Post by Mark Lashley, La Salle University
Fandom can either be a deeply lonely or incredibly connective enterprise, depending on what you happen to be a fan of. And expression of that fandom in a public forum has traditionally come with some element of risk. Increasingly, the fear of outing oneself as a fan of some phenomenon or other has dissipated as digital media enable an immediate dialogue between fan groups, and between fans and the objects of their interest (check out how Taylor Swift makes dreams come true!). What’s piqued my curiosity of late, though, is the way the podcast medium plays into fandom, as a venue that is tailor-made for delivery of content for incredibly segmented audiences.
Fan podcasts, or podcasts dedicated to discussing a specific cultural artifact, aren’t an especially new thing–The Whocast, made by and for Doctor Who fans, dates back to 2006. However, this single-serving podcast form seems to be having something of a moment. And oddly enough, much of this work seems to be coming from the comedy community. As a few examples, comedian Geoff Tate hosts a Cheers-themed podcast called Afternoon, Everybody! W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery launched Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period last year. Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files is nearing its fiftieth episode. And Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman have spent two years on an on-again off-again project about their mutual love of the band U2, called U Talkin’ U2 To Me?
I want to talk a little here about U Talkin’ U2 To Me? partly because it’s probably the most listenable version of the fan podcast out there, even for those who can’t stand the nominal subject. The show isn’t really about U2 (except in certain moments, when it most certainly is), but instead uses the band as a platform to spring off into one diversion after another. Aukerman and Scott have managed to curate an entire world that revolves around their pop culture obsession, but only periodically dwells in it. A given episode of U Talkin’ is just as likely to include a 20-minute riff about Turtle from Entourage as it is to debate the relative merits of Rattle and Hum. The other reason to highlight U Talkin’ is that, in its latest episode, the hosts landed their dream guests: the four members of U2 themselves, whom they had the chance to interview in New York during the band’s run of shows at Madison Square Garden.
After the hour-plus interview concludes within that U Talkin’ episode (which is likely to be the series finale, seeing as it’s reached something of a natural conclusion), Aukerman discusses fandom at some length, noting the ability for large communities to gather around a single purpose and produce meaningful discussions about the work itself, forge connections with like-minded others, and generally have a good time. This is not an uncommon sentiment about fandom, certainly, and there’s a rare candor in Aukerman’s voice when he thanks all the people that reached out to talk about the podcast (fans of U2 or not) and what that connection means for him and Scott. The theme here remains on how this community helped to make a dream come true (meeting the band!) for Aukerman and Scott. And that’s where the platitudes and idealism of fan culture may need to be tempered a bit.
What goes unspoken here is that Aukerman and Scott’s experience with the object of their fandom is anything but common. It’s also an experience that’s predicated largely on their high status and cultural capital: their pre-existing industry connections and their own level of fame. The same is true for, say, Nanjiani, whose podcast tackles a different episode of Chris Carter’s sci-fi series in each installment. Nanjiani is accomplished as an actor, as well, and his X-Files love recently landed him a supporting gig on the forthcoming reboot. In a lateral example, we could even look at WTF With Marc Maron‘s recent booking of President Obama and the awestruck post-mortem episode that followed it. These are all high-status fans, and by privilege of access and talent have a much greater shot than the average fan to make these experiences happen. In a recent book, Barrie Gunter refers to the concept of “celebrity capital,” and it’s not much of a stretch to see a certain level of commodification at play here. It’s also a two-way street–we can see the benefits of exchange for U2 the band as well as for the U Talkin’ guys. Similarly, there’s some positive advance PR to be had for the X-Files in hiring an actor like Nanjiani who is a self-described “superfan” of the series.
I point this out not to say that Aukerman, or Scott, or Nanjiani, or Bell, et al. aren’t “real fans.” Listening to their work, it’s enlightening to hear the fun they have simply engaging with things they love. But they are definitely not ordinary fans, the kind who listen to these podcasts and enjoy them at least in some part because of the vicarious access they afford. The last two episodes of U Talkin’ are exhilarating. In the penultimate episode, the hosts detail their backstage encounter with two band members (including Bono’s offhanded acknowledgement of their enterprise, “We know more about you than you’d like”). Then there is the nervous, awkward, and ultimately charming interview with the whole foursome in the last installment. If we are to step back and reconsider this experience through the eyes of a couple of regular U2 fans, would the experience would even have registered as a cultural moment? Is it not part of the appeal that U2 themselves were thrust into a universe that had already been carefully constructed by a pair of media-savvy TV and podcasting veterans? (If you’re a regular listener, you’ll understand what a coup it was to get the band engaged in some of the many podcasts-within-a-podcast that Scott and Aukerman had established, like “I Love Films”).
Perhaps a broader discussion might lead to how these podcasts exist as entertainment products on their own terms, though it’s hard to disentangle them from their objects of analysis. Moreover, there’s a question on both sides of the microphone about what we want our celebrities to be, or perhaps just what we want to see in them. Maybe the success of this form comes not from engaging with the specifics of what the people we’re fans of are fans of. Maybe the appeal is in knowing they are fans, just like us.