Apr
4

Reading on the Job: I Have a Lot of Problems with Chuck Klosterman

Posted by on Thursday, April 4th, 2013 at 12:55:19 AM

If you follow my “personal” blog (and let’s be honest, you don’t) you may have noticed that my current work situation involves a grotesque amount of time to Read. This has been a pleasure, as the past few years have shown a marked decrease in actual, sit-down-and-read-something-cover-to-cover Reading. I still read a ton of comics, feature articles, interviews, lengthy blog posts, and other things that count as “reading”, or at least more than skimming USA Today and Buzzfeed does. But ever since I got a smartphone and a tablet, I find a lot of my time formerly dedicated to Reading is now spent listening to podcasts, messaging, chatting, chasing the latest story/controversy on Twitter/Tumblr/Reader.

Even when I sit down to Read something, I find myself drifting away every few pages to look something up: What’s a quincunx? Why does the name Frederick Exley sound familiar? This lady’s birthname cannot seriously be Fuschia Dunlop, can it? Is there a picture of her on the Internet? Is she pretty? And then an hour later I am five pages into the book and two hundred pages into the Internet. With my job’s hermetically sealed cubicle, revelation is deferred, little Reading momentum is lost, and I am forced to write long, demented shopping lists to research in the evening.

I’ve spent most of my days catching up on things I have been meaning to Read over the past few years, and much of my bookshelf is full of “important” (read: sad) subjects: fiction and non-fiction on the decline of the American Empire and the systematic dismantling of our nation by cartoonishly greedy corporations, interviews with an author that are shattering in the hindsight context of his suicide, novels where the world ends in slow prosaic literary ways, memoirs about how that band you liked a lot in high school were mostly miserable, sociopathic junkies. This can get to be distressing when you are sitting at a desk for eight hours a day and ninety percent of that time is given to reading in solitude. Don’t even get me started about the time I was reading an essay about how sitting will kill us all and we received a memo about how we need to limit the amount of time we spend standing because it might distract our co-workers. I quickly realized I should start bringing some Light Entertainment to read as well. Which led me to a book about death from an author I had almost forgotten to dislike.

Coincidentally, this is the same outfit I bought in several color combinations to wear to the aforementioned job.

Coincidentally, this is the same outfit I bought in several color combinations to wear to the aforementioned job.

I read Chuck Klosterman’s first two books at a previous job that was nearly identical to this one. He was a dude that wrote about pop culture, and I was about to enter a graduate program in Media Studies. I was far more interested in his sort of pop-crit than I was in the fortieth iteration of some Benjamin or Adorno argument, and he was the ascendant pop-crit dude of the moment, so it seemed logical. I enjoyed them as I read them, but was stuck in a cubicle with no one to bounce my complaints/quibbles about him off of. The more I read of Klosterman, and the more I thought about his arguments, the less I enjoyed him. He’s unquestionably a clever writer and thinker, but he seems obsessed with being a puckish contrarian. Over time, I stopped wanting to hear him muse about pop culture, though I still enjoyed some of his sports writing. I suspect that’s because I know so much less about sports, and can appreciate him talking about Ralph Samson because I know so little about the subject, and do not get hung up on his gross generalizations and ‘cute’ flippancy. I read his first novel simply because I had an advance copy of it and knew people who would be envious that I read it before them. I never read his third book, Killing Yourself to Live. It was about music, so I knew I would get annoyed.

Still, when you wander blindly into your local public library, which is pretty evenly split amongst Chinese Language Books, DVDs, Airport Literature, and Things I Can Actually Read, you take what you can get. So I checked out Killing Yourself a few weekends ago. Then I read all of the other books I checked out, so when I looked at the stack of library books this morning, a meditation on the deaths of rock stars was the closest thing to Light Entertainment in the pile. I brought it to work, and sure enough it was very aggravating! He is (was?) still an aggressive contrarian, even on the subject of being a contrarian:

The single greatest male singing voice of the rock era belongs to Rod Stewart. Nobody at Spin believe me when I make this argument, and many of my coworkers assume I am trying to be ironic when I insist that Rod Stewart’s whiskey-soaked throat is more moving than Sinatra’s. Here again, I find myself confused: why would I want other people to think I like someone I do not actually like? What purpose would that serve?

Well Chuck, it certainly would be provocative, wouldn’t it? After all, throughout the book you toss off all sorts of quips that ought to be accompanied by you winking at the camera, crunching on a carrot, asking the audience “Ain’t I a stinker?” You staunchly defend Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel (“You can order chicken and dumplings with a side order of dumplings. That’s advanced.”). You claim that the primary reason anyone cares about the ironic-air-quote “assassinations” of Biggie and Tupac are that “most white rock critics feel extremely ashamed about not being black”. You make cutesy fake admissions of ignorance about who the Allman Brothers Band and Beyonce are (“that religious woman with the perfect stomach from Destiny’s Child”) and can’t even maintain the facade for the full paragraph. You try to write off all of punk rock as being embodied in Sid Vicious not being able to play bass. You wonder aloud why anyone would care less about a pre-season exhibition game than the Super Bowl. Aren’t they both, like, just games?

Maybe you really believe all these things, just like you believe that Billy Joel is the coolest rocker ever, Rod Stewart has a better rock voice than anyone (including Frank Sinatra, who was not a rock singer, so why did you even pick him instead of a hundred other examples?), and maybe you really believe that every single male ever has gone through a passionate, all-consuming Led Zeppelin phase.

Klosterman’s writing is full of these pithy unified theories of existence. There are two types of people: the “Pot/Creedence” Contigent and the “Coke/Interpol” Contingent. All of the loves of your life can be categorized according to their resemblance to KISS members. Or this one, which combines his love of categorization with his love of making definitive statements then refusing to elaborate:

When you are a male entering 10th grade, there are only four kinds of people on the planet: girls you want to fuck, girls who are unfuckable, guys you want to kill, and guys who generally seem okay. For a 10th grader, those are the only four demographics for the entire world population. Obviously, that worldview changes as you become an adult: now that I’m 31, I realize there are six categories.

Maybe Klosterman just isn’t for me, and for some dumb reason it took until page 200 of this book for me to remember exactly why. It’s around there that he meditates on Led Zeppelin, arguing that “everyone” would agree that the three greatest rock bands of all time are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. He further argues that

[Zeppelin are popular] in a way the Beatles and Stones cannot possibly compete with: this is because every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed. And there is no other rock group that generates that experience.

Whoops! I never got into Led Zeppelin. Since I am isolated from the world at work, I actually spent a full twenty minutes brainstorming and trying to list every Zeppelin song I could think of. Below is the verbatim list I made:

  • “Stairway to Heaven” (As much as a reference as an actual song. There are probably entire minutes of its runtime from which I would be unable to name that tune.)
  • “Immigrant Song” (Which I only learned the name of when Karen O covered it for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack, a film I never saw even though I watched/listened to the trailer several dozen times. Before that it was the AaaaaaaaaAaaaaaaaaaaaaAH song.)
  • “Kashmir” (I only know its name because of the outrage expressed by fans when Puff Daddy sampled it for the Godzilla soundtrack, another film I never saw.)
  • “Whole Lotta Love” (The rare Zeppelin song with a title that matches its chorus)
  • “Dancing Days Are Here Again(?)” (see “Whole Lotta Love”)
  • “Long Time Since I Rock and Rolled(?)” (which I determined is actually named “Rock N Roll”, but close enough)

Additionally, I was able to remember the names of three songs I couldn’t possibly hum or explain:

  • “Black Dog” (I could probably identify the song’s main riff/repeated “OH YEAH”, but my notes suggest I thought this was part of the Rock and Roll song)
  • “D’Yer Maker” (I know nothing about this song except I think it sounds kind of like reggae and the Hold Steady have a song that is tenuously about it)
  • “Misty Mountain Hop” (I long assumed this was some sort of Lord of the Rings reference.)

Despite this, I was able to name almost all of Led Zeppelin’s discography, more or less in order (Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, III/Zoso, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, In Through the Out Door, Coda, How the West Was Won, Mothership) due to years working at record stores and radio stations. But still, this is a pathetic showing of knowledge about what is apparently supposed to be one of the three greatest rock groups, especially since they’re allegedly the most popular band for straight men under the age of 55, of which I am one. This probably explains why there are songs I always thought sounded like Led Zeppelin, but when I shared this observation people looked at me like I was insane:

Even now, I’m not entirely sure why I think these sound like Zeppelin songs. Big bloozy riffs? Big drums? High pitched squeals? An attempt to engage with a community that deeply cares about a musical act I don’t?

Maybe this is why I just can’t get with Klosterman: even when he’s moved on to writing “insightful” bits about Radiohead and Britney Spears and iPods, he’s still a grown-up metal kid who lives in a world where everyone (unless they’re a chick or gay) had a period where they were totally into Zeppelin and KISS, who I tried to play the same game with. I could manage two songs I actually knew (“I Wanna Rock & Roll All Nite”, “Lick It Up”), three songs whose names I could identify (“Detroit Rock City”, “Love Gun”, “Beth”) and one Queen song I somehow assumed was KISS (“Get Down Make Love”). I am pretty sure I was mixing up “Detroit Rock City” with “Get Down Make Love”, honestly. So I don’t know how to count that. I also only know GDML/DRC because it was covered by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Chuck Klosterman and I were born six years apart and both grew up in the Midwest. Now we live a few miles apart in New York City, but perhaps there’s a gulf between us that cannot be bridged. I have never purchased an album or single by Led Zeppelin or KISS, or for that matter Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Guns & Roses, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or a host of other bands that are probably supposed to be epochal to guys like me. I spent my formative adolescent years mostly listening to “rock” that Klosterman might not even consider rock: not metal or grunge, but “alternative”, Britpop, art rock, electronic dance, hip hop.

And it’s not a big deal, there are tons of people with very different worldviews. But I won’t pretend that having phases when I believed that They Might be Giants or Soul Coughing or Urge Overkill or Pulp or Blur or De La Soul or Wu-Tang Clan or Lolita Storm were the only band that mattered makes me somehow better than Klosterman’s metal kids, or anyone else. And I definitely have come around to liking plenty of music by many of the bands I ignored growing up, though I still cannot imagine a scenario where I would deliberately listen to Led Zeppelin. But that’s the thing: I’m not saying that if you can’t do the Common People dance, that you’re probably a homo; I’d never suggest that if you grew up in the 1990s and don’t know every single word of “Scenario” then you’re probably a racist, or that anyone who doesn’t enjoy 248bpm digital hardcore doesn’t actually understand music. But I guess there are two kinds of people in the world: people who think making sweeping generalizations without backing them up is clever, and people who aren’t Chuck Klosterman.

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