Raven Smith is wanting to get cancelled. An unlikely wish for the High Priest of Instagram, with 76k followers imbibing his hot takes on Brexit, or wellness, through a miasma of Olsen memes and Oprah gifs. And, yet, Raven finds himself “at a point where I would quite like to get cancelled today, so I can stop worrying about getting cancelled. Let’s just do it now, let’s get this out of the way!” Ready for a digital dust-up, Raven has the scrap-happy attitude of any good satirist.
Indeed, we tend to think of our influencers as being in gilded cages; but Raven cribs from his own life with glee—he has opinions, and a couple of decades working in the fickle world of fashion, from which to pull. “Give me matter, and I will construct a world out of it!”, the philosopher Immanuel Kant once said—Raven’s M.O. is similar, the raw materials of a 2007-era Britney screenshot and a day’s Brexit news being all he needs to take a pot shot: “None of us are above the endorphin hit of a post going off—I’m the same as any other consumer, as well as being a broadcaster.”
Raven stands apart from most online commentators for other reasons. There’s his name, with that gothic pull, and then a suburban coda; like the moniker of a Tim Burton character. His laugh is ripe, and comes unbidden from deep within—like a Pharaoh emerging from centuries of darkness to hear the world’s best knock-knock joke. His booming voice and rapid-fire cultural nous bring to mind the dreamy substitute teacher you always wanted (fitting given his role as visiting lecturer at Central Saint Martin’s). Cresting into adulthood and fame as Creative Director for Nowness, the site under Raven became a go-to creative reference point for the industry, with now-notorious hits such as Matt Lambert’s sweat video or Lil Buck’s Fondation Louis Vuitton dance. It may chide other writers to hear the pitching process for Raven’s book happened in reverse; he was DM-d by his publisher, rather than the other way around.
Being an online figure risks falling through the looking glass; becoming beholden to the same space you’re making fun of—but Raven is conscious of this: “We’ve ended up in a place where even our Prime Minister is part of pop culture. We’re experiencing our news, our politics, and our shopping in the same feed—so pop culture is merging into this one constant hub.” Asking Raven about what defines the times—are we living in an age of uncertainty, of irony, of fear, for example—he quips; “We live in the age of opinion. We all feel entitled to our opinions, and columnists feel entitled to turn them into 500 words rather than 140 characters.” We welcome anyone who can parse apart the red seas of content with some clarity; to do so with humour, as Raven does, is icing.
When it came to writing his first book, Raven Smith’s Trivial Pursuits, due for release on March 23 2020, his cursory trawls of the internet turned inwards: “In the way that with mindfulness you’re meant to let stuff pass, [while writing] I was trying to stop everything and inspect the traffic of my brain. It was insane.” Trivial Pursuits contains his meditations on modern life, born from “nit-combing my psyche”, and, one suspects, more than a few hours in the teeming neon of Instagram, approaching with trademark curiosity and intelligence.
But how to dissect our times without freezing us all like mosquitoes in amber, without tossing your audience the gruelling chew of a lecture? For Raven, it came by finding the comedy: “There has to be some comic relief in all of this. If we’re being realistic, we’re all fucked: we may as well have some joy in whatever these troublesome times are.” Being an artist on the brink of fame, while living in a world on the brink of collapse, is nothing new. If anything, it’s great ground for new fodder. For the time being, it’s not a question of straddling politically correct lines, it’s about whether there’s an ‘in’ at all: “There are definitely things that aren’t funny. Like I don’t think #MeToo is funny, there is no ‘in’…. We’re actually at a point where everything is problematic.”
As far as the virus of most memes go, Raven is patient zero. Asking how he navigates this cycle, he’s candid in response: “I’m not silly, I see how absurd this all is. It’s absurd, but it’s where we’re at. Life is just the most bizarre series of stuff. And then you die. One of the early lines of my book is “Everything is a distraction from death”—because it is.” Realistic about our capricious desire for self-improvement; for one reason or another, he’s been to that hotpod yoga class, taken that mindfulness session, he states: “We listen to podcasts that change our lives... and then we are completely the same when we wake up the next day.”
Raven’s best branding work is himself; the architect of his own making, the meme lord becoming a meme in turn. In an era where memes of Baby Yoda outweigh our interest in any election, Raven x Semaine have joined forces for exclusive edition mugs, starring none other than Raven’s go-to alter egos: The Clintons, The Obamas, The Olsens, and the Royals. As we experience it, Instagram is an unlikely home for satire—it’s for airbrushing ourselves into oblivion, posting holiday shots with all the grittiness of a Sex and the City film poster, or pushing our own portfolios. Raven uses it as a rolling ball of absurdity, tipping into the role of provocateur as well as humorist; a two-sided coin he seems comfortable balancing upon. The agenda, if any, behind any Raven Smith project, column, or post, is, after all, a simple one: “That’s my dream; that we’re all in this bath together, having a gab… how great!”
By Jonathan Mahon-Heap for Semaine.