Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “Slate’s Culture Gabfest”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 6th July 2008

I have a friend who believes there’s no point in political discussion, because it’s merely the playacting of fixed psychological biases. While I’m not quite to that point — I’m still pretty sure all political discussion is psychological playacting except mine — I find myself inching toward his position with each passing day, which is why I haven’t made a habit of Slate‘s Political Gabfest. Fortunately for me, the web magazine of web magazines has started a sister podcast to that ultra-popular offering: the Culture Gabfest [iTunes link]. Sure, cultural discourse may be the circular, brain-dead expression of ossified unreason too — I should know, since I blog about it — but at least you don’t have to hear about caucuses.

Mirroring its political relative, this gabfest has a panel chat about the implications of recent events and developments in culture from, as the description says, “highbrow to pop.” The panel has varied a bit since the podcast’s inception early in the year, but it now seems to have settled on erstwhile “Dilettante” (and my favorite member of the Slate Audio Book Club, about which more in a future column) Stephen Metcalf, film critic Dana Stevens and social (and fashion) commentator Julia Turner. For half an hour every two weeks, they trade opinions on what’s goin’ down in film, art, music, television, the news, mixed martial arts, and Miley Cyrus. They then cap it off with their “endorsements,” recommendations from each panelist about what cultural artifact they’re currently experiencing.

Penciling pros and cons onto the ledger, I find that I should by all rights dislike the Culture Gabfest. I prefer bold statements to hedged, mealy-mouthed equivocations, and boy, do these panelists ever make with the hedging; one iTunes reviewer comments that Stevens used the phrase “sort of” 36 times in the process of evaluating one film. This gives the listener next to nothing to latch on to, little to agree with, little to disagree with. I don’t care if you’re right or wrong, guys; just, please, make statements that can potentially be right or wrong, rather than ones nebulous and untestable against the cultural facts before us.

Discussing Barack Obama — arguably more a cultural phenom than a political one — the crew, who sound like they’ve thrown up in their mouths whenever a Republican is mentioned, wearily moan about how, sure, they would vote for a literate, thoughtful, candidate who admits to reading Philip Roth, but the flyover certainly wouldn’t. Alas, even my iPod, a cutting-edge new model, doesn’t come equipped with a “Shut. Up. Just. Shut. The. Hell. Up.” button. (Disclosure: I’m from the coast too, though west rather than the east.) Also, this podcast provided my unwelcome introduction to the hideous term “booshie“, as in, “to tend to one’s booshie rooftop garden after reading the works of Michael Pollan.”

The problem may be the lack of a deflater. As another iTunes reviewer put it, the show “needs a co-host with a functioning B.S. detector.” That it does, and considering the deflationary role that Metcalf sometimes plays on the Audio Book Club — I clenched my fist victoriously when he stated, albeit in a roundabout way, that Eat, Pray, Love sucks — I’m surprised he can’t bring himself to do the same here. One episode [MP3] begins with the question of whether that LeBron-James-and-Giselle-Bundchen Vogue cover was racist. The correct answer is “Who cares?” Without someone to straight-up declare that right away, the panelists only get halfway there, and they do it in a meandering fashion.

But I enjoy the Culture Gabfest nonetheless, especially when glimpses of what it might one day become shine through the haze. One example relevant to Max Funsters is their death-of-George-Carlin segment [MP3]. I’m pro-Carlin, but Metcalf admits to always having disliked him. Rather than simply attacking, though, he explains with clarity and intelligence why one might not like Carlin’s stuff; he made me understand a perspective different from my own. In culture as in anything else, that’s valuable. (Though, staying with that episode for a moment, Metcalf et al utterly failed to get across to me the appeal of Liz Phair.)

I’ve focused on negative points here only because, when they’re corrected, this’ll be one damn fine podcast. It’s still early in the game, and, like any enterprise, it improves a little with each iteration. The idea at its core, articulate three-way conversation across the cultural spectrum, is a sound one, and I’m confident that, in time, it’ll realize a good deal more of its potential. Until then, brace yourself for the occasional lapse into hand-wringing weenieism.

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall can be reached at his secret e-mail address, colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts or suggest future ones on the forum here.]