Let me preface this Take by saying that I am, in general, a huge fan of Washington Post music editor Chris Richards. He’s a great writer and a great performer. His band Q and Not U effectively jumped me into the Indie Rock Fandom of the early ’00s. But this is the internet, and sometimes even good people do Bad Takes. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to respectfully disagree with Richards’ recent editorial, “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?”
Richards makes some salient points about the risks of shotgunning too much glossy, overproduced audio-narrative content. There is only so much time in the day, and obviously, if you’re a serious music fan, it would behoove you to spend as much time as possible putting tunes in yr ears. But there’s something a bit “old man yells at cloud” about Richards’ rhetorical attachment to the argument that listening to music and listening to podcasts are somehow conflicting, mutually exclusive activities. It’s true that you can’t do both simultaneously; it’s also true that it can be very hard to follow a podcast while trying to do verbally-active creative work like writing. So I can see how, from a professional music journalist’s perspective, podcasts could seem like a dangerous time-suck. In my personal experience, though, podcasts can be an amazing supplement to the music listening experience.
I’m a longtime fan and supporter of Maximum Fun, a DIY, listener-supported podcast network responsible for a truly dizzying amount of good audio content (including bonafide Podcast Hits like My Brother, My Brother and Me.) I’ve been listening to MaxFun since–well, again, high school–back when the “network” was just two shows produced in the living room of MaxFun guru and Bullseye host Jesse Thorne. Thorne is a serious music fan, a hilarious dude, a fellow migraine sufferer, and an all-around great guy who, in my opinion, actively makes the worlds of both music and podcasting a better place.
In the punk nomenclature of the Minutemen, all art can be effectively broken down into two categories: “flyers” and “gigs.” The flyer is what gets people in the door, but the gig is the real creative experience. In Jesse Thorne’s case, laid-back, freewheeling comic repartee is the flyer, but the gig is Thorne’s sincere, thoughtful and eclectic love of music and pop culture. Thorne is a terrific interviewer, and his conversations with musicians have played a crucial role in expanding my understanding of popular music.
As a kid growing up a rural, intensely white part of Michigan in the early ’00s, I had less than zero real-life exposure to knowledgeable discourse about contemporary music, particularly genres like hip hop and R&B. As dorky as it sounds, Bullseye (formerly known as The Sound of Young America) was effectively my gateway into rap fandom. Beyond that, Thorne’s conversations with musicians like Meshell Ndgeocello, Betty Davis and Shamir hepped me to some truly wonderful classic and contemporary Black music.
Now, here’s the kicker: the reason I gravitated to Jesse Thorne’s work in the first place actually comes full circle back to Chris Richards and the Dischord punk scene. As a teen punk rocker, I was a huge fan of Nation of Ulysses, elder statesmen of the D.C. post-hardcore scene whose playful, genre-agnostic approach to blending hardcore punk with elements of jazz and soul paved the way for–I’m willing to wager–subsequent Dischord acts like Q and not U. And–get this–one of my favorite Nation of Ulysses songs is called “The Sound of Young America.”
My point is, none of this stuff is mutually exclusive. Podcasts and music can meaningfully coexist as art forms. In fact, I think they have a lot to teach each other.