Virginia Heffernan’s Sonic Deep Dives Into Pop Culture
Virginia Heffernan is concerned. The seasoned journalist (who was the guest on Ep. 5 of our At a Distance podcast, in 2020) spent the better part of the last four years co-hosting Slate’s Trumpcast, a podcast dedicated to the Sisyphean task of preventing the normalization of the former president’s actions. During this time, Heffernan saw a political left so occupied with responding to the ever-more concerning behavior wriggling out from under the emboldened right that they inadvertently ceded much of the cultural conversation to the droning microphones of the relatively unconcerned center-right, or the “apolitical.” Commentary from the Rogans, Shapiros, and Petersons of the world—with their MMA zeal, not-so-surprisingly restrictive definitions of what constitutes music, and endorsements of all-meat diets—ran through the ears of the curious masses.
Heffernan has said that this grim milieu inspired This Is Critical, a podcast that, though its name may mislead some, she created last fall with no intention to focus on critiquing right-wing ideas or how they’re playing out. Instead, she spotlights a broad spectrum of cultural, political, and scientific phenomena, and gives the forward-thinking minds behind them airtime amidst the predominantly overrepresented voices of those predominantly overconfident, white, and male.
Each episode sees Heffernan interview a guest, drawing from a mix that skews toward journalists and academics, but also includes the occasional scientist, writer, or politician, among others, who bring Heffernan down the rabbit holes of their respective niches. Some of the most memorable episodes have burrowed into such topics as the unexpectedly militant history of yoga, the traditionalist philosopher informing Putin and much of the Russian political elite, and the archeological work rewriting the timeline for humanity’s arrival in the western hemisphere. No topic is off limits. Dieting, the Miss America pageant, and the art of removing body hair are among other topics the show has skillfully tackled.
As the show’s host, Heffernan operates with a lively curiosity and conscious desire to brush the cobwebs off conversations that could otherwise devolve into highfalutin acts of intellectual solipsism. It works, for the most part, though can occasionally feel a bit pandering in its attempts to appeal to some idea of the general listener. Heffernan is most in her element when the conversation enters the abstract domains of sociopolitical commentary. After all, she comes from a background of writing and reporting for outlets including The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Wired, centered around the nexus of technology, politics, and culture. So she’s understandably more engaged in a conversation with poet and writer Maggie Nelson over the shifting tides of radical individual freedom versus conscientious collective care than when she’s discussing the science behind ketamine-based therapy treatment with Dr. Bita Moghaddam, during which she mostly takes a backseat to let the expert disseminate her expertise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means certain episodes can feel more like a lecture than a conversation.
That kind of restraint is part of what makes This Is Critical a refreshing addition to the long list of podcasts offering cultural commentary. Rather than leaning into a feigned omniscience for its host, whittling each topic into its ideological mold, the show makes space for thoughtful and challenging ideas to actually reach listeners, giving them pause to reconsider their own beliefs.