Malcolm Gladwell on ‘Broken Record’ Podcast, Hanging Out With Musicians
Over the past two decades, Malcolm Gladwell has been one of the most influential and popular public intellectuals in America. The New Yorker writer’s five books, starting with The Tipping Point, have sold millions and millions of copies. His theories — 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field being the most oft cited — have entered the lexicon. Gladwell is just one of those relentlessly creative types; he’s perpetually up to something new. For the last couple of years, he’s been making Revisionist History, his insanely addictive and chart-topping podcast, which offers counter narratives to popular events or ideas. Now, he’s just released a new music podcast with Bruce Headlam and Rick Rubin, titled Broken Record, which allows Gladwell to explore his inner music fan boy and enthusiasms.
“I’ve done two shows of Revisionist History with [legendary country songwriter] Bobby Braddock and I’m now going to do an episode of Broken Record with Bobby Braddock,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I can’t get enough of Bobby Braddock!” (Admittedly, his Revisionist History episode The King of Tears about songwriting and Bobby Braddock is achingly good and made this editor feel very competitive.) The surprisingly great thing about talking to Gladwell is not just how unfailingly polite and engaging he is. He also seems to be that rarest of characters in these troubled times: a well-informed optimist. What’s more refreshing than that?
So talk to me about this new podcast, you’re muscling in on Rolling Stone territory.
No, I’m not. I am raising the general level of public interest in popular music.
Is it going to go into the diagnosis of a song, like you did with “Hallelujah,” on Revisionist History?
It’s a kind of musical variety show. Revisionist History is very much in-depth narratives. Broken Record is going to have much more variety. We’re going to do more episodes, some will just be interesting interviews, sometimes we’ll do an in-depth narrative. I would love to do kind of mini performances and have conversations during the performance. It’s really wide open. I’d like the audience every week when they listen to be surprised by what they hear. I want it to be unpredictable.
What has surprised you in doing this show
I was an avid music listener, but I had never written about music until I started doing Revisionist History and Broken Record. I had never hung out with musicians, it was a completely new world for me. It’s just delightful to discover at my grand old age this entire new universe of characters, geniuses and weirdos.
How do you go about finding a good story?
It’s totally serendipitous. I imagine I’m exactly like you, or any other journalist in that the switch is always on. In other words, I never stop asking the question “would that be a great story?” Like, I just had an interview this morning with some official for the Houston chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, not someone you would think would spawn a million story ideas, and then halfway through I was like, “Oh my god, there’s a huge thing here that I can do.” So I’m always trying to expose myself to unusual people outside of my world. A big part of that is you have to leave your house. That means getting on the road, getting on planes, meeting people in person, and listening to what they have to say. That’s the only way you can find a story.
You seem to rise above a lot of the culture wars that the nation is perpetually engaged. How do float above it all?
By studiously ignoring. One is…I’m Canadian. I don’t vote. So it’s not really my battle to fight. The other is, I’m slightly unusual among writers in that I do a lot of speaking and I travel the country a lot, talking to very different types of people. If you leave Manhattan you’re forced to break out of your bubble. A good chunk of the people I talk to and meet on the road are not New York City liberals. I don’t get as worked up over these things, I suspect, as other people, and so I don’t really feel the need to weigh in in a big way.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It was shown, not told to me. My dad was someone who had a really lovely work ethic. When I say lovely, I don’t mean he worked all the time. But he would sit down every morning without fail and work in a concentrated fashion until the middle of the afternoon and then he wouldn’t work. He would spend time with his family and go for a walk and then he would do the same thing the next day. It was this idea that if you want to be productive you have to be disciplined and consistent. He didn’t procrastinate. He applied himself in this really beautiful way. I observed as a kid for years and years and years, how he applied himself in this really beautiful way.
Looking back at your collected works, I wonder if there’s something, consciously or unconsciously you were trying to achieve. Did you set out with goals?
I like to make my audience excited about the same things I’m excited about. I want them to understand that there’s cool stuff everywhere. That’s sort of the theme of all my writing. There’s cool stuff everywhere. The random people who you wouldn’t otherwise think of as interesting have extraordinary stories, little arcane corners of academia can yield incredible secrets. I want to share my sense of wonderment I have about the world.
In one great episode of Revisionist History you talk about the creative process and how some artists create masterpieces quickly, like Bob Dylan or Picasso, while others labor for years on their work, constantly reshaping, like Leonard Cohen or Cezanne. So which one are you?
Well, that’s heavy company. But I’m pretty iterative, things rarely just come out. I’m not Picasso. I don’t, like, go bang bang bang and it’s done. I’m the person who goes back over and obsesses and wakes up at three in the morning wondering if that’s the right way to say it. The reason I was so drawn to that idea that you could divide creative types into those two groups is I did feel that my side — the iterative side — never gets enough credit. We feel like we’re slighted. We’re never called the genius, the genius is always the one who does it really quickly and beautifully, and we always feel like we’re the forgotten, under-appreciated types, so it was gratifying to hear somebody say, “oh, actually that’s a legitimate way of producing great work.”
Do you have any sort of broadcasting role models that you looked to? Or is your style sui generis?
I grew up on CBC radio, which is quite different from NPR radio. It’s not as stylized and it’s a kind of greater diversity of voices. When I say diversity, I don’t mean the kind of background of the people, but the voices are more diverse. I grew up on all of the versions of polished, idiosyncratic radio voices. In particular, there was a woman named Barbara Frum. You know the writer David Frum?
So his mom, Barbara Frum, was the greatest journalist of her generation in Canada, and she was a radio journalist. And she had a show that basically the entire country tuned into every night. I grew up on that show, and she was beyond brilliant. As an interviewer, I’ve never heard anyone that good. I never met her, but you thought you knew her and you experienced the world through her personality. I can’t really explain it — I’ve never come across anyone who was as powerful as her. Anyway, nearly every night of my life from the age of six to the age of 16, I listened to Barbara Frum with my whole family, and that had a huge impact.
You’re half-Jamaican, half-English. That must have been sort of unusual growing up in rural Canada.
Well, it wasn’t that unusual. It was just an incredibly lovely little town. And it was Canada, so everyone was super nice and accepting and there was no crime and there were like 25 churches. I went to the calmest, kindest public school, in the world. It was sort of a weird Canadian version of Norman Rockwell. So it was the least eventful childhood. I rode my bike and I took books out of the library and I ran on the track team and I hung out with my friend Bruce Headlam, who I’m producing this music podcast with. I didn’t have one of those eccentric, crazy childhoods, I had the opposite.
How do you think people should talk to those we disagree with? Trying to convince the other side seems like kind of a lost art.
Well, I think there’s two separate questions. There’s a question of talking to convince someone, and then there’s a question of having a conversation with someone, where you’re listening to them and they’re listening to you. I don’t think the goal is to make us all agree or to win over the world to my point of view, that’s just not going to happen. The goal is just to inform other people about where you have been, where you differ and to engage each other’s tolerance. Like, I was in a little coffee shop in Houston this morning and someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, I really like your podcast.” And then she said — and this is what I consider to be the highest form of praise — “I don’t always agree with you, but I still like your podcast.” My goal is not to win her over to my side; my goal is just to encourage her to listen to the point of view.
How do you handle the critics?
I don’t really get a lot of criticism so it’s not that hard to handle. I don’t mean that in a kind of boastful way — I have critics, but I also have people who like my work and so as long as the number of people who like you outnumbers the people who don’t, you’re fine.
I wonder about your early days in D.C. working at The Washington Post. What surprised you about that town?
Oh, I had a blast in D.C. It’s the best place in the world to be 25 years old, as far as I can tell. There’s lots of other people who are 25, lots of people who are interested in ideas. It’s just such a rich intellectual environment. When I was there, I don’t know if it’s still true, although I expect it is, it was so open to the work of young people. You could do meaningful things as a 25-year-old all over town. You could be a staffer for a congressperson and do real stuff, you’re not in the mailroom. I was publishing in magazines at 21 in Washington. That doesn’t really happen at a lot of places around the world.
What did you learn about our government?
I often think my time in Washington left me with a profound respect for government. I covered for years the FDA and NIH and a lot of the health bureaucracy. If you do that, you just come away with an incredible amount of respect for the people who do those jobs. It becomes impossible for you ever to kind of put down government after that. Because you know how difficult that job is, and you know how thoughtful and hardworking so many people in those roles are. Whenever I hear of a dispute around the functioning of government, my sympathy is always with the bureaucracy. That sounds like a crazy thing but it is true, I feel like I know those people and I know what they’re dealing with, and I know all the good they do.
You’ve done a lot of work on higher education and been very critical of elite universities with massive endowments, so what would your fix be?
You know, in a perfect world, like if I was czar, I’d break them up. I would go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and I would say — you know, the Ivy Leagues plus Stanford have collectively an endowment of $120 billion or something like that — and I would say to them, “This is absurd. You educate between you maybe 100,000 kids and you have $120 billion. That’s bananas. You have a choice, you can increase the size of your schools by tenfold or you can hand over the endowment.”
But our whole system is designed for institutions to be rewarded for amassing massive amounts of cash.
I have no problem with them amassing large amounts of money. I recently met the guy who runs the Yale endowment, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s one of the greatest investors of our age and he built their endowment into this huge pile of cash. I have no problem with him doing that. But I think that if Yale’s going to have an endowment of $25 million, Yale should have 100,000 students. It’s not his fault, I don’t blame him for raising the money, I blame the administration for not wanting to spend it.
One of my other favorite Revisionist History episodes was an excellent rant against golf but I was left wondering what did golf ever do to you?
I don’t hate it. The sad, pathetic truth is that I watched all four rounds of the PGA Tour Championship last weekend.
Yes, I did.
You watch golf?
Oh my god, do I watch golf. So my problem with golf is I want to be able to run on golf courses. It’s as simple as that. When I was 15 years old, we moved out to the country to a house that backed onto the local public golf course. All of the runners in town would run around the perimeter of the golf course, it was the best route in town. And then I get to America and all of a sudden — like, I tried to run once on this golf course in Hawaii. It was six in the morning, there was no one on the golf course — armed guards descended on me. And then I go to L.A. and I’m forced to run on this ridiculous little dirt track around a golf course. And the L.A. courses get a tax break. It just drives me crazy.
What would you go back and tell the younger you?
Oh, wow. I should have left the United States at some point and gone somewhere else, even if it was only for a couple of years. I’ve spent too much of my life in North America. In retrospect, that has limited me I think as a person. You have to get outside your world of privilege. I mean, it’s even OK to go to another world of privilege, you just have to get out of your world of privilege. You just have to stop hanging around with people who are too much like yourself.
What book do you go back to for inspiration?
I will reread Janet Malcolm books because I think she’s the greatest ever and I’ll never be able to write like that but it’s always nice to be reminded of how the absolute best writers write. And I’ve probably read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold like five times.
You’ve written a lot about corporate America. I wonder if you see a commonality in sort of bad companies like Enron?
I don’t know. So a lot of my speaking is to corporations, that’s what that world is, and I meet on a regular basis lots and lots of people. These are groups of people who are as different as any group of people, they just happen to all work at the same place. When people talk about a corporation like it has a point of view or a personality or an ideology, I always find that crazy. Actually, that drives me crazy about everything. Whenever people talk about collections of people as if they have a strong common identity, some part of me always kind of bridles. So you mentioned Enron, you know, 99.9 percent of the people who worked at Enron were, I’m quite sure, just really hardworking, smart, honest people that got trapped in a world that was crazy at a time. They had a crazy, messianic leadership that had lost touch with reality. But that doesn’t make the group of people bad. They’re a group like any other. That’s a really dumb, obvious point, but we so often reflexively fall into the habits of characterizing groups as if they have some kind of common personality and they just don’t.
Again, if you were czar, what would you do to fix the business of journalism?
I think it’s being fixed. So, I don’t know even that it needs fixing. I think what the last couple of years have taught us is that aggressive, intelligent journalism is both incredibly important and being practiced in America. The list of fantastic stories I’ve read by tough journalists over the past two years is too long. I feel like the standard of reporting has never been higher. Whether there’s always a business model to support journalism, magazine journalism in particular, worries me the most.
Well, social media has helped bust up that business model.
If we’re going to let Facebook and all these behemoths exist and not break them up, as I think we should, the least we can hope is that they use their insane resources to support the very thing they’re profiting off. If you’re Facebook, and you’re basically going to make money selling ads against other people’s content, maybe you should support the content. Maybe Facebook should have a fund that is used to support reporting.
It wouldn’t be a rounding error for them. These are the kind of organizations with just insane wealth. I don’t understand why they’re not interested in supporting the infrastructure that makes their own wealth possible. So that would be one particular fix. I mean, a better fix would be to break up things like Facebook.
We have a president who attacks the press almost daily. Do you worry about it?
No, I actually don’t. I’ve just been reading all about Lester Maddox. Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia in the late Sixties, and there are many commonalities between Lester Maddox and Donald Trump. He was a populist, elected at a time of real uncertainty and division in Georgia. So what does Lester Maddox do? He attacks the press all day long, and there’s no difference between the language Lester Maddox used and the language of Donald Trump. By the way, if you dig even deeper into history, you’ll find that that’s what t populists always do. That’s part of the vernacular of populist politics: you demonize the elite press. And what happens when they do that? The elite press doesn’t go away. I just feel like that’s been around for as long as we’ve had America. The New York Times will be fine. People aren’t boycotting the press, they’re more attached to it than ever. Press bashing is a kind of compulsory performance that’s required of populists, and I don’t think we should take it that seriously.
There’s a line in your podcast recently that you said you only drink five liquids, I was wondering if in that act of self-denial, there’s pleasure?
Well, it makes your life a lot easier. I go to restaurants with people sometimes and I see them actively wrestling with the question of what to order or what to drink. I just don’t want to go through it. There’s so many other things I would rather do with my time than agonize endlessly about those kinds of trivial decisions. This is a whole separate conversation, but I think that the role of alcohol in our culture is deeply problematic, and becoming increasingly so. You should have rules around alcohol. You should figure out what kind of alcohol consumption works for you, make a rule and stick to it. It is a very, very, very dangerous drug and only bad things happen when it’s abused, and so you gotta have a rule. I don’t think everyone should follow my rule, but my rule’s really simple. I only take it in one form. If there’s no red wine than I’m not going to drink.
Have drugs and alcohol played a bigger role in your life at any point?
No, I’ve never really done drugs, although, can I point out that the way you phrased that question is exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s not drugs and alcohol. It’s drugs like alcohol. Alcohol is the biggest drug there is, like, bananas drug. So have drugs other than alcohol played a role in my life? No. And I’m not a heavy drinker. I just like to have a rule about it because it’s good to have rules.
You talked about your father earlier. He was a mathematician. Is there something about the discipline of mathematics and it’s essential tendency toward order that informed your thinking early?
Yes, my father had a very clean and orderly mind and that was very attractive to me as a child. It made communication with him very straightforward. The other thing that mathematics teaches you is that you know what you don’t know. My dad was always very candid about what he didn’t know. You can’t fake it in mathematics and he never tried to fake it, and that was an incredibly important lesson to me as a child.
In the “Free Brian Williams” episode of Revisionist History, you defend a guy who was pretty well lambasted by all. There’s a contrarian streak in you, do you enjoy that?
Well, I’m a journalist. That’s what we do, right? If we’re going to only endorse the conventional wisdom, then what’s the point? My least favorite thing about journalism is when there’s a pack mentality and everyone agrees about the storyline. That drives me crazy. It’s your job is to reflect the kind of diversity of opinions. You should explore the alternative explanation. That’s your job. That doesn’t mean the alternative explanation is correct, but your job is to expose it and call it out for public review. If all you’re going to do is chant along in the chorus, then we don’t need you, right? Everyone else can do that perfectly fine on their own.
The Williams episode deals with the failures and unreliability of human memory. During the Kavanaugh hearings, I felt like the nation was wrestling with many of the same issues.
The whole Kavanaugh hearing was so incredibly dramatic, if memory were perfect then we wouldn’t have had that hearing. It would be an open and shut case, right? The fact that it’s imperfect is what made it so dramatic.
Do you think we can get out of this polarized time?
We’ve been polarized before and we got out of it. I think we’ll get out of it. It’s just a weird moment where a lot of stuff is happening simultaneously. I have confidence that things will settle down. I mean, if you have a leader who actually tries to bring people together it makes a big difference. At some point we’ll get someone like that, and that’ll go a long way toward fixing things.
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