1.5x speed

The Big Loop, I’m Not a Monster, and 3 More Podcasts Worth Trying

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

This week: Taylor Swift, a BBC-PBS co-production, and a fashion show.

Tell me what you’re listening to. Find me on Twitter or reach me over email: nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

Las Culturistas: “TAYLOR/TAYLA”

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I came to the study of Taylor Swift mythology — I believe they call it Swiftology — fairly late in life. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t a fan before I became a casual student of Swiftian Symbology and What Exactly Is Being Hidden Between the Lines, but at some point between 1989 and reputation, I went through an evolution, from someone who appreciates the bops on Red to someone who fully interprets Red as a totemic turning point in the creation of an icon.

Anyway, point is: I’m late to this shit! Which brings me to this episode I’m recommending from Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang’s fun-as-hell “culture consultant” chat-cast, Las Culturistas. (There are rules; the rules are good.) I missed this entry when it first dropped last summer on the occasion of the surprise folklore album drop (shout-out to Vox Media colleague Megan C. for flagging this in the Slacks), but it’s as good a time as any to hit it back up, given Swift’s appearance on a remix of Haim’s “Gasoline,” which hit streaming services last week. (Which is also a bop.)

What you’ll find in this extremely enjoyable 100-minute-long installment: an informative unpacking of the two Swiftian personae (the titular “TAYLOR and TAYLA”), the prerequisite album ranking, and a cultural analysis that should bubble up to the point of heated debate.

I’m Not a Monster

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Perhaps I should be transparent about my experience with this entry. So I wrote a quick blurb about this joint production between the BBC’s Panorama and PBS’s Frontline in an issue of 1.5x Speed last December, back when the series was just a few episodes in and the controversy around the New York Times’ Caliphate had yet to come into full view. At the time, I had listened to just the first episode, found it intriguing, and thought to set the podcast aside until the run was completed so I could binge the thing, maybe do a write-up after that.

Then, of course, all the stuff with Caliphate happened, and when the time came to dive through I’m Not a Monster in its entirety, I found myself wary and uncertain of my own critical capability. I had admired Caliphate, automatically trusting of its pedigree and its journalism. Yes, I am aware that at least some others looked upon the production and quickly assessed something to be fishy. But I didn’t, and as I went on to cover what eventually happened at the Times, I felt the guilt of having so quickly trusted Caliphate in the first place.

It is unfair to have those feelings spill over to I’m Not a Monster, which covers similar ground only in theory and had a publication period that more or less spanned the exact period of time as when the Caliphate controversy played out. But as with all things, it should be taken on its own terms, and  having gone through its ten chapters, I feel like I can firmly say that it’s a fascinating documentary worth your time.

The story focuses on the tale of Samantha Sally (later Samantha Elhassani), an Indiana woman who was convicted last fall for financing terrorism, charges that stem from her time living in the heart of ISIS territory. The narrative thrust hangs on the hook of a seemingly ordinary American family ending up in a situation that’s anything but, and the enterprise is to figure out what exactly happened. There’s quite a bit of contentious detail to sort through. Sally says she was tricked by her husband into taking her children, following him into Syria, and joining the so-called caliphate. The question of whether this is true, whether she is a reliable narrator, makes up a good portion of the tension at the heart of I’m Not a Monster.

Again, vaguely similar ground as Caliphate, which initially relied on the now-debunked words of a young man who claimed to be a former ISIS member. But where Caliphate proceeded to sprawl outward, I’m Not a Monster consistently remained tightly focused, staying close to the experience and question of this one woman and her family. That feels like a conscious and conscientious choice by host Josh Baker, the filmmaker and journalist who led the reporting, and at this juncture, it feels like a choice I can trust.


• Here’s something super-interesting: There was a special collaboration between The Big Loop, the fiction-podcast anthology series by Paul Bae, and the fashion designer Edeline Lee for London Fashion Week. It’s being described as a “podcast fashion show.” Here’s the episode, and here’s a write-up of the project and collection on Vogue.

• Really enjoyed this Longform interview with The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham, which, among other things, touches on his philosophy on the act and work of arts criticism.

• NPR’s Embedded returned last week to kick off a four-part series on the 2018 mass shooting at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper.

And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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I’m Not a Monster and 4 More Podcasts Worth Trying