“Grrrr. . .Nudie Suit” (2006) by Flicker User Romana Klee ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In advance of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! finishes a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Past posts have examined Gimlet Media’s Fiction Podcast Homecoming, Amanda Lund’s The Complete Woman? Podcast Series, and how podcasts position listeners as “stoic.” Today’s entry examines how country music podcasts do–or do not–consider the sound of the music itself in their episodes. Enjoy! –JS
If you’re a country music fan, you might be aware of the genre’s central contradiction: for all the references to classic, traditional, “real” country music, most of this music has not been preserved. The genre’s history is disappearing. Many of country music’s best recordings will never make it to digital archives or streaming services, save for a few generous YouTubers who upload their personal record collections for public enjoyment. Just try to find Stoney Edwards’ 1971 classic Down Home in the Country or Patti Page’s 1951 collection Folk Song Favorites on the streaming platform of your choice. These albums didn’t even make it to CD.
Books about country music history are even more rare, and some of the most insightful publications are long out of print. If you’re lucky enough to score a copy of Philip Self’s Guitar Pull: Conversations with Country Music’s Legendary Songwriters, for instance, the book will set you back over $70. A search of the nation’s university libraries reveals just four copies available in the entire United Sates.
Within the academic world, though, a new generation of scholars is bringing country history to the forefront, all while complicating the inaccurate racialized mythos perpetuated by the industry. Among other exciting work, Amanda Marie Martinez recently published on the intersection of punk and country in Reagan-era Southern California, and Francesca Royster has an innovative piece of the power of country artist Valerie June (and dropping new book in October 2022 called Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions!) . The recent essay collection The Honky Tonk on the Left brings together a diverse cast of professors to challenge the received wisdom that the genre is solely home to political conservatism.
Beyond traditional academic channels, podcasting offers a new way of studying music history. The medium is both popular with the general public and tailor-made for sonic analysis. One of the best examples comes from Cocaine and Rhinestones, a podcast about the history of twentieth century country music. Hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe, the show examines forgotten or misunderstood country history while placing this history within the structural contexts of gender, race and class. Episode 2 of Season 1 breaks down country radio’s sexist gatekeeping, for example. Episode 7 of the first season covers Linda Martell, the first black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, along with the racist label head who kick started her career. In Episode 3 of Season 2, Coe bluntly explains how the “sounds we associate with country music came from poor people working out techniques to produce art on cheap, low quality, often damaged, sometimes straight-up broken instruments.”
The obvious advantage of podcasting as a medium for telling music history is that you can listen to a given song as it’s being discussed. Traditionally, a music fan had to read a book or article, then go track down whatever recordings were discussed. Prior to the internet, this could easily be a multi-year endeavor of parsing through record stores, flea markets and garage sales. Now a fan can search for a song right after they read about it, and with a podcast like Cocaine and Rhinestones that research is already done.
In his 2014 SO! piece, “DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past”, Andrew Salvati argues that “podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse.” While this DIY approach does not overturn elite control over podcasting, it opens space for history as an oral tradition, one which is more intimate and more empowering to listeners than, say, a university lecture or a high-budget, corporately sponsored program. Cocaine and Rhinestones is as DIY as a podcast can be; Coe writes, records and edits every episode himself.
The show’s power is most evident when compared to other recent attempts to bring country music history to a general audience. These popular histories tend to avoid critical analysis of the genre, repeating official narratives without scrutinizing how these narratives became official in the first place.
One example is Ken Burns’s PBS series Country Music (2019). Working with some of the biggest stars in the business, the documentary is more or less a retelling of long-known stories. Despite its $30 million budget, the series doesn’t manage to break new ground, all while smoothing over more complicated portraits for the sake of narrative ease.
The documentary’s most glaring failure is its treatment of race. As Kimberly Mack observes in her article “She’s A Country Girl All Right,” the first episode focuses “exclusively on the black and white origins of country, instead of the racism that obscured this shared history.” Even though the documentary interviews Rhiannon Giddens, an acclaimed musician and expert on the racist obfuscation of country music’s black roots, the documentary employs selective editing and voice-over narration to avoid confronting how these black roots continue to be ignored. Acknowledging the importance of figures such as DeFord Bailey, for example, the first person to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and the first musician to ever record in Nashville, is important, but a simple acknowledgment does not explain how the contributions of such a crucial figure are suppressed through an inaccurate racialized conception of the genre’s history.
In the world of podcasting, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History offers a disappointing rehash of country’s manufactured white southern roots. The episode “The King of Tears” (Season 2, Episode 6) seeks to reveal the secret behind country’s embrace of sad songwriting, but Gladwell ultimately fortifies an already whitewashed history.
Unlike Ken Burns, Gladwell does not approach country from within the industry. His episode is just one in a series of other, non-musical episodes. Like Ken Burns, though, Gladwell uses selectively edited interviews and voice-over narration to shoehorn a simplistic analysis of country music. Worse still, Gladwell doesn’t even acknowledge the genre’s multiracial origins. The episode presents a two-part theory. First, country music songwriting focuses on sad, autobiographically specific stories. Second, the only reason this sadness is communicable is because country music’s writers, performers and listeners are all part of the same social group. “It’s white, southern Protestants all the way down the line,” he says while discussing a list of critically acclaimed country performers.
The show is well edited and funded through corporate sponsorships. The podcast hops between Gladwell in the studio, on-sight interviews, and lush music clips. There is little discussion of the actual music, however. We hear next to nothing about instrumentation, production decisions or even singing style. When Gladwell wants explain why a particular song is sad, he just plays the song and talks over the recording. Take his analysis of “Golden Ring,” a 1976 duet from Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Gladwell introduces it as “a weeper,” but offers no explanation as to how the song conveys sadness.
A clip of the song starts playing at the 8:17 mark of the episode. The song fades but keeps playing in the background as Gladwell butts in to summarize the plot. He gives an anecdote from the songwriter, then the podcast cuts to an interview with the songwriter. The music stops while the songwriter speaks about a specific lyric, then comes back at full volume so the listener can hear the lyric in the final recording. We then go back to the interview sans music before hearing the final phrase of the song at full volume.
The transitions are smooth, and cutting between three sources of audio keeps the listener’s attention. Only later does the listener realize that very little was actually said about the song. In total, the section is just under a minute and a half, and barely thirty seconds is devoted to listening to the song. All we know is that it deals with divorce. We have no context for the recording and no explanation of why the song is uniquely sad.
Cocaine and Rhinestones offers the inverse––lower production quality with richer analysis. Compared to Coe’s better-funded peers, the show’s audio quality is sparse, especially in the first season. 128kps files in mono can only do so much sonic justice. Such limitations never hinder the historical message, though, and they might even enhance it. Cocaine and Rhinestones does not build a world with sweeping soundscapes and audio effects. It is Coe in his basement, more or less monologuing. There are no interviews. Music clips and the occasional radio or television broadcast are the only other thing you hear aside from Coe’s voice. For some, his voice takes getting used to, namely in the first few episodes of the series. You can hear Coe try to figure out how to talk within the context of a one-man show. His own family apparently chided him for the awkward initial performance, but he quickly found his groove, and by the mid-point of the first season he sounds clear and comfortable.
Coe was able to upgrade to stereo for the second season, allowing for more detailed sonic analysis. Just look at Episode 14 of Season 2, where Coe walks us through the writing and recording of George Jones’ 1970 hit “A Good Year for the Roses.” His analysis starts around the 1:23:28 mark.
As Coe explains, the record “opens with a rhythm section panned to the right and, in the left channel, a mysterious low-end swell, like a heavy dirigible lifting into flight, probably provided by a pedal steel player running their signal through a Jordan Boss Tone unit and a tape delay to mimic a cello.” Coe cuts out so we can hear the effect by itself. He then goes on to describe how those production choices pair with the lyrics to create one of the saddest recordings in Jones’s discography.
Whenever he discusses a moment in the song, he lets it play without voice-over. The transition between Coe’s voice and the song is less smooth than the transitions we hear in Gladwell’s podcast, but the comparatively abrupt cuts allow the listener to give their full attention to Coe, then to the song. By the end of the analysis, which runs significantly longer than Gladwell’s discussion of “Golden Ring,” we’ve listened to a combined minute and thirty seconds of “A Good Year for the Roses.” The setup takes longer, the observations are more detailed, and that patience lets the listener appreciate the devastating impact of specific artistic decisions.
While Cocaine and Rhinestones tackles everything from minute production choices to centuries-long historical arcs, the format of the show is simple. The first season covers a different artist every episode, while the second season is devoted to the life of George Jones. Episodes typically start with a historical anecdote––this could be the origin of the word ballad or the history of drag––then Coe details a given artist’s life, showing where they came from, what they contributed to the genre, and how their work is embedded within larger historical structures. Coe displays an impressive command of a range of topics, not just related to music but to a variety of historical subjects.
This attention to detail is a testament to Coe’s ability to not only listen but to help others listen with him. Even when episodes cross the two-hour mark, the main takeaway is that you have only scratched the surface. Sources are discussed in the show’s unique closing section, known as the Liner Notes. Coe explains why he chose to tell one story but not another, how a given book is useful (or useless) in relation to other books, and sometimes he will include asides that would have disrupted the episode’s main narrative. This is my favorite part of the show. It’s one of the best examples of annotated citation in any discipline (see season 2’s library here).
By openly discussing sources, not just sharing the books he read but detailing why, for example, a commonly cited source is not as accurate as previously assumed, Coe takes the extra step that big budget country histories won’t take. He shines a light on a suppressed history and explains how that history was suppressed in the first place. Cocaine and Rhinestones doesn’t just cherry pick a few examples to make a point––the show offers a patient, detailed analysis of how we came to understand what we now think of as country music and how the genre can be understood in new ways.
The second season recently ended, and a third is in the works.
Andrew Clark is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied physics and French. His undergraduate thesis, “Time, Space, and Capital: Walter Benjamin in Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ and René Clair’s Paris qui dort,” examined utopian imagery in early twentieth century Paris. He currently lives in Cincinnati, OH and works at a local brewery. You can contact him at andrewclark.me.
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“The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley
In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS
Zeno of Citium, the Hellenistic philosopher who founded the Stoic school at the turn of the third century BCE, once had this advice to give to a garrulous young man: “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so that we might listen more and talk less.” The more we speak, Zeno was saying, the more self-absorbed and foolish we become; in learning to listen, we temper our own egos and attune ourselves to the truths of the world around us.
This piece of wisdom from a 2,300-year-old philosophy was a part of the marketer and best-selling author Ryan Holiday’s reflection on stillness and silence on the October 4 edition of his Daily Stoic podcast, a daily affirmational that brings listeners “a meditation inspired by the ancient Stoics illustrated with stories from history, current events, and literature to help you be better at what you do.” In citing Zeno, Holiday’s point was that while our highly mediated culture often rewards loudness, extroversion, and “hot takes,” we might do better to listen, and learn from others, rather than simply talk over them.
Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Forbes, Wired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter.
Among the lessons Holiday draws from Stoicism, the practice of stillness (as his 2019 book puts it) is key: a way of quieting the mind, of “hear[ing] only what needs to be heard,” and really listening to the truth of the world in order to achieve the kind of tranquility (what the Greeks called apatheia) that will help us “think well, work well, and be well.”
With this emphasis on stillness, silence, and listening, it would seem quite appropriate that Holiday would turn to the aural medium of podcasting to proclaim the ancient wisdoms of Zeno, Cleanthes, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, for the Stoics, listening was a foundational skill through which one cultivated the habits of discipline, self-control, and self-reflection that are the heart of the Stoic way of life (askesis); for it is in quieting ourselves and listening that we begin to open ourselves to the teachings of the masters and think about their application in our own lives.
And Holiday is hardly the only Stoic podcaster. As I write this, a simple search on Stitcher yields over 30 podcasts with “Stoicism” in their titles or descriptions, many of which have been updated in the past month (December, 2021), including the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoic Meditations, Stoicism Discovery, Stoicism on Fire, The Sunday Stoic, The Stoic Handbook, The Walled Garden, Stoic Coffee Break, and Stoic Solutions.
Elsewhere, Stoicism has been promoted by self-improvement podcasters like the tech investor and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss,and retired Navy SEAL and leadership coach Jocko Willink; and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the ancient Stoics were white men who emphasized values like rationality and self-mastery, which are typically coded as male – it has been advocated as a tactic for modern living by masculinity podcasters like Brett McKay and Ryan Michler.
Navigating this space can often feel like a small world (or, perhaps a promotional circuit): Holiday has been a guest on The Tim Ferriss Show, The Art of Manliness, and Order of Man, and has hosted Willink, McKay, and Ferriss on The Daily Stoic.
A full exploration of this network is outside my scope here. For now, I will consider the ways in which podcasting is particularly well-suited to Stoic askesis; and specifically, how the very act of listening – on our commutes, on long drives, at the gym, on hikes, and in moments of quiet meditation – constitutes what Michel Foucault (who himself drew upon Stoic texts in his later work on ethics) called a technology of the self: those techniques, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”
Part of a larger project investigating the historical emergence of discourses of sex and sexuality in Western culture, Foucault in his later writings and lectures turned his attention away from the normative and disciplinary systems of subjectivation that had previously concerned him, and toward the study of ethical modalities by which individuals actively fashioned their own subjectivity. Focusing particularly on the ethical practices of the ancient world, he discovered a more autonomous framework for individual conduct, one that centered on self-imposed standards and daily habits rather than a prescribed moral code.
This precept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heatou), Foucault maintained, could be traced from Alcibiades to the Imperial period, and had impelled individual Greeks and Romans (the free white men, at least) to embark upon their own stylized projects of self-transformation.
Among the practices that interested Foucault – and indeed, the one he understood to be essential to the “subjectivation of true discourse” – was the act of listening. In the first hour of his March 3, 1982 lecture at the Collège de France (published in English in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), for example, Foucault explained that listening is
the first move in as[k]esis … since listening, in a culture which you know was fundamentally oral, is what enables us to take in the logos, to take in what is said that is true. However, if conducted properly, listening also makes it possible for the individual to be convinced of the truth spoken to him, of the truth he encounters in the logos. And, finally, listening is the first moment of the process by which the truth which has been heard, listened to, and properly taken in, sinks into the subject so to speak, becomes embedded in him and begins to become suus (to become his own) and thus forms the matrix for ethos (p. 332).
This emphasis on listening, Foucault noted, is evident as far back as the Pythagoreans, who required initiates to spend five years in silence so as to be able to learn the community’s exercises, practices, and philosophical precepts. The themes of silence and listening were further developed in the culture dominated by Stoicism, Foucault noted, and emerged as a “new pedagogical game” that contrasted with the earlier dialogic model. Now, the master spoke, and the student listened.
But the nature of audition could be somewhat ambiguous for the ancients, Foucault explained, in that it was a passive (pathetikos) activity, yet it is the primary sense through which we receive the logos, the rational substance that the Stoics believed to govern the universe. In his treatise On Listening, for instance, Plutarch (46 CE – c. 116CE) wrote that it was imperative for young men cultivate the art of listening because they must learn to listen to the logos throughout adulthood, and so must learn to distinguish truth from the artifices of flattery or rhetoric. One must listen to the words of the master attentively, so that the logos might penetrate the soul. “The man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect,” Plutarch wrote, “takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation” (On Listening, IV).
Perhaps the most striking of the texts Foucault discussed, however (see The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 343-344), is Philo of Alexandria’s (20 BCE – c. 50 CE) description of the practices of the Therapeutae, a closed community of ascetics who renounced their earthly possessions in order to pursue “perfect happiness,” and the salvation of their soul (De Vita Contemplativa, §12). In his text, Philo takes specific note of the group’s elaborate banquet rituals, during which an elder comes to the fore and gives a discourse on philosophical doctrine or on sacred scripture (“teaching very slowly, lingering and emphasizing with repetitions, engraving the thoughts on the souls” [§76]). During these talks, the audience remained silent and motionless, adopting a precisely prescribed posture intended to fix their attention on the speaker, so that the discourse “does not stay on the tips of the ears, but comes through the hearing to the soul and there remains securely (§31).” In these feasts of silence, mastery of the body is the foundation of the care of the soul.
Though modern Stoic podcasting does not demand nearly this level of physical discipline of its listeners, we are nevertheless encouraged to incorporate podcasting into a daily ritual of silence and reflection – a new, digital feast of silence. As we listen through our headphones, in our cars, or in some other quiet personal space, we are joined in intimate connection with our hosts, who guide us in our contemplation of timeless Stoic wisdoms, engraving these thoughts in our minds so that we might have them ready at hand in order, as Holiday often says, to make them the principle of our actions.
It is this possibility of principled living that is perhaps at the heart of Stoicism’s twenty-first century appeal. As Elizabeth J. Peterson has written, in our age of seemingly perpetual crisis, Stoicism’s resurgence is undoubtedly due to its reputation as a practical guide for surviving difficult times. “Between President Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and the domestic issues in virtually every country,” she writes, “it’s not difficult to see why many people, across the world, need a source of clarity, calm, and fortitude.” (And that was before the pandemic, which occasioned a spate of articles explaining how Stoicism might help us endure a moment of profound uncertainty).
But the headlines aren’t the only source of our anxieties; we have plenty of it in our own lives. At a time of deepening economic precarity, in which we are routinely urged to become self-reliant, self-enterprising subjects in order to maximize our value in the marketplace, Stoicism offers a ready-made coping mechanism with a pedigree of centuries: at once a framework for cultivating emotional resilience, and a self-help paradigm for transforming ourselves into more disciplined, effective, and successful individuals.
When co-opted by late capitalist culture, when marketed as a “life-hack” and configured as an ethics of personal success, then, Stoic principles quite easily align with neoliberal imperatives that we endlessly labor on ourselves in order to better compete in an agonistic struggle for personal fulfillment and economic security. From this perspective, even the advice that we embrace stillness becomes a way of momentarily refreshing ourselves, only to return to work to “persevere” and “succeed.”
One of the most trenchant critiques of Stoicism is that by advising us not to concern ourselves with that which we cannot control (see Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.5.4-5), it is fundamentally a philosophy for living in the world as it exists, and not for challenging it (indeed, Stoicism’s popularity among the Roman elite indicates something of its congeniality with the established order). And while, as Sara Ahmed has written, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neoliberalism,” it is nevertheless worth considering how an ostensibly self-directed ascetic practice is complicit in more hegemonic (neoliberal, patriarchal, and misogynistic) templates of subjectivity.
Featured Image: “Marcus Aurelius Headphone Stand!” by JM3is3D @Etsy. Image used for purposes of critique.
Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.
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