Finally, an antidote to the lack of low-stakes gossip in our lives
Help, I’m not well. To self-diagnose, I’d say the problem is a pronounced lack of low-stakes gossip, the kind you get from what sociologists call “weak ties” and what ordinary people call acquaintances. It’s the kind of gossip that exists somewhere between completely mundane and absolutely wild, and is shared at parties, dinners, drinks, etc., when trying to keep it light but also entertaining. These are stories told by friends of friends about people you don’t know. I’m anemic from low gossip right now, living like we are in year three of the pandemic and with a much smaller life than before. Without regularly seeing casual friends, how will I know what kind of weird, messed up, or otherwise interesting their friends are up? For that reason, and because it’s fun, I take a supplement. Or a few different supplements.
normal gossip, a month-old podcast, is one of two shows that debuted this year at Defector, the media company staffed by former Deadspin employees who now own and operate the company. Kelsey McKinney, its host, unwittingly named its future podcast in a tweet last year (it has since been automatically deleted, but I saw it then and knew the exact outlines of the hole in my life instantly) . In his words, McKinney’s tweet read something like, “Someone should just give me a podcast called Normal gossip where I talk about the gossip everyone has.
Justin Ellis, The Defector Projects Editor said, “When Kelsey tweeted this, you know, a lot of us on staff were like, ‘Hey, we love you, model. It’s a good idea.'”
“There are just tens and hundreds and thousands of chat shows, and there are a lot of shows that focus on stories,” Ellis continued. “I think the thing about [Normal Gossip] does that help make it a lot more real while also making it low stakes. We’re not here trying to solve a murder that’s been going on for decades. We won’t give you the background on some of Hollywood’s biggest movie moguls during the studio days. We are not talking about politics.
McKinney’s Gossip – which listeners submit via email and voicemail, and which she anonymizes with the help of her producer, Alex Sujong Laughlin, then tells a rotating series of guests (including, in an unplanned moment this week, a colleague of mine) over the course of a 45-minute episode – is simpler. She sums it up like this: “It’s not fame, it’s not bad, and it doesn’t require action. It’s just fun. These are stories that have unfolded over the months of your life, stories that you’ve told so many times that by the time you call the show’s hotline, you’ve got all the beats and know the reactions that every twist will spark (and, adds McKinney, “You’ve already changed half the details just because you amplified it”).
There is a sorority group drama and a do-it-yourself group drama and a landlord drama and a new boyfriend drama. More than one of the stories involve huge amounts of Amazon packages. It’s the stuff of everyday life, but arranged with suspense, it makes your heart race. “The most interesting thing about taping this show is that people came in who weren’t my friends,” McKinney says. “At first it’s a bit stuffy as the interviews are stuffy…. But the minute you start chatting, it’s like a switch flips. People become the person they are in a bar. Even if we record, even if I watch you on Skype and we’re going to play this, you can’t help it.
McKinney, Laughlin and Ellis all told me that they recognize the power of other types of gossip, like actionable gossip – which is the type where, for example, everyone at work splits wages, and then, thanks to shared knowledge, the office is empowered to take collective action. This show is not that.
McKinney admits she’s usually a fan of celebrity news, but neither is this show.
“[Celebrity] gossip is completely irrelevant to me,” she said. “Encounter pete davidson is irrelevant to my life. Especially during the pandemic where people as rich as celebrities are walking around and they still have their real lives. It’s completely out of reach for me. What’s within my reach is someone whose boss at the Gap is terrible. (Technically, someone’s terrible boss at The Gap could be Kanye West right now, but the point here is taken.)
The stories of celebrities who are taking up space right now have an almost intimate quality to them. Julia Fox has captured so much attention in part because she’s something of a local hero in New York Province. Friends of friends have his phone number. Friends of friends missed her at the bar. When she started dating West, one of the most famous men in the world, it seemed like she took a certain inner-city circle with her.
It could also be argued (although I won’t shy away from this argument for me and yours) that the recent story of “West Elm Caleb” first fascinated because of its small-world implications. Here’s a regular guy doing all too regular things to several very similar women, who have (perhaps) found each other extraordinarily thanks to TikTok. It twisted from there, but initially it was normal gossip at work.
But West Elm Caleb isn’t exactly famous, and Fox is the exception rather than the rule. Most celebrities are, unfortunately, very boring. “I’m kind of a sucker for the Daily Mail“, McKinney said. “It’s the poison I inject every morning. But for me, part of the reason I’ve become less interested in what celebrities do is that they’ve become very calculated. in general. And so everyone, from yoga influencers to Angelina Jolie are naturally aware of how their behavior comes off and they moderate it. So there’s definitely less gossip, I think, in general. They are better at protecting it.