How Bossip Smashed Headline Conventions to Smithereens

For me, and many people I know, Bossip headlines have become a joy of their own. They’re fat with drama and posture and ruthless humor. Each headline is volcanic, erupting like a great mass of heat, or a crack of thunder, full of fire and cultural insight, all of it done with great ceremony. In one recent interview, a Bossip editor spoke to the emergence of certain phrases—such as “smash those cakes to smithereens”—in crafting headlines, saying: “It’s all about making it more visual and being more specific.”

Bossip belongs to a class of digital tabloids that cover black culture with a penetrating eye and a lust for the sensational. During its height, from 2011 to 2014, MediaTakeout was known as a kind of “black TMZ”—feared for its eagerness to air celebrity dirt but loved for its embellished headlines. Once, when Kanye West was spotted in a fast food restaurant, a headline exclaimed: “Kanye West Takes Kim Kardashian For a ROMANTIC DINNER . . . At WENDYS!!!” (A frequent target of the site, West later referred to MTO as “full of shit.”) During one awards performance from 2013, Miley Cyrus was pilloried without a second thought: “Everybody’s Talking About MILEY CYRUS SMOKING WEED On Stage . . . The Bigger Story Is . . . How Come She Got The Body Of A SENIOR CITIZEN????”

Though the site is not the cultural giant it once used to be, there was a time when MediaTakeout headlines were notoriously known for their punctuational virility—just slick enough to make you believe the inferno was worth the spectacle. “There are days when it feels like the site gets as much mileage out of grammar and punctuation as it does from real people and what they do in the real world,” Zach Baron wrote in 2013 for GQ.

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There’s also The Shade Room and BallerAlert, two black web tabloids that have found huge audiences on Instagram, with 15 million followers between them. They operate as portals of breaking news as much as they do celebrity fodder, and they supply comedic escape and narratives of uplift in heaping doses. One recent TSR post, a favorite of mine, inquired into the whereabouts of R&B one-hit wonder J. Holiday—his song “Bed” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007—joking how he “went to bed [and] haven’t got up since.”

Bossip’s headline recalibration this year, though, has opened a gulf between it and its competitors, the result of a semantic tightrope act. In news media, for publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times, headlines have always veered toward a kind a journalistic centrism; they greet a reader on common ground, prioritizing accessibility over impact. Bossip headlines are all the more remarkable because they act as an extension of black style—which is to say they embrace, head on, the syntax and niche vernacular of a small community of people. The undertaking is both a praise of and a lifeline to a facet of black identity. Language, after all, is all about position; it’s not just about what is said, it’s also about how it’s said, who you’re speaking to, and from what angle.

In reading this, depending on how you identify, you might have wondered about the use of phrases like “poon-sizzling,” “Airmax loving cakes” or “clap back,” and you would be completely justified in doing so. The terms are not meant for mass consumption (though, on occasion, the co-optation of terms like “on fleek” have a way of breaking through the mainstream). It’s exactly that kind of cultural specificity used in such a casual and matter-of-fact way that makes Bossip an arrestingly tempting read. That’s partly its function, too—knowing exactly who its audience is. Which is why I would never betray the site’s trust by translating its profuse, profane lexicon here. That’s been the point all along. If you know, then you know. And if you don’t, then maybe it’s not meant for you.

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