Aisha Harris, WANNABE: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me

Aisha Harris, WANNABE: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me

Guest host Julie Chavez interviews cultural critic and co-host of NPR’s hit podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, Aisha Harris, about Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me, a brilliant collection of essays that feels like “hanging out with your smart, hilarious, pop-culture-obsessed friend.” Aisha talks about podcasting, classic TCM movies, Janet Jackson, motherhood, and obsessive celebrity fandoms. She also discusses the thriving Black artistry space, from Beyoncé to Jordan Peele, and why she thinks Black art isn’t fragile and should be held up to the same standards as any other creator’s art.


Julie Chavez: Aisha, thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so happy to interview you today.

Aisha Harris: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Julie: I know we’ve already discussed, if people hear things in the background, it’s because life is happening. They’re painting your building. Are they painting it some extreme color which would really be exciting?

Aisha: I don’t think so. I think it’s just, they’re repainting it the same kind of beige and grayish color. Not exciting, but it’ll pop still. It’ll pop more than it was before, so that’s good.

Julie: Totally. Yes, refreshing the industrial shades. I read a book to the kids the other day about how they have to constantly paint the Golden Gate Bridge because it rusts and wears down. That had never occurred to me. These are the important things that I spend my days thinking about, your building painting, the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s just what I do. I’m so happy you’re here today, though, because I want to talk about your upcoming book, which is Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me. I really enjoyed your book. It’s a series of essays. You are a very sharp, thoughtful, talented, targeted writer. I was reading it and thinking I want to go back and reread these because they’re just so well-written. Congratulations. You’ve really done a great job.

Aisha: Thank you. Thank you. It makes me so happy that you’ve enjoyed it. It makes me feel good about having gone through this whole process. It’s been very interesting. It’s my first book. Always a fun experience.

Julie: I feel like if anyone had told me precisely what it would look like, all the drill downs — there’s writing the book and then going through the publication process. It’s a thing. There’s a lot happening that you wouldn’t know before you get into it, and all these weird pitfalls, emotional and otherwise, that take you by surprise. Did you find that?

Aisha: Absolutely. I started writing this during the pandemic, literally right when the pandemic really started in full earnest, lockdown and working on the proposal. Dealing with all of the emotional and mental things that all of us were dealing with to varying degrees while also trying to craft a book, it could be stressful. I’m happy that I was able to come out on the other side of it. It was very much a learning experience about the whole process of getting a book done and getting it out there.

Julie: A hundred percent. Would you like to write another one? You’re kind of early days.

Aisha: My editor will be mad if I said no. I will say it might be a little while before I write another book.

Julie: You need to let the amnesia set in before you want to sign up again.

Aisha: Yes, precisely.

Julie: I think that’s a very honest answer. Very true. Don’t worry, editor. There’s hope. She’ll be back. I love it. I was just saying to you before we started recording that I’ve been listening to your voice a lot this week because I’ve been listening to you on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.” I love listening. I was laughing at the most recent episode about the Barbie movie when you started off talking about how you are not a fan of IP and yet Barbie was one of your recommendations. I really enjoy the podcast. How did you start doing that?

Aisha: The podcast has existed long before I came there. It started at NPR with my three hosts, Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, and Glen Weldon as well as Trey Graham. Trey left the show a while ago. At some point, they were looking for a fourth host. The show was also going daily. This was all right around the tenth anniversary of the show. It’s been around for a while. I had been a guest host. For those who may not be familiar with the show, we’re a chitchat, conversational show where we talk about the latest film, TV, movies, occasionally books, music. We also will have certain evergreen episodes as well where we talk about favorite TV series finales and things like that. There’s four of us hosts. Then we also have various guest hosts and critics come in to talk with us as well. I had been one of those before joining NPR and “Pop Culture Happy Hour” full time. This also happened during the pandemic. I got hired.

Julie: A lot happened for you, I tell ya.

Aisha: I had hosted a podcast of my own previously at my time at Slate magazine. It was called “Represent.” It was a film and TV podcast, but it was focused on anything that had to do with people of color, women, gender. Anyone who wasn’t a straight white guy, we’d invite on the show, generally, to talk about the pop culture that they were into and that we were digging. That was a little bit of my background. Then I had been at The New York Times. I just wanted to get back into podcasting. It was the perfect opportunity. I’ve been at “Pop Culture Happy Hour” for two and a half, almost three years. It’s been such a joy. I had been a huge fan of the show before, so it was kind of a dream come true, actually.

Julie: You’re perfectly suited for it. You’re just so fun to listen to. The interplay between all of you, it’s such a great show. Anyone who has not listened to it should put it on their podcast radar stat. Tell me a little bit about what was the impetus for this book for you. Obviously, you’ve been doing work as a critic for many, many years. You’re definitely immersed in pop culture. Tell me about that part.

Aisha: I think a lot of journalists, if they are at it long enough, eventually, people come whispering in their ear, you should write a book. You should write a book. That had happened to me a few times. Agents had come to me and said, do you want to write a book? The timing was never quite right. I didn’t have the right idea. I didn’t have a sense of what I wanted to write about. This happened the same way. An editor, my lovely editor Daniella Wexler, she reached out to me and was like, “You want to write a book?” I was like, “You know what? I think I’m ready now.” She connected me with an agent, my lovely agent Alia Hanna Habib. She and I parsed out ideas about what I wanted the book to look like. I’m a critic. I write essays. Why not just stay in that mode but create this collection of essays that really tugs on all the things that I nerd out about that I love and also that feel really deeply personal? I had the idea that I wanted to write about how pop culture has influenced my life and also look out beyond that and how it connects to all of us, how it influences everyone’s lives, whether we know it or not. What are the pitfall of that? Then what are the fun things about it? I feel as though it all kind of came together very nicely and in a way that I feel as though people who are familiar with my work will get to know me even better and know more about where I’m coming from. Hopefully, they will also learn, a little bit, something about themselves or learn things that they had never thought of before. It’s been a fun, interesting journey to also just discover things about myself and my writing style and also my procrastination style and all those other things, which I’m sure you are familiar with.

Julie: Yes, I can relate, shockingly. What is your procrastination style? That’s what I want to know.

Aisha: Oh, man. At one point, I had to get an app. I tried to use an app that blocked off certain websites while I’m writing, so Twitter, my email account. Then when I know it’s really bad is when I start cleaning. I’ll never just say, oh, I want to clean right now. I’m not that type of person. I’m a messy person. Once I start thinking, “Maybe I’ll just do some laundry. I really need to clean up this clutter next to my bed,” that’s when you know that I’m deep, deep, deep in procrastination.

Julie: Things are bad at that point. That’s amazing. Good for you with the self-awareness as you’re scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush. You’re like, I’m never going to get it done.

Aisha: Yes.

Julie: I love that. I love hearing people’s procrastination style. Is there anything more human?

Aisha: No. We’ve all been there.

Julie: I love avoidance. I’m getting so much better at it, too, as I get older. It’s amazing. I can let things go for a really long time. I took down, every single essay I read — you said it. You were hoping that people would learn more about you and then maybe also have time to examine themselves. That’s exactly what this book achieves, in my opinion. I think you really nailed it. It’s so well-written. You did such a good job in the crafting of the essays that you leave space at just the right moments for the reader to have a moment to think about their own experience or their own life. You really weave it well with your personal narratives. I love that you started off with the story of your name and talking about Stevie Wonder. I loved that idea of these stories that we believe or that we can carry into adulthood that we’re sure it was the way it happened, and then it turns out it was not. You just did such a good job of crafting that all together. Did you write these in the order that they appear? Did you write them in a different order?

Aisha: That was the very first essay that I tackled. It was actually the one that I used as my proposal for sending to my editor to say, hey, this is what I have in mind for what the book will be. It felt like the natural starting point. My name is the one that I was born with. It was one of the earliest things that formed how I see the world and how people have interacted with me. Oftentimes, that’s the first thing they see of me, is my name in whatever context we’re at. That one was the first. Then all the other essays were more or less all over the place because my brain also does not — not only am I a procrastinator, but also, my brain is always firing in so many different directions. There were some essays that actually became one that were two at one point and then melded into one because they weren’t working separately. For the most part, though, they were all written out of order. The trick was actually trying to figure out, how do we sort these different stories? Some of them have, actually, connecting themes. It deals with all these different subjects, race, gender. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t so heavily front-loaded with race at the front or heavily front-loaded with things that are dealing with similar issues in the back. I wanted to have a mix so that readers could kind of have a reprieve every other essay and go in a different direction but still feel like they’re reading something cohesive and singular, in a way.

Julie: You did a really good job. It’s not easy to do that. I tried to write my book as essays, and it was a failure. Hats off to you. No worries. It worked out fine. There’s a happy ending there. It’s one of those where you don’t sometimes appreciate how challenging — when I used to think of a book of essays, you think, great, you just write them all, hammer them together, and then you’re good to go. There’s so much subtlety in how they go together, and exactly to what you’re saying where you have to make sure that the rhythm of it feels good and that it does feel like everything belongs together as opposed to, ooh, something shiny, and then you start writing about something else. It was really a joy to read. I want to talk through just a few of the things that stood out to me. Number one, I think people will love this book because it has so many pop culture references, obviously. You have so many deep ones. When you talked about playing Carmen Sandiego, I loved that game.

Aisha: Yes, so good.

Julie: I loved it. I loved the show. I still have that jingle in my head.

Aisha: How could you not?

Julie: If somebody said, “Where in the world…,” if they say that phrase, that’s it. That’s the whole day. Carmen Sandiego. The acapella group, I can’t. Things like that that I love. Also, what’s hilarious about that is when I got to the nostalgia portion, I was like, yeah, I do really pull those things forward, don’t I? Whoops.

Aisha: We all do. That’s why it works so well. Even those of us, like myself — as you already mentioned, I have a thing against IP, generally speaking. I still find the tug, the pull sometimes irresistible to deal with.

Julie: Oh, good. That makes me feel better. I’m not a total failure. That was a really interesting thing I noticed. One of the themes you tackle early on in the essays is about Black artistry and where it thrives. I wanted to ask you that because you pose it as somewhat of a rhetorical question in that essay. Under what circumstances can and does Black artistry truly thrive? What would you say is your answer for that?

Aisha: That’s such a great question. I think it thrives in a place where the artist feels free to be as weird as they want or as out of the box as they want and also has the platform to be able to do that. What I’m getting at in that essay is this idea that, in many ways, we are in this peak era of Black art in part because there are so many Black creators now who have far more power than they have in previous decades. Shonda Rhimes. You have Beyoncé. You have Donald Glover. You have Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele. The list can go on and on. These are creators who are able to make the work that they have and also have the support system to do that. This isn’t to say that Black art hasn’t thrived in the past. Of course, it has, but it’s often in spite of all of the things, all of the many barriers and hurdles that they have to go through. Now there is a moment where we are seeing the ability to create these things on a large scale and with the support and the attention that they deserve. I think that that is how art is thriving right now.

It’s not all sunshine. A lot of shows, especially in this era of streaming giants cutting all of their shows and all of their content — I hate to say content, but all of their programming. The first to go is often those that are created by queer creators, people of color, women. It’s not perfect, but I do think we’ve made a lot of headway. What I wanted to say in the essay and what I wanted to convey was that because of that, we should also, as consumers and as critics, really adjust how we judge that art and how we critique that art. It doesn’t always have to be just about, is this “negative representation” or “positive representation?” It can be more about, how does this make you feel? What is it trying to say? Are there good things? Are there bad things? I just think we should have more nuance and be less knee-jerk-y in how we respond to a lot of Black art today. That was kind of what I was hoping to convey within that essay.

Julie: I think you did. When you say knee-jerk response, is that in reference to, like you’re saying, whether it’s negative or positive in terms of the portrayal and just that oversimplification of it?

Aisha: Right, that’s part of it. As a Black critic, there are times where — I explain this in the essay a bit. There are times when I am critiquing a piece of art that was created or involves Black people that I don’t think is good. Then I will have other Black people responding to my critique saying, if you critique them, then they’re not going to make more of these things. This is bad. You’re selling us out. You got to support Black art. The great quote by Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody Black,” is a great quote. I love it. Also, I don’t have to take that literally because not all art created by any demographic is going to be, A, good just on an aesthetic level, and B, actually helpful or contributing in a “positive way” to their communities or the demographics that they represent. That’s kind of what I was trying to explain. Because we are in this peak era, we can afford to be more critical than we used to be able to back in the day when it was Blaxploitation films, when Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were the only mainstream Hollywood actors who were getting consistent work and starring roles. I can understand why people would’ve been a little bit more protective of whatever art they were making. I say Black art isn’t fragile. To treat it with kids’ gloves is to actually devalue it. I think regardless of whether you like it or not, it should be critiqued and held up to the same standards as we hold up all other art that’s not created by Black artists. That’s really what I’m trying to get at in that essay.

Julie: By engaging with it in a more elegant, nuanced, detailed way, then there’s more potential to elevate it in this space because that’s afforded now when it wasn’t before.

Aisha: Exactly. To me, that’s part of progress. Progress means not just more of it or better content. It’s also just having that freedom, again, to say what we like and don’t like without fear of retribution.

Julie: It’s such a tricky place. I mostly see it in, obviously, the book space. The host of “The Stacks,” Traci, I got to interview her a while back. Traci Thomas. She was talking about how reviews are for readers, not for writers. If you’re not able to give a true critical review of something, then is it worth it to do that, if that’s your job, if that’s the position that you’re in? It’s sort of making space for more honest — it’s true. If we’re all just sort of high-fiving each other all the time about what we’ve written, then there’s no guiding principle there for how people choose what to read. Like I said, you do a good job in those essays of — I really will read them again because they were so detailed. You have so many examples, so many good things to sit and think on. I think this is a book people will want to own. Plus, I love the cover design. The color’s amazing.

Aisha: Thank you. It’s giving nineties vibes.

Julie: It totally is. Between that and talking about the Spice Girls and all the stuff you have in there, it’s a winner. It can go right next to The Nineties book with the clear phone on the cover, which was also like, yep, I need that too. Add to cart. The thing that you talked about that I liked is this sort of pathological obsession that we have in fandom now that’s part of things being on social media. You were talking about Taylor Swift. I just was so interested in that. What are you a fan of personally?

Aisha: Oh, man. That’s a very hard question. I’m a fan of so many things. I guess if I had to say what I’m closest to being a stan of, if that’s helpful — again, this is part of the essay. I don’t believe in worshipping anything, any art. I think the thing that I come closest to just being a stan of, I’m a huge Turner Classic Movies fan. I love old movies. That is my thing. It’s been a lifelong relationship. I started watching it when I was around twelve years old. It was constantly on in the background. I would tape back when VHS was a thing. I had my Now Playing, their TCM guide that they have every month. I had that. I would look at the schedule. Then I’d be like, I want to record these movies. Then I’d record them while I was at school, on the VHS, and then go home and watch them.

Julie: Woe to the person who tried to tape over it.

Aisha: My mom and I had to — luckily, we had more TVs in the house. I taped my movies downstairs. She taped her soap operas upstairs, so it worked.

Julie: Thank god. Good.

Aisha: We had that system worked out. I just love what they do. I love that they’ve diversified in the last few years with their hosts. I was at the festival this year. It was my second time at the festival. It was a blast. I also just love how nerdy everyone is at the festival. It’s old movies. People clap as the credits are rolling and they see Humphrey Bogart’s name pop up on the screen. It’s very nerdy. I’m just a huge fan of classic movies and TCM especially and what they’ve done and tried to do in terms of getting the word out and passing classic movie fandom on to younger generations. The other one that I’m closest to stanning is Janet Jackson. I will run into a fire for her. No, I won’t.

Julie: But you would think about it. You’d think twice.

Aisha: I would think about it. I love her. I’ve seen her twice. I’m seeing her again this summer. She’s just amazing.

Julie: She’s amazing. What is the line? I love hearing what people are into, just like you’re talking about that. I think there’s something so refreshing about people being on board. When you get to be with those other people, like at a concert or a conference, there’s this comradery that is really cool. What’s the line where it becomes not good in your mind? Obviously, we know, stalking, bad. Where’s that tipping point? You write a lot about it. I’m just interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Aisha: I really wish that Donald Glover’s show, Swarm, had come out before I finished writing this book. Ostensibly, it’s Beyoncé standom, but standom in general. It’s about a serial killer who kills partially in the name of their pop star, who is based off of Beyoncé. That’s one line, killing people because they don’t love your favorite pop star. That’s maybe bad.

Julie: Hold on, let me jot this down. Okay, got it.

Aisha: Yes, taking notes. I think the other line is when you start arguing with strangers on the internet about your favorite artist. I don’t quite understand it. It feels like a futile exercise. Often, it turns into harassing and stalking. There are certain artists who shall remain nameless, but their fans are especially terrible. They also tend to literally sic their fans on the people who might say even the smallest, most harmless critique of their god or goddess. I’m all for people who have Tumblr fan pages. I follow so many celebrity fan pages. They’re all dead celebrities, really. I follow the Elizabeth Taylor page. I follow a Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge page on Instagram. I’m into that. I really appreciate those weird digital shrines to people who didn’t even live to see Instagram be a thing. Tumblr is fun. I love that people can be so creative with those sorts of things. I think creative fandom is always fanfic. Very cool. I do think once it gets to being mean to other people on the internet, to harassing people, to jumping in those celebrities’ DMs, that’s where it gets icky. Then of course, there’s the other aspect of it where fans are demanding their creators do this or that, or with the whole Ghostbusters debacle when they had an all-female cast for that. Then they wound up harassing the stars of that, including Leslie Jones, and trying to tank their Rotten Tomatoes scores. It’s demonic. It’s just beyond my comprehension. A lot of people have lost the plot. They’ve lost the thread. It’s like, come back. It’s okay. Can we live in the real world? It’s scary.

Julie: It is. We live in such a weird time with that because there is this potential for removal of consequence, or we feel that way because of the internet. People feel very able to just spew their crazy. I need you to keep it a little more tight. Just put it back inside. Maybe try and let it dissipate. What are you most excited about about sharing this book?

Aisha: I’m excited about people really engaging with it and hearing how something reminds them of themselves. I’ve already had people talk to me about the first essay about my name and how it’s such a similar experience regardless of whether — they don’t even have to have my name, obviously. There are plenty of people, especially people of color, who might have “unique” names, at least unique in white American standards, and have had similar experiences of people mispronouncing it very badly and not even asking how you pronounce it, making fun of it, all these things. I’m really looking forward to people getting a chance to hopefully, again, see themselves in it and share that with me. Whatever they took away from it I hope was enlightening and maybe inspiring.

Julie: One quick note before we go. I wanted to say I really like the “Procreation Expectation” essay. It was so well-written but also so important. The choice not to have a child, to have a child, to enter into that space, it just is underdiscussed. You bring a really important voice to it. I really liked the way that you crafted that one. I thought it was great. I’m excited for people to read that too.

Aisha: Thank you. That’s great to hear from someone who’s a mom because I was a little worried about how moms might take it, especially the moms that I know personally. I’m like, I wonder how they’re going to feel about this. Look, I don’t dislike moms, believe me, at all. I thought it was important to look at it, especially from the perspective of how pop culture really tends to talk about motherhood or even parenthood generally, not even just motherhood, but being a parent.

Julie: It’s so valuable because our pop culture conversations even around motherhood, once it’s established, those are inadequate as well. You’re calling up what we can think critically about. That’s the best part of this book. It’ll make you think and make you laugh. I think people are going to love it. Thanks so much for being with me today.

Aisha: Thank you. Thank you so much for having writers like me, having a space for us to talk about what we’ve written. This is really great. Thank you.

Julie: What a pleasure. Thanks again.

WANNABE: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris

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