Pop culture, considered: Chuck Klosterman on his new book of essays
By Jim McLauchlin
May 16, 2017 | 8:00 AM
In a 20-year career that’s led through Esquire, Spin, GQ, Grantland and other publications, Chuck Klosterman has become a cultural observer of our time. Klosterman roams the junk drawer we call popular culture, providing shockingly keen insight into how our absorption of culture reflects on us. Just don’t ask him to admit it.
Klosterman cautions that his 10th book, “Chuck Klosterman X,” which officially hits shelves on Tuesday, “is not a portrait of what the world is or what it could be” as much as a map of his interior world. But there is wisdom to be gleaned in his essays on — and interviews with — Kobe Bryant, Guns N’ Roses, “The Walking Dead,” Jimmy Page, a forgotten basketball game and more. He may even have predicted our current president.
You get pegged the pop culture guy a lot. Is that a correct term to use? Isn't “pop culture” just “culture”?
I got a newspaper job at the Akron Beacon Journal in 1998 to be a pop culture reporter. At the time, that was kind of a radical idea. It wasn’t that long ago that pop culture was shorthand for “dumb culture.” But pop culture is the main culture that America makes. We create stuff that’s the most acceptable, the most consumable and the most popular. Rock, hip-hop, Hollywood films, television … this is what we do.
I taught at the University of Leipzig [in Germany] in 2008 in their American Studies program. One of the classes I taught was “20th Century American Popular Culture.” So many kids applied for the class that you had to write an essay to get in.
You’re a big Van Halen fan, but in your interview with Eddie Van Halen, he comes across as very abrasive. Does it hurt the 13-year-old version of you when this happens?
For whatever reason, that doesn’t happen to me. When I meet someone, it tends to make their work more interesting to me, regardless if I liked the experience or not. On paper, he does come across as kind of abrasive and unlikable, but that might be to my journalistic detriment. When I talked to him, he didn’t seem mean-spirited. I think he’s just kind of socially inept. I do believe that he is some kind of authentic genius. I’ve interviewed many talented people who understand how genius operates. They have an understanding of what is viewed as brilliant work, and they have the talent to replicate that. I think Eddie Van Helen is a natural genius. Music sounds different to him than it does to anyone else, and that manifests itself in the way he plays guitar.
I think people with authentic genius tend to lack a social sensibility. There’s this kind of give-and-take that may exist with their skill.
When I meet someone, it tends to make their work more interesting to me, regardless if I liked the experience or not.
Is Kobe Bryant the loneliest man on Earth?
There’s a point in my interview with him where Kobe says he has no friends. He says, “Well, not the kind of friends you see in movies,” like he’s trying to figure out how friendship works.
I think that he probably is a little lonely. But he’s also probably reached a point in his life where he’s sort of turned the tables on his own emotional state. He’s kind of decided that his loneliness is central to his greatness. I think he’s just decided that loneliness is something that he wants.
In a 2011 article in the book, you write that faith-based arguments are difficult to defeat, and you imagine a presidential candidate who runs on “have faith, I’ll do it,” with no practicality to back it up. Did you accidentally presage a Trump candidacy, if not his presidency?
I’m not going to sit here and say I predicted this, but it is interesting when a hypothetical becomes true. I think what we’ve really seen is that all realities are happening at once. The postmodernists have been obsessed with this forever, that we create our own reality; reality is how I perceive it. But the last year or so has made it very clear to me that every possible American reality is happening simultaneously. And that’s where we get this problem. We sometimes would see this with things that Kellyanne Conway would say. She would begin by conceding that some accusation was true, but she would talk through it, and her conclusion would be, “It’s true, but only in the way you want it to be true.”
Taylor Swift came across as hyper-intelligent and self-aware in your article. What’s your perception?
She is amazingly self-aware. She’s also highly involved in technology and very interested in media. So she’s constantly reading about herself, just constantly. That probably does generate an almost hyper self-awareness.
In terms of intelligence, there’s different kinds of intelligence. Cormac McCarthy is one kind of intelligent person, Mark Cuban is another, Morrissey is yet another. She probably fits, oddly, in some kind of triangulation of that, maybe closer to Cuban than any of those examples. I think she was 25 when I talked to her, and she’s very mature for her age. She sees the media as an extension of her art and probably thinks that they have to work in orchestration with each other to achieve her goals.
You say in the book that mourning celebrities on social media has become “a form of lifestyle branding.” If we’re in online mourning competitions with each other, is this good or bad for society?
Everyone is talking about the end of the monoculture. It used to be that everybody watched Johnny Carson, and we’d all share that experience, whether we wanted to or not. There are no longer these monolithic things, but I think people still crave shared social experiences. One of the few things still like that is when someone dies. It’s a completely unscripted event that’s inherently profound and meaningful. I think that’s what draws people into this sort of public mourning on social media. And no one’s going to attack you for expressing sadness over Prince dying.
The competitive nature of it does feel a little weird. I find it discomforting to see people performing their emotions in a medium that is generally designed for entertainment. Twitter and Facebook have huge social meaning, and they affect the news and all these things, but for the most part people look at Twitter to kill time between doing real work. So when someone opens up a vein and just bleeds on this thing that’s primarily designed to kill time … that’s weird.
You write that you really like thinking about the band KISS. Do you like thinking in general? Would you rather sit and have a good think, or shoot some hoops?
[long pause] I would rather sit and think about something. Now the experience of going for a nice walk or playing basketball or whatever, those are satisfying too. I mean, I’m married, I have two kids, I have lots of friends, but fundamentally I guess I live inside my own mind. Writing is a solitary act. The kind of person who writes books is the kind of person who lives inside their own head.
Jim McLauchlin has written for the Los Angeles Times, Wired and Newsarama.com. He can be found on Twitter @McLauchin.