The Joe Rogan Experience: Will Gompertz reviews episode #1470 with Elon Musk ★★★☆☆
They used to say everybody had a book in them. Then it changed to everybody had a blog in them. Now, everybody has a podcast in them. And that's just where the book-blog-pod should stay in 99.9% of cases.
But there are handful of people who have taken to podcasting like Luke Skywalker to a lightsaber and become masters of cyberspace broadcasting.
Elizabeth Day has gone from journalist to novelist to prominent media figure with her How To Fail podcast. George The Poet has cut through with his meditative musings, while the footballer Peter Crouch has turned into a surprise comedy star with his laddish tales from the locker-room.
In America - where the art of podcasting was honed with shows like Serial, This American Life and Radiolab - the medium has long had a seat at the top table of the entertainment business.
As was made evident this week with the announcement that the Swedish streaming service Spotify had paid a huge sum of money - the Wall Street Journal reported the deal could be worth around $100 million (£82 million) - for exclusive rights to a Californian-based podcast called The Joe Rogan Experience.
Joe Rogan is a famous personality in the US.
He first made his name as a stand-up comic, then turned to acting, before hosting a TV show featuring wince-inducing dares, and between all this established himself as a respected mixed martial arts UFC commentator.
He started his eponymous podcast in 2009 as a "mates chatting" sort of thing, which it basically still is, although some of his mates are now Senators and Harvard professors. Anyway, it works: the show is said to have over 190 million monthly downloads, which is a lot of listeners by any measure (it is also available for free on YouTube, for now).
I visited his website to hear what all the fuss was about, and chose episode #1470 from a couple of weeks ago, in which Rogan chats to Elon Musk, the tech entrepreneur and Tesla car boss.
He'd had Musk on the show before, offered him a puff on his joint (cannabis is legal in the state where the show is made), which Elon duly accepted, leading to headlines and a sharp drop in Tesla's share price.
The episode I listened to didn't have any such incidents.
The two men began by chewing the fat about Musk's newly-born baby, to whom the businessman and his partner had given a name that sounded like a line of code written by one of his company's boffs. Rogan was amused and enthusiastic as the conversation gently meandered towards the topic of connecting computers to our brains, a concept that appeared to enthral and appal the host in equal measure.
Not so the quietly-spoken Musk, who considered the prospect of a "whole brain interface" where "more of you would be in the cloud than in your body", to be viable within decades.
Don't worry if that seems like too long to wait, because he also thought if all went to plan, that in five years we won't have to talk anymore because we'll be able to communicate our unfettered thoughts through neural links.
These were not small things to posit given the obvious ramifications, particularly for The Joe Rogan Experience: no talking, no podcast. But our host didn't seem concerned or particularly interested in interrogating the breezy claims his guest made with a matter-of-factness that equated to someone putting a live grenade in your hand and mentioning, by-the-by, it could be quite dangerous.
That's not to say Rogan was disengaged.
It's just that his natural curiosity tended to stop at wow without getting to why.
Which is fine, that's the nature of the show: guests are allowed to talk as much and as long as they like, often for hours, with Rogan the interlocutor playing the role of everyman: a part he has nailed better than almost anyone else in the world of podcasts, if one was judging by numbers alone (downloads, YouTube views, Instagram followers etc.).
He is, as they say nowadays, relatable.
His listeners get him, like him; maybe even want to be him. He's not a show-pony, or a light-entertainment phoney: he's the all-American do it yourself modern man, tough but intelligent.
Joe Rogan is the Bruce Springsteen of chat.
The Boss has taken his brand global, whether Rogan can repeat the feat in the talk-show genre will be interesting to see. The two men have much in common. They share the same muscular male aesthetic, with a love of T-shirts and no BS. They're both from New Jersey. They both had troubled relationships with their fathers - Springsteen's dad was a bus driver, Rogan's a cop. And they both found fame as the front man on stage.
Given the size of its investment, Spotify must be hoping Rogan can compete with Springsteen in terms of reach and appeal. I'm not so sure he can having listened to his show. Songs can be reinterpreted, meaning can morph and be personalised - less so with chat, which tends to be specific to the host and his or her culture.
I quite enjoyed listening to his conversation with Musk, but I wouldn't download another show in a rush for entertainment's sake. It wasn't just because the entrepreneur could say almost anything without being challenged - there's a section about Covid-19 when I found my eyebrows rise while Joe's and Elon's were furrowed in agreement (I believe in previous episodes Rogan has been more sceptical).
The main problem is my cultural reference points are different, I don't relate to Joe Rogan. I'm not interested in mixed martial arts or conspiracy theories or smoking weed or drinking hard liquor or camping or "dumb things". I don't care if a Tesla car can accelerate to 60 mph in under two seconds or want to hear what Elon Musk has to say to "all the fools out there" - another throwaway remark that went unchallenged.
Nevertheless, the host clearly reflects the views and tastes of a vast number of American people, and has developed a format with which they can connect and hear his thoughts and those of his guests (male-skewed, judging by the recent roster).
And that's why I will continue to download his show: Not to be amused but to be informed. Listen to The Joe Rogan Experience and you hear America.
Recent reviews by Will Gompertz
- Revelations about Rembrandt's masterpiece captured on camera ★★★★★
- Self-taught artist gets top prize: A worthy winner? ★★★☆☆
- Damien Chazelle's Netflix debut: Hit or miss? ★★★☆☆
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