This week’s audio highlights include “Queer the Music,” “Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative,” and a review of Elis James and John Robins.
Revolutionizing Music: Jake Shears Reflects on the Life-Altering Impact of Certain Songs | Mercury Studios
Surprising, Devastating, Life-Changing | Radiotopia
Elis James and John Robins (BBC Radio 5 Live) | BBC Sounds
Jake Shears, the frontman of Scissor Sisters, hosts Queer the Music, a fresh interview podcast. Every episode features an in-depth exploration of an LBGTQ+ anthem, with interviews from the artist who created it or those who were involved in its production. The episode concludes with a full play of the track.
The initial installment, focusing on Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” is exceptional. Shears has conversations with Josh Gamson, the author of the late singer’s biography, and Jeanie Tracy, a former backing vocalist for him. Gamson eloquently and accurately discusses the wider music landscape in 1978 (including the gay community in San Francisco and the destruction of disco records), while Tracy shares entertaining and heartfelt anecdotes. Her account of Sylvester’s performance at the Castro’s 1988 Gay Freedom Day parade while battling AIDS is incredibly poignant. Until that day, he had kept his illness a secret.
“I was riding in a pink Cadillac while Sylvester sat in front of me in a wheelchair, with his doctor pushing him,” she recalls. “As we drove down the street, I noticed people’s faces lighting up with smiles when they saw the sign for Sylvester. But then their expressions changed when they saw him in the wheelchair. Throughout the entire ride, I saw people go from smiling to crying once they realized who they were looking at… He showed great courage.”
The second episode features an interview with Rebecca Lucy Taylor, also known as Self Esteem, where she discusses her song “I Do This All the Time.” Taylor and Shears are currently performing together in London’s Cabaret, although the conversation was recorded before the show’s opening. The tone of the conversation is more like a friendly chat between two friends. Taylor shares some humorous insights about certain lines in her song, particularly the line “But if I went to your barbecue, I’d feel uncomfortable and not be sure what to say anyway.” She explains that she had recently moved to Margate and found herself constantly being invited to barbecues with new couples who had left London to start families. This resulted in her feeling out of place and not relating to the conversation. I would have liked to hear more about her live performances, specifically her dancing, but overall it was a great interview.
The third installment, featuring Andy Bell of Erasure, is also heartwarming and delves into his experience living in a cooperative housing community in 1980s London with older members of the LGBTQ+ community, including the incredible Nick Partridge, former CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust. In each episode, Shears is fully engaged and captivating, even sharing his personal struggle with the concept of “queer music”. He ponders, “Is it a label that confines us? Can it be intentionally created? Does it truly exist?” His candidness and determination to explore the origins and significance of these remarkable songs make Queer the Music a wonderful addition to the plethora of music analysis and interview shows available.
Jess Shane is a Canadian nonfiction audio-maker whose compelling 2022 single doc Accounts and Accountability, for Radio 4’s Lights Out, gave us the “audition” interviews of seven potential documentary subjects but without the full documentary payoff. In it, she deftly explored the relationship between storytellers and the people whose stories they’re telling.
She now hosts a series, titled Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative, on Radiotopia that pushes this concept even further. It is not new for journalists to experience such crises; as early as the late 1960s, Joan Didion wrote about how “people often forget that my presence goes against their best interests… writers are always betraying someone.” However, in Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative, Shane goes beyond just acknowledging her doubts. She delves into the traditional methods of documentary-making – not paying subjects, not allowing them to have a say in the editing process, persuading them to reveal what you want – and flips it all around.
In the first episode, it is disclosed that the participants will receive a payment of $20 per hour and will work together with the host on a show about their lives. These individuals include Ernesto, a 20-something model who has recently overcome drug addiction; Judy, a woman in her 70s who became homeless following her husband’s passing; Jess, a young punk musician who has discovered they are adopted and have a half-brother; and Michael, a middle-aged writer and rapper who has recently been released from prison and is striving to become a professional public speaker. Each of these individuals has a unique and compelling story to share.
Shane and her subjects share their personal experiences. Sometimes, she emphasizes her points (is it necessary to demonstrate how producers manipulate speech for clarity?), but overall, this series is refreshing and engaging. The involvement of the subjects makes it even better, though it may be more challenging for Shane. She explains, “It’s simple to say: ‘I want him to lead the way,’ but he may not know how to do so.”
Elis James and John Robins have returned to lift our spirits, although their usual Friday afternoon radio show on Radio 5 Live has been discontinued. Instead, they will now release two new podcasts every week on BBC Sounds. The first podcast will be about 90 minutes long and will be released on Tuesdays, while the second, shorter podcast will come out later in the week. Their presence on 5 Live will still continue with a one-hour pre-recorded show at 1pm on Fridays, which will be an edited version of their longer Tuesday podcast. Veteran host Colin Murray now has a new show on Friday afternoons from 2pm to 4pm.
Doesn’t it seem complicated? James and Robins found humor in this right from the beginning. In fact, Robins’ opening monologue had me laughing uncontrollably with its promise of a “podcast-first platform” that would be released biweekly and include live and prerecorded broadcasts of varying lengths. They also mentioned that they would be taking “a new path, but not with traditional methods. Instead, with digital tools and the internet.” I was a fan of their previous show and the new content is essentially the same, just with a digital twist.