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Today at Amazon.com Music HD renews automatically new subscribers only limited time offer terms apply. Diane, welcome to Switched-On Pop, I'm songwriter Charlie Harting. We've been doing a lot of throwback on the show classical series on Beethoven, we've been diving into country music, but I feel like we've been missing out on something that we love to do, which is looking at what's happening on the charts and seeing what's new.
So I thought it'd be fun to do a chart topping weather report, do a breezy look through what's happening in music. And Nate is out today. But I'm delighted to introduce to you as my co-host, a friend of the pod, writer, critic and professor Lauren Michel Jackson.
Welcome. Hi. Thanks for having me.
Oh, it's great. OK, so we have set out the rules of today is that each of us have picked three songs that are either topping the charts or are significant new releases.
And you have picked three songs. I have picked three songs. Our goal is to figure out what do they tell us about where we are at musically and maybe more broadly as well. Do you wanna leave us off?
Yeah. So first off, we have Wunder, the single by Sean Méndez to.
I think this really kicks off what is called the if we could call the wonder era of John Méndez, this is him moving into his introspective phase.
And I mean, I'm getting a little bit, but I do think that as much as this song is sort of a ballad and isn't really a huge vocal departure for him, the lyrics do sort of sound more interior than usual.
And so, like in contrast to other songs and other singles he's done, where there seems to be a really clear sort of second person in play, this one's more on that I voice and asking rhetorical questions and being open before I close my eyes.
The only thing that. Oh, my my mainstream. There's a video with it where he's running through the forest and getting splashed down by waves and doing all the sort of like pop music theatrics that, you know, I personally enjoy, even if it's a little silly, I tend to agree.
I mean, I love the over-the-top epic ness of the song.
It's one of those like slow builder ballads that he is just such a master of starts off really quiet, just his voice.
I wonder I wonder out before I close my eyes.
The only thing that's on my mind. And then it's like the world is opening. He's running through the forest. The rain is starting to come down and then like. All this big, bombastic drumming and he's shouting out over the ocean. So I feel like there's something really meaningful about the confessional yearning nature of this song.
It provides an emotional catharsis that I feel like it stretches my own emotive capacity in a time when I've been entirely hermit, like at home and sort of feel really constrained. It's a real relief from that.
It's a really good like I think like shower song, car song. And I think, you know, these are really important things in this time right now.
I think another musical moment for me that really captures that is the when we finally get to the end of the song, we have these wild drum fills that are going to do.
And underneath that, these heavy, heavy, heavy subbasements. That's where the beginning might feel. Yeah, a little tame, we get the full amount of capacity throughout the arc of the song and it's such a it's such a fun one to bring to to the show.
OK, let's keep on moving. So I've picked the song Underdog by Alicia Keys.
That's gonna make it funky for now. And you'll find that someday soon enough you will face the face of. Alicia Keys has a new record called Alicia. There's actually a lot I really like on this album. There's some beautiful songs, great production, like there's there's songs that came in. I was like immediately my ear is just like I'm listening.
There's a three hour drive with Sandfire, also me time seven with track. There's some really lovely songs here.
But that brings us to the single underdog, the song is her most successful song since Twenty Twelve Girl on Fire. It's got a lot of writers, including Ed Sheeran of all folks.
I think we actually hear a lot of that influence.
And it's trying to speak to issues of inequality, sending love out to essential workers in the pandemic.
And this song even has a sort of campfire sing along type. We're supposed to use this as an anthem for overcoming and celebrating underdogs like I appreciate the attempt here and I know that Alicia Keys started out herself as an underdog and I think works hard to stay connected with that.
And yet I feel like despite the great intentions, this really feels like a song of a celebrity who's failing to see the power dynamics at play in their track. It feels like a sort of corporate empowerment anthem, and it has some issues with power that the literary devices that she uses, I think are quite problematic in the first verse. We have a homeless person without a name.
She was walking in. She looked up and noticed he was nameless, he was homeless. She asked him his name and told him what hers was. He gave her a story about life.
And the narrator speaks to this homeless person who is inspired by their story. And then we lose that character instead.
In the second verse, go to a taxi cab driver from another country.
She's running a taxi back to the kitchen, talking to the driver about his wife and his children on a run from a country where they put you in prison for being a woman, speaking your mind and hear the narrator decides to talk to their taxi cab driver and learns all about their the challenges they've overcome in their life.
And I think that those are both of you from privilege and not a view from actually being the underdog.
No, I completely agree. It feels very much like a sort of anthem that I felt like we passed by in the last moment of us trying to, like, come together as a country and like elect somebody for, like the highest office. It like it felt like very 2015, 2016.
And I felt like we kind of learned from the what's the Katy Perry song, the like roar of it all, like the like that kind of version of like a rousing song.
And I think we're really, really in a moment where people are noticing a profound misreading on behalf of a lot of celebrities who are like trying to do the good thing right now. And it's like, do the people want a rousing anthem or do they want a jam or like something they can dance to or something they can either head to or something they can think to or. Right. I just I always just like kind of wonder who these kinds of anthems are for, especially in a moment when we're not, like, gathering together in like a stadium.
I mean, I think a great counterexample would be like Anderson Parks locked down.
You should have been downtown. But the people of us and we thought it was a lot then, but they opened the door. Milstein, who said it was like he's like, you should have been downtown.
Like the people were rising. Like he's really describing the marches as they're happening, releasing a song that is of that moment. And it feels like he's there telling that story as a participant. Feels really different then. Yeah, I like the view from above or like the view from the stage at the stadium where let me tell you how other people are feeling in a way that just again, it's just it's so it's in the subtleties, but it doesn't work.
And I have to say, I have another another gripe, which is that the final line in the chorus that's gonna out to and it'll get boogie for now and you'll find that someday soon enough you will try to rise up. Yeah. This goes out to the underdog, keep on keeping at what you love. You'll find that someday soon you'll rise up. Rise up. Yeah. And this feels like a message which is in so much contemporary popular music, this is not unique here to this song.
It's I think it's an issue that we're all grappling with, which is like the.
Way in which we have absorbed neoliberal ideology so deeply that, like, the only way for us to succeed is to be the underdog and to pull ourselves up through our own bootstraps.
And it's funny, though, because this this this moment here sounds a lot like another song that I think offers perhaps another reading of the same idea when I.
All right, Hamilton, what do you think? So that's that's my shot from Hamilton, one of the most successful songs off the record.
And when we hear Underdog, it feels like really similar.
You'll find that someday soon you will face fines of. Wow, you know, like, exactly, oh, my gosh, that's amazing, even the, like, rise up, like, very like painting moving up.
Yeah, absolutely. It's very Broadway.
And I guess this is why I'm thinking, like, I like the idea that we could maybe think about it from the Hamilton perspective, which is like rising up isn't spontaneously through your own work, through your own individual effort, becoming the star you've always wanted to be.
That breaks the mold, but rather the collective rising up.
And I think that I don't mean to say that that's not in the song, but I think it's another way. Like, it reclaims the song a little bit if we think about it from that perspective. And again, I like I celebrate the effort. It's important that we're trying to look at these issues. I'm glad that pop music is trying to think about issues of inequality, but I think we need to make sure that we do so in inclusive ways that doesn't tokenized people and all that.
So like the rest of the album, it's beautiful. Go and listen to it. It's great. It's work worth engaging with.
And I appreciate sort of thinking critically about what what celebrities are trying to do and why the view from the top might not always be the view that the people need. Well said. So maybe on a more upbeat note, you've brought a really fun song. Yeah.
So my next song is It's not a new new song, but it is on the charts and it still does Break My Heart, which is a song I can already admit my bias I love. But I think what's interesting about the life of this song is that it was released as a single during those sort of early loss, like staggered weeks of quarantine. And it was the single that I think more than anything made like the front runner for this, like impromptu title of quarantine queen, because, you know, the lyrics are all about, you know, warring internally between the safety of like staying in with the risks of going out.
I should have come on my foolish. Good point. You know, the song is about, you know, mostly about emotional safety, right, and about heartbreak or potential heartbreak. When it came out, it just felt so timely in terms of the sort of shared risk of, you know, not only not going out or the shared risk of going out, but going out in the way that, like, disco is made for, you know, getting close and being with your friends and rubbing up on people and breathing on each other and all that jazz.
And in a moment when we can't do that, you know, the lyrics just felt so poignant and very like home disco. And then, of course, there's, you know, that interpellation from an excess, which is like the most attention grabbing thing.
I think we I don't know this. I totally missed it. What is it?
And break my heart. Yeah, well, I totally missed this. What is it?
I should have stayed home because I was the one you said.
No, I know that was the end of it all to do it. It's the guitar line. Oh, that is a great reference.
And I also love how the song borrows so much of an excess production like it's got the disco funk, which in excess has to.
But it also has like sort of like Prince 80s style percussion.
Oh, I love that. It's a banger.
I think the song more than anything kind of means that we're more or less still listening to a lot of the same or rediscovering a lot of the same albums that have been coming out within the past couple months because there's time to and there's room to and still thinking with future nostalgia, which I mean, I sure am. I still play the album a lot. Oh, yeah.
It's not like I mean, this is one that I feel like we are willing to look at some of the hard things of what's going on in the world right now, as long as it's like caked in some disco fun.
And I don't have to look at it too closely and I can dance along. Yeah, the song does use its core message and some really creative musical ways.
And there was one that I wanted to point to that I was listening to this while driving down the highway yesterday, and I almost had to be like, oh my God, I had to pull off and like, listen to this thing, because it's so brilliantly produced.
Some of and, you know, you. How would you describe her voice in that moment, transcendent? Is that true? Is that the right answer? No. Does it feel like it's in a sanctuary like the voices? Cavernous. It's enormous. This is that moment that I think as you're pointing to, is like this feels like in a dance club kind of moment, you're seeing on the center of attention.
All of the world is sort of like starting to focus it around, like it feels like the lights are bright. She's speaking about it's in you.
In my reflection, her voices are reflecting around the room inside. It feels like Dewa is all around us, and then. Oh, it gets like real quiet or like whispery or just like it's very like local. Exactly.
It's totally natural. All that reverb that we had earlier, all that sanctuary, cavernous sound.
Gorlin. And I would have stayed at home, I would have been alone. It becomes a.. I would have stayed home because I was on my own. But when you said no, I know that was the end of it.
So even the way that the song is produced, I think creates that feeling of expansiveness, like I'm going out and then like, actually, no, no, no. In the chorus, like, it's just me. I'm here dancing by myself.
Yeah. And I think, like, the song is a whole balancing those two scales like it really does, like replicate the kind of like ambivalence of like do I go out or not or like do I regret going out, you know, sort of while you're even in the experience, it's like, do I was this the right choice? And thinking of like all the counterfactuals?
I think you said it just right. That's why the song has persisted for so long, because we are still living in exactly that question. There are many more questions about where we're at that we need to explore where I musically, societally, and we're going to do so.
The second half of our episode, the last six months have been extraordinary, to say the least, between a lingering pandemic and ongoing social justice crisis, a stressful election and climate change banging down a front door.
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All right, Lauren, it's going to be explosive in here. We're going to listen to Betsy's dynamite. Let's get. This is a fascinating track with a lot more going on than I had originally known because I thought this was just riding that disco funk wave that Duleep a kind of sound that we had hearing. You know, it's got funhouse beats. It's got to pop dropped, got these huge horns. It even has this hilariously over-the-top modulation which mirrors the explosiveness of the dynamite in the chorus.
But I always thought that lyrically, this was a really weak song until a colleague of mine helped set the record straight and totally changed my mind. Hi, I'm Ezra Romano.
I am a culture reporter for Vox and I recently wrote an article analyzing the Beats song Dynomite, which has been a chart topper the last couple of weeks. Really popular fun summer bop.
The song debuted at number one. It's only the third song in history to do that. This is a big song and it was a real pop fan, really knows the genre and sees dynamite through a lens that most US listeners are probably missing.
So I asked Asia what's significant about the song and a couple of things.
It made history because it's the first time a K pop group has ever reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, which has been a goal of the band for several years and was really, really treated like a national event in Korea. The president of the country congratulated them on this achievement. It was a big, big deal and certainly a big deal for the fans of the band.
And for the band, this is significant for another reason as well, aside from being nationally celebrated, which is extraordinary, as you told me, that this is a song which is musically consistent with past summer hits from Beats, songs that are airy and breezy and bubbly, kind of like DNA.
Go where your mom or boy with love. But the real change here is that they're singing exclusively in English, and this is a band who said that they want to keep their identity true.
They want to make music, which is authentically Korean. And in fact, there's this ongoing battle between the Burmese army and U.S. radio, because despite being one of the most streamed artists right now, US radio has been reluctant to carry beats because it's predominantly in Korean.
And so at first glance, it kind of feels like, wait a minute, has beats caved to that pressure?
I want to make very clear that the lyrics were not written by the band. Often the band has considerable creative control and creative input into the songs that they produce. Many of the band members are musicians and producers themselves and have written or co-written songs on their albums.
But Dynamite was essentially ordered by the CEO of Columbia Records, who is Biggs's U.S. distributor, and he basically tasked U.K. producer David Stewart and UK songwriter Jessica Agama to write a song that could be a number one hit for Beats.
They were essentially writing to spec.
I feel like this is a story that so many people get upset about in pop music, right? Like there's some behind the scenes corporate boardroom manipulation. And maybe that explains the song's totally inane lyrics.
They sound like they were algorithmically produced in a kind of a vacuum based on the criteria for what Americans think American pop music should sound like.
Right. Like the opening lyrics of this, I think, are a shining example.
Shoes on a let's rock and roll, shoes on, get up in the morning.
Cup of milk, let's rock and roll is a point. This lyric as a surreal echo of the first line of Rebecca Black's notoriously derided song Friday, which became an Internet meme.
Seven a.m. waking up in the morning to be first. Got to go downstairs. I'm going to have to think that this whole thing going on is pretty post-modern.
You get this really weird disconnect because you have this idea of what Americana is being refracted through to British people handed to who are writing for Korean singers. And you get this idea that there's there's something else at work in these lyrics that's about sort of exploiting or manipulating American perceptions of what Korean singers think American music should be in American images should sound like, and how Korean singers would then present that to them. But again, none of this is authentic. It's it's being written to spec by by British people on demand for an American producer.
So it's very kind of smoke and mirrors. And in the middle of it, you have these these lyrics that are very they're very sunny, very fun. I am in the stars tonight, so watch me bring the fire and set the night a light shining through the city with a little funk and soul like it might end up like dynamite.
I'm like, oh, that's the chorus. And it's peppy and fun, but what does it mean? I don't know. I don't think any of us know exactly what these lyrics mean.
They are, as I just said, smoke and mirrors. It could be upsetting that Beats has sung a song all in English to get their number one hit. But maybe there's another way of thinking about this.
What I said my article is that dynamite is a collection of disjointed cliches that are trolling Americans. On the one hand, I'm disappointed because I feel like Biggs's music and their lyrical abilities are so much more powerful and sophisticated and complex than you get a sense of from dynamite.
And that should be more widely recognized. But on the other hand, I'm amused and I'm happy that they made them number one. And I'm amused and delighted that they seem to have trolled the U.S. music industry and beat them at their own game.
I'm really glad for ages analysis because I think I think my first thought was also really liking the idea that. America's own like nonsense narcissism is like becomes a gimmick because I think we're so used to the narrative going the other way, the like a special conversation with Justin Bieber or thinking about the way Drake likes to.
I mean, Drake is Canadian, but the way in which he likes to sort of dip in, dabble into various ethnic languages. Right. But here we actually get the reverse. It's like playing upon the Americans own self-image.
Yeah, it's really nice having Facebook with us, honey. Just like honey.
It's totally I also just love how it helps me realize how empty and meaningless so many lyrics are within popular music, which is often OK, like sometimes we just need something silly and fun and there's nothing going on there.
Like, I actually don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing unless you're trying to write a good lyric and it turns out like it's not a good lyric.
But here we have someone who's taking that whole cliché and turning on its head and making, as they put it, it's like a song which was commissioned written by these other songwriters for this producer, then performed by Beats, feels more like some kind of like ARTPOP commentary.
And I think that the curation and them singing this song and getting a number one hit is a fascinating reflection of where we are at at this particular moment.
It's so emblematic not only of how I think a lot of music actually is made today, but also just the way that culture is consumed and interpreted where on Instagram and Twitter and all the apps, just like everybody's everybody's sort of culture, is like side by side in a way that, you know, wasn't possible before the Internet, like opened like all these regional borders. So you have Korean influencers sliding next to the Kardashians, next to like Afrobeat artists, next to all these different people.
And as a consumer, as a user, it's just all getting sucked in and not necessarily differentiated and any sort of specific way. And so the idea that music and culture goes through all these different channels before it gets to you, I think is just a real thing.
Speaking of genres all kind of colliding together, you have a I think, a really interesting shift to take the conversation with your next pick.
Yeah, we're going to church again, but not quite. So the song I have is from Justin Bieber called Holy, featuring chance.
The rapper o God wanted to the like a truck stop. Can we enter the second as the way you owe me me, me, me, me feel so holy they say they've clapped before.
I think this is a sort of unique in the their line of collapse that they like to do every now and then.
They've also made party songs in the past. Yeah, they usually do.
Like I mean I guess the song could be considered fun, but instead of the more sort of erm B or more like Popi or even like sort of like rap ish songs that they like to do.
I'll call this one gospel inflected pop and I think yeah.
If I say that I think you kind of know what I mean because that's, that's a thing now and I think it's very, it's very standard chance fair. And actually I think something interesting about this song is that you can almost switch their parts and it would still make sense as a song without either artists needing to, like, stretch too far outside of their comfort zone.
So it's like that very like sway and snap.
Ah, and be like swaying clap ah and be the lyrics are about God, but they maybe are also about a significant other.
I hear a lot about Barcenas. Don't think that IBSA. But I might go down to the river. Because the way that this guy opens up, I mean, such it's making me say that the way the video for this one I feel compelled to mention just because it's like so odd.
There's a video for where Bieber is. He plays an oil rig worker who is suddenly out of work and then he and his wife are evicted. But like Destiny smiles on them in the form of Wilmer Valderrama.
And it's it's a lot they're like praying by the table. And they're it's all very earnest and heartfelt and all together really matches the song, which I think wants to be wants to be earnest and wants to. You know, evoke a sort of a spirituality, if not a strict sort of scripture, understanding or interpretation of Christianity, which kind of tracks with both of these artists, I think as we look at the video as well, it has the same issue.
It's like celebrities.
What identity is it appropriate to try on or the video almost feels like it could have been a commercial like on this during the Super Bowl or something like that.
Like that totally genre of like.
Whereas I actually think Bieber usually has pretty fun videos. I thought, like, the yummy video was fun. I thought like a previous track he was on, that chance was on.
I'm the one like where they're just like at a huge mansion.
There's just like having a ball.
Like I would love to see that because like I can write, you know, I can't go anywhere but this, like, idea of like trying to be relatable.
Thank you so much, pop musicians, for looking at issues, trying to get them, trying to represent them.
There's still homework to do with all this, with the holy nature, with this collaboration, with this gospel inflection, with these trying on of identities. How are you feeling about wholely right now?
I think it's saying that Bieber has and chance has. Found something meaningful that is meaningful to them that maybe doesn't necessarily fully translate to others.
You took us to one side of the pendulum, a shift towards the holy. I'm going to shift us into a Moutier direction. We're going to listen to as my final pick.
Twenty four carat Goldens mood featuring, in your view, are using. I can tell you to try to go. That's one way of trying to move past this moment we live in is looking to hold power something bigger than ourselves. And another way of looking at this moment is also looking inwards and seeing that, hey, sometimes we're not in a good mood.
And a song that on one hand feels upbeat and playful, but is really masking these quite honest and clear lyrics about dealing with depression, dealing with romance that isn't going well because people's emotional well-being is not it's not going well.
People playing with toying with each other's hearts.
It feels on one hand, you know, this is a very sort of teenage love song who broke whose heart kind of a thing.
And on the other. Sometimes listen to this song actually makes me feel all the feels, it's heavy, the like we're trying on love to avoid the depression.
We play games. To avoid the depression, we've been here before. Well, you know, I think it's further heavy because if we look at the charts, you know, emo rap is doing still very well, and this song obviously owes a lot to artists like Exten Tasmanian Lil Peep and Juice World, who currently has three songs on the Hot 100.
And of course, Druss World recently passed away. His song, Wishing Well, which is also on the charts right now, points even more directly to depression and issues of drug abuse.
So I don't know how you felt last April. If it wasn't for the pills, I would be here. But if I can't take these pills, I won't be here. I just charge all my shit.
So this song for me, I think kind of like the Duleep a track does that same thing where it's like there's some heavy stuff going on.
I'm going to put it under a beat. That is really fun, but it feels very human in that way, right.
Where the only way that we can seem to deal with the heaviness is to try to find some kind of musical levity, try to dance to it.
Yeah, the song totally takes me to that, like my my mid IMO, like sad kid place where you think it's just you.
But actually it's just like everyone actually is like going through it, but we're all going through it alone, kind of like right now. Oh I like all the time.
I appreciate that you look to your moody teenage years with smiles on your face. You know, it's like what else can we do?
In a lot of ways that is more comforting sentiment to hear from an artist and and from musicians, then maybe something more cheery or something more rousing.
Like sometimes you just want to say and all you can do is just like sit in your feels and just like wallow in it. And I think everyone I mean, I think that's what we're doing. We're all wallowing. But I also think we also deserve we deserve to wallow.
Yeah. It's like it's almost just like buck up. You're like, excuse me, I'm really not feeling good here. And I appreciate that there's music that's finding ways to channel that.
All right, so we said we were going to do a meteorological analysis of what these things point to, do we see any patterns emerging?
I mean, it seems like we have the pattern of the there are some songs and artists that seem to really tap into the.
Like interior life of of quarantine, but not just quarantine, but just like life under life, under a lot of like sort of chaotic, pressing matters. And then there's seems to be artists who are kind of trying to reach outside of the self in a way that isn't.
Isn't all the way working or doesn't feel as as close to what people are going through right now?
Hmm. Yeah, for sure. Like you started with Sean Mendez and wonder. And in some ways that song is about nothing, and yet it helps me feel the most.
And a lot of that just has to do with, like the arc of how it's built and in some ways the sort of. Openness of its message, rather than trying to be specific and capture somebody else's story, strangely, is really working for me right now.
And, well, I think we're hearing all kinds of approaches to dealing exactly as you said. How do we cope? And we're hearing it across really different kinds of music. We're hearing it in ballads. We're hearing it in disco funk. We're hearing it in gospel. We're hearing it in campfire pop songs and in emo rap.
It's across the board.
It feels like it is nice to know that we're all grappling with how to deal with where we're at right now and we're off and we're being offered a lot of different kinds of solutions.
Yeah, and it's also a reminder that no no single genre has a monopoly on on a mood, so to speak. Even if you can title your song Mood, you don't own it.
Switched-On Pop is produced by Bridget Armstrong, engineered by Bryan McFarland, illustrations by Iris Gottlieb and social media by BBR. Our executive producers are shot Kawa and Liz Kelly Nelson, a member of the Box Media Podcast Network, first hosted by Meechie Hearting and MIT Sloan.
He wasn't here today. That's because he is a brand new dad. It's so exciting. Congratulations, Nate. Congratulations to the entire family and welcome, baby Sloan. So happy to have you here. While Nate is going to be out for a little while, he's actually produced a really fun little series on what makes anthems so effective. We're talking about the music you hear when you go to the sports arena. You're in the stadium and the song you've heard a thousand times.
But still it gets you stomping your feet, pumping your fist, yelling out loud with everybody.
Things we can't do right now and wish we could. But I think going into the music will help take us there. It's a really fun series. Got four episodes coming up in two weeks. We'll be back again, of course, next week on Tuesday. Until then, you can find us on any social media platform at Switched-On Pop. And you can get to us on the Web at Switched-On Pop Dotcom until next week.
Thanks for listening. I'm Julia Freelon and I'm the host of a new series called Go for Broke. It's about those moments in history when everyone goes a little bit overboard for a big idea in our first season.
We're going back in time to the late 90s. It's a time when computers are coming into every home and dot com companies are popping up everywhere.
Everybody wanted to stick dot com on the end of something Cupps, Dotcom, Blastoise, dot com, you know, shoes, dot com, pets, dotcom.
And as the frenzy grows and grows, all of a sudden the dot com economy falls off a cliff.
People lost their houses, people got their cars recalled. They literally banked their futures on it.
This season, we'll explore what made the dotcom bubble and what could warn us when the next one comes along. If we're not in one already, go for broke from EPIC and the Vox Media Podcast Network. Subscribe for free on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app.