“I am a dummy,” the podcast host Joe Rogan is fond of saying, “don’t take me too seriously.” This is a man who has smoked weed live on air with his guests. He is an enthusiast for kooky health products such as mushroom coffee. He evangelises about the mind-altering effects of sensory deprivation tanks. He hunts elk with a bow and arrow. And he is also wildly, wildly popular.
Which is why – despite his many eccentricities – his critics take him very seriously indeed, so much so that he now has a growing army of celebrity combatants. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have withdrawn their music from Spotify, in protest at the platform’s willingness to stream what they describe as Rogan’s anti-vax content. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have now joined in, from their Californian exile, expressing “concerns” over “Covid-19 misinformation” disseminated on the platform.
There have been ongoing efforts to oust Rogan from Spotify ever since he signed a $100m deal with the platform in 2020. He flirts with conspiracy theories and delights in provoking liberals, previously getting in trouble for opposing the participation of trans athletes in women’s sports, and for interviewing the notorious radio host and right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. More recently, Rogan’s comments on the Covid pandemic have angered his critics. I’ve listened to the two most provocative episodes on this topic, released in December, which feature the doctors Robert Malone and Peter McCullough, both of whom have made controversial statements about Covid vaccines.
Malone and McCullough are themselves vaccinated, and they agree with Rogan that vaccination is definitely advisable for anyone at high risk of becoming seriously ill from the disease. To describe them as “anti-vax” is therefore somewhat misleading, since what they oppose is the vaccine mandate, rather than the vaccine itself. Still, it’s fair to say their opinions fall well outside the mainstream. Which is why 270 scientific and medical professionals have signed a letter calling on Spotify to “moderate misinformation on its platform” – meaning, of course, to censor Joe Rogan.
These signatories don’t have a hope in hell. Rogan might be reprimanded by Spotify, and he might offer up a mea culpa, but he will easily survive this latest skirmish, and many more to come, because his podcast is one of the most listened-to in the world. In an age when advertisers and media producers are desperate to hold our attention even for a few seconds, here is Rogan releasing long-form interviews with comedians, athletes and intellectuals several times a week, and getting rich by them. I’m not the typical Rogan fan – for one thing, I’m a woman, whereas one survey shows about three-quarters of his listeners are male. Nevertheless, I understand his appeal. He’s funny, likeable, open-hearted and endlessly curious. If you put a Rogan episode on in the background while you cook dinner or drive to work, you feel like you’ve been invited into a conversation with two cool people who don’t expect you to contribute.
I have a theory about why Rogan’s podcast episodes are so long (two, three, sometimes four hours of non-stop conversation). Young adults are the loneliest age group, with almost a quarter of millennials aged 23 to 38 reporting in one 2019 survey that they don’t have a single friend. Not coincidentally, the average Rogan listener is aged 24.
Without wishing to insult the Rogan fan base, I suspect a big part of his appeal is that he offers a kind of parasocial companionship to lonely people who find that listening to him feels a bit like spending time with a friend.
This intimate relationship that Rogan has established with his fans is the source of both his success and – according to those who despise him – his special danger. He wins the trust of his listeners in a way that other celebrity broadcasters seem unable to, and his open defiance of authorities is essential to his appeal.
Rogan’s interest in conspiracy theories is one of the reasons he is far more in touch with the public than are his critics, notably Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Conspiratorial thinking is mainstream in America, where a high proportion of people believe, for instance, that the 1969 moon landings were faked, and that the US government was involved in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks (13 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively, according to YouGov).
Rogan taps into this demographic, but not because he’s a political extremist. He’s a swing voter who defies simple left/right categorisation, having endorsed the Democrat Bernie Sanders and also expressed a preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden.
This “dummy” somehow manages to pair rugged individualism with a sort of patriotic communitarianism. “He channels something elemental in the national character,” observes the American writer Jacob Siegel. “Rogan is the portal through which one glimpses the American mood that is, at that moment, most popular and most repressed.”
There are, of course, many ways to be American. But Rogan has a skill for channelling popular sentiment. It is one that Harry and Meghan, by contrast, conspicuously lack. Above all, Rogan gives an overwhelming impression of honesty and sincerity. These are the traits that will save him from the censors, and from the condemnation of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the rest.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under