Reviewing a Wild Year in Art With the ‘Culture Gabfest’

This year was bittersweet for the culture consumer under lockdown. Some ways of experiencing art (reading, watching television, listening to podcasts) felt more necessary than ever, while the absence or degradation of others (going to the movies, or to the theater, or to a live music performance) left an agonizing void. The pandemic and subsequent crises of racial justice and democracy bled into all of it, posing new questions about meaning and merit that will linger long after the virus fades.

Few charted these changes with more deftness and good humor than Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens, critics and co-hosts of the long-running Slate podcast “Culture Gabfest.” As it has since its premiere in 2008, the show delivered a weekly (or, for a three-month stretch this summer, every two weeks) mix of brainy cultural analysis and sparkling repartee — proof that even a once-in-a-century calamity could be reckoned with if not overcome.

If you’ve ever listened to a conversation podcast about popular culture, you’re probably familiar with the “Gabfest.” One of the earliest shows of its kind, its format — in which the hosts dissect three zeitgeist-y topics collectively and then each make a personal recommendation — helped define a genre.

Recently, I spoke by video chat with Metcalf, Turner and Stevens about adapting with the times over the podcast’s more than 650 episodes, critics as inessential workers and what art does in a crisis. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did your consumption habits change this year? Do you ordinarily have routines for getting through all the material that you have to digest in a given week?

STEPHEN METCALF We kind of exist on the far end of a pipeline that has a very ritualized flow of content coming from the major entertainment conglomerates — a big movie of the week, for example. Once that flow got disrupted, we were liberated in our format. We started doing movies that we called “comfort watches” — something from history that we thought was somehow either apposite to the pandemic or an antidote to it.

JULIA TURNER It was fun to talk about old movies and not have the sense that the culture industry was serving us 10 different things we should talk about every week. Like I had never seen “Twister,” Dana’s oft-mentioned favorite cable TV movie watch. And we sort of watched everything from “In a Lonely Place” to …

METCALF “Paddington 2.”

TURNER I think one thing that characterizes us as a culture show is that we like to try to bring some sense of historical sweep or academic framing to the way we think about culture. So it was fun to go back and look at these other older objects and ask, what did this mean? And, what does it mean that we want to watch this right now? Dana kept making us watch just sicko, torment type content.

DANA STEVENS All my comfort movies involved some kind of mass death or something.

How much culture do you engage with just for yourselves versus what’s for the podcast?

STEVENS Doing a lot of this stuff does feel like homework to us, even if it might be interesting or fun homework. Since we’ve been stuck at home, I find myself less likely to want to stuff something new into my head, because I’m never short on things to watch. In a way I dread when someone comes to me saying, “You’ve got to discover this great Swedish Vimeo series!” Someone did just recommend that to me. And it sounded amazing. But a part of me thought, that’s what I’m going to do with my spare time? More cramming of meaning and words and thoughts into my brain rather than just trying to let what’s already in there expand?

TURNER I mean, it’s such a privilege to have a job where literally anything I do culturally counts as work. [In addition to co-hosting the “Gabfest,” Turner is a deputy managing editor for The Los Angeles Times.] But I do reserve corners of my brain for culture consumption that’s harder to turn into work. We don’t do many books on the show, because it’s a lot to ask of listeners, but I’ve been leaning into either highbrow thriller mysteries or literature with strong plot elements, because I just want to be pulled into another world.

METCALF I’m kind of the opposite of Julia.

TURNER That’s our whole shtick.

METCALF I’m a human, she’s a robot.

TURNER I love the people, he’s a snob.

METCALF No, but I’m a terrific weirdo. And I’m always in danger of spinning completely off the axis of contemporary life. So doing this podcast has anchored me in what everyone is watching and talking about in ways that I’m incredibly grateful for. Because what I do now in my spare time is what I would do with all my time if I weren’t doing the podcast, which is read essay after essay on the nature and state of neoliberalism. Right now I’m reading Habermas’s 1980 lectures on the nature of modernity.

Did it ever feel strange, or uncouth, to be spending your time grappling with art, or asking other people to do the same, amid so many overlapping societal crises? Did you ever feel inessential?

TURNER I think we feel deeply inessential most of the time, so I don’t know if that was a change. A podcast is fundamentally optional listening for people who find it valuable. To me, one of the most striking things about this year, was just that it was sort of the first pan-human event. The first global event where everyone was being buffeted by the same problem at the same time and we had instantaneous communication. To the degree that art is fundamentally about reckoning with being, and the question of what does it mean to be human, it felt urgent to me. It was as relevant as it ever has been.

METCALF I completely agree. And I would just add that, from the beginning the concept animating our show was politics as culture, culture as politics; that in modern American life especially, there’s no distinction between one or the other. So yes, we’re utterly inessential, and yet culture itself and how you apprehend the culture isn’t somehow trivial. It’s how Americans order their sense of common reality. It comes as much from Kim Kardashian as it does from Joe Biden.

What’s your appetite for art about the pandemic or about 2020? Is there a gold standard for that kind of thing? Because there’s going to be a lot of it.

STEVENS I’m so not looking forward to those “Game Change”-style somber re-enactments of recent political events. I do not want to see some sort of behind-the-scenes ticktock of why Fauci was ousted from the inner circle of pandemic discussants. It’s bad enough knowing that it’s happening right now. I don’t care who puts on prostheses to look like Steven Mnuchin or something. That whole genre is just so old and tired.

TURNER I think I probably have a bigger appetite for it than Dana. Because if you think about the set of art that was made about the financial crisis, and a bunch of films we ended up talking about, from “Margin Call” to “The Big Short,” people will make dopey re-enactments, and they’ll make big-deal fancy Hollywood things, and there will also be smart little indie slices of it. I’m sure some of it will be fascinating and profound.

We’re all in the middle of going through something wild and incomprehensible, and art has such an important role to play, I think, in helping us process that. We don’t know yet what young artist will find purchase on it in some way. What legends and lions will come up with some fascinating new thing to say. But I don’t think it all has to be Meryl Streep as Anthony Fauci, or Julianne Moore is Sarah Palin.

The year you guys started, 2008, is basically prehistory for podcasts. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry or community over that time?

TURNER Well, people know what we do now. I think for a while people were like, “You have a what? OK.” So it’s gone from being an unknown to, “I know what that is,” to a little bit of an eye roll, like, “Oh, of course you have a podcast. Who doesn’t?”

But the medium is so exciting now and flexible and full of people doing really interesting things, with documentary, with fiction, with short form, with history. I think at the beginning, podcasting felt like another radio station, and now it feels like a whole genre and universe unto itself.

Has your experience of the show, or your relationship to it, changed at all?

METCALF I would say for me, it took a long time to find what the right voice was. I started out with this kind of “radio voice” that was preposterous, like a character on a sitcom. And then you try to just kind of speak as yourself, but that’s too informal. So it’s just finding this register that’s somewhere in between. Of course the master of this is Ira Glass, right? He just sounds like he rolled out of bed but also as if he has this entirely synthetically created, informal persona that he’s in complete control of. I think I finally got it right about a year and a half ago.

STEVENS Steve, I like your on-air persona so much more than Ira Glass’s manufactured offhandedness. I’d rather hear you any day.

METCALF That stays in the piece, Reggie.

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