It would be a minor tragedy if a book with a title this cool wound up sucking. So, I’m happy to report that Spin magazine staff writer Chuck Klosterman has followed his ass-kicking heavy-metal memoir Fargo Rock City with an uber-ass-kicking and entirely non-sucking essay collection. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs mines such topics as Internet porn, why soccer will always be a loser’s sport and how Pamela Anderson has been crucified for our sins.
Klosterman embodies all that’s good about populist intellectuals. His conversational voice makes it easy to imagine him yapping these essays into your ear in a dive bar or the bleachers of a forgotten minor-league ballpark.
His populism is entrenched in his subject matter, “low” culture. What makes him not merely a good writer, but also an important one is that his passion for low culture is accessible, infectious, funny and profound. He does not just stay in the realm of geekland but also connects it to larger social concerns. Academics tread the same turf by deploying unreadable theoretical jargon to make pop culture as obtuse as Proust by arguing that poodles are not elephants, i.e., that Indiana Jones films are not about feminism. Klosterman uses ordinary language to excavate the counterintuitive.
In “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” the author admits to being an amateur The Real World scholar who’s watched every episode of its 12 seasons no less than three times. His premise is that the show constructed broad 20-something archetypes that were quickly adopted by the same demographic. The networks searched not for people but for types, what he calls “the ______ guy”—folks whose single-issue identity (black militant, gay militant, naïve hick, etc.) is instantly apparent by the second commercial break. This, he claims, filtered down into the populace, where friends he knew suddenly would discuss the imperative of “confronting” a roommate. His big fear is that The Real World’s legacy is a pervasive sense that “being interesting is being replaced by being identifiable.”
Klosterman doesn’t make the mistake of so many culture writers, which is to presume that our taste says anything significant about who we are. It’s a welcome sentiment because it confirms he’s not just another snarky critic trying to assert the superiority of his tastes or, worse still, the sense that his tastes lend him depth.
Not only can this guy make you care about the Dixie Chicks (pre-enemies-of-the-state Dixie Chicks), but he’ll make you ashamed you ever said that you “like all music except country.” In “Ten Seconds to Love,” he breaks down the mystique of Pamela Anderson. To get in good with an office full of women, all a heterosexual man has to do, Klosterman argues, is claim not to be attracted to the modern-day Marilyn Monroe. But hating Anderson, in Klosterman’s mind, is an entirely conscious decision that does not bode well for the American psyche. Kick it, Chuck: “What they hate is that Pamela Anderson is the incarnation of the perfect, idealized icon we all sort of concede is supposed to be impossible. We’ve established this unrealistic image of what we want from the human race, but it angers people to see that image in real life. It sort of shows why most Americans hate themselves.”
In the sense that any emerging writer you’ve never heard of is on his way to a greatness that will still render him unheard of, Klosterman is skyrocketing to the pinnacle of minor celebrity. My hope is not that he’ll grow up and say goodbye to all things Cocoa Puffs but that he’ll take on some new subject matter. Because if this guy can make me care, or even think twice, about Billy Joel or the Dixie Chicks, imagine what he can do on Iraq, health care or Joe Lieberman. Well, maybe not Lieberman.