Spotify got exactly what it paid for in Joe Rogan. Now what?
If there was a time for Spotify to decide it didn't want to do business with Joe Rogan, it was two years ago, not now.
Hello, dear readers,
I know that I’m several days late to the Joe Rogan/Spotify discourse, but it’s mostly because while it’s a topic definitely within my own intellectual wheelhouse (it’s a media/tech/communication/music story!), I think it’s more nuanced than how a lot of people have been approaching it. Let me explain.
First, the basics: Comedian Joe Rogan is the host of The Joe Rogan Experience, an interview-format podcast. Since 2009, Rogan has released more than 1,770 episodes featuring hundreds of guests. In May 2020, music streaming service Spotify signed Rogan to a licensing deal worth an estimated $100 million. In announcing the move, Rogan said that Spotify “want me to continue doing it the way I’m doing it right now. It’s just a licensing deal, so Spotify won’t have any creative control over the show,” and emphasized that he would not be an employee of Spotify under the deal.
While his podcast has always been controversial, the most recent outcry came in response to some of the COVID-19 misinformation spread on the program.1 On January 25, musician Neil Young removed his music from Spotify, citing Rogan. Since then, Joni Mitchell, Young’s former bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash; and India Arie have done the same, among others. India Arie’s announcement also cited Rogan’s “language around race” as a deciding factor.2 Spotify has stuck by Rogan’s side throughout.
Rogan and I follow each other on Twitter, but we haven’t interacted in years.
In 2014, I wrote a story for Vice about the battle over the rights of transgender athletes. An anti-LGBTQ activist organization in Minnesota had been organizing against a plan to allow trans students the right to compete in school sports (an issue where federal law is murky, to say the least), and the very idea of trans athletes was being treated as a brand new phenomenon. In my piece, I explained the history of controversies involving both trans and intersex athletes dating back to the 1920s.3 In it, I also quoted something Rogan said about Fallon Fox, a transgender MMA fighter, a year earlier during an episode of his podcast, writing that Rogan weaved “back and forth between ignorance and bigotry.”
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In 2013, Rogan said [editor’s note: this is pretty rough, so consider this whatever sort of content warning you need]:
She wants to be able to fight women in MMA; I say no f*cking way. I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You're a f*cking man. That's a man, OK? You can't have… that's… I don't care if you don't have a dick any more.
Fight guys, yes. She has to fight guys. First of all, she's not really a she. She's a transgender, post-op person. The operation doesn't shave down your bone density. It doesn't change. You look at a man's hands and you look at a women's hands and they're built different. They're just thicker, they're stronger, your wrists are thicker, your elbows are thicker, your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.
While my personal opinion on trans athletes is pretty nuanced (or at least, I think it is), that wasn’t what my piece was about. Still, Rogan’s fans were not happy about it.4 He followed me on Twitter, I followed him back. In a direct message, I asked him to please call them off, he said sure, and I appreciated that. We weren’t able to come to an agreement about trans athletes, but we had a dialogue going, which was certainly better than nothing.
In 2020, Rogan hosted anti-trans author Abigail Shrier in a conversation in which the two of them said that being trans is a “contagion” similar to anorexia, “demonic possession,” or joining a cult. I saw that and thought, “Ah, what the heck, I’ll send him a DM to see what’s up with his recent focus on trans issues.”
I really don't understand why you have such a laser focus on trans issues. You've got such a big platform, and I know you can/do use it to start bigger conversations a lot of the time, but man, it's frustrating that this comes up on your show so often and just... with no real concern for accuracy. It's pretty clear that you've staked out a very specific position on trans issues based on who you have on to discuss the topic (and who you don't have on to discuss it). Shrier's writing on the topic is just so factually flawed that it's hard to know where to even start.
But man, claiming "trans activists" are somehow trying to *make* people trans? That's nuts. And it's just as ridiculous to sign on to this idea that there's a "social contagion" element." Also, "demonic possession?" "anorexia?" I'm just tired. This is a true "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" moment because trans people are just trying to live, but for some reason that seems to be too much for some people.
I didn’t get a response, which is fine.
I thought (or at least hoped) that maybe I’d gotten through to him a little bit and that he’d at least mix things up when it came to how he discusses trans people. I just wanted to remind him that we’re people. As it turns out, I was a bit overly optimistic.
Less than a month later, he hosted Dr. Debra Soh, who argued against accepting trans youth. And then the next month, he had Douglas Murray on the show, where the two discussed whether acceptance of trans people are a sign of “the end of America.” And then the next month, he and comedian Tim Dillon complained about how “you can’t even say” the word “tr*nny.” [ed. note: sorry for the asterisks, but I’m just trying to prevent this from ending up in everyone’s spam folder]
Again, though. Not mad. Just really disappointed.
I tried to just stop paying attention to what he and his guests would say about trans people on his show. Every once in a while something would pop up in my timeline. For instance, just a couple weeks back, Rogan again said the acceptance of trans people is a sign of “civilizations collapsing,” while his guest compared being trans to “satantic ritual abuse.” For someone who interviews so many people, it’s frustrating but not necessarily remarkable that he ends up treading the same roads over and over. When he does have a trans person on the show, it tends to be Blaire White, a conservative trans woman who essentially argues in favor of many the points made by the likes of Soh, Murray, Shrier, etc., so that’s not exactly expanding the diversity of opinion. The most recent episode I can find that had someone making an argument in favor of trans issues and trans rights (and trans existence) is probably a 2019 episode featuring Adam Conover from Adam Ruins Everything.5
It’s the “civilizations collapsing” comment, which he’s repeatedly come back to (9/17/2020, 9/24/2020, 9/15/2021, 1/20/2022, and 1/25/2022), that gets me.
Just… how can someone say that? How can someone sit there with a straight face and say that the existence of a group of people is a sign that civilization is collapsing? Now before I get people in my replies going, “Um, actually, nobody is saying your existence is what he’s referring to,” I’m going to interject and say, yes, existence is what’s being discussed here. Go and listen to the segments I linked. If you argue that you don’t have a problem with my existence but insist on labeling me a “man,” for instance, then you are, in fact, arguing against my existence. Fundamentally, I cannot be a “man,” and I am not a “man.”
It’s exterminationism. Just look at the way how trans people get talked about. “The transgender question,” “the transgender debate,” and so on. This is how you talk about people when you don’t actually see them as people.
Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to offer a take on this is that I’ve really been trying to find a way to articulate how so much of the existence-as-a-debate-topic stuff wears on me. Unfortunately, as much as I’ve tried, I still can’t really put it to words. Just… there’s a difference between making an argument about policies (Want to have a discussion about what sorts of rules should be in place for trans athletes? Ok. Want to discuss ways to accommodate people in different settings? Ok. You get the idea.) and making an argument against existence.
I genuinely hate writing about this topic. I’m not an activist. I’m just a person who wants to exist in peace without being treated like a freak or a monster or whatever. Sigh. Just… things are really bad right now for trans people, only getting worse, and it doesn’t seem like people really care all that much. I try not to despair, but it’s hard not to feel like the walls are closing in, like the humanity of people like me is being drained. And I’m speaking on this point, specifically, because it’s something I can relate to, not to in any way downplay the other issues at play (particularly, his use of the n-word).
And that brings me to my final point for today.
Rogan is a reflection of how a lot of the world thinks. That’s why so many people listen to him, and that’s why Spotify cut him such a huge check.
If Spotify dropped Rogan tomorrow, do you know what would change? Pretty much nothing. He’d move on to a different platform and do his thing. Millions of people would tune into his shows. Whether they listen in spite of or because of the COVID-19 misinformation, or his views on race, or his takes on trans people, etc., I don’t know if it really matters. He’s doing what he’s always done. Spotify is the company that attached its name to his, and it got exactly what it paid for.
If an artist wants to remove their music from Spotify because of the company’s association with Rogan (whether it’s related to COVID-19 misinformation or anything else), great. If an artist wants to remove their music from Spotify because music streaming services don’t pay anywhere near enough, great. If an artist wants to keep their music there despite (or because of) those things, also great. And the same goes for subscribers. If you subscribe to Spotify, but cancel because of Rogan or because you’d rather support artists directly, great. If you subscribe to Spotify and keep your subscription, also great. You’re not “silencing,” “censoring,” or “cancelling” anyone by voting with your dollars, something that in our extremely capitalist society can feel like the only way to make a small difference these days.
There’s only one person who can decide what kind of impact Joe Rogan has on the world and on the massive audience who will follow him wherever he goes, and that is Joe Rogan. If he wants to choose to reflect and amplify people who think that trans people are a sign of the end of civilization (and not push back on their points and not provide the same sort of amplification to voices of trans people or allies who will make counter-arguments to the likes of Soh, Shrier, Murphy, Murray, et al.), then that’s his choice. If he wants to say racial slurs, then that’s his choice. If he wants to tell people that vaccines are gene therapy (they are not), then that’s his choice. If there was a time for Spotify to decide it didn’t want to associate with Rogan, that was probably a couple years back before they made a deal with him, not now.
So with all of that in mind, the question is what he decides to do moving forward. He’s got a lot of power, and it’s up to him to decide how he wants to use it. For better or, unfortunately, for worse.
Alex Paterson over at Media Matters listens to every episode of Rogan’s podcast. When I first started writing this, I had block-quoted huge chunks of his 2021 Rogan round-up, but at a certain point, it just makes way more sense to urge you to please check it out for yourself.
The tl;dr of it all is basically that Rogan spread a whole lot of COVID-19 misinformation (he encouraged young people not to get vaccinated, claimed that Alex Jones was “right” about “actual microchips being injected into your arm to see if you have COVID-19,” repeatedly promoted unproven treatments like ivermectin, spread a right-wing conspiracy theory about the government planning to monitor and censor people’s text messages to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines are gene therapy and not actually vaccines, spread a conspiracy theory that Biden didn’t actually get a booster shot on live TV, repeatedly claimed that the Biden administration was trying to prevent people from accessing monoclonal antibody treatments [the FDA would later revoke the Emergency Use Authorization for one of the treatments after it stopped showing effectiveness against the omicron variant], and more).
In recent days, a compilation of Rogan saying the n-word on his show went viral. He apologized for his past use of the slur in an Instagram post. In another old clip posted online, Rogan responds to a guest who has a Black dad and a white mom by saying, “Powerful combination genetic-wise, right? You get the body of the Black man and then you get the mind of the white man all together in some strange combination. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Black people don’t have brains. It’s a different brain.”
The history of “gender testing/sex testing” athletes is fraught. For some time, professional and Olympic sports tested “suspect” female athletes’ chromosomes before shifting to physical examinations or testosterone level checks. There’s often this idea that people are all clearly either male or female, or that intersex individuals all know that they are intersex. This isn’t true, and throughout history, there have been a number of athletes who were assigned female at birth, trained their whole lives to compete in the Olympics, only to later find out that they have an intersex condition of some sort (for instance, Y-chromosome) or had another variation that causes increased testosterone production such as polycystic ovary syndrome. The sports world still struggles with what, exactly, these athletes should do.
One example of a tweet I received: “@ParkerMolloy u know what would look good on u? 6 feet of dirt. U make an ugly male or female @joerogan”
If you watch the clip, Rogan gives a pretty passionate rebuttal to Conover’s points, definitely a bit different than his usual approach. In the clip, he cuts off Conover quite a bit.