By Noah Cohan, Guest Contributor
“There hasn’t been an original joke, really—on the internet, sports related—in about two years”
We live in the age of the Crying Jordan “thinkpiece,” and this is one.
Like a lot of Twitter users, I have liked and retweeted many images featuring Michael Jordan’s sad face over the past year. Sometimes crudely but often expertly inserted to an image of another person—athlete, musician, or political figure—Jordan’s tearful expression is everywhere. During a live sporting event—Crying Jordan is there. After a celebrity faux pas—he appears. When Donald Trump shares a picture of taco salad—Crying Jordan mocks him. Creative Photoshops featuring this particular image of Jordan’s face—born unto the world during his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009—have gained such cultural cachet that one might transpose his face onto the notion that they constitute a meme: they are, rather, a cultural phenomenon.
As a form of fan discourse, the meme is grounded in the kind of anarchic, carnivalesque satire in which Twitter seems to specialize. Its humor is premised not on its utterly predictable punchline—Jordan’s sad face accentuating the struggle of a contemporary figure—but on the gleeful ingenuity of its execution. How Crying Jordan appears is more important than the inescapable fact that he does: he is transmuted into dust, shoes, a trophy, a golf course. At perhaps the meme’s height, Crying Jordan lorded over Twitter commentary on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game because the image appeared—where else?—on the head of Michael Jordan, watching his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, go down in defeat to Villanova via buzzer beater.
Where there are cultural phenomena, there is media coverage: numerous websites of the “content-curating” type have covered Crying Jordan in the last year, including Mashable and Deadspin, among others. A nearly six minute satirical mini-documentary was produced by AOL’s “2PointLead,” featuring an interview with the AP photographer who snapped the photo, Stephan Savoia. Those close to Jordan have been asked how he feels about the meme, with conflicting results. And, just in the last two months, Crying Jordan has attracted serious, hand-wringing attention from the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
In the New York Times, Amanda Hess positions Crying Jordan as both a form of shaming and a palliative measure, since it “mercifully obscures the shamed person’s face… like putting a Band-Aid over a boo-boo.” She also asserts that while the meme “can be read as straightforwardly emasculating… it also works as a criticism of traditional maleness. The meme revels in the contradiction between Jordan’s legendarily aggressive persona and his free-flowing tears.” In the New Yorker, Ian Crouch bemoans a reappraisal of Jordan’s legacy in which “his fierce competitiveness started being remembered more than his otherworldly ability.” As a consequence, rather than awestruck, “a new generation of basketball fans knows only this earthly, diminished Jordan, and it seems to have decided that he holds up poorly.” And in the Wall Street Journal, Sara Germano and Stu Woo quote a 24 year-old man, Robert Greer, who asserts that “eventually people are going to recognize the crying Jordan face more than his actual legacy.” But what is necessarily more “actual” about Jordan’s legacy pre-Crying Jordan?
With these “establishment” media outlets intervening, I started thinking about Crying Jordan and the political economy of meaning making in popular sports culture. Since I’m trained in literary and cultural studies, I understand political economy in an anthropological sense, that is, to refer to “regimes of political and economic value that condition tacit aspects of sociocultural practices.” In this case, I’m interested in considering how journalists, fans, and athletes themselves manipulate, or attempt to control, the ways in which sporting figures are presented and understood in the new media environment.
Put another way (TLDR), I wondered what these journalists hoped to gain by attempting to explain Crying Jordan. As the meme is produced by a loosely-connected network of photoshoppers and endlessly retweeted by internet-savvy fans of every stripe, containing Crying Jordan in words seems like a fruitless task. In a certain sense, the meme has a logic all its own. As basketball blog pioneer Nathaniel Friedman (a.ka. Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko) put it to me, “Crying Jordan is Crying Jordan…it’s not lexical.”
However untranslatable the meme may seem, the face is Jordan’s, and Jordan commands broad-based media attention like few athletes ever have and few ever will. In his NBA fan memoir, Black Planet, David Shields called Jordan “our one transcendental signifier, our one universal beloved,” and it hardly seems like hyperbole. Made ubiquitous by global capital, the idea of Michael Jordan is so narratively rich as to be irresistible. Whether in pursuit of adulation or criticism, journalists and their fellow storytellers have made entire careers making meaning out of number 23. Even those parts of Jordan’s career that many fans might like to forget—his well-publicized gambling debts, his uninspiring player/administrator role with the Washington Wizards—have proven fruitful, even lucrative, for those in the business of telling His Airness’s story. And like all things Jordan, his Hall of Fame speech received an order of media attention (notable for its criticism of Jordan’s seeming bitterness) beyond that received by his enshrined peers.
Herein lies the crux of the Crying Jordan thinkpiece. Born from that Hall of Fame induction attention, Crying Jordan capitalizes on “our one transcendental signifier” in a manner not only puzzling to media, but threatening to them. Crying Jordan, more than any other sports-related Twitter phenomenon, showcases the collaborative creativity of online discourse. It is a postmodern dream, or nightmare, in which attention is focused on the whimsical, the ridiculous, the fantastic and which prioritizes intertextual connections across generic lines. Fans participating in Crying Jordan as cultural phenomenon have taken Michael Jordan meaning making beyond the structures of narrative that are lucrative for, or even palatable to, professional storytellers. In this respect, Crying Jordan is much like fanfiction from other fannish realms: it is transformative rather than derivative. As Francesca Coppa puts it in her contribution to Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World: “transformative works say new things, often in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable or desirable in the marketplace” (306). Crying Jordan is thus not necessarily resistant to traditional media narratives surrounding Michael Jordan—the meme’s intrinsic incoherence is part of its charm, after all—so much as it is a manifestation of contemporary sports fans’ creative independence. Given the fact that many still pathologize sports fans as violent mob members or testosterone-addled morons (and some of them deserve it), this discourse of highly visible collaborative creative expression is significant.
Despite their access, training, and insights, Michael Jordan does not belong to journalists. Nor does “Michael Jordan,” cultural icon, belong to Michael Jordan, the man. Authorial intent, literary theory teaches us, does not determine a text’s meaning. What you bring to a text influences what you get out of it, just as much as the words on the page. Corporate controls monetizing, disciplining, and channeling discourse (often through media, or pseudo-media) operate in powerful ways online, but the amplifying power of social networks also allows users to share their responses to texts beyond the bounds of these measures. Crying Jordan acutely accentuates that ability not merely because it is an online meme (though therein lies its spreadability, as Henry Jenkins might put it), but because it is an online meme about a figure whose narratives have been so exhaustively curated, and its would-be curators never saw it coming.
Which isn’t to say, finally, that fact-checked, empiricism-oriented media aren’t valuable and necessarily, especially in our current political climate. Merely that we should recognize that sporting performances are mediated as creative narratives, whatever pretense to journalistic objectivity, historical truth, or cultural cachet they may purport to present to readers. And when it comes to sports, to games, to play, we should make space for the ridiculous, the wonderful, and the humorous. Michael Jordan is a real person with real accomplishments, to be sure, but he is no more authentic in his narrative presentation to fans in a biography, newspaper column, or Gatorade ad than he is crying his eyes out on a pancake on Twitter.
Noah Cohan is a Lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his PhD in English and American Literature in 2015. His book project, “We Average Unbeautiful Watchers”: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports, is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. He is the founding coordinator of the Sports Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association.