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'Renegades' Podcast With Obama And Springsteen Is Interesting ... Enough

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's no shortage of podcasts hosted by celebrities. But one show featuring two of the biggest names out there, President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, recently released its final episode. The series, called "Renegades," features conversations they recorded with each other last year. It was produced by Higher Ground, the Obamas' production company. Podcast critic Nick Quah has this review.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: The premise behind "Renegades: Born In The USA" is the kind of thing that would make for a great marquee on the front of a theater - Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen in conversation. But "Renegades," not a one-off event, is a podcast series, one that's made available on demand over Spotify. The podcast opens with the 44th president of the United States reflecting on the past year, from the pandemic to the racial justice protests to the Capitol insurrection in January, before asking how did we get here, and how do Americans come together to mend a broken society? This, he tells us, is a question that's come to be present in many of his conversations over the past year with family and friends, including Springsteen, who he originally befriended over the course of his first presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RENEGADES: BORN IN THE USA")

BARACK OBAMA: On the surface, Bruce and I don't have a lot in common. He's a white guy from a small town in Jersey; I'm a Black guy of mixed race, born in Hawaii, with a childhood that took me around the world. He's a rock 'n' roll icon. I'm a lawyer and politician - not as cool. And as I like to remind Bruce every chance I get, he's more than a decade older than me, although he looks damn good. But over the years, what we found is is that we've got a shared sensibility - about work, about family and about America.

QUAH: Call it the not-so-odd couple, the first Black president and the Boss, two iconic American figures who are presented as being from different backgrounds but are united by a strong belief in their country, though, of course, they're united by a few other things as well, including a level of adoration and celebrity few possess. As a podcast, "Renegades" is interesting enough, but listeners shouldn't expect very much that's new. Many beats of the conversations should be familiar to anyone who has followed President Obama's story to any extent. And there's clearly a limit to what the former president can say, even on his own platform. Those limitations can feel stifling, even frustrating, particularly when he diagnosis as the various ills of American society almost at a remove without getting into the weeds of politics, some of which he was directly involved in. The conversations in "Renegades" are structured around several themes, among them race, money and, of course, music. Some episodes even come with a brief musical performance by Springsteen himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RENEGADES: BORN IN THE USA")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) My little sister's in the front seat with an ice cream cone. Ma's in backseat sittin' all alone, as my pa steers her slow out of the lot for a test drive down Michigan Avenue.

QUAH: But the two men also consistently gravitate towards discussions about masculinity, which is where the conversation grows more fluid and introspective. It is along these lines that the podcast is at its most interesting, as the realm of the personal seemingly gives the two men a lot more space to explore, inquire and trade rich experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RENEGADES: BORN IN THE USA")

OBAMA: So now, as a teenager, I'm trying to figure out, all right, what does this mean - to be a man? It means you've got to be an athlete, right? And so basketball becomes my obsession. It means you got to chase girls, successfully or not (laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: I'm not doing so good so far. Go ahead. Keep going (laughter).

OBAMA: Right? You got to do that. How much beer you could consume.

SPRINGSTEEN: Oh, man.

OBAMA: How, you know, high could you get?

SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah.

QUAH: Of course, the personal is the political. And when the first Black president and the Boss exchanged notes on what it's like to be a husband or a father in the 21st century, they're offering a model of an informed yet still traditional take on dude masculinity for the world to hear. And so while "Renegades" has its limits as a listening experience, the podcast is still effective as a political artifact. Here we have two American symbols in conversation, engaging with each other's mythologies to build a new shared one for others to participate in. The question, however, is whether it will draw in people who haven't already bought into the program.

"Renegades" is the latest project to come out from Higher Ground, the production company that the Obamas started after they left the White House in 2017. So far, Higher Ground has been involved in producing a few social issue documentaries for Netflix, including the critically acclaimed "American Factory" and "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution." And last year, they released "The Michelle Obama" podcast, which features the former first lady hosting a series of conversations not entirely unlike the ones that Obama and Springsteen have in "Renegades."

In many ways, the Obamas' current media activities are a natural extension of the community organizing efforts in the former president's past. Both draw upon the same idea of creating a public narrative, rooted in the practice of telling a story about the self that's able to emotionally connect with a broader story about us, about now and about the future. However, the principal challenge facing Higher Ground is a media environment that's more fragmented, saturated and polarizing than ever. "Renegades" might be easily available to millions across the country and the world, but it also competes with an endless supply of other media products and, in some corners, reams of disinformation. Still, even former presidents have to start somewhere. As Springsteen once sang, you can't start a fire without a spark.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture. He also writes the Hot Pod newsletter. He reviewed the podcast series "Renegades." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album of saxophonist Miguel Zenon playing the music of Ornette Coleman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "CONCEPTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.