We are four months into 2021, and the most significant thing I have done in the first quarter of this hopeful year is talk about Sex and the City. Every week for the last two months, I’ve booted up a Zoom call with my friend Dolly Alderton, opened a bottle of something, and then spent three hours talking about a show that is twenty years old. The result is Sentimental in the City, a podcast mini series where we talk about each season of Sex and the City for ‘the Great American Novel it truly is’.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: you don’t start a podcast with Dolly Alderton without some knowledge that people are going to be into it. Dolly co-hosted The High Low, one of the UK’s most popular podcasts, and I knew that whatever I decided to do with Dolly was going to attract listeners. I was actually a little nervous about it. I’ve been trundling along with Sentimental Garbage, my books podcast, for two years now. I had built up a niche audience, and was slightly apprehensive that doing a podcast with my much-more-famous friend would make me look like a bit of an also-ran. The Skipper to her Barbie.
Then we recorded the first episode. It took two days. It took two days because we got so drunk the first time that we forgot to hit record, and just blithered into the ether senselessly for four hours. We tried again the next night. We somehow talked for another four hours. Listening back for the first time as I tried to edit the conversation down to two hours, I realised that no one was Barbie, and no one was Skipper. What we were, instead, was two giddy losers, lost in the candy shop of their own fandom.
I think I’m supposed to be writing this piece so you’ll listen to the podcast, but let’s be frank – it’s not for everyone. We actually start each instalment trying to actively dissuade people from listening. We have a warning we read out: the podcast is not an episode-by-episode analysis, or a critical look at the show’s legacy. We don’t even have interesting trivia or behind-the-scenes material. There is nothing you can learn from us that you can’t learn from Google.
So what are we talking about for two hours every week? Well. Feelings. We talk about our feelings. We layer our own lives on top of these fictional characters, the ones with the ridiculous lives and the obscene apartments. We sigh forgivingly about Carrie’s mad antics. We cry, several times, about Charlotte York Goldenblatt, a woman who does so well out of her season four divorce that she literally never works again.
The discussion is unwieldy and over-long. We lean heavily on laboured, GCSE-level analysis, with topic headings like ‘Miranda and the Natural World’, as if we’re about to write an essay for Comparative Lit. The more I edited the episodes, most of which were pre-recorded before release, the less I worried for my own reputation, and the more I worried for Dolly’s. I was sure people were going to rip the piss out of us, and as the better known of the two of us, she’d have to bear the brunt.
I put the episodes out. And now, six weeks, half a million downloads, and a good many new Instagram followers later, I’ve started to realise that if I died tomorrow, my obituary would probably read: ‘Caroline O’Donoghue, 30. Writer and Sex and the City fan.’
Which, frankly, I’m pretty pleased about. I’m good at a few things, but I’m great at being a fan. Being a fan is a funny thing. We’re a little stuck on what the word means in 2021. When I was growing up, if an adult was a ‘fan’ of something they were – and this is putting it nicely – a nerd, or a freak. A nerd was barely tolerable, if somewhat respected. A nerd knows things. A nerd has amassed trivia over years of study. There were different levels of respectability within the nerd catchment, depending on how useful the nerd is in a pub quiz. Then there were freaks. I was dimly aware of these people growing up, because of how often TV shows made fun of them: a freak is a fantasist who uses a fandom to escape their own drab life. A freak sews costumes; a freak writes fan fiction; a freak goes to Comic Con.
But then, as fantasy and sci-fi became more mainstream, suddenly everyone wants to go to Comic Con. Everyone wants to do the Friends-themed pub quiz. There’s been a shift: we all admit to being ‘geeks’ now.
In theory, that sounds positive. The reality, however, is never that nice. People are into the idea of loving things, but are extremely harsh about the thing itself. Whether it’s Emily in Paris, Wandavision, or Rupaul’s Drag Race, people seem to express their love for things by becoming enraged about them. They bitch on Twitter, they rant on Reddit, they nod along to podcasts who sniff about the ‘disappointing’ latest instalment of their favourite thing.
I find it baffling. We are consuming more culture than ever, but we seem to have lost the knack of appreciating any of it. Of not just saying that something is good, but talking about why it’s good, how it made us feel, what it stirred, how our day or week or year was changed by simply engaging with it. That, to me, is what true fandom is.
Adam Buxton – another great fan, a man who knows how to appreciate things – recently interviewed Sir Paul McCartney. Sir Paul said that he still sees his original fans at shows. The women who were in their teens when he was in his twenties, and are in their sixties now. “I say, come on girls, give us a Beatles scream,” he says. “And they do it. And it’s exactly the same, you know?”
Maybe I’m far too sentimental for my own good, but I cried when I heard that. I’m crying a little now, typing it. This is the power of fandom, when it’s real. It’s taking the imperfect art that was given to you – whether that’s a record, a TV show, or a film – and letting the pressure of your own love turn it into a diamond. A thing that stays inside you forever, fathered by the artist, and mothered by you.
Come on girls. Give us a Beatles scream.
Download Sentimental in the City at podcasts.apple.com
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