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Welcome to the Gatekeepers Issue of The Highlight

Music, books, film, and the people who move pop culture forward.

Illustration by Adam Hayes for Vox

Until a global pandemic gave us the Summer That Wasn’t, there were a few things we could expect from the sultry months between June and September: at least one ubiquitous “song of summer,” an earworm that would spill out of every car, club, and radio for months on end. Flashy, loud, and, often, inane blockbuster films. Concert tours and sprawling festivals. A slate of books vying to be the season’s beach reads.

Summer has always been a season of pop cultural happening, a time to reset our tastes and nudge out last year’s sounds and sights for something altogether new.

This summer — quickly shaping up to be the Summer That Was — seemed a perfect time to look at the people and forces that shape pop culture: the gatekeepers.

In our cover story, Constance Grady looks at the indomitable, and persistently undermined, power of teen girls as arbiters of culture. In just the past year, they have turned TikTok and “Driver’s License” into phenomena and relegated side parts and skinny jeans to the out-of-touch olds. As the culture reconsiders how it has treated young stars, including Britney Spears, Grady notes: “Across the pop culture landscape, teen girls — as both fans and creators of mass culture — are getting more respect now than they would have just five years ago. The New York Times regularly reports on teen influencers; Forbes puts together respectful write-ups of the money to be made with the teens on TikTok.” But are teen girls finally getting their due, or have they simply become the targets of a crass cash-grab?

Charlie Harding, the co-host of the Switched on Pop podcast, explores what may be a monumental shift in the music business: Hit songs have somehow come to obscure the very singers belting them out. Blame streaming services’ playlists, which have created a “lean back” experience for listeners, allowing them to enjoy a tune without ever connecting with an artist, and leaving artists struggling to stand out from the crowd.

But sometimes, the ultimate gatekeeper is us: It was in the case of writer Isabel Fall, whose short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” might have remained a niche sci-fi tale if not for the Twitter maelstrom that enveloped it shortly after it published last year. How can a Twitter hoard undo a writer, or make it unsafe for art? In correspondence with Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Fall shares her story and how she has tried to keep her work alive.

And finally, film critic Carlos Aguilar explores the world of cultural criticism, which remains largely white and male. “A self-taught, undocumented Latino for whom English is a second language isn’t the prototype of a critic in this country,” he writes. But the effect isn’t felt just by wannabe critics; the sameness of critics contributes to a sameness of perspective, he writes, dulling dynamic conversations around art. Meanwhile, cartoonist Sam Nakahira explores the surprising political forces that practically willed K-pop into a global phenomenon.

A photo collage of girls and products. Beth Hoeckel for Vox/Getty Images

Who runs the world? Not teen girls.

They shape everything from what we listen to to how we part our hair. Will we ever give them the respect they deserve?

By Constance Grady

The pop star versus the playlist

Streaming services’ playlists make it easier for listeners to find music worth playing. But experts say they’re also breaking fans’ relationships with artists.

By Charlie Harding

An illustration of a helicopter burning with a man carrying a rocket launcher in the foreground. Getty Images/iStockphoto

How Twitter can ruin a life

Isabel Fall’s sci-fi story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” drew the ire of the internet. This is what happened next.

By Emily VanDerWerff

Illustration of a theater full of critics, mostly white men with few people of color. Michelle Rohn for Vox

Who gets to be a critic?

I never believed I could be one. That’s the problem.

By Carlos Aguilar

An illustration of a K-pop act. Sam Nakahira for Vox

The surprisingly political history of K-pop

The influence of the “wave” of Korean music and film on global culture was no accident.

By Sam Nakahira

Future Perfect

Our love of orcas is making them miserable


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


How to talk to a loved one about their health

View all stories in The Highlight