forced to promote their music through TikTok. Even though it’s an app enjoyed because of its authenticity, do you think it could now have the opposite effect?

    Yeah, anytime there’s a hunger or marketing for authenticity, it’s sort of a contradiction, and it ultimately eats itself. Whether it’s when Kurt Cobain came and swept away hair metal in the 90s, with this new authentic sound that very quickly became corny and ripped off, the same thing is happening on TikTok where it’s sweeping away a generation of entertainers that were really polished and produced that had very coordinated marketing campaigns, in favor of the guy or girl playing guitar in their bathroom or whatever. Now, people are trying to reverse-engineer that, and a lot of the results are cringey. It can be cringey if someone is really earnest and authentic, but it can also be cringey if someone is trying to seem that way. It’s almost worse, in that case. It’s very confusing for that previous generation of stars who grew up worshiping the extravagant music video, and now they’re being asked to do much less.

    Finally, do you have any plans for a full-length nonfiction book? If so, what would it be about?

    That’s a good question. I don’t have any plans, I think I probably should do one, but they’re hard. What I loved about this one is that I already had written it! I really like magazine journalism, that’s what I got into this for, so I really feel very excited and interested in the possibilities in that, and don’t feel like I’ve topped out yet. Not to say you have to top out of something before you go to something else. But if you have any ideas, send them to me and I’ll not pay you royalties!

    On Divas is out now.

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