You Must Remember This is a podcast written, produced, and edited by Karina Longworth. I started listening to it late last year, because it would appear alongside episodes of The Weeds, the podcast from the policy news website Vox, in the list of recently released episodes from the Panoply network. After discovering it, I eagerly listened to the fifth season, which was all about MGM studios. Longworth has a really compelling way of weaving together history, film, and storytelling. And it was quite gratifying for me when I saw the Coen Brother’s new film “Hail, Caeser!” and recognized many of the names and stories from listening to YMRT. After seeing the film, I started listening to the current season, its sixth, about the Hollywood blacklist. And then I saw Trumbo the other night, and again I was struck by how much I was getting out of this one little podcast. So I went back and started listening to earlier episodes.
The two elements of the show that really stand out to me are the strong sense of narrative and the historical and social context. When I went back to the early episodes, I ended up listening to episodes 4 and 5 back to back, while on a walk through the small town where I live (including the riverside graveyard a few blocks from my house). Episode 4 is about Frances Farmer, a minor film star from the 1930s who later became mythologized as a cautionary tale, and would become the inspiration for a song on Nirvana’s last studio album, which, as it happens, was one of the first CDs I ever owned. (Part of the charm for the podcast is Longworth’s taste in music, and range of pop culture references. From the Louis Armstrong song clip that gives the podcast it’s name, to the use of Erik Satie’s Gymnopodies, to Stereolab’s “Olv 26” popping up, the use of music in the show is a big part of its appeal for me.) Longworth begins with Cobain’s version of Farmer, which was in some sense an externalization of the pressures of fame torturing Cobain when he wrote it. From there she strips away the myth, and tells both the story of Farmer, and the story of her story. Its all very sophisticated and smart, but it feels like she’s just telling you a really engaging story at a party, and adding in her own observations as she goes. The way she tells it, the Farmer story is fascinating for what it tells us about film culture, and how stories are told and retold, and how they get from being people’s lives to becoming the myths that animate other people’s understanding of their own lives. The next episode built on this in a way that was kind of powerful for me.
So, in a sort of classic off-beat storyteller move, the next episode is about Judy Garland’s lesser known years as a stage performer. Longworth gives a very nice setup and background, but then really goes into Garland’s life after she left Hollywood. Most people just know Judy Garland as the girl in “The Wizard of Oz,” and besides that they might know that she spent her later years deteriorating from overwork and substance abuse. But the story that emerges of Garland here is deeply human – she was a fabulously talented performer, who soldiered on through terrible emotional and physical hardships, and who loved performing. And because she was who she was, her performances were tremendously powerful, especially for gay audiences. Longworth makes the connection between the Stonewall riots in 1969 and Garland’s death, explaining that her funeral had been earlier that day, and that many of the people at the Stonewall Inn that night had paid their respects to Garland earlier that day, and were understandably depressed over her death. And when the cops showed up that night to raid the place, something just snapped. Gay bars in those days got raided all the time – but that night the folks at the Stonewall fought back. Now, maybe its just the fact that it’s Holy week (Easter is next Sunday, and I am a practicing, if somewhat dissident, Catholic), and I’ve got resurrection on my mind – but what I thought about when Longworth was talking about the Stonewall riot was the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, and suddenly they were compelled to go out into the world, unafraid of death, to spread the gospel. I imagined that Garland’s spirit was resurrected that night at Stonewall by those people who fought back against the oppression of the cops and of a narrowminded society and of unjust laws. They fought back and they weren’t afraid, because Judy Garland, who had suffered all those years, filled them with fire.
And, to bring it all full circle, the Frances Farmer episode had begun with that Nirvana song, which includes the lines “She’ll come back as fire/to burn all the liars” – in Longworth’s reading a kind of “return of the repressed” story – but then I thought, that’s Judy Garland’s story in a way too. But the parallels did not seem labored – they were just similar stories, told one after the other, by a gifted storyteller.
One of the other things I really like about Longworth is the sound and rhythm of her voice. I realized, reading an interview with her from summer 2015, that it may be because she reminds me of Pamela Zarubica, who was the voice of “Suzy Creamcheese” on the early Frank Zappa records, who like Longworth, was from Southern California. They both have that kind of dry delivery, and similar accents. In the interview Longworth really comes across as the sort of DIY artist that I can appreciate. Responding to a question about who her audience is, she says that she doesn’t really know, and then says:
One of the things that I’m pretty specific about is that this is only interesting to me if I’m doing it for myself. One thing that gives me a headache about journalism right now is that all editors think about is how to get more clicks, how will something appeal to the largest number of people. I just can’t think about it. If I did, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore.
I write this blog pretty much for myself, so it makes me happy to think that someone is succeeding creating something that she wants to create, because she finds it interesting and worthwhile, and doesn’t worry about appealing to a commercial audience. I have really strong opinions about commercialism in art – and I don’t think creating artistic work for money, or for the purpose of making a living is necessarily wrong. But I do think that trying to gear your work towards maximizing your audience is a terrible mistake that a lot of people make these days.
I hope Longworth keeps making this podcast, because I think she’s great at it, and its fun listening to them. I don’t think she should have to go off and write a book or get a job at a magazine, or even have to get a regular radio show on NPR or something. She’s good at this, and the show feels original and interesting and fun to talk and write about. And if you’re reading this, you should check it out.