Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Overthinking It

Posted by Maximum Fun on 7th March 2011

Vital stats:
Format: multi-man pop-culture scrutiny
Episode duration: 55-75m
Frequency: weekly

“Subjecting the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.” There we have the entire mission of Overthinking It [RSS] [iTunes], baldly stated in its subtitle. Yeah, you veteran podcast-listeners might respond, so what else is new? Fair point. Functionally, most of the podcasts I’ve ever heard come down to the subjection of popular culture to undeserved levels of scrutiny, but here’s the difference: none of them aim to do that. They just wind up there when their declared themes become too hard to maintain.

This show thus possesses a sort of purity, in that it didn’t devolve into what it is; it set out that way. That strikes me as a savvy act of prolepsis. Podthinking about nearly 150 podcasts has rendered me cold, hard, and unreasonably stern toward discussions of anything referred to by the phrase “pop culture.” But why? Beyond overbroadness, nothing inherent in it makes it a particularly unworthy subject. The problem lies in the fact that you need never go far to find pop culture; some of it always lays around right there. This attracts those with both an intellectual spark and a slathering of laziness, a combination even worse than laziness without intellectual spark. It smacks of the unambitious kind of American Studies grad students, the ones you’d have found heavily pierced and enrolled in one of Andrew Ross’ seminars fifteen years ago.

So unlike being about old issues of The Flash, West African pop music of the seventies, or Proust, 1910, mimetic desire, and the inflationary universe, being about pop culture demands little in the way of initial effort. I suspect the Overthinking It boys know this, since they seem to compensate with an unusually high degree of conversational effort. Shockingly, they mostly eschew the standard hand-waviness for nonstandard thoughtfulness. While four or more of them get together over Skype to discuss the issue of the day, be it Lady Gaga, the Oscars, Super Bowl commercials, or Justin Bieber’s cracking voice, they don’t shout or cut one another off; they fully make and respond to one another’s points. A true internet rarity.

Can I give this show a greater endorsement than saying that on no other podcast will you hear the sentence, “Happy crunk is all alike; unhappy crunk is unhappy in its own way”? Many times I found myself thinking, “Hey, one of these dudes I still can’t tell apart except by the varying sound quality of their Skype connections actually made a pretty sound observation.” Yet in the realm of pop-cultural discussion, you can hardly ever prove or disprove an argument, no matter how well you argue; the information at hand just doesn’t come in that fine a grain, even if certain ways of framing it produce chewy food for thought.

And of course, we have an (admittedly acknowledged) elephant in the room: most of this stuff really doesn’t deserve scrutiny, of any level. All of Overthinking It’s participants come off as so sharp and articulate that I can’t help wondering about the possibilities of a podcast where they discuss… well, anything other than pop culture. They accomplish their mission more skilfully than most, but a slightly higher mission couldn’t hurt. You can reach the top of a hierarchy, but consider the hierarchy itself: as the best tweeter I know once twote, “Humanity for the first time is burdened with a vast proletariat of literate, ambitious, and demanding people who can’t really do anything.”

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 200 new subscribers to survive the year.]