In 2016, Hamilton’s internet fandom was at its peak. Tumblr was headcanon-ing and fanfic-ing the Founding Fathers. Twitter was tripping over itself attempting to win #HamilFam ticket giveaways. And the show’s composer, star, and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda was simultaneously being hailed as a Shakespeare for the modern era and as a “Linammon roll,” a nickname his fans gave him in honor of Tumblr users’ penchant for labeling their favorite celebrities “cinnamon rolls.”
“I’m fresh off a long run performing in my musical Hamilton, which fortunately is one of the biggest hits ever on Broadway, so that means most of you have no idea who I am!” Manuel joked in the opening of his 2016 SNL monologue (the rest of it was rapped, naturally). Even then, the statement was mostly funny because it was blatantly untrue. Miranda’s rise to fame was stratospheric, and he was the rare figure as exalted for genuine talent and creative genius as he was beloved for his charm and charisma. Teenagers on Tumblr, culture critics, former president Barack Obama — everyone, it seemed, had room for him in their hearts.
It’s a bewildering contrast to now, when name-dropping Miranda on the internet will, at least among a certain, acerbic internet demographic, likely invoke a flood of merciless memes, largely revolving around an infamous series of selfies in which Miranda is rather dramatically biting his lips, or delighted mockery of some Hamilton demo tracks, all sung by Miranda, whose vocals have failed to impress the TikTokers who recently discovered them. On the face of it, Miranda seems to have, much like skinny jeans and side parts, become a casualty of the intergenerational feud between millennials and Gen Z, in which the former’s pop culture becomes fodder for the latter’s cringe culture. The intensity of Hamilton fandom, including the fanfiction and art created about the Founding Fathers, has become something of a punchline in the internet’s vernacular.
Miranda seems to have, much like skinny jeans and side parts, become a casualty of the intergenerational feud between millennials and Gen Z.
Celebrities have always had something of a life cycle on the internet, with the height of their popularity directly proportioned to the extremity of their eventual “cancellation.” Jennifer Lawrence, at one point America’s favorite down-to-earth girl, prophesied in a 2014 interview with Marie Claire “no one can stay beloved forever […] people are going to get sick of me. My picture is everywhere, my interviews are everywhere.” Noah Centineo, beloved for his star turn as Peter Kavinsky in 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, became an internet joke for his bizarre 2019 tweets. And it seems like just about every Marvel star has experienced the same odd cycle of public admiration turning into indifference and even hate.
If overexposure can indeed be the root of such a problem, then it’s easy to see why Miranda appears to be in this same cycle. Hamilton clearly opened up a wealth of opportunities, and he seems to have jumped at every last one. He wrote songs for Disney’s Moana and delighted fans with his bromance with Dwayne Johnson; he was onscreen in Disney’s Mary Poppins reboot; and he played Lee Scoresby — a role first tackled by Sam Elliott — in HBO’s His Dark Materials. A film adaptation of his first hit musical, In the Heights, is out on Friday. Miranda is a ubiquitous figure in Hollywood, the definition of a household name. If Gen Z aims to poke fun at millennial culture, then there’s perhaps no more emblematically mainstream figurehead for it than Miranda.
If overexposure can indeed be the root of such a problem, then it’s easy to see why Miranda appears to be in this same cycle.
But it’s not just Miranda who has been reexamined. The release of Hamilton on Disney+ last summer prompted viewers to reassess the musical as well. The very form of liberalism that ran among Hamilton’s often very white millennial audience has undergone a reckoning. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s conversations about race have become franker. In 2019, the writer Ishmael Reed expressed his criticisms of the musical by penning a play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and compared Hamilton to Ohio kidnapper Ariel Castro, who held three women captive in his basement. And when the musical finally opened in Puerto Rico in 2019, it wasn’t entirely welcomed. “It’s true that there was some pushback against Miranda when he brought Hamilton to Puerto Rico, but that was mainly from a younger, more activist core group, as well as some who favor independence for Puerto Rico,” said Ed Morales — an author and journalist who critiqued Hamilton for CNN — in an interview with me.
When Disney+ announced it would be streaming the musical, many people were excited. The show had been notoriously difficult to secure tickets for and could now be merely a button click away. But dropping Hamilton in 2020 offered it up to a very different audience than the ones who had propelled it into the stratosphere back in 2016.
“There’s no doubt that the casting has yielded short-term benefits for many of the performers involved and that’s great,” said Morales. “In the long run, however, the idea of people of color ‘inheriting’ the history of colonialism and slavery through entertainments like this with the idea that inclusivity is allowing them to take the reins of the American project without serious historical critique about its origins is harmful.”
The very form of liberalism that ran among Hamilton’s often very white millennial audience has undergone a reckoning.
The musical’s POC-centric casting had once drawn praise for returning the American story to the immigrants who built it. But the tumultuous politics of post-2016 reshaped the lens through which much of the population regarded the American project. The outpouring of praise for the musical’s diversity gave way to criticism of the fact that it lionized the Founding Fathers and glossed over their involvement with slavery. The idealistic celebration of immigrants as America’s founders felt disingenuous to critics of the show’s focus on enslavers and colonizers as the “young, scrappy, and hungry” protagonists. “This is a way that writers of popular history (and some academic historians) represent the founders as relatable, cool guys,” explained historian Lyra Monteiro in an April 2016 interview with Slate. “My argument is basically that the play does a lot of this thing that we call ‘Founders Chic’ as a representational strategy. This is a way that writers of popular history (and some academic historians) represent the founders as relatable, cool guys. Founders Chic tends to really downplay the involvement of the Founding Fathers in slavery, and this play does that 100 percent.”
Miranda himself acknowledged the backlash to Hamilton in a response to tweets by Tracy Clayton, host of the Netflix podcast Strong Black Lead and a former BuzzFeed employee. “All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get,” he wrote on Twitter last summer. “I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical.”
That being said, not all criticisms of Miranda seem rooted in deconstructing his politics. A search for his name in Twitter reveals, generously scattered amid buzz for the upcoming In the Heights film, wry questions such as “how long will we as a society continue to enable Lin Manuel Miranda?” or digs about his singing ability. Whether because he’s a symbol of all that Gen Z finds most “cringe” about millennials or simply because, yeah, those demos aren’t particularly dulcet, he’s an easy target. It can sometimes feel mean-spirited, the degree to which he is mocked, but it’s hard to overstate the near-universal popularity he enjoyed for so long as well as the subsequent ubiquity his work has allowed him since then. It is nigh impossible for teenagers on TikTok not to be in the position of punching up as far as Miranda is concerned. And it looks as though many of them have chosen to do just that.
It has to be said, the memeification of Miranda is hardly a harbinger of his total downfall or anything close to it. In the Heights is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year, and early buzz and reviews for the feature have been widely glowing. The musical is by no means exempt from criticism — “There have been some complaints already on social media that the cast doesn’t contain enough Afro-Latinx actors, but I guess we’ll have to see if that’s fair,” Morales noted to me. “I am also skeptical of the Mirandas’ authority in speaking about gentrification, since they seem to have profited from the real estate speculation that has engulfed Washington Heights/Inwood.” However, it’s worth noting that excitement for the film adaptation does not at all seem to have diminished, even if several layers of rose-tinted glasses have been removed as far as Hamilton and Miranda are concerned.
Neither serious political interrogations of Miranda nor lighthearted jokes about his selfies are proof of anything other than his prominence as a pop culture figure.
And to be clear, Hamilton remains a force to be reckoned with. As Broadway and live theater begin to reopen, tickets for the show have gone on sale and promptly been sold out at exorbitant costs. It has a Pulitzer, 11 Tonys, and a Grammy. The fact that critics of the show and of Miranda’s politics have become more vocal is hardly an indictment of its popularity. Rather, it proves that the show is so dominantly embedded into the zeitgeist that it is impossible for it not to become the subject of conversation. Likewise, neither serious political interrogations of Miranda nor lighthearted jokes about his selfies are proof of anything other than his prominence as a pop culture figure. Memes and Twitter threads will not, ultimately, hamper his formidable résumé. To attain the levels of visibility Miranda and his work have is unusual, and to be so visible is to be constantly examined. It’s hard not to extend some sympathy to him. Ultimately, Miranda is one person and the internet is vast; I can’t imagine anyone would enjoy having their least flattering selfies turned into reaction images on such an impressive scale. But when your brand has been built so squarely under the flags of representation and optimism in the Diversity of the USA, it is impossible to escape the ever-changing political debates around these topics.
The intersection between politics and pop culture has only grown more heated and scrutinized over the years, and it also serves as the very foundation of Miranda’s biggest success. His résumé continues to read like a greatest hits reel, and he and his work retain a formidable contingent of enthusiastic fans. Still, the criticism of Miranda is far more widespread than it was five years ago. And that is perhaps the biggest sign that he has well and truly made it. ●
Correction: Ishmael Reed compared Ariel Castro to Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. The comparison was misinterpreted as referring to Lin-Manuel Miranda in a previous version of this story.