Blurb for Living Rent Free In My Head by Dominique Davis
Dominique Davis has a lot of opinions on pop culture. Starting the blog, Fairly Professional in 2019, she shared her thoughts about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gossip Girl, Olivia Rodrigo, and many more topics. Now, she’s ready to share even more of her opinions with the rest of the world. Including updated versions of the essays from Fairly Professional, Living Rent Free In My Head features several brand-new essays further exploring the pop culture topics that live inside her head. Such topics include the problem with hate-watching, figuring out when criticizing celebrities turns into bullying, why sports fans and stans are one and the same, and much more. Living Rent Free In My Head is an inside look and critique of the current landscape of pop culture.
We live in exciting times. This is my second ever ARC review, and it is on a collection of non-fiction essays on pop culture: Living Rent Free In My Head by Dominique Davis. I stumbled on Dominique’s blog, Fairly Professional, and when I found out she was soon to be releasing this book (August 2nd!), partially made up of essays based on her previous blog posts, I went hunting through her back catalogue for some of said posts because the topics interested me. Of course I couldn’t find them all, so when I got the opportunity to receive an ARC of the complete book for review, I was pretty stoked.
The essays are fairly short, keep to the topic, and are really easy to read through. Davis has an engaging style that gets you interested in the topic even if you didn’t go into it with much of an opinion one way or another. Also, the essays on topics I wasn’t as familiar with, such as about shows I hadn’t watched, included enough background that I never felt like I missed her point because I wasn’t familiar enough with the material she was referencing.
And she manages all this while, like I said, keeping it short and to the point. No small feat. Something I fail to do regularly on this blog, as readers will attest.
There are 20 essays in a 180 page book, with a broad range of topics from ruminations on general celebrity culture, fandom, and changes in how we consume media, to examining specific aspects of TV shows, characters, and the topics they can handle either poorly or well.
They read very much like blog posts (what it said on the tin, so no surprise there), which is at times both a strength and a weakness of Davis’ style when being translated into book form. I think the topics required a variation in tone depending on the seriousness of the discussion. As Davis herself says in the Author’s Note, this book is centred on personal opinions rather than critical researched discussions, which is okay, but that approach is definitely not going to be equally as effective for all the topics it covers.
Sometimes I felt like the voice was a little too casual or editorial for the more critical topics, which leads to displaying personal biases and maybe also risking not being taken as seriously. At other times, though, that same personality came through as a compliment to the more speculative topics by being very conversational.
Out of habit, I read the essays in the order they appear even though technically they do stand alone and can be read in any order. But there is a method to the order they are put in, and often one topic is related to the next in at least a peripheral or conceptual way, which made the progression of the ideas seem cohesive and informed by what had come before.
While the opening essay on the definition of “celebrity” was a great warm-up to the book and a really interesting consideration, some of the essays following I found a bit derivative in the sense that I felt like I had read a lot of the same ideas on the internet already. Specifically, the question of Ariana Grande Black-fishing, or of analyzing how the media tends to treat female celebrities, or how unfair it is that people have made Taylor Swift’s reclamation of her past works all about the men again.
Of course it is fitting that some of the conversations in the public forum would find their way into a book like this; these ideas have been living rent free in others’ heads as they’ve been posting them and commenting on them, so of course it is in keeping with the title that these ideas are also living rent free in Davis’ head. But I did feel for some of them that there wasn’t much added to the conversation by way of expanding the arguments or considering other factors, perspectives, or implications of the issues.
Perhaps this is partially a result of the limitations of length, which definitely doesn’t allow for a very comprehensive or nuanced approach to some of the big, far-reaching topics that were considered. So, much like my earlier comments on the tone, for certain topics, the shortness of the essays could also be considered a weakness.
But in the essays that were on more specific, narrowed down topics, the length was perfect for allowing nuance while not getting tangled up in too much of the broader context. This is where the book, and Davis’ informal style, really shines.
As someone who has also felt the draw of TikTok but managed to resist its siren call thusfar, I found Davis’ essays on how TikTok has affected both the music and book industry really interesting and thought provoking. These essays consider pros, cons, and seemingly neutral effects as the medium of art and entertainment consumption continues to change rapidly, also changing the skills that musicians and authors have to cultivate to be successful.
The critical look at how true crime is marketed and consumed found in the essay “The Morality of True Crime Entertainment” resonated with me and put into words some of the feelings that have turned me off of true crime media from what little I’ve been exposed to. While not all of the aspects that Davis seemed to think important struck me as quite so significant, there were a lot of good considerations included.
Within true crime, there does appear to be a voracious demand for content that leads to people discussing more and more recent events with little regard for the surviving members of the family who may be affected by the discussion of the events in a sphere that is not a necessary part of the judicial system but rather firmly in the category of entertainment. On the other hand, I didn’t agree with all of Davis’ arguments about whether anyone should be able to report on true crime or the conclusion that true crime media has no benefit beyond its debatable entertainment value, but those are questions that definitely warrant further discussion and research.
The last few essays give a quick treatment of topics within media like rom-coms, reboots, and on-screen relationships. Among these essays, Davis also takes time to look closely at aspects of the shows Gossip Girl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie Jennifer’s Body, and the conundrum of people continuing to watch shows that they hate, or that are made by people they hate.
Now although I can’t give individual consideration to every essay, I have to mention specifically how much I loved “The Lost Art of Filler Episodes.” Considering the trend away from the conventional 20-24 episode TV seasons to the shorter 6-12 episode seasons of recent shows from Netflix and other streaming services, Davis examines the factors that go into that decision to get rid of everything that isn’t directly furthering the plot, and what might be the baby that inevitably gets thrown out with the bathwater.
With lengthier seasons, in order to maintain a coherent overarcing plot without exhausting the attention span of the viewer, filler episodes are a necessary component to break up the stakes or the larger plot and perhaps give individual side characters more development. Sometimes, Davis argues, this is done really well and filler episodes can be some of the most memorable, stand-out episodes that become fan favourites. I couldn’t help but think of “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” from Avatar: The Last Airbender and what an incredible impact that little experimental, vignette-style episode had on its viewers.
Davis also briefly mentioned how story-of-the-week shows, I think she called it (like Buffy, Supernatural, etc.), can be mostly comprised of what are effectively filler episodes the events of which really don’t have a critical bearing on the ultimate plot of the season’s official Big Bad showdown. I’ve also heard it termed monster-of-the-week, which I guess is more specific to a certain genre of show, so story-of-the-week is better term to encompass all episodic shows regardless of genre.
This made me think that there is a connection to be explored between the shift over from mainly episodic shows, where there is a complete story arc for each episode, to serialized shows. And I, too, lament the loss of the filler episode as it appeared in so many episodic TV shows with ensemble casts. I miss “field trips with Zuko.”
Overall, I enjoyed joining the inhabitants of Davis’ head for the short time it took to read this book, and I definitely left somewhat better acquainted with all of the diverse pop culture crowd making their home up there.
If you are in the market for some quick reads on current culture, or looking for roommates to share your headspace, you can do Dominique Davis a good turn and check this book out: turn those squatters into paying tenants.
Disclaimer: I received an unedited advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.