Question: You are offered a brain pill. If you swallow this pill you will become ten percent more intelligent than you currently are; you will be more adept at reading comprehension, logic, and critical thinking. However, to all other people you know (and to all future people you meet), you will seem 20 percent less intelligent. In other words, you will immediately become smarter, but the rest of the world will perceive you as dumber (and there is no way you can ever alter the universality of that perception).
Do you take this pill?
This is one of 14 hypothetical scenarios posed by Chuck Klosterman in his new book: Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, and, in my opinion, the core explanation of the writer’s meteoric ascension into the public spotlight. In essence, The Reason We (America) Need(s) Chuck Klosterman.
I couldn’t really say for sure if this need existed before Klosterman was dubbed by Newsweek and People magazine “the new Hunter Thompson”, or if he created this need by merely existing. But I am certain of one thing: no one was aware that such a gap needed filling before he came along. He sprouted seemingly out of nowhere and gave this country something we didn’t even know we wanted.
While performing research for this article, I came across myriad blogs and articles that all hypothesize on the appeal and magnetism of Klosterman’s writing. And this is certainly a valid query: How did a Mountain Dew guzzling, 34-year-old mid-westerner who writes exhaustingly intense essays on Saved by the Bell and Motley Crue, become noted as “one of America’s top cultural critics” by Entertainment Weekly, and “the reigning Kasparov of pop-culture wits-matching” by the San Francisco Chronicle? Everyone wants to know how a pudgy, beady eyed, Billy Joel fan with a lisp-ridden, effeminate voice happened to end up with anonymous people creating fake MySpace accounts for him, where young nymphets post comments like: “I want your child inside me.”
The writer himself seems equally (yet suspiciously) baffled. “I have no idea how this happened,” he says … but doesn’t he have to? Isn’t it true that no human can publicly comment on his or her own popularity (in any arena, be it celebrity, high-school hallways, or on the dance-floor) without employing a self-deprecating denial? It is not allowed for one even to acknowledge their own fame without undergoing accusations of self-absorbed egoism. But we’ll get into this later. Here first is a brief history of Chuck Klosterman.
Born in 1972 in Wyndmere, North Dakota, Klosterman’s youth was spent like most any other rural mid-westerners in the 1970s and ’80s: farming, daily consumption of sugary cereals, school-sponsored athletics, pick-up trucks, heavy metal music, cheap pot, cheaper television, and gravel roads. Primarily considered a “memoirist”, these topics would become the prism through which Klosterman would direct his analysis of contemporary American culture. After graduating from North Dakota University in 1994, Klosterman spent several years writing for the Fargo-based newspaper the Forum before relocating to Akron, Ohio (birthplace of the Pretenders, for anyone who cares) to become the film critic and culture writer for the Akron Beacon Journal. This move to a more reputable city and newspaper was supposedly based on the financial motive of wanting to purchase a computer and write his first book. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey Set in Rural North Dakota was the result of this. In the foreword of the book, Klosterman challenges any reader with a dour opinion of his work to call him at home, then leaving his phone number in print for anyone to do just that.
This solipsistic-ly charming act lead to a call from former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, who described the book as “about how music feels, how media-saturated culture feels, and how it’s all in the details.” Byrne not only called to praise Klosterman’s book, but to invite him out to New York to perform a reading of his material with (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author, and McSweeneys founder) Dave Eggers. This event lead the young writer to be offered a staff position in the New York based Spin magazine, and the eventual publishing of his second book.
Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto is arguably Chuck Klosterman’s greatest release to date; it certainly became the pinnacle to which all future work would be compared. Released in 2003, the book spent seven weeks on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list; and, strangely, had a cameo in the Fox series The O.C. being read by the pseudo-geeky Seth Cohen character. The book is a collection of essays aesthetically organized like a CD album, with track titles and running times. Taking a seemingly ironic glance at subjects that would normally not be addressed without a detached self-awareness, Klosterman actually delivers genuine and mind-crushingly insightful views on the Pam and Tommy Sex-tape, Christian apocalypse novels, the inverse paradox of the Real World creating culture instead of reflecting it, the uselessness of Punk-Rock, and why Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back created the template for the Gen X whiner.
With this amalgam of ostensibly unrelated material, the book somehow delivered a cohesive message about modern pop culture, adroitly put by Klosterman in the foreword: “In and of itself, nothing matters. What matters is nothing is ever ‘in and of itself'”. Basically saying that, on the surface, there is nothing to a program like Saved By the Bell, but there are universes inside the absorption of Saved By the Bell and what that says about modern America.
Late in the summer of 2003, Klosterman was given an assignment by his Spin editor to travel the country and visit the sites of famous rock stars deaths in the hopes of dissecting the ascending career arc a musicians legacy goes through after they die (to find out “why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing … and what this means for the rest of us.”). Armed with 600 CDs and a notable amount of pot, Klosterman traveled 6,557 miles in a rented Ford Taurus (renamed “the Tauntan after the four nostriled transport creature from The Empire Strikes Back), visiting the Chelsea hotel room of Nancy Spungen’s demise by (presumably) the hand of Sid Vicious, the remains of the Great White concert tragedy in Rhode Island, the Iowa bean field that met Buddy Holly’s cascading plane, and the Wishika bridge Kurt Cobain never slept under.
Originally intended as a magazine story, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story became Klosterman’s third — and most awkwardly received — book. While the original thesis of the article remains the driving force of the book, Killing Yourself languidly drifts through pop topics such as auto-traveling, casual cocaine use, the New York City blackout, Kiss solo albums, and hooking up with ex-girlfriends. It’s this latter subject that consumes a large portion of the manuscript, prompting many to accuse the writer of being uselessly narcissistic.
But really, is there anything more indulgent than a writer releasing an anthology of collected works a mere four years after arriving on the scene? This is basically what Chuck’s new release (IV) is; an amalgam of previously published material with a few extra snacks of new wisdom tucked in here and there. The book is divided into three different sections: “Things That Are True”, a collection of profiles and trend stories that include a trip to Dublin for a U2 essay (“is Bono full of shit?”), an interview with Radiohead (“hanging out with Radiohead is like getting stoned with a bunch of librarians”) and an attendance of the Latino flooded Morrissey convention in L.A. (“‘Sometimes I lay in my bedroom and listen to ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ and I cry like a little bitch, man.’ Says an enormous, cut-like-marble Hispanic named Cruz Rubio”). “Things That May Be True” is a collection of Klosterman’s essays from Esquire and Spin magazines (among others), which include a take on the backwardness of the term “guilty pleasures” (“this would imply that were people not coerced into watching Roadhouse every time it was on TBS, they’d just as likely be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“) and the hopelessness of people who feel betrayed by popular culture (“don’t get pissed off because people who aren’t you happen to think Paris Hilton is interesting and deserves to be on TV every other day.
Don’t get pissed off because the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s aren’t on the radio enough. Don’t get pissed off because people didn’t vote the way you voted. Basically, don’t get pissed off over the fact that the way you feel about culture isn’t some kind of universal consensus.”) The book is anchored by the “Something That Isn’t True At All” section, which contains a 34-page (previously unpublished) novella titled “You Tell Me” which is the tale of a PCP addicted film critic who’s forced to assess the situation of a female body falling from the sky and crushing the front half of his ’97 Saturn as he drives to Cincinnati to pick up a stripper he’s never met.
For any Klosterman aficionado whose been following his magazine work for the past four years, this final section of the book is really the only reason to go out and spend the $25 on a copy (this, and the aforementioned 14 hypothetical questions that preface each of his essays). There are a few sections of the book that contain pieces of the writers work that pre-date his blast into the public consciousness, but these are mostly dry, useless articles and stories whose inclusion primarily serve only to cement Chuck’s iconography.
A short time before the release of this book, I traveled out to Boulder, Colorado to catch Chuck Klosterman perform a reading of Killing Yourself to Live in support of the paperback release of the book. The relatively small bookstore was packed with fans of the writer, ranging from every age and cultural bracket. The bearded Klosterman appeared very at ease (read: Stoned) leaning back in a office chair while reading a section from the book, and in the Q&A following the reading he exhausted the crowd with expansive and colorful responses to questions ranging from the best booze to mix with Gatorade, to how to get your best friend to sleep with you, to the definition of reality.
I interviewed Klosterman (via email) shortly after the event, and his responses were as rich and blooming and airtight as you would expect from someone who spends a majority of his time on the other end of these interrogations. It was as if Chuck were taking control of the reigns in the interview, almost writing the article himself — he is certainly the most quotable human I have ever interviewed. Displaying knowledge of precisely what is useable and not in an interview. If one were to attempt to consciously construct an image of themselves in the public eye, there would be no one better equipped for such a task than one who’s made a living doing it for hundreds of others.
Your new book will be releasing some material that pre-dates your debut, Fargo Rock City, which is where your voice and image became known to the public. Did you have any reservations about displaying your early work, possibly seeing it as naïve and not representative of your sound?
There are a few very old pieces that pre-date CKIV, but not an overwhelming chunk of the manuscript. I suppose I had a few reservations about the writing quality of the early stuff; for example, I elected not to include anything I wrote during college, even though some of that material was weird enough to be semi-interesting. But I suppose I ultimately don’t worry about things like this. At this point, I have come to realize that 10 percent of the people who read my work will always love it (no matter how bad it is), and 10 percent will always hate it (no matter how good it is). I could submit a column to Esquire that was written in binary code, and ten percent of the audience would think I’m a genius. And another 10 percent would insist I’m destroying society. And the remaining 80 percent wouldn’t care either way, because they’re normal humans; they don’t create their self-identity from what they see in a magazine. And once you understand that mathematical reality, it makes it easy not to get nervous about stuff.
Writers who inject the image of themselves as the narrators and composers of the piece into their work (post-modernists, if you will) often provoke a romantic image in the minds of their audience of the laboring artist, sweating over a typewriter, cigarette smoke curling into the air, and a bottle of gin close by. In what sort of environment do you write in? Can you write in public, or is there an unquestionable need for privacy to get locked into a story?
I can write in public, but I only do so when I have no other choice (i.e. some kind of journalistic venture where I have to report from the scene). I wrote some of Killing Yourself in the car, but I’m not sure if that qualifies as public or private. I normally write at my desk, which is actually just a kitchen table that sits in my living room. I usually listen to either Black Sabbath or Steely Dan, but sometimes I don’t listen to anything. I can’t drink booze or smoke pot when I write, simply because I make too many typing errors. Ultimately, I don’t think the physical atmosphere has much impact on my writing. People often ask me if I have certain “writing rituals,” which is a question I always find strange. I just sit down and start typing.
In a recent interview you did with Vince Darcangelo from the Boulder Weekly, you mentioned that while on tour you’ve become surprised by the tedious similarities of each city: The same people, same questions, same bars, same hotels. Do you think this is a comment on modern society, or just the experience of travel?
It’s really just a commentary on the process of touring. You do the same stuff every day. Have you ever heard the AC/DC song “It’s a Long Way To the Top (If You Wanna to Rock’n’Roll)”? That’s exactly how it is, except for maybe the bagpipes.
Many say the Midwest is the last example of regional culture in America. But taking a serious look at Middle American life, it seems supremely infiltrated and shaped by the media — yet has no tangible connection to it. This seems to be an issue across most rural areas of America: a unified culture with no distinctions from the rest of the country. As someone with a unique perspective on rural mid-west culture vs. modern urban life, what are your thoughts on this issue?
This is a very good question. Two paradoxical things are happening at the same time: On one hand, mass media generates a monoculture, so the structure of existence becomes identical (regardless of geography). People in Clear Lake, Iowa suddenly have the same general worldview and experience as people in Santa Fe and Miami and Fargo. However, the acceleration and splintering of media destroys the potential for cultural universals. There are fewer and fewer specific cultural touchstones that every member a certain generation shares simultaneously (Johnny Carson, Led Zeppelin, “Jaws,” etc.). As a result, people end up feeling alienated by their own normalcy; they feel lonely within a crowd. And this is a huge cultural problem.
You’ve spent the majority of your life pursuing the study of famous persons. If it were somehow metaphysically possible for you to step outside your body and into another’s, how would you view yourself as a pop icon in this age?
First of all, this is an impossible question for anyone to answer … but you asked it, so I will try. I would probably wonder why, exactly, this situation happened. Six years ago, nobody gave a shit about anything I wrote; today, weirdoes I’ll never meet create fake MySpace pages about my life. So what changed? Was it actually because of things I wrote, or was it just cultural timing? Was it all random chance? I have no idea. I generally consider myself to be a pretty self-aware person, but I really have no sense of self. I am consistently confused and fascinated by the way strangers perceive me (both positively and negatively).
Perhaps if the metaphysical scenario you describe actually occurred, I would understand these things better. Very often, what seems to happen is this: Some writer will make an arbitrary, bombastic statement about me that no one (including the actual writer) honestly believes to be true, and then a bunch of other people respond to that arbitrary, bombastic statement by pointing out how no one honestly believes it. It’s an interesting thing to follow, but I feel completely detached from the experience. When posing this question, you essentially asked if I view myself as a “pop icon.” The short answer is, “no.” But the long answer is, “I certainly fucking hope not. Because if I was, how the hell would I even know?”
As I said, this interview was done before the release of Chuck Klosterman IV, and it is a very curious thing to look back at Chuck’s closing statement in this interview after reading his new book. Basically, because there’s an interlocking occurrence throughout the profile pieces in this book where Chuck prods his interview subjects for some kind of commentary on their iconography; and whenever these interviewees shy away from the subject and coyly state their not as famous as is implied (as they have to) Chuck will go on to suspect they are much more aware of their place in the media game than they let on.
In the 2003 Esquire article, “Bending Spoons With Britney Spears”, Britney behaves equally appalled and confused in Chuck’s assertion that she’s a sexual icon as if she’s never thought about it before (despite the interview taking place at a photoshoot where Britney is appearing 85 percent nude). “When I ask her to theorize about why American men are so fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, she legitimately acts as if it is the first time anyone has ever brought that query to her attention … And something becomes painfully clear: either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I’ve ever met, or she’s way savvier than I’ll ever be.”
There are numerous examples of this pattern in the interviews of Chuck’s new book. He suspects Val Kilmer is playing deadpan humor when he insists (with complete sincerity) that when an actor is portraying a real-life human in a film, the actor will ultimately have a better perspective on the character’s life than the actual person. In the Spin magazine interview with the White Stripes he suggests Jack White has such an ingrained paranoia that the media is attempting to shape an unnatural image of him that he’ll go to excessive lengths to disagree with any comment made by a journalist and give an inverse response to whatever it is he believes they’re implying. When Mike Skinner (The Streets) declines booze in a barroom interview, Klosterman is sure he’s doing this out of fear of becoming drunk and exposing something — despite Skinner’s insistence that he’s on antibiotics. He closes the aforementioned White Stripes interview by saying: “When Meg White hugs her pillow and tells me that people put more into shyness than necessary, I want to play along with her — even though she’s lying. It’s almost as if we don’t want to know the truth about the White Stripes. The lies are much better.”
Now, I certainly understand that this method is employed because it brings about a certain creative tension to the interview that is necessary to keep things interesting (Klosterman comments on this in the preface to the Streets article). Really, I’m not even suggesting that he’s incorrect or excessively paranoid in his assumptions that there’s some preconceived image crafting going on when he interviews these celebrities. In all truth, I think he’s mostly right. But this is why I think Chuck Klosterman is so essential to modern thought … which brings me back to my original point.
Chuck Klosterman’s denial of his own iconography merely lumps him in with the dozens of media effigies he’s constructed over the years, which says a great deal about the cycles of fame and success. The fact that this article (along with several others) even exists is proof of that. This is exactly the kind of paradoxical theorizing that Klosterman would employ in one of his own profile pieces … which would most likely go on to hypothesize about a lifetime of media saturation bleeding into one’s character eventually leads to being molded into the ideal icon for the age; to physically embody the reflection of what the public desires in their pop stars.
You can disagree with me on this argument, and you can disagree with any of Klosterman’s sociological theories, but you have to agree that the mere existence of a character like Chuck Klosterman will always spark an expansive debate on the state of modernization, which can only lead to lead to something good in society.
This is why We Need Chuck Klosterman.