If you’ve found yourself on a certain type of podcast feed in recent weeks, you might have come across an ad for one hosted by Bill Clinton, appropriately titled Why Am I Telling You This? Over an upbeat jingle, in his familiar croak, the former US president – who’s reign in office is best remembered for a sex scandal and his subsequent impeachment – attempts to lure listeners in with promises of conversations about life and jazz music. It sounds like sketch comedy or a fake ad you might hear in a movie, but it isn’t.
Clinton really does have a podcast (which launched earlier this month) and so does his wife, Hillary. On Monday, Barack Obama launched one with Bruce Springsteen, somewhat stealing the thunder of one Paris Hilton, who’s own podcast debut arrived that same day. Beyoncé doesn’t have one, but her father just started his. They follow in the footsteps of fellow celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Rob Lowe, Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Demi Moore, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jake Gyllenhaal, who have all started up series of their own in the past 12 months.
The podcast market has been oversaturated for years, with every other nobody hopping on mic to prattle on into the ether, regardless of whether or not there’s a captive audience willing to listen. But since the pandemic began, there has been a massive influx of big name stars getting in on the action, with agents having figured out that they’re a lucrative and low-effort way of filling the attention void left by production shutdowns and industry uncertainty.
“I really believe that voice and audio is the next frontier,” Paris Hilton told the New York Times earlier this month. She’s not wrong – podcasting is a big-money game now. According to Vanity Fair, big names can command fees of up to $3 million to start up non-scripted series.
This is all well and good, until you actually start to listen to some of these podcasts. While there are several stars who have established secondary careers as podcasters by executing well thought-out premises – Jessie Ware and her Table Manners series and Zach Braff and Donald Faison’s Fake Doctors, Real Friends being good examples – the pandemic-induced podcast series have typically been less thought-out. Take Smartless, the interview series hosted by former Arrested Development costars Arnett and Bateman alongside Sean Hayes. Cooked up in the depths of lockdown, the series – despite having the clout to pull in a variety of impressive guests such as Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish and Robert Downey Jr – oozes ennui. There is a sense that this was born from the kind of boredom we’ve all felt at various stages over the past 12 months.
While the hosts, who are longtime friends, have good chemistry, they spend most of their interviews falling all over themselves to praise their guests, who are often also friends of theirs (in one episode, the gang rib Jennifer Aniston about her proclivity for ordering salads…). Other podcasts, such as Rob Lowe’s Literally, which is hosted by Conan O’Brien’s network, get bogged down by long and tedious games of “remember when” with pals such as Chris Pratt and Gwyneth Paltrow. If you’ve ever hung out with a couple of acquaintances who are catching up after a long time apart, you’ll know what it feels like to listen to this podcast: mind-numbingly boring.
In its worst form, the celebrity podcast is even lazier than the cash-grabby, ghost-written autobiography. Like the latter, the former seems to also involve minimal effort from the headlining celeb, with unnamed staff bearing the brunt of the hard work. “We record it and then, poof, wow, surprise! It’s in your earholes the next day,” comedian Adam DeVine, cohost of This Is Important, told Vanity Fair. As anyone who works in audio production will tell you, there is no magic involved, but quite a bit of finicky, time-consuming work. At least with, say, The Rock’s autobiography, The Rock Says (a classic, to be fair), there is structure, narrative and at least a little bit of new information. In podcasts such as Smartless and Literally, we’re really just getting to eavesdrop as ostensibly interesting people tread water over Zoom calls that are rarely more engaging than our own.
There’s something particularly unappealing about listening to celebrities talk about their luxurious lives in the midst of a pandemic that has been far crueller to the lower classes. Self-aware as they might pretend to be, there are moments of cringe-inducing privilege-parading. “I’m a good friend. I’ve got lots of money,” Martin Short professed on Smartless. This Is Paris – which Hilton cohosts alongside TV presenter Hunter March – is, unsurprisingly, guilty of this, too. In episode one, a 40-minute conversation with Hilton and her fiancé Carter Reum, the heiress describes in excruciating detail Reum’s extravagant proposal and two separate private island holidays taken during the height of the US’s pandemic, in November and February. Hilton is many things – a DJ, a reality TV star, a designer – but an engaging conversationalist she is not. If this really is the bridge between influencer culture and the podcasting world that it promises to be – part of her deal involves sending out bitesize, one to three-minute episodes akin to social media posts – then we’re all in for a rough ride.
So here’s one more reason to pray for the speedy rollout of the vaccines: if life goes back to normal, then perhaps the stars will drop this whole thing and leave the podcasting to the Marc Marons of the world, who do it best.
Original posted at www.gq-magazine.co.uk