If you’re on the internet, you know who Chuck Klosterman is; however, since I’m 100% sure my mom will read this, I better explain anyway. Klosterman is arguably the most popular culture critic in America. He’s been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spin, and most recently as a regular columnist at Grantland.com. He is the author of seven books: two critical memoirs about rock icons, Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live; three books of hypothetical questions and pop-philosophy, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, VI, and Eating the Dinosaur; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man. By commentating on the nature of celebrity and fame in America, he inadvertently made himself famous. He was nice enough to talk to buzz about rock and roll, music criticism, virtual realities, Ozzy Osbourne and TiVo.
AHG: Rock music is more about genres and categories than how anything actually sounds. What’s the consequence of that?
Chuck Klosterman: Some music just gets the concession that it’s great; other music gets the concession that it’s bad. But from a musical perspective, it’s not that different from a lot of other bands who exist right alongside at a record store. I think most of our discussion about music puts the actual sound of it as secondary. If you really care about music — any art really — then you know liking or disliking certain records has a meaning outside of itself. I made a real point about writing positively about the band Poison. I like Poison, but I realize everyone knows liking Poison has a meaning beyond enjoying the songs. When I mentioned Poison, you kind of guffawed (editor’s note: I did); anybody would. There’s a meaning to that band that has nothing to do with the records — that’s a lot of what I write about.
AHG: “All criticism is autobiographical.” Can you elaborate on that?
CK: I believe that. Especially in the hardcore world of criticism, writers don’t want to accept that. They argue it’s lazy thinking or useless or whatever. The fact of the matter is, when I look at a critic who has a large, meaningful body of work, and when I go through and read their reviews, I definitely get a better sense of the critic than the thing they’re ostensibly analyzing. Any experience you have with art is going to be filtered through the prism of yourself and your own experience; you’re going to inject every experience you have, unconsciously, into that piece of art, and it’s going to come back to you in a way that makes sense within the framework with which you understand the world. I think for a lot of critics, they would never want to write a memoir or in the first person — but they still have a desire to have their existence validated and for their experience to have meaning. So, they just write about themselves through different things. It’s pretty rare I read a piece of criticism where I understand the product better than the writer.
AHG: Perhaps what sets your writing apart from typical criticism is that you explicitly acknowledge this paradox. I’ve heard people describe other people’s writing as “Klosterman-esque.” How does it feel to become an adjective? What do you think that means?
CK: Well, that’s flattering. Of course I feel great about it, but it’s something I couldn’t have planned; it just kind of worked out that way, mostly due to timing. My books emerged in 2001-02, right at the moment the internet was becoming mainstream. A lot of the things I did in my first two books were adopted by the first meaningful bloggers and internet people. Really, timing is key. I don’t know what would have happened if my books came out five years early.
I think the biggest thing is the idea that you can write about whatever you personally decided was meaningful. You did not have to see what other people were saying in order to validate what you were perusing as an intellectual pursuit. You can use your own life as a way to understand the world. Now of course, if everyone does that, it becomes problematic. I wasn’t trying or certainly not hoping the way I wrote about culture and life would become normative. I don’t know if it has, but I certainly don’t want it to. When someone is consciously or unconsciously doing what I do, the unifying element is: criticism allows you to create your own reality.
AHG: What do you mean, “Create your own reality?”
CK: What I’m almost saying is I create a fiction to make myself happier, but that’s what people do. We’re living in the Matrix now. I really believe that. Not to the extent that we’re all batteries and this is all a computer program. But the world that we see is unreal. It’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate between hard reality and created reality — to the point where I worry if it’s a conversation worth having even though it seems like the most important thing happening in society right now. Most people stop asking the question of “What is reality?” or “What is real?” when they stop having this discussion when they quit smoking pot in college. They view it as an early adult thing. But I’ve never stopped thinking about that. To me, it’s the central question of being alive. I’ll probably never get over it. If there is a unifying aspect to all my books and all my writing, it is the question of what is reality.
As an example, I realized I have no control over my life, but once I came to that realization, I’ve decided to pretend that I do. The life I have now is a collection of things I did, but also chance, the way the world works, the fact I was born in America in the early ‘70s, the fact that I’m white. All of these things have dovetailed together to give me the life I have. It really isn’t me who got here. But now that I am here and I’m the only person inside this existence, I’m going to work under the perception that I control everything that I do. I’m fully responsible for the things that work and the things that fail.
AHG: What about how the internet fractures taste and sort of breaks down “monoculture”?
CK: The decline of the album as an important piece of culture has influenced that. When I was buying cassettes in the ’80s, I might have $10 to spend. So, I’d be looking for a $9.99 cassette. If I bought an Ozzy Osbourne record, that’s all I’d be listening to for a month. All the music I listened to was Ozzy, so if I wanted to care about that music, I need to care about Ozzy. Now, if I was in the same position, I’d probably buy ten songs off iTunes, and they would have no relationship to one another. One might be an Ozzy song, a Beatles song, a Lady Antebellum song — the only thing tying them together would be my personal taste. This leads people away from adopting the trappings of a subculture.
A lot of times, you get trapped in subculture without even trying. Let’s say instead of Ozzy, I buy The Cure. And the next record I get is a Streets of Mercy record. At first, I’m compiling these Goth records just because I like the way they sound. But after a while, I like them because I relate to them and see aspects of myself in them; and then I start relating to other people who like this music. And suddenly, I’m wearing eyeliner to school, and I’m in a subculture. I don’t think that happens as much anymore. When I see kids at colleges or high schools who are “in-your-face punk” or very metal or really hip-hop, it seems more like a conscious choice. Something the person wanted to pursue, without falling into it.
AHG: How does emerging entertainment technology reinforce that? Like TiVo?
CK: Because of things like YouTube, we can go back and see anything at any time. We basically have access to all television that’s ever existed at any time on our computer. It used to be books would go to print; but now even out of print books are on Amazon. A phrase people used to use was “What will be the song of the summer?” — the song you hear in other people’s car that defines 1997. There’s less of that now because people care less about the radio, and it’s easier to get a hold of everything. Elements of culture that mark time don’t exist anymore. So, when someone dies, it becomes one of the only ways people can really mark time by memory. It’s not like Whitney Houston is going to keep dying. When she dies, we remember she died Grammy weekend, so it was kind of Whitney’s Grammy’s. This allows people to remind themselves they are living a finite life. Time really is moving. Sometimes it feels like time isn’t moving, and we’re moving through time, not that time is moving. That’s not how it is.
Not to mention, people like to have shared experiences. When there were only three networks on television, even the unpopular shows were more popular than everything that’s on the air right now because there were fewer options. If you had the least popular show on ABC in the late ’70s on a Tuesday night, you’re probably still being watched by 25 million people. People liked the idea of shared experience — they didn’t think that they did because they always wanted more options. Now music is splintered; there’s a million options on cable and nobody watches the same thing. You can go to the movies and watch them at home — there’s less unifying aspects to culture.
But when someone dies, that’s still shared. Like, when Michael Jackson died, everyone dealt with whatever emotive feeling they had at the same time. People really got into it; it was like they wanted their life and memories to be important. That’s why they amplified their relationship to Michael Jackson, which is why you went on Facebook after he died finding all these people, who, to your knowledge, had never once mentioned Michael Jackson in their entire fucking lives suddenly claiming this is a horrendous tragedy they can’t get over. They want to remember that Jackson was important to them because they can tell from other reactions that he was “important.” So, if they have a relationship to Michael Jackson, it buoys their own existence. You want to be involved.
Chuck told me I “don’t have to plug anything,” but his second novel, The Visible Man, comes out in paperback June 5. You can read a bunch of his essays on www.Grantland.comright now, and he’s researching a new book he’s not allowed to talk about yet.