I remember sitting in Brooklyn at the patio tables of my neighborhood bar with an out of town friend – and he ran over starstruck and demanded a selfie with an anemic little Slavic-looking girl smoking American Spirits. “She’s the sailor socialist! She has a new podcast called Red Scare.” I gave him a kind of critical look. This was a grown man with a union job and children who had been in Chiapas during the Zapatista rebellion and Argentina during 2001 and read all of Mike Davis, geeking out about a little Brooklyn podcast.
As they do, the New York media people at first rejected this rising tide, got angry and envious about them, and wrote articles about how they were dangerous and sexist. But then over time they would have assimilated them into the Borg, made them the toast of their conspicuous-Manhattan-loft parties, became simulacrums of them, surpassed them, and then turned them blasé and done.
I listened to my first podcast in the summer of 2014. I was living in Durham. I was depressed. The transplants with the “Durm” stickers on their Priuses find the syrupy Carolina front-porch summer charming, but for the native it can be depressing. It’s humid and it’s quiet and the trails are full of big snakes and the swimming hole is mucky and gross and filled with branches. I drove to the Duke West Library and worked for five or six hours and then drove home. If it was nice out, I’d load a Serial episode into my iPod Nano and take a long sweaty walk around my depressing neighborhood. The spaced-out neighborhood of squat brick-ranch houses wasn’t necessarily objectively depressing – maybe a little bit if you’ve just arrived from California, not if you’ve just arrived from St. Louis or New Jersey – but the problem was it looked pretty much like a less verdant version of the neighborhood I grew up in, twenty minutes down the road.
I liked Serial. I like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Soon I discovered that the New York Times was doing a morning news podcast. This was so fun! Every morning, I started to put it on while making coffee. I still believed in and trusted the New York Times and New York media in general, this was before they completely went off the rails during Trump.
Like all the other addictions, the podcasts crept into my life insidiously – first only on magic special occasions, then every other weekend, then every weekend, then every day, then a habit you absolutely can’t function without.
And continuing the addiction analogy, you need ever-increasing concentrations of the substance, or a harder substance entirely. Soon the nice, professionally produced liberal podcasts didn’t cut it. There was a brand new podcast out that was a bit raw and getting some attention called Chapo Trap House. They called it like they saw it, they made fun of conservatives and the liberals and the annoying identity politics that was starting to take over the left (it seems so quaint now).
It was nice and it felt new, but most of all it reminded me of the energy of certain punk bands I had seen, where the band wasn’t technically “good,” it wasn’t like the members were good at their instruments, but it was the charisma and strength of their friendship that made them more than the sum of their parts – that mysterious alchemy of doing things together not for the money or the attention that makes all the individuals braver and more vibrant somehow, because they feel like they’re in a gang.
I saw them do a few live shows. It was a lovely mess. It felt like a new day was rising on the horizon for the American left after somber identity-politics-anarchism that had dominated things ever since I was a teenager, these were “socialists” now, they had a sense of humor, they were irreverent, it was all kind of wonderful and strange.
A lot of things politically happened and Chapo and the universe of podcasts that sprouted around it and kind of became the lefty establishment, unseating the New Republic and Harper’s and The Nation. They toned down some of their rhetoric against the most deranged identity politics people and behaved a little better.
Now, pretty much everyone is listening in their own bubble, the niche micro-community for whatever their main subject interest is. A lot of people I know who listen a lot have moved on to greater and greater provocation, harder and harder stuff. Some have gone deeper down the left hole, or into weird extremely online nerds talking about post-leftism, or libertarian provocation. These are not people who would call themselves libertarian in any way, but it’s this unconscious urge for harder and harder drugs that I spoke about. I read less and less these days – why, I’m not sure, but the stack of books on my table looks so decadent, half of that book is sure to be throat-clearing and ego and nonsense – and I do believe that sometimes podcast episodes can occasionally be more transcendent than literature, can be the clarion calls of truth, but only when the hosts refuse to stick to the topic and give themselves over to become vessels for the Holy Spirit.
This can lead to the hosts of any podcast egging themselves on to be more and more truthful to themselves and to the audience, and lead to screeds that some might think unhinged but are often someone telling their pure, unvarnished truth, and that can be breathtaking to witness, all the lies and hedges and superego-self-regulation mechanisms falling away.
I don’t listen to many podcasts much anymore – now it’s audiobooks, wonderful and like nutritious food after so long of podcast junk food, and wonderfully readable by walking. But the ones I do listen to go hard against identity politics like the Chapo universe used to. Ironically, the people like Bari Weiss and the libertarians that Chapo used to get so much juice out of making fun of have drunk their milkshake on the identity-politics beat. It’s popular, people clearly want to hear it discussed often, and I find myself having to sit through, eyes rolled, at their highly ideological rants about Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia.
Now, many people I know who habitually listen to podcasts habitually report to me their strange, parasocial dreams about their favorite podcasters – we are approaching our forties, many of these people are twenty-nine-year-old upstarts with all the urgent self-involvement of that age. It is really strange, to be sure.