“S-Town,” the buzziest, most critically acclaimed podcast since “Serial,” posits itself as high art, a noble exploration of rural Americana. And many highbrow outlets agree: “Mesmerizing,” said The New Yorker. “Unnaturally sophisticated,” said Vulture. “Aural literature,” raved Slate. Serial Productions, which created the podcast and internally tracks consumption, claims an incredible 20 million downloads in its one month online.
The commercial and critical popularity of “S-Town,” however, belies the larger subtextual issues at play: the torturous post-election reckoning between red and blue states; the atomization of media, hollowed out by the digital revolution and now concentrated on the coasts; and the resultant, ongoing zoological treatment of rural America by cultural elites.
Then there’s the morally bankrupt journalism on display in “S-Town” — a bait-and-switch that can only reinforce growing distrust of reporters. (As of last September, Gallup reported only 32 percent of Americans trust the mainstream media.)
“S-Town,” as so much of current pop culture, begins as true crime. In 2012, Brian Reed, a producer at “This American Life,” receives an e-mail with this header: “John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.”
McLemore’s tip: He’s heard from someone who heard from someone that a local man named Kabram Burt had killed a guy.
As tips go, this is the equivalent of 13-year-olds playing a game of Telephone — but Reed, intrigued by self-described “snaggle-toothed white trash” living in “a clusterf— of sorrow,” heads down to Woodstock, Lemore’s rural town, to investigate.
There, Reed marvels at men named Bubba and Boozer, the meth heads and bobcats, and what he says is the overall sense of resignation.
“There’s a particular philosophy I’ve encountered down here, and will continue to encounter,” Reed says. “That is, the ‘f–k it’ philosophy. A belief that there’s no sense in worrying or thinking too much about any given decision, because life is going to be difficult and unfair regardless of what you do.”
As far as cultural taxonomy goes, that’s it. This is not the nuanced, thoughtful examination of economic and cultural alienation offered in J.D. Vance’s best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy.” It aspires, but “S-Town” begins as just a freakshow whodunit.
And so a tentative Reed finds alleged murderer Burt and asks for an interview.
BURT: What you want to talk about, brother?
REED: So basically, um . . . [nervous laugh] like, were you at one point going around telling people that you’d killed someone?
BURT: No! A boy cut my buddy’s head like here with a knife. But no. Like, I beat the piss out of him.
REED: ’Cause I heard that you were bragging about it from multiple people.
BURT: Number one, that wouldn’t even be something to brag about.
REED: I’m glad to hear that. I’m glad to hear you’d say that, I…