a new york minute

New York Minute With: Switched on Pop Hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding

Photo: New York Magazine

The team of journalists at New York work hard to bring you conversation-starting stories. But who exactly are these editors and writers? Get to know them with a New York Minute, our interview series in which we ask staff about their lives and their careers. Next up: musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, hosts of the Switched on Pop podcast, which recently joined Vulture’s audio offerings.

Switched on Pop is now a part of Vulture! What excites you most about the move? 
N: Growing up in Manhattan my parents had a subscription to New York, so the magazine has shaped my sensibility since forever. As an adult I’ve been reading the digital version every day for probably the last decade. It’s my number-one source of culture news so it’s exciting to join a publication I’ve been a fan of for so long.

C: I’ve always admired Vulture’s music coverage for working with the best music journalists. Past Switched on Pop episodes have adapted Vulture articles and turned them into some of our favorite audio pieces on the show. It is a dream collaboration to get to contribute to their music coverage on an ongoing basis.

How did you two get connected, and what made you decide to start a podcast together?
N: Charlie and I started playing in a bluegrass band in San Francisco. Maybe “band” is a generous term. When we each left the city, Charlie for L.A. and myself for New York, we wanted a way to stay in touch and celebrate our common music nerdery together. The podcast was born out of our friendship, and six years later it remains the bedrock of the show.

Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding play in their post-college band. Photo: DJ Sullivan

C: It was Nate’s analysis of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” that inspired us to turn our casual conversations about music education and popular music into a podcast. Audio allows us to go deep into music’s magical and even esoteric topics that are easily heard, but may require too much jargon on the page.

Nate, what exactly does a musicologist do? 
N: Listen to Prince’s song “Musicology” on repeat. We also study the way that music acts as a sounding history of politics, society, and economics.

How do you select which songs to dissect on the podcast? 
N: There are two different streams of coverage for the show. One is simply chasing the biggest stories in pop music. When Lil Nas X was breaking chart records with “Old Town Road,” we couldn’t not dive into the song. Two, we try to find artists who are breaking new ground in the landscape of pop. When we interviewed Lizzo in 2018, we didn’t know she was about to blow up, we just knew she had a unique sound that we needed to understand better.

C: Each week our team gets together to chat about what we’re listening to. We have divergent tastes that help expose us to lots of genres and regional flavors of pop. In addition, we receive an ongoing stream of listener suggestions. We’re always looking for a song with a good story and an “a-ha” moment.

Which three artists have had the most impact on you and why?
N: Mozart, Joni Mitchell, and John Zorn — because each one makes music that keeps pushing up against the limit of what we think art can do.

C: Charlie Christian, Stevie Wonder, and St. Vincent all changed how I approach playing and listening to music.

Have your listening habits changed during quarantine?
N: I’ve been returning to the music of misbegotten youth: ’90s hip-hop, avant-garde jazz, and Jewish klezmer.

C: I have the good fortune of working from home, but cabin fever has definitely set in, and so I rely on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist to supply me with novelty every week.

2020 gave us DIY quarantine albums, not one but two surprise Taylor Swift albums, countless livestreamed concerts, and the heightened importance of platforms like Twitch and TikTok. Are there any trends you’re seeing in pop music from the pandemic year that you think are here to stay, and what does it mean for the future of the music industry?
N: The platform Bandcamp is transparent, fair, and politically progressive, and it’s seen a surge in use during the pandemic. I hope consumers continue to buy music from sites that give the artists their fair due once this is all over.

C: The pandemic has shut down the most significant streams of revenue. Even before lockdown, streaming music has been a greater win for listeners and for labels than it has been for artists, so I imagine that this digital diversification will continue.

What advice would you give readers who want to start a podcast but aren’t sure where to begin (or worry that it’s a saturated market)?
N: To quote the Isley Brothers, “It’s your thing.” Don’t worry about being too niche, too weird, or too specific with your podcast. If you’re into something, other people will be too, and they will find you.

C: Have a great collaborator who inspires you, holds you accountable and can confidently tell you what to wear on the rare occasion you need to show your face.

Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding participating in the Verge’s “The Future of Music” panel in 2018. Photo: Ryan Muir

Nate, you’re a former New Yorker. What caused you to leave New York for Los Angeles, and what (if anything) do you miss about New York? 
N: I moved to L.A. to start a position teaching musicology at the University of Southern California. I miss hearing the most astonishing musicians while riding the subway. Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, Kora player M. Salieu Suso, horn freaks Too Many Zooz: I loved that the daily commute could also be a site of musical discovery.

Currently, what’s an unpopular opinion you have on something popular?
N: We don’t need any more new country songs that reference older country songs. Sorry, Thomas Rhett, I’m talking to you.

C: I love that pop songs are getting shorter, often a mere two minutes. A lot of people say it’s because of streaming and short attention spans, but I assume Gen Z is taking to heart Mark Twain’s misattributed letter-writing advice.

What’s a cultural product you consumed lately that actually consumed you?
N: Meet the Romans with Mary Beard on Amazon Prime. I had no idea Ancient Roman history was so saucy.

C: Dinner Party by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder is on constant rotation. It is completely contemporary but also a master class in musical styles of the last 75 years from a supergroup of many of my favorite musicians.

What artist are you most excited about right now?

C: Rina Sawayama and Charli XCX. They are both savvy writers who know how to use pop clichés, twist them, and exaggerate them in delightful and thought-provoking ways.

If you could only listen to one song for the rest of your life, what song would you choose?
N:Milky White Way” by the Swan Silvertones.

C:Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” by Claude Debussy or “Toxic” by Britney Spears, or better yet, a mash-up of the two!

How can readers keep up with your work?
N: We get some of our best show ideas from listeners, so if you’re reading this, hop on Twitter and Instagram and tell us your burning questions about the world of pop music!

C: We’ll be posting every episode and highlighting artist interviews on Vulture.

Switched on Pop

A podcast about the making and meaning of popular music

New York Minute With: The Switched on Pop Hosts