IV by Chuck Klosterman
This month, I decided to do something stupid. I decided to try reading more nonfiction. After tackling A.H.W.O.S.G., I was riding high. Eggers’ writing was poetry—depressing and delightful; unhinged and unapologetic. But I digress. My optimism got the better of me.
A friend of mine handed me Chuck Klosterman’s IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas after we discussed how much I loathed Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. While everyone extolled the virtues of Klosterman’s drily funny writing, tackling everything from false ideas of love to Billy Joel to how overrated Star Wars is. (And god damn, I know it’s campy, but come on, man. This essay had me frothing (Hoth-ing?) at the mouth.)
All of his essays were, in fact, well argued and made unique connections between arbitrary pop culture movements and the larger reality of life, but I couldn’t help this dreadful suspicion that Klosterman is a douchebag. Reading IV did not help my opinion. And why? Well, it involves celebrities.
Listen, I understand that celebrity profiling is the worst kind of writing this side of j-school. And yeah, it sucks that celebrities only sit down to interviews in order to read the same manufactured bullshit that, essentially, jerks them off. So it’s damn respectable that someone out there decided not to do the same old song and actually profiled what they observed, not what they were told to write.
Klosterman, however, tears these people new assholes. And not because they necessarily deserve it, but because he has this odd I’m-better-than-you! air. And, you know what? He’s not. True, he might not have a huge mansion. He might be able to walk around on the street without paparazzi hounding him. But he is on the same plane of privilege as the people he derides.
That’s why there’s a stark difference between me, in my squalid studio apartment 3000 miles from Long Island, saying that Billy Joel’s music sucks, and Klosterman, spending a few days face-to-face with the man, allowing him to get really honest, and writing a profile all about what a pathetic, lonely old man Billy Joel is.
What I’m saying is this: he’s a sneaky bastard, and his nastiness makes me cringe. Let me take this from another angle: tabloids. Tabloids, everyone knows, are nasty rags written for bored housewives getting their hair done. Yet there’s something decidedly funny about tabloids because they’re total and complete bullshit. When you read about Brad and Angelina on the rocks due to a relationship he ended almost a decade ago, you laugh.
It’s like watching soap operas. Yeah, it’s pathetic, and yeah, it probably means you don’t have a job, but it’s largely harmless: overly dramatic and clearly made up — a vapid form of escapism. And yes, I realize my argument is problematic because I’m leaving out the implication that tabloids feed into this cult of celebrity.
Klosterman, however, doesn’t tackle the cult of celebrity either. And that’s the problem with his faux-damn-the-man profiling. He’s not trying to deconstruct what’s wrong with a society fixated on rich people; he’s just trying to make himself feel better about his own inadequacies by attacking people.
The difference between tabloids and Klosterman’s profiling is this: he is face-to-face with these people. He assures them that they can trust him. And the stupider ones do. And what does he do? He coos, No, no, trust me. This profile is going to be all about your entry into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Now tell me about your ex-wife.
It’s this weird predator-prey dynamic that is oddly sociopathic. What I mean is: he sees a weakness, and he exploits it. To varying degrees, he lets these people — who probably feel incredibly isolated by their fame — believe that he can be the confidante they’re so desperately seeking, and he uses their trust against them.
He lacks empathy, and he manipulates the shit out of people who are too dumb to see past his charming you-can-trust-me attitude. Okay, so, yeah, I think Billy Joel’s music kind of sucks. (SO SUE ME!) But if Klosterman’s introduction to the essay is any indication, he tricked the Piano Man into a false sense of security.
The introduction goes a little something like this: “When I published this, Billy Joel was furious, because he was under the impression that I would focus on his music. Clearly he is a very sad individual — having tried to commit suicide more than once — but I didn’t care, because that’s what a good scoop is all about. It’s fun to make fun of people who trust you. Yeah, I may have lied and told him I would write about his musical accomplishments (and I did, in a quizzically how-did-he-get-famous way), but his vulnerability was just too good to pass up.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what he says.)
That, my friends, isn’t good journalism. That’s evil. All the pop culture essays use this format in varying degrees of success — Britney Spears is oddly resilient to his poking and prodding (at least in light of what we knew pre-breakdown). He simultaneously extolls his own virtues. He’s rich, you see, based on his super-awesome WRITING ABILITIES! HE’S SMART! Did he mention that he became a journalist fresh out of undergrad? Did he mention that he published a totally awesome book before the age of thirty?
Maybe this is a bit of the green dragon biting me in the ass, so I’ll be fair. There are some interesting—and non-predatory—profiles, such as of the NBA player Steve Nash. He’s a Canadian national who reads Marx and Engels and goes on diaper runs when his wife asks him. (Or, at least, at the time of the interview he did. Nash’s baby momma was apparently unfaithful, a fact he found out in the delivery room for baby #2) It’s a wholly interesting read, because, who would think that an NBA player would think of the game from an engineering standpoint and not just a caveman pass-ball-shoot-ball mentality?
To play Devil’s advocate, Klosterman clearly has the utmost respect for this guy, which shows in how he refuses to criticize Nash. So obviously, his own bias lies in this: when he thinks he’s smarter than you (which he probably is), he will take advantage of you. And you know what’s really fucked? Normal people get this treatment, too. He interviews a bunch of people, stuck in 1978, all enjoying a glam-rock cruise featuring Styx, Journey, and REO. Yeah, it’s kind of stupid to pay several thousand dollars to see these has-beens on a cruise ship.
But okay, to be honest: in twenty years, Gen Y-ers will all be doing the same thing with Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. (Not 98 Degrees though, because fuck Nick Lachey.) One day, Justin Bieber will be headlining a cruise which 48-year-old mothers will line up to go on, in order to relive their glory days as crazed, pre-pubescent stalkers.
The problem with Klosterman’s essay is that he’s just kind of rude about these people and their preferred choice of music. At some point, most people stop listening to new music. They reach a kind of musical stasis, at which point they decide to stay forever in the amber age of youth.
Klosterman’s massive (and fragile) ego keeps him from failing to realize that most people are not music critics, and therefore, maintain the same musical catalogue they completed while in college. (Not to mention, Napster, torrenting, and the like are relatively new inventions. Most people didn’t have the money to expand their collections to behemoth proportions.) Just because a certain kind of music is unnervingly cheesy doesn’t make the people who listen to it stupid. Good taste does not necessarily predicate intelligence.
When he thinks you are a worthy intellectual opponent, he will not step to you, lest you school his ass. (Or however the kids say it.) My point: he goes after the little guy (at least intellectually speaking) because he is so unsure of his own intellectual prowess that he would rather burn ants with a magnifying glass than engage in fisticuffs with an equal opponent.
When he stops talking about pop culture and using people’s weaknesses against them, the book becomes somewhat interesting. He discusses things like why a revolution in America is probably out of the question (answer: laziness); why we should support stem cell research (answer: so ze Germans don’t take over); and why watching VH1 Classic for 24 hours is awesome (answer: it’s a nostalgia-fueled trip that makes you forget your sagging tits and wrinkled face.).
In the end, Klosterman’s collection of essays is a Choose Your Own Adventure for adults with no imagination. If you want to enjoy some good old schadenfreude, and don’t actually want to discuss why the cult of celebrity is just a continuation of old-school aristocracy — someone to make you feel better about eating ramen for a week straight while others sip from diamond-crusted wine glasses — read this book.
If you want to read cleverly disguised ad hominem attacks and not actual criticisms of certain celebrities’ merits as artists, read this book. If you want to read interesting opinion pieces on topics relevant to our future as a country, read this book. If you want to read about a man who loves the smell of his own farts, read this book, please. Chuck Klosterman needs to be able to pay for that plate of truffle-oil French fries!
5 turds out of 5.
A reverse rating, because fuck you, that’s why.