Unpopped, and 5 more podcasts taking the silly seriously

BBC podcast Unpopped offers a serious analysis of pop culture from Paris Hilton to Twin Peaks

Article by Brian Cloughley | 16 Mar 2018

A friend of The Skinny wrote their sociology masters thesis on Jackass. It might sound daft, but she managed to write 15,000 words about how this apparent gang of morons drew on the traditions of performance art and redefined notions of masculinity in a post-industrial setting. She failed her degree of course, but that’s not really the point. The point is that even the most low-brow forms of artistic expression have cultural or social relevance if you bother to dig deep enough.

This is the starting point for the BBC podcast Unpopped, which sits journalist Hayley Campbell and a few academics and critics round a table and asks them to find the the hidden depths in the shallowest of places. It goes about it in two ways. The first way is via a conventional cultural criticism approach, as they try to explain why, say, RuPaul’s Drag Race invaded the public consciousness and what its legacy is (hint: it’s more than just throwing shade).

That’s very interesting thanks, but not especially ground-shaking. What sets Unpopped apart is its willingness to take the actual pop stuff seriously, rather than just analysing the context in which it exists. Take the Spice Girls for instance. The most widely held opinion is that they were five wannabes of dubious talent and attractiveness, who were created and steered by genius management and marketing. Unpopped argues that perhaps they actually played a role in shaping their own destiny. It affords them agency, if you’ll excuse the academic language. A similar logic is applied to the other subjects in the podcast (except Lara Croft. She’s not real.)

The best example of this (and the subject of the best episode in the series so far) is Paris Hilton. Derided then and now as a talentless parasite and a fatuous floozy, she’s an unlikely candidate for re-invention. But wait, argue the Unpopped panel, didn’t she actually achieve everything she wanted? The fame, the fabulous lifestyle, the business empire, the funny wee dogs (they briskly skip over the bit where she gets thrown in jail for drunk driving).

They conclude that Paris Hilton has made a success of her life in her own terms, and has shown herself to be subversive, smart, independent, self-aware and, in the face of constant misogynistic contempt, extraordinarily resilient. One contributor even describes her early 2000s adventures as “thrilling nihilism.” Thrilling nihilism! We all need some thrilling nihilism in our lives, vicariously or not.

It’s not perfect – the Twin Peaks episode, comfortably the weakest in the series, isn’t much more than an aimless chat. The general rule seems to be the crappier the subject, the better the podcast. That might sound counterintuitive, but then counterintuition is what Unpopped is all about.

5 more podcasts that take silly stuff seriously

1) Thinking Allowed – The long-running BBC Radio 4 sociology programme makes an excellent 30 minute podcast. It takes everything seriously, from nuclear war to Zumba.

2) Omnibus – The gimmick is flimsy – it’s supposed to be a guide to esoterica for future civilisations to discover – but the subjects are usually original and enlightening. Contains everything you’ll ever need to know about hat etiquette, megafauna and back masking.

3) Very Bad Words – As a schoolboy I found a sticker with ‘fuck shag shite arse fucker bum shug’ [sic] printed on it. Funny the things you remember. This jolly podcast is a mix of etymology, personal recollections and filth.

4) You Had Us At Hello – How much is there to be said about romantic comedies? Tons, apparently. This is a likable trans-Atlantic effort, not to be confused with the inferior You Had Me at Hello podcast. Yes, there really are competing rom-com podcasts.

5) Surprisingly Awesome – Sadly discontinued, this one’s all about shining a light on the seemingly boring things in life – broccoli, mould, cardboard, mattresses.