Image by Dan Ozzi
The Atlantic ran a winsome trend piece last week about the proliferation of the terms “squad” and “squad goals” around the internet this year. In it, writer Megan Garber extols the virtues of millennial friendship in the time of social media and the different ways “squad” is used by teens and pop celebrities to self-identify, and by brands to amass social cachet by latching onto to cool words kids use. The site bills the article as a dig into “the history and context behind social media’s new favorite hashtag.” The “history” section indulges a little etymology, noting that “squad” dates back to the 17th Century and that friendship has existed a long time. Garber even shares her Genius and Urban Dictionary results. What she doesn’t do is grapple with her findings.
In pinning the rise of “squad” on Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, Tumblr kids, and a handful of culture writers around Buzzfeed, Cosmo, and HuffPo, Garber sidesteps the entire last 20 years of the use of the word. In centering the discussion around white friendship, Garber erases, at best ignores, the fact that “squad” is some hip-hop shit. The reason you’re saying “squad” is because Waka Flocka went around yelling it everywhere for the last five years. (Briiiiick Squaaaad!) Before Waka and Gucci Mane had squads, Lil Wayne had one. Before Wayne did, Fat Joe did. Before Joe, Busta. Devin the Dude had a squad. In the early 90s we had Hit Squad and Def Squad. Time and again inner city style and slang get mainlined by the culture at large, making stars look edgy who didn’t have much edge before.
Attributing a term that, until a little while ago, was a popular expression of black camaraderie to an almost minority free cast of the rich and famous walks in lock step with a recent history of wrongheaded writing mistaking appropriation for innovation. Too many writers treat new developments in slang, style, and dance as though they are picked out of thin air by savvy white cultural ambassadors. Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus get treated as though they popularized twerking, like asses weren’t clapping in 2 Live Crew videos before either was a zygote. Fashion mags commend the “bold” use of historically African hairstyles on white frames even as black ones have found penalty in work settings for wearing them. It’s OK for your outlook to be shaped by your background, but when you take on the task of digesting and cataloguing events in culture for mass consumption, you had better shape up and get outside your comfort zone.
It’s not enough to run a term through Genius and state your findings, as the writer does here (and also in a recent history of the word “thug,” flatly listing hard search numbers and attributing the birth of the term’s use in hip-hop to 2pac and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, which...). For that matter, it is perhaps an odd practice to use a site that has weathered strong criticism for mucking around with the meaning and understanding of hip-hop lyrics as a go-to source for them, but since she does, she ought to have dug in and reckoned with the dozens of instances where someone not-white self-identified as a “squad” before heaping adoration on Taylor and her Super Friends and their public performance of companionship.
It is our job as critics to obtain and display a firm grasp on our subject matter as we bring art and culture to audiences who may not be familiar with them, and this media trend of calling things trends because someone famous and white has indulged is just plain bad reporting. The rich and famous aren’t rich and famous because they invent everything they sell. Many, Taylor especially, prevail because they’re as great at curating as creating, and good critics don’t just highlight culture, they contextualize it. Too much of our history as a nation revolves around people who barge into an existing scene, plant down a flag, and claim ownership.
Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.