Academic podcast studies has experienced a flurry of activity in the past decade. The intersection of podcasts and popular music is a fertile space for the diversification of thought and listening, bolstered by recent calls to analyze the ways these sound media compete for listeners’ attention. But the very nature of podcasting means that a podcast doesn’t have to be about music to engage productively with sound and music. The use of sound design and music composition to situate viewers in time, place, and space occurs across a vast range of shows, from news podcasts such as The Daily (produced by The New York Times) to fiction anthology audio dramas such as The Truth (Jonathan Mitchell). In his study of true crime podcasting, Neil Verma attends to the evocative audio narratives and sound design of suspense, suspicion, and “ethical conundrums.” For Verma and other audio media scholars, podcasts are a key site for understanding how contemporary music media use sound—shaped by factors as varied as audio equipment, platforms, funding, and reporting bias—to portray diverse subjects and texts.
With an ear to podcasts’ format, structure, and content, we situate podcasting as a cultural practice that engenders knowledge creation and taste-making. The affordability and relative ubiquity of recording technology can turn almost any space into a recording studio and anyone into a podcaster. This is particularly true for communities of listeners and creators, primarily women and listeners of color, who have historically been omitted and excluded from dominant media outlets. When confronted with situations where their knowledge, expertise, and cultural perspectives are not valued, these podcasters carve out a space for themselves and listeners like them to create, share, and do the essential work of community building and organizing. These recording and broadcast practices are not dissimilar to the bedroom pop artists on YouTube, TikTok, and other audiovisual social media platforms who record from spaces where they can be alone and in control of their environments, such as their bedrooms, but also from their cars, garage, a secluded hallway between classes at school, or another safe space where their agency is unrestricted. As Nora Leidinger has shown, these kinds of places have become safe spaces that can help amplify girls’ voices as a form of activism. These waves of audio media creation are fueled by online platforms and increasingly easy access to high-quality music and editing software, but they also are grounded in communities of care and knowledge-making. Podcasts are assemblages of sonic media with their playback of music, scripted and non-scripted narrative, fannish behaviors, and environmental sound design and effects—to name just a few examples—that participate in sonic world-building. As an interface for both rebroadcasting and remixing, podcasts can re-sound marginalized archives and situated knowledgespieces of knowledge, which contributes to their power as potentially radical and community-oriented media.
Several sound- and music-centered podcasts have emerged that either remediate older music media or create new formats altogether—Song Exploder, for instance, invites artists to take a deep dive into the production of a single song. In his examination of the music podcasts All Songs Considered, Switched on Pop, and Disability Visibility, Byrd McDaniel articulates that these podcasts and their performance of specific listening techniques are persuasive demonstrations of music consumption. Over the past decade, podcasts have become a key platform for analyses of popular culture, especially popular music. As an audio format that can interview musicians and play musical examples alongside their hosts’ commentary, podcasts have several technological affordances that can make discussions around popular music more inclusive. We have also witnessed in real time, however, the ways in which this digital technology continues to reproduce long-standing stereotypes about gender, race, and other identity categories when it comes to artistry, cultural capital, and whose expertise is permitted to take center stage. In this way, our special issue traces music podcasts as part of a longer lineage of material and media histories that have shaped criticism and popular engagements with music.
Across their articles, the authors in this special issue explore podcasts as spaces for developing critical listening practices, reflecting on music production, exposing the sonic centering of whiteness, and unpacking gendered narratives about artistry, affect, and authenticity. Podcasts record traces of musical labor and, despite being an audio medium, frequently deal with questions of embodiment, voice, and identity. Whose voices and stories are represented, and what impact do these choices have on how shows are received by audiences? How do podcasts work to unsettle top-down narratives of popular music by emphasizing artists’ and listeners’ connections to place, positionality, and production? What do podcasts, as a vibrant and emerging area of popular music scholarship, have to teach us about the evolution of taste-making practices in ostensibly public space? What types of subjects take on the role of cultural interlocutors, and how are those subjects’ claims to authority understood and received? This special issue understands podcasts as a site of collective conversation, with the potential for highlighting different forms of expertise that deviate from historically narrow interpretations grounded in white, patriarchal logic.
From chart-topping pop stars to DIY production, Switched on Pop to Homoground, the contributors to our special issue explore a vast array of artists, formats, and audiences in contemporary music podcasting. In “‘Let’s See If We’ve Been Missing Out!’: Affect, Reactivity, and the Middlebrow in Popular Music Podcasting,” Morgan Bimm links the professionalized adoption of fannish rhetoric in popular music podcasts to archives of rock and pop criticism that worked hard to divest from those same affects—and their gendered, lowbrow implications. Amy Skjerseth, in “Podcast Reenactments and the Sonics of Fictionalization from Cher to Swift,” demonstrates how voice and verisimilitude reconstruct music industry histories for a whole new generation of listeners while exposing misogyny and ageism in popular culture. Podcasting’s investment in star texts is further expanded upon in Alyx Vesey’s “Time to Document: Voicing Authorship on Björk: Sonic Symbolism,” which traces the ways in which Björk has used podcasting to articulate and assert creative and authorial control over her work while challenging persistent mythologies of the male genius. In “Broadcasting Stories of Racism on the Radio: A Soundtrack of Lost Control,” Anjuli Joshi Brekke traces what happens when such attempts to reassert control and ownership over one’s own voice happen in more of a grassroots podcast setting—and are met with institutional reluctance. Kate Galloway’s “Podcasting Taylor: Listening Strategies, Fandom, and the Sonic Environments of Taylor Swift Podcasting” introduces the possibility of an acoustic ecology approach to popular music podcasting, centered on the staggeringly multimodal landscape of Taylor Swift podcasts. And in “Sustaining Queer Joy and Potentiality through Podcasting: On Homoground Queer Music Podcast,” Stacey Copeland presents a case study that demonstrates the possibilities and unique challenges that podcasting represents for historically marginalized scenes and communities. The special issue concludes with a response by Norma Coates that brings this collection of essays into conversation with one another and the broader interdisciplinary field of popular music studies. Coates focuses specifically on the intersection of gender, audience, and reception by highlighting how diverse forms of popular music podcasting and the plurality of perspectives afforded by vernacular everyday digital content creation works to subvert the dominance of the still prevalent heteronormative male rockism of mainstream music journalism.
This special issue on podcasting, analyses of popular culture, and representation strives to recenter music and sound in a field of podcasting studies that often focuses on questions of ontology, genre, and narratology. We purposefully recast podcasting as a sound-driven media practice, drawing on its intersections with fandom, histories of radio and journalism, lineages of listening, vocal staging and performance, and the cultivation of spaces for re-sounding diverse approaches to sounding and listening. In positioning podcasting as a space for broadcasting or recasting inequities of gender, race, and sexuality, we endeavor to expand conversations in music podcasting studies to consider how these media replicate other forms of inequality but also provide ways of dismantling them. This themed issue offers a range of approaches to the study of popular music, identity, and podcasting, but each author also listens beyond podcasting as a sonic media to place issues concerning the circulation, consumption, sociality, and reception of popular music and mediation in dialogue with timely interdisciplinary conversations.