“John B McLemore lives in Shit Town, Alabama.”
April 17, 2017 8:36 PM   Subscribe

How The Best Podcast Of The Year Was Made. McLemore is a late-middle-age clock restorer, hedge-maze maker, acid-reflux sufferer, and all-around gadfly. The hook for S-Town is that he says he’s heard talk of a murder in Woodstock, but the listener quickly gets the sense that what McLemore says is less the point than how he says it. The tapes of his conversations with Reed are glorious, darkly comic linguistic sculptures, filigreed with vulgarity, custom slang, and scientific names for plants. S-Town Is a Well-Crafted Monument to Empathy. posted by triggerfinger (38 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought this was very good, but for me it peaked around episode 3 or 4. They fit so many different storylines into such a small number of episodes that it's really amazing, but that also caused me to have pretty different feelings about each episode. It wasn't as consistently gripping for me as the original first season of Serial was.
posted by primethyme at 8:51 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


s/o to Amanda Hess for saying it best:

“S-Town” is not another tale of a journalist trying to solve a murder with just a microphone and a little elbow grease, and thank God.
posted by little onion at 8:53 PM on April 17 [7 favorites]


So it's okay to like Macklemore again?
posted by grobstein at 8:58 PM on April 17 [7 favorites]


The Soundtrack
posted by Going To Maine at 9:07 PM on April 17


I enjoyed S-Town tremendously, but I’ve been surprised by the lack of suicide prevention and crisis materials that I would have assumed would run with the episodes. (You know, the "if you or someone you know is struggling, call ###".)
posted by Charity Garfein at 9:46 PM on April 17 [12 favorites]


Good point. For reference, from the MeFi wiki: There is help.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:54 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


...I’ve been surprised by the lack of suicide prevention and crisis materials that I would have assumed would run with the episodes.

On a similar note, let me share a trigger warning that I wish they had included: Episode 3 contains a graphic account from a person who listened to someone else commit suicide over the phone.
posted by jcreigh at 10:15 PM on April 17 [11 favorites]


this is another "this was good, BUT..." comment on this podcast. it was indeed good, very slickly produced, smart, well researched, emotionally sensitive, and had interesting things to say about society, mental health, sexuality, and small town politics. BUT, fundamentally, it reminded me of when i was a journalist and what i thought was going to be my lede didn't pan out, so i put other things farther up front to fill the gap. seems like they thought the lede here was that john was going to show how the town was full of uniquely corrupt characters, when in fact it was full of the same bleh mix of shitty and good that you find everywhere else. no murder, no hidden gold. just a few nice guys, more than a few asshole liars, and some people in between.
but yes, that is a true story, and it was good.
posted by wibari at 10:29 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]


This was a good read, I appreciate you posting it. There were some questions raised about journalistic integrity re: S-Town on a podcast I listen to, just in a conversational kind of way. I feel like this answered some of that.

Also, I simply cannot believe how difficult this editing task must have been, to create 7 discrete coherent chapters of storytelling from dozens of hours material gathered across years. At least if you're writing a book you can write the research down and not have to find 30 seconds of audio where someone said that one thing! And keep doing that over and over for different things all sorted into chapters with an overarching story arc! I mean... SHEESH! *head esplode*
posted by hippybear at 1:39 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


I enjoyed the podcast. Thank you for this post.

One of the strange and magical things about listening to S-Town for me and my wife is how much John B. reminded us of my mother. This was one effect that the empathetic journey had on us.

I can't save John B. I can't save my mother. I can't save all the difficult star-crossed people. I do want to do a better job of not shunning them out of a misplaced sense of self-protection. S-Town nudged me in the right direction.
posted by Glomar response at 4:00 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]


There were some questions raised about journalistic integrity re: S-Town on a podcast I listen to, just in a conversational kind of way.

Would you mind sharing what that was, here or on MeMail? I'm interested in critical perspectives.

In one of the FanFare threads, there was a long interview with Reed about putting this story together. I was left with discomfort. Rather than a monument to empathy, I feel a monument to detachment, to considering people anthropologically "other," and to thinking more about how to craft a compelling narrative than about the human beings who the stories are about. The way they discuss the qualities of novelization they intentionally imbued a scattered set of events with is somewhat cold-blooded to me. I listened; it was interesting enough. I don't think I learned anything.
posted by Miko at 6:11 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]


Are there any articles or columns out there from the perspective of listening to this series as a POC? I enjoyed the podcast for various reasons, but also, yeah, it was totally about a group of white supremacists. The way John seemed to finally deal with that aspect of his personality and how it conflicted with the TAL-listening, voracious-reading, progressive aspect of his personality was fascinating and, if anything, almost comically Southern Gothic-y. Anyway, lots of race stuff going on in the background of this series -- have others with more wisdom and ability written about this?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:17 AM on April 18 [13 favorites]


I appreciated that it conveyed some of the nuance of being a liberal other in the small town south. There is an often misunderstood aspect of that world that can be remarkably tolerant or even supportive of eccentricity, while also being discriminatory and cloistered at the same time. It's hard to explain or portray effectively and I thought the podcast did a remarkable job of neither condemning nor excusing the bad stuff while still telling the story in a compelling and empathetic way.
posted by Lame_username at 6:25 AM on April 18 [6 favorites]


Are there any articles or columns out there from the perspective of listening to this series as a POC?
Of course! You can't possibly talk about the culture of the south without talking about racism. I think my favorite piece is Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham's NY Times podcast although if you want less analysis and more visceral reaction, Mazda Mengiste's Roling Stone piece might be more of what you were looking for.
posted by Lame_username at 6:34 AM on April 18 [12 favorites]


It occurred to me reading these articles this morning whether there would have been a different reaction if S-town had been a book or longform magazine article. There's certainly a lot of precedent for nonfiction books taking very deep dives into the lives of deceased dead people--not public figures but regular folks who just happen to have lead an interesting life or had an interesting death. But in audio format, it somehow comes off differently than print.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:20 AM on April 18


Ugh, my apologies for missing that autocorrect butchered Maaza's lovely name.
posted by Lame_username at 7:20 AM on April 18


It occurred to me reading these articles this morning whether there would have been a different reaction if S-town had been a book or longform magazine article.

I think it's less that it's a podcast and more that it's a spinoff of a Very Big Deal Podcast. If this had appeared in Southern Living or Garden & Gun, then it might have made it to MetaFilter, but not at least three major posts between Blue and Purple.
posted by Etrigan at 7:29 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


this was the best podcast of the year and I love the article filling in the backstory
posted by zenwerewolf at 7:51 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


If this had appeared in Southern Living or Garden & Gun, then it might have made it to MetaFilter, but not at least three major posts between Blue and Purple.

But what if it had been a book by Jon Krakauer?
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:02 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed it immensely. I was shocked when I finished episode 7 and realized there weren't any more.
posted by loganabbott at 8:24 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]


It occurred to me reading these articles this morning whether there would have been a different reaction if S-town had been a book or longform magazine article.

I agree that it could have been successful as a New Yorker piece, but a different lens is in place when it's a product of the TAL/Serial crew, which has certain undeniable strengths in the ways they approach their work, but also certain glaring blind spots. Had it come out quietly as an independent podcast or on any number of smaller but also interesting podcasts, it of course would have gotten nowhere near the listenership or commentary. And it would have received much less readership and commentary as a text form piece, even if in the New Yorker or NYT Magazine or Atlantic or similar.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


But what if it had been a book by Jon Krakauer?

Well, we missed Missoula pretty hard, so I'd say "Maybe, maybe not." And almost certainly not three times.
posted by Etrigan at 9:21 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


So much would have been lost if this had been a print article. The way John B. talks - and if you grew up in the south, you likely knew one or two people who had both that voice and that kind of semi-helpless lecture/information firehose conversational manner - is difficult to translate to type, and so is the way Tyler and his cohort talk. (And there's no way to capture Uncle Jimmy, Greek Chorus, without audio.)

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the impossibility of consent under these circumstances (all this was recorded before Serial was Serial, so Tyler, for example, could not have understood how front-and-center his story was going to be, and how it'll haunt his kids), but I am mostly not sorry that I listened.

Bryan Reed and Julie Snyder sometimes referred to the show, as they were making it, as a "novel", in part because that's how they structured the story. One of the interviews with Reed has a picture of their index card wall; it is hard for me to imagine figuring out where to put all these pieces to make it all come together as well as it did.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:29 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


I dunno, Faulkner painted a pretty good picture.

This essay posted above by Lame_Username was very thought-provoking:
Racism, this show would like us to think, is too complicated to render fully in a short series. It is an unwieldy beast that must be set-aside in a predominately (93 percent) white town so the real story can progress.

We were not told of Tyler Goodson's confederate flag tattoo, though I didn't need it to understand what world we were in. The omission, however, is glaring when set next to the fact that the deputy sheriff convicted of raping women he pulled over on the road, is black and the women he raped are black. The details of this case were sketched in for us; the race of both the rapist and the survivors was not. Blackness was carved out of this world as best as the creators could manage but the weight of racism – messy, violent, virulent – was clearly audible to some of us.
posted by Miko at 9:40 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]


It's fun to wrangle over whether or not it would have worked as a magazine article, but I think that in doing so we should remember that just because something would have been less well received or distinctive in medium Y that does not mean its only virtue was having been made in medium X. It's a sterling work, and one that rewards repeated listens.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:36 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


The omission, however, is glaring when set next to the fact that the deputy sheriff convicted of raping women he pulled over on the road, is black and the women he raped are black. The details of this case were sketched in for us; the race of both the rapist and the survivors was not.
I found that bit quite interesting as well. Its also easy to imagine a world in which the podcast made sure to point out that the deputy and the victims were all African-American and that would provoke criticism that he was suggesting that they were more likely to engage in criminality. I think Reed's decision to omit that detail is defensible. In terms of the amount of the podcast devoted to issues of race, I'm really not sure what I think and its clear that your position is likely to vary based on your race and your experiences of discrimination. I think the extent to which it promotes this kind of conversation about the subject says something good about the podcast and I found it interesting to see a depiction of the deep south where race was neither ignored nor the predominant focus. However, its quite possible that I'd feel much differently if I wasn't white.
posted by Lame_username at 10:54 AM on April 18


The producers were treading a fine line between portraying these people accurately but not falling into the 'LOL hicks' territory that so many would expect. I can imagine that they had many long, agonizing discussions about this. Every approach has significant drawbacks.
posted by tippiedog at 11:29 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


The producers were treading a fine line between portraying these people accurately but not falling into the 'LOL hicks' territory that so many would expect.

And the danger of overcorrecting on the other side of "accurate" is falling into the anthropologist-studying-alien-culture voice.
posted by Miko at 12:36 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


The producers were treading a fine line between portraying these people accurately but not falling into the 'LOL hicks' territory that so many would expect.

I think that part of this can be credited to Brian Reed's interview style kind of setting the tone. He of course has a lot of experience with this kind of thing, and he genuinely was openminded and curious. I think he has a really nice way of talking (listening) to people.
posted by triggerfinger at 12:55 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


I'm not as sure. I think Brian seems to be very measured to people who come from Brian's world. But I think if you come from a world more like the subjects', his tone is still kind of othering.
posted by Miko at 12:57 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


And the danger of overcorrecting on the other side of "accurate" is falling into the anthropologist-studying-alien-culture voice.

Agreed.

I have a lot of conflicted feelings about the podcast, but I was pleased to see that they didn't at all fall into 'LOL hicks' portrayal at all, in my opinion. But, apparently that also means they omitted other important facts, re racism. More conflicted feelings.
posted by tippiedog at 1:27 PM on April 18


Just got around to reading the Rolling Stone piece linked by lame_username. Well worth the read, thank you for posting it.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:41 PM on April 18


To add to the bonus links: Brokeback Mountain, the short story.
posted by Nelson at 6:21 PM on April 18


"Parker's Back."
posted by Don Pepino at 10:39 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]




Part of the way I enjoy things is by analyzing them, so I'm not sure that's mutually exclusive for a lot of people.
posted by lazuli at 6:34 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Like, I think this podcast is brilliant. I also think it's problematic. I suspect it's brilliant in large part because it's also problematic, because art is not the same as politics and art that adheres totally to any political line is propaganda, which tends to be boring. For me, at least, it's the sticking points that create thoughtful engagement.
posted by lazuli at 6:36 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


This isn’t Star Wars, with its special editions and re-cuts and re-releases. The podcast is a fixed point. Our positions relative to it are altering.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:49 PM on May 1


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