As a teen I was very much into pop and celebrity culture. If I wasn’t at school, or working at the movie theater, you could find me in my bedroom watching MTV, BET, E!, or Turner Classic Movies (TCM), listening to CDs, or reading romance novels. I loved immersing myself in music, movies, and books. I also loved learning about the newest and sometimes incredibly old Hollywood gossip, which is why I watched shows like E! True Hollywood Stories, Rap City, 106 & Park, and TRL.
However, as I’ve aged, I’ve all but abandoned celebrity culture—one too many stories about silly socialites and billionaires can do that to you. What hasn’t changed is my level of interest in pop culture and the people who contribute to it. I love learning about artists and their lives, but not just to consume them, as celebrity culture often asks of us, I want to know how their lives impacted their choices, why they created the art that they did, and what their contributions meant and mean.
Below are three of my favorite podcasts that focus on just that. These thoughtful writers examine memoirs, the first hundred years of Hollywood, the artist themselves and provide context to the art, the person, and sometimes the scandals.
I am a Turner Classic Movie (TCM) girl. One of the things I love about the classic era of Hollywood is how incredibly messy those people were. It had everything; sex scandals, publicity marriages, high-profile divorces, murder, intrigue, spies, and so much more.
That’s why Karina Longworth’s podcast “You Must Remember This,” “a storytelling podcast exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century” is such a delight.
Longworth, also a writer, researcher, and journalist, started the podcast in 2014 and covered a variety of topics like, Merle Oberon, the first biracial actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 1935, the misogynoir that Vanessa Williams and Whitney Houston faced in the 80s, and even does serialized seasons on topics like Sammy Davis Jr’s fraught life and the most controversial Disney film, “Song of the South.”
The most recent focus explores what Longworth calls the “Erotic 90s.” In it, she takes us back to films like “Pretty Woman,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Basic Instinct,” and looks at the context surrounding those works and what thoughts and sometimes outrage they generated—spoiler alert, it’s shockingly like what we hear today.
Longworth told Indiewire, “There’s so much conversation then and now about what these movies reflect about women and what they say, whether or not they’re showing women in a good light or a bad light and what they’re communicating in terms of women. And there’s so little conversation about what they’re communicating in terms of men and masculinity.”
Celebrity memoirs about women are a staple in my reading topics rotation, so when I found Celebrity Book Club with Chelsea Devantez, in the fall of 2020, I had to check it out.
Deventez, an Emmy-nominated writer, comedian, director, and actor, kicked off the podcast with Jessica Simpson’s memoir, a book I knew I wasn’t curious enough to read, but I still wanted to know what was in it. Surprisingly, it was thoughtful and honest. No, I still didn’t read it.
Devantez is incredibly talented at breaking down these memoirs, serving what she refers to as “gentle tea,” noting what the authors leave out or skip over, and balancing it all with empathy. Rather than simply gossip about what they learn between the covers, Devantez and hosts share thoughtful, funny, and intimate insights about the lives of the women they discuss. One of the things that I like most about the show is Devantez’s ability to resist judging the subjects’ choices and beliefs, but still call them out on things like internalized misogyny, racism, fatphobia, and investigate how women are talked about in the media.
There are a variety of episodes on women from all walks of life, both Gabrielle Union’s books, Reba McIntire, Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda, and even a recent episode about early aughts video vixen, Karrine Steffans.
During an interview with Fox 5 in Washington D.C. Devantez spoke about reading both Anne Heche’s memoirs, “Call Me Crazy” and “Call Me Anne,” that sums up what audiences can expect.
“Reading both these books was such an important look at how we used to and still do sometimes call women crazy, especially in the early 2000s. We saw it with Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor, Amanda Bynes, Anne Heche, and reading her book really is a cultural moment of undoing that, deconstructing it, seeing why we dismissed women’s experiences— and still do—and how we can stop doing that and take people more as they are as a whole.”
In my mind, Disgraceland sounds like what would happen if “The Twilight Zone” abandoned science fiction and focused on “the alleged true crime antics and criminal connections of musicians we love.”
Hosted by podcast creator and author, Jake Brennan, Disgraceland drops the audience into the lives of rockstars like Cardi B, Rick James, Prince, Ike and Tina Turner, Slick Rick, Selena, Britney Spears, XXXTentacion, Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, and so many more. It’s storytelling at its finest.
The format is simple, Brennan tells you a story about a crime, or sometimes multiple crimes, that took place or is connected to the star of the episode. He effortlessly switches between the roles of narrator and character dialogue.
What I like most about this podcast is the research that goes into the storytelling, the sound design that sets the scene, and the amount of care taken with more sensitive subjects like, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, or Billie Holiday. While many of these tragedies have been well reported, we’ve all seen how the people involved were mocked and derided despite their history of addiction. Brennan and crew tell you what happened to them—the good, bad, and the ugly—but ensure that the humanity of the person is always front and center. On the flip side, when a person behaved badly—R. Kelly, John Lennon, Tay-K, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, etc.—Brennan doesn’t shy away from calling a thing a thing and resists the urge to play devil’s advocate, which we commonly see when discussing the lives and crimes of the rich, talented, and famous.
During a conversation with Forbes, Brennan talked about what it means to make great music and how often that success can distract rockstars from dealing with their trauma.
“If James Brown wasn't raised in a whore house, hung upside down in a burlap bag at the age of 11 and beaten with a stick, then he wouldn't have become James Brown, the most incredible entertainer of all time,” Brennan said. “It's in the makeup of those musicians; it’s their constitution that drives them to become incredible musicians, but in some cases drives them to behave very badly. What’s almost more surprising to me is when I come across an artist that doesn't behave that way. When you're dealing with that level of drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, you cannot deal with your demons.”
These podcasts are ones I return to and wait for when they go on hiatus, because while it is certainly entertainment, the hosts ask us to think critically and deeply about what we watch, read, and listen to. It’s through these tales that we can ask questions—and perhaps get answers—about the world and ourselves.