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Chuck Klosterman Weighs in on Everything

The author explains why today’s writers have it so much worse than he did

May. 16, 2017
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Photo Credit: Kris Drake
Few writers epitomize the voice of modern criticism better than Chuck Klosterman, whose conversational essays on music and pop culture helped set the tone for culture writing in the internet age. This week he released his 10th and latest book, X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, which compiles and updates some of his favorite features and essays from the last decade, including pieces on Led Zeppelin, Taylor Swift, “Breaking Bad” and Pavement. Ahead of his appearance at Boswell Book Co. on Friday, May 19 at 7 p.m., we spoke to Klosterman about the arc of his career, the absurdities of online thinkpiece culture, and why younger writers have it so much worse than he did.

In the preface of the book, you mention that you have the freedom to cover anything you want these days.
Yeah, relatively speaking. I suppose if I came up with ideas that were completely uncommercial for everyone, they’d say no, but yeah, it has kind of worked out that way. In the beginning of my career, when I was at daily newspapers, I had no agency. We covered what they told us to. Then incrementally over time, it sort of went 180 degrees. So now, I don’t pitch a lot of stories. Somebody asks if I’ll do something; if it’s intriguing, I’ll say yes. I’ve got it worked out so I feel like I do have a little bit of control over my life.

Were most of the pieces in the book personal passion projects, or assignments handed down to you by editors?
The features would be in the latter category. The essays are more like things that I wrote mostly for Grantland or for Esquire, where I was to a degree reacting to the news, but not the way people do now. I kind of came in at a transitional period. When I was writing an Esquire column, which would have been 2004-2008, I was writing a monthly column about pop culture, but I had to write it 50 days in advance before it ran, which is an unacceptable thing now. But it even felt difficult then. It was difficult to come up with ideas that were contemporary and that would still be unchanged in two months. So…passion projects might be a little strong. I wrote a 10,000 word essay on KISS, so I guess that might count as a passion project. I guess this sounds reductionist, but I’m a writer for a living, so I’m writing all the time. Is everything I write about some kind of intense passion? I suppose not. I’d be an insane person if it was. But I always enjoy the process of working through the world. That’s the real luxury and the real honor of having a job where I get to think about things and construct arguments about how I see the world.

If you look at the internet, so much of it is written in response to whatever’s trending at the moment. That content expires so fast that you could never archive it in a book like this.

You couldn’t, because the thing about the internet is, the entire internet is essentially rewritten every day. Everybody posts everything about what’s going on in the world, and the next day, it’s just kind of written over the top. In some ways, there’s more risk in writing for the internet, because if you make a mistake, there’s 15,000 people who will jump at you in real time, but ideologically there’s less risk, because you can just write a correction the next day. You can almost disregard what you did the day before. But it’s true: That’s the reason there haven’t been a huge amount of internet writers who have translated into literary figures. Everybody thought that was going to happen. If you had said in 2003, “Where are the next 25 top writers going to come from?,” everybody would have said the internet, but that’s not how it worked out. It’s almost like there’s been a bifurcation where those worlds are equal but not connected.

It seems like you have a job most writers would love. If you talk to writers, they’ll all say they’d love to write something that’s a little more divorced from the news cycle and that has a little more staying power.

Oh, I’m absolutely lucky, and there’s no other word for it. My career has everything to do with the collision of so many things that it can’t be replicated. There was the timing of when I was alive, and the position I had when this transition occurred. And for the most part, most people are fighting to be the first person to write something, and I do have the luxury that I can position myself to be the last person to write about something.

How would your career be different if you’d come up even just 10 years later, when the internet was more established? What if you’d come up writing for the internet instead of newspapers?
I suspect that I would have been completely obsessed with that world, and I probably would have been the kind of writer who currently hates me [laughs]. Like, I fear that. I do kind of worry about that. I can’t say, ‘I would have never been that way,’ because I don’t know if I wouldn’t have been. My first book came out in 2001, and I was at Spin in 2002, and that really was when the old model started to collapse and the new model started to emerge. Here’s one thing I wonder about, if I had started 10 years later: I do think I could have fallen into what’s kind of a media trap now. When you’re in your 20s, your job is your life. All your friends are the people you work with, and all you want to do is write and talk about what you’re working on. And the idea of working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week doesn’t seem that bad. It seems smart. But then they move into that stage of life when they’re 30 or 40, and they want their lives to be different, but now they can’t get out of it. And you used to be able to get out of it. When I worked at newspapers, the day ended at 6, unless you worked the night desk. That’s just how it was: There was no expectation that your life would be your work, but now that’s the only reality left. So I’m glad I missed that [laughs].

I think writers also feel a void now, because they’re churning out so much content online, but so little of it has any real value. It’s depressing in a way.

How useless or useful so much media content ever was is arguable. It wasn’t like in 1993 if you opened a newspaper every story was essential. That’s not how it was. But I think the one thing that has made working in the media a more depressing job is the awareness of this. In the ’80s and ’90s the biggest question for a newspaper or magazine was, “Who’s reading this?” We had no idea: We know what our circulation is, but that’s all we know. When the newspaper or magazine comes out, we don’t know what they’re reading. Are they reading the front page? Are they only reading the gossip section? We have no idea, and since we have no idea, all we can do is put what we think is the most important stuff. But the fact that now we know has hurt the industry. The fact that we know what stories are most interesting to people has actually degraded the product.

Will there be a correction to that? Is the industry in a lull now because we’re still figuring out what to do with that information, or is this just the way things are now?
Well, the financial component really compounds things, because reporting is expensive, and just analyzing other people’s content is cheap. And if the amount of attention an analysis gets is the same as a reported piece, what’s your incentive for investing that money? It’s sort of like the rise of reality television. People thought it was going to end, but of course it never really ended. And that’s because the real key to reality television wasn’t that people thought it was great. It’s that it had unpaid actors, and was the cheapest show to make. So if a reality television show did roughly the same as an actual show, it was to the benefit of the networks. And this is kind of what’s happened to the media now: They’ve realized that the cheapest stories, which aren’t even really stories, are ultimately going to have the same impact as things that are meaningful or complicated.

It seems like a lot of internet writers sort of borrowed your voice. You were doing the conversational, slightly informal pop culture essay long before that was the model for a dozen websites. Do you see yourself, for better or worse, as a pioneer in that arena?
Well, I don’t see myself as a pioneer. A pioneer is somebody who does something new. I don’t think I was doing anything new. I think what happened is this: When Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs came out, that was a very popular book. And it was popular because there weren’t a lot of books that seemed to be talking about pop culture, especially frivolous, garbage consumer culture, in a semi-intellectual way. So I think a lot of people saw that and said, ‘I want to write about pop culture, too.’ They didn’t necessarily write about it in the same way, but they did write about it in the same tone, which is ‘I can argue that this is important, because it’s important to me.’ So it did seem in some ways that a lot of what the internet, especially what a big part of the early blogging world was, was similar to that book, but again the principle that we’re talking about is timing. I don’t at all think that if I hadn’t written those books, the internet wouldn’t exist or something [laughs].

This ties in with every music writer’s favorite conversation: rockism. Around the time that writers like you were elevating low culture, the same thing was happening in music criticism, where music writers began standing up for kinds of pop music that had previously been dismissed.
It’s funny, Fargo Rock City came out because I was saying that Poison is as meaningful as Iron Maiden. I was like the ultimate poptimist. That’s like the ultimate poptimist take. But now because things change so fast and so dramatically, now that I wrote about those bands I’m like the ultimate rockist [laughs]. It’s weird! But at the time, I think part of the reason it got attention is it was seen as a very rare thing to argue for the merits of consciously disposable music. But now it’s completely different, because now the music that’s championed is like so [laughs]… it’s like, you’re supposed to want artifice. And I think it’s hilarious. I really do think it’s funny that one of the things poptimism seems to be against is the concept of authenticity! What a weird thing to be against! Like, even if you are against it, it seems like something you’d never admit. It’s like, “Here’s the thing I really don’t like: I hate sincere people.” It’s just an odd position. But Kelefa Sanneh wrote about rockism in the New York Times in 2004, and I still don’t know if that argument has moved an inch outside of the rock music writer community. I have no idea. I’ve certainly never had an argument about rockism or poptimism with anybody who wasn’t a working rock critic.

I don’t think they have the conversation in those terms, obviously, but I think it confuses a certain set of listeners, usually ones who are a little older and divorced from the internet, who can’t account for changes in taste. They don’t understand why Bruce Springsteen doesn’t carry the same stature anymore.
Here’s the most confusing example: The kind of guy who’s like, “Wait a minute, I like Eddie Money—and that makes me racist?” [laughs] The guy who’s like, “So I bought a Bright Eyes record, and that makes me sexist?” The whole rockism/poptimism conversation is the imposition of politics on something that for most people is not political. You talk to most music fans about what’s political music, and they’ll say Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or the “Formation” video, things that have an overt meaning. But think about the idea that how you feel about Father John Misty is a political stance for some people.

[Laughs]
It is funny, and it’s not like it’s a completely fabricated thing, but within the argument itself it’s so amplified that it’s ridiculous to anybody who’s not making the actual argument. Like, it’s hard to even use these terms, and I’m talking to you on the phone, without rolling my eyes. I feel my eyes unconsciously wanting to move up to my skull, because it’s just so crazy.

It changes the way I hear music fundamentally. You see somebody dancing to “Blurred Lines” without a problem at a wedding, and you realize, “Oh yeah, they haven’t read the three dozen thinkpieces about this that I have.”
[Laughs] It’s like, ‘Yeah, don’t you realize he’s basically saying people should be raped here!’ It’s so weird. There’s certain artists and songs now that you would never put in a movie soundtrack unless you were consciously trying to warp the feeling of the audience in a negative way. It would be sort of like if you were making a movie, and one of the characters was sitting at home listening to comedy records. You wouldn’t have him listening to a Bill Cosby record, unless you wanted the audience to perceive something specific about the kid.

So will there be a time when these conversations start to matter off of the internet? There’s that one Weeknd song where the singer uses the term “friend zone,” and I shudder every time I hear it, because the thinkpiece world has taught me that term is offensive. But meanwhile it’s on the radio getting played all the time, and nobody else has a problem with it.
Yeah, nobody else seems to care. And it’s like, even the people who care didn’t care until somebody told them they should. There are people who are absolutely profoundly offended by that term who had no idea that it was offensive until they read somebody else say that it was, and now they’re like, “This is my side. I’m on this side of this.” Will it ever go away? I would say it seems unlikely, because it seems as though the mechanism we have for covering music now really caters to that scenario. An idea that a handful of people find really important, it doesn’t feel that way on the internet. If, for example, in 1996 somebody at the New York Times was like, “I think we should write an article about Subject X, because 8,000 people are really upset about this.” I think they would have said “8,000 people? We write for the world!” But now, if a hashtag has 2,000 followers, it’s like, “This is a huge story and we’ve got to write about it! And in fact, if we don’t, we’re ignoring it, and that says something even more profound than the statement we’re talking about!”

People still think of you as a music writer first and foremost. Are you still jazzed about music? Do you enjoy music the same way you did as a kid?
I mean, I don’t. Nothing happened, except that I’m 44 now, I have two kids, I have all these other situations. I can’t be engaged the way I used to be. I also don’t have the time. And also music has for the most part sort of drifted away from the things I liked most about it. So I’m moving back. I’m still engaged in music, but it’s different now. Now I can go back and very easily, instantly I guess, find all the records from the ’70s, ’60s and ’50s that I’d only sort of read about. In some ways I’m going deeper into music, but it’s not forward, it’s back. Someone was interviewing me about The Beatles, and I realized that this is definitely a reflection of my entire life. I got into The Beatles, and I thought, clearly their best material was their late material, basically “Strawberry Fields” on. I thought this is when The Beatles peaked. Then I got older and realized I was wrong; it was the middle period Beatles that’s the greatest—it starts with Help! and goes through Revolver: “This is the apex, and like most bands they peaked in the middle; this era represented everything great about them.” And now I like the earliest recordings, and it’s by far the thing I’m most interested in, and there’s something about those earliest recordings that I feel is completely impossible to replicate. And my relationship with culture is kind of the same. There was a time when I was most interested in what’s happening at the moment. You know, it’s really easy to know what’s happening in the moment. All you have to do is look around. So I started moving back to the period of my life, to things that I was young enough to remember but too young to understand, stuff that happened during the Reagan administration, and the films of the ’70s that I vaguely remembered … Now it’s like, I’m most interested in things that happened before I was born. Maybe this will keep happening in perpetuity. I have this vision in my mind that when I’m a very old man, I’ll be reading books about the Bronze Age.

Chuck Klosterman will appear at a ticketed event at Boswell Book Co. on Friday, May 19 at 7 p.m.

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