Barely legal Chuck Klosterman discovered Mr. Bungle in 1993: “I knew an interesting person who believed this self-indulgent side project was way more interesting than it actually was, thereby serving as my real-world introduction to The Problem of Overrated Ideas.”
It’s hard to believe such a prolific career began with Mr. Bungle, but it’s also easy to believe in Mr. Klosterman’s case. Musicians serve as his chief conduit for navigating morality. I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling with Villains Real and Imagined, his ninth book, leans on public figures of all evil walks of life: Bernhard Goetz, Bill Clinton, The Oakland Raiders. But musicians and music’s implicit memories are the subjects Mr. Klosterman leans on the hardest.
After the success of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (released 10 years before Black Hat, 10 years after the Year of Mr. Bungle) Mr. Klosterman continues to entice readers with his meandering prose peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and obscure music hypotheses that somehow gravitate back to Led Zeppelin. He’s a stoner’s Joan Didion. There is nary a college dorm shelf without one of his titles. With Black Hat, he sounds more direct –ahem, cunning — than ever before.
The bespectacled author spoke with Consequence of Sound’s Sarah Grant to discuss his writing style on Black Hat, the pitfalls of self-actualization, the ‘Mats reunion, and why Amanda Bynes isn’t exactly evil:
Who didn’t make the villain shortlist?
Well, a whole bunch actually. When I started this project, it was going to be an extremely comprehensive, 500-page book. My idea was: I’m going to write about this subject, and if I do it, I don’t want anyone else to ever be able to write about this subject again. [Laughs.] I was not going to do any first-person writing in it at all. No swear words, no footnotes; all those sort of obstructions.
Another thing that got cut out was an essay on LeBron James and Kanye West. But these people are still changing and their cultural perception is still changing. It would be a mistake for me to anticipate the meaning of someone while that meaning is still being manufactured. Sometimes I gambled, like I did a little aboutTaylor Swift, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what her career trajectory would be in the course of completing the book and having it come out. But, for the most part, I tried to stay away from things that were still happening.
Rihanna and Amanda Bynes came to mind. I felt like they could have also been chapters. One of them seems crazy, but doesn’t seem like a villain, and the other doesn’t seem like a villain but sort of is.
I’m curious who you think is the villain among those two women.
Oh, without a doubt, Rihanna the sane villain and Bynes the crazy non-villain.
Why do you think Rihanna is the villain?
She falls in line with your definition of “villain” in the book: “knows the most but cares the least.” She’s back with Chris Brown. She did a duet with him on her last album. I was surprised with myself at how much her personal decisions marred her music for me. Logically, I know there is a distinction.
Yes. She certainly seems to be the person in America who still likes Chris Brown the most. She’s still on his side, philosophically in some way. I guess, though, it doesn’t really seem to me that Rihanna is a bad person if you’re going to look at her from how she’s impacting other people. It gets tricky because either you’re making the argument that she’s a bad role model and that it’s her responsibility to teach her fans how to live, or you say, well, she had all these problems, but they are isolated to herself. It seems like she’s not actively doing things that are hurting other people. She doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned over how her life sort of reflects on being a person like her.
I mean, Amanda Bynes is not really villainous to me. She’s just crazy. She doesn’t even seem to be doing anything to me that’s particularly terrible. It’s just we know she exists and can do it. So, she’s getting abused basically and is crazy.
In terms of public persona, Amanda Bynes is like a foil to Rihanna. She says categorically vain, mean-spirited things. Yet she still doesn’t resonate with me as evil.
With her, perception is such a huge part of this. Her big insult, the one she keeps using over and over again, is calling people ugly. That’s her response to everything. Now, if we thought Amanda Bynes was intellectual, if we thought she was some kind of an artist, if we just assumed that, hey, she’s pretty smart, then the reaction to this would be that she’s commenting on the cornerstones of celebrity culture, where the worst insult in the world—worse than anything else—is the inference that you’re not beautiful, that she keeps using this word in some conscious way to illustrate the absurdity of celebrity. But, nobody thinks she’s smart.
So, then the assumption becomes she actually embodies what we don’t like about celebrity, and in a weird way it makes her sympathetic. If we thought she was really being a villainess — that this was some kind of media hoax, or that she was sort of trying to make a statement over the weirdness of how her life has worked and the idea of being a celebrity when you’re 14 and then trying to become a real person and being forced to basically live within the framework of how we look at famous women, well, then she kind of is a villainess. But smart people would also think she’s rich.
It’s like we’re much more willing to have a complicated conversation about Rihanna because we start from the premise that Rihanna is very talented, that she does offer something artistically that is meaningful, so therefore we’re going to take her crazy behavior and actually try to dissect it and try to find some meaning from it. Whereas, because Amanda Bynes isn’t producing anything artistically that has merit, we discount her ideas entirely, even though in many ways they’re doing the exact same things. They both seem to like to party and take drugs and get drunk.
You said you wanted to write an academic novel about metal bands, because it would’ve been shocking in the ’90s. Now, that sounds like a totally plausible thesis paper. Do you think it’s harder to be both meaningful and provocative today?
That’s a very interesting question. If the goal is to be provocative, if you actually say upfront, “My goal with this writing is I want to be a provocateur,” it does sort of change the consequence of what you’re writing, because it’s almost conceding that peoples’ reaction to your piece matters more than what the content actually expresses. So, I always think it’s sort of problematic when somebody says, “I’m going to be provocative on purpose; that is my intent.” Even though there is some value in that, I think it’s kind of a discomforting way to build a career.
The biggest thing that has changed in my view about comedic writing from when I wrote Fargo Rock City, which I wrote mostly in 1999, and now is that at that time, there was more of a chasm between which artists were acceptable to write about intellectually and what kind of artists would you never possibly consider attempting to view as culturally meaningful. When I was growing up reading magazines in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was almost as though the coverage of any artist, especially a new artist, kind of began with an explanation as to whether or not we were going to take this person seriously. And now because media’s become so democratized and there’s so many people sort of jockeying for space in this universe, there literally is no artist that you cannot take seriously.
With both of my first two books, I think that one of the big ideas is that it kind of doesn’t matter what you think about; what matters is how you go about considering it. So it doesn’t matter what band you picked or what singer you pick. It’s are you going to look at this critically? Are you going to use the same methods you would use for The Velvet Underground, even if you’re talking about the Thompson Twins. Are you going to go to the same kind of methodology, and that seems to be completely common now. I’m not saying that I invented this. I’m just saying that everyone does it now. The idea that some things are valuable and others things are not valuable has kind of disappeared. People face that problem, but it’s a much more balanced sort of battle.
I’m also hinting at the Perez Hilton essay. You said today, invention is driven by desire, not necessity. If you’re a music journalist, desire is traffic. People are reviewing albums and, like you said, taking things hyper seriously while at the same time churning out reviews before listening to half of the album.
Oh, absolutely. The most maddening ones are when an album is really heavily anticipated, like In Rainbows was or the new Daft Punk record or Watch the Throne, where you literally see people react to these records 20 minutes after they’re available. And even they know that this is kind of an unsophisticated, childish way to review something, but it’s almost as if they’re competing: “Since a million people are going to write about this, and many of them are going to be far more insightful than me or better writers than me, the one thing I can offer is having the first response, and maybe all those other people who actually have ideas will be forced to respond to whatever I said right now 20 minutes after this became available.”
I hate the idea of someone who feels that their import as a critic is taste making. I think that’s so stupid. I think the one thing every consumer can do is figure out if they like or don’t like something. Taste is an organic extension of what is interesting to your ear, and the writing should allow people to think differently about the thing they’re already engaged with, or make you consider something in a new way. But it’s not really about telling people this should be the stuff you’re listening to. And I feel like the people who are responding to records immediately on Twitter—that is their goal. Their goal is to somehow feel like they shaped or influenced what became the conventional wisdom about what a record’s meant.
Have you ever read the book The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm?
No, I haven’t.
It’s really short. It’s less than 200 pages. But fundamentally her point, which she forwards very early in the book, is that journalism is inherently unethical. Now, I don’t know that I agree with that 100 percent, but she makes an extremely strong case as to why that would be, and my whole life, certainly since I’ve been 20, has kind of been defined by being a journalist and a writer. So, I do sometimes think to myself, “Is my entire life built around fundamentally… that no matter what my motives are, ultimately what I’m doing is something that’s bad for society?”
Why did you decide to end the book with David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech?
I find myself unable to distance myself from my own perspective, and I remembered this speech given by David Foster Wallace, where he fundamentally argues that the most important thing about life is being able to stop seeing the world through your own eyes. And that the goal of being alive is to distance yourself from yourself.
I feel that’s impossible. I know it’s a very admirable goal. It’s almost the advice I could see myself giving to someone else, but I can’t get around the fact that I think it’s probably a myth. It’s probably a myth perpetuated by the desire to be good, and somehow if you can convince yourself that you no longer see the world through your own perception, that is the greatest manifestation of goodness, because you’re empathizing with other people in the most profound possible way.
I don’t know if that’s possible. I actually don’t even know if that’s problematic. I think it is okay to conclude that even if I’m able to understand someone else’s perspective, all I’m doing is jamming it through the prism of my own experience. The thing that worries me is that once one comes to that conclusion, that this is how they view the world, they have to accept who they actually are. They have to accept that the way I see the world is just the way I see it, and what if the way I see the world is bad?
I think people’s interest in art is a way to avoid figuring out who a person really is. It seems like it should be the opposite. It seems we should be pursuing those things to get down to the core of who we are. But I think it might be more that we’re trying to create an illusion that stops us from really considering that question.
Say somebody watches a film and really loves it. It’s a really meaningful film. They feel that the main character really resonates with them, and they tell people that they love this film, because they know that that will give other people insight to how they want to be perceived. And yet, what they very often are doing is looking at the character who resonates so much with them in an aspirational way. What they’re doing is, this person is how I would like to be. I wish I was like this character. So, I’m going to convince myself that the reason I feel so strongly about this person is because I’m seeing myself in him. And that creates this sort of hazy middle ground between who a person actually is and what they want to be. And they sort of use the character as a surrogate.
Much of this book has to do with the idea that cultural figures, fictional or nonfictional, their import is that people sort of use their celebrity and the perception of their celebrity to calibrate a perception of what is good about the world and what is bad. And I work in this book from the idea that… what about the characters that resonate with me who are bad? Why is that happening? Why as I grow older do I seem to feel closer to people I intellectually understand to be negative. I think that happens to all people as they age to be honest, but then again, I can only speak from my own perspective. I talk about it like it’s a cultural thing, but maybe it’s just a personal thing.
Do you feel like you are someone who sees reality, in spite of feeling like you’re not in reality?
I gotta say, I have a huge luxury in my life, in that I’m in a position where I actually am getting paid to sit around and wonder: “What is reality?” So, I probably think about the question of reality way more than the average person. I do spend a lot of time thinking about, “Is a conversation I’m having at a bodega behind the counter actually happening?” I know something is actually happening, but are either of us really engaged with the reality of this transaction? So, do I understand it better? If a question is really philosophical and really abstract, it’s almost like thinking about it raises more and more questions.
I would say that somebody who’s like a real academic philosopher at the highest level of philosophical academia probably feels like they don’t understand the world at all because they spend so much time trying to deduce the answer to questions that are, in some ways, unanswerable. You’re eventually going to hit this point where you’re like, “Now we’re just guessing.” I can look at the facts and the experiences, interview these people. I can examine things from my own life. But we’re at the central question, “Is this real, or is this unreal?” And then we’re just guessing.
Sometimes I feel like we all strive for that, or at least I do. Maybe that’s just what depressed people do.
This is what happens sometimes. How old are you?
Let’s say you’re talking to somebody who’s like yourself but they’re 43, okay? You’re telling them about the problems of your life. Now, I don’t know you; I’ve talked to you for 40 minutes. I would assume that if you talk about the problems of your life, there’s probably some degree of existential despair in some of these problems. The questions you’re asking yourself are very broad and they involve elements like, “What is life supposed to be like for me? What is life supposed to be like for anybody? If I fall in love with someone, what would it mean? How important is that? I don’t have kids; am I missing out on one of the biggest experiences someone can have? If I get to a point in my life where I am in my 40s and I’m the same as I am now, is that good or bad?”
The person who’s 40 here might hear this and they might say, “Look, you’re overreacting. Here’s what life is about.” And they’ll give you a really sort of simplistic thing of important things like security, someone that you can love who will love you back, and to feel like you’re comfortable in your own skin. What they have done is that they have limited their reality; they have made the decision that those are achievable things in that person’s eyes, so their reality is stable. Is that person happier than you? Possibly. Probably. But are they missing out on something that you’re still able to go after because your mind isn’t limited yet?
That parallels what we were talking about earlier in terms of writing truth versus developing a narrative story arc. When you’re reading something that’s organized and you identify with a main character, the writer has put forth elements to make you understand. That’s attractive. The writing appears more successful.
I think that most people who love The Replacements, or at least like them a lot, look at their career and say, “At first, they were very amateur, but there was something very incendiary. Then they got a little better and understood how bands work and made this great music. Then at the end their music wasn’t as good, even though it was technically better.” I’m sure if Paul Westerberg were talking about the songs he’s written over his life, he’d say the songs on his last record were textured, more complicated, and structurally better, even though nobody feels that way about them.
That happens with writing, too. I’m a better writer now than I was, technically and structurally. However, I feel like those earlier books are probably more intellectually free. The ideas I had in those books I know are my own. They’re almost uninfluenced by other things because I hadn’t experienced a lot of the things that now make me perceive what good writing is, differently. And as a consequence, my writing has probably become a little more like other people than it used to be.
When did you figure that out about yourself, and was that unhinging?
That’s a hard question. I guess I felt it when I was writing Eating the Dinosaur, and I remember thinking to myself, “Boy, these essays are better than those in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, but why aren’t they as propulsive? Why did the seemingly more amateur work seem more dynamic and exciting than this new work, which I know is better, and which any objective person would say it better?” Unless they weren’t talking about how good something was and about how much they like it. Maybe that’s the key difference.
My favorite band is KISS; my favorite band to listen to is The Beatles. It’s very easy for me to make that distinction. It’s very easy for me to say that I like to think about KISS the most, even though from a sonic perception, I have never listened to any band that has improved upon The Beatles. I understand that people can feel the same way about writers, that somebody could say, “I know this book is better, but I like this other one.” That’s just how it is because you understand something is good intellectually and you love or dislike something emotionally. There’s a relationship between those two things, but it’s not a tangible one.
I’ve always thought of your books like I think of Prince records: whichever one you bought first is your favorite. They’re all great and there are great arguments for all of them.
I would love to be thought of in that way. [Laughs.] And why is that? Prince is almost objectively a genius. His understanding of music and ability to play all these instruments is very rarified. And yet, every Prince record seems to be unique to whatever he is interested in or thinking about at the time, autonomous from all the other releases, and yet still essentially… Prince. There’s no record you’d say doesn’t seem like a Prince album. He has never made a work that doesn’t seem as though it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what he is, even though from a formal perspective, it’s different every single time.
The first Prince record someone gets into, they like him as a musician, but they sort of feel comfortable with that structure. And for the rest of time, when they listen to other Prince records, they remember that that one Prince structure is never going to appear again. He’s not going to make Purple Rain or Emancipation again. It only happens on that record, and if you love it and you love him, you have to sort of reconcile the fact that the rest of the catalog is not the same. And sometimes when you hear him play now, you’ll hear an echo that will remind you of that and remind you, “This is why I love Prince.” The rest of it is kind of an intellectual exercise of why I have to love this new Prince, too.