Chuck Klosterman is an American ginger head writer and critic, author of several books of essays on, ta-da, American pop culture (Chuck doesn’t seem to have ever left the country, if we judge by his universe, topics and obsessions): rock’n’roll and sitcoms and films and sport. No novels nor, thank god, poetry, theatre or contemporary dance. Klosterman is another kid educated in heavy metal, as he proved in his amazing and very existential Fargo Rock City, and who was more suburban than a concrete mixer abandoned in a site with a sticky porn mag by its side. Now Klosterman is nearly a celebrity, and lives in New York, but that hasn’t been an impediment for him to bless us with I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), his second best book of essays up to now (the first one being Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto).
This book talks, most of all, about vileness; about being “good” or “bad,” and how both behaviours are perceived and labelled; about people who don’t hate, and who are hated for it. Klosterman gets out of his black hat Kanye West vs. Jay-Z, Chevy Chase (and his “strident incapacity of simulating humility”), Lebron James and Michael Jordan, Aleister Crowley, the Eagles (which he links with his hatred towards other bands) and much more. It has been and still is one of my favourite non-fiction books this year, with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History and Jon Savage’s 1966.
This conversation, which took place through Skype during forty-five fruitful minutes, will reveal, I hope, the twists and turns of his brilliant new work, even if at times he answers something which has almost nothing to do with the question asked (although hopefully still interesting for the reader).
Your book orbits around the concepts of goodness and badness. One of the first affirmations (or confessions) that you make is that you care about people as an abstraction, but less so when you think of them as flesh and blood beings.
We socialise, fundamentally, to know that a good person cares about the rest of the people and places them before him. And if you want to contribute to the world in any significant way you have to look at people as an important part of your own life. However, when I socialise with people with whom I have no previous relation, I often find them irritating. I read the press all the time, see the news and hear about all the terrible things taking place in the world, but I consume that information in the same way I consume fiction, as if I had no emotional bonds towards it. I don’t know whether that makes me a sociopath, or if my perception of impulses is adequate.
The world puts pressure on us to feel empathy. Paradoxically, empathic people don’t feel too much empathy towards those of us who don’t seem too emphatic in the first place.
People with a high ability to care about perfect strangers often have no patience to relate to non-strangers who do not share their vision of the world. In the US, around the time I was still at school, there was a great stress put in not being ethnocentric, in not looking negatively at other cultures only because they were different from yours. And still, the American intellectual community takes for granted that other cultures are going to look at American culture in a negative way. It’s the perfect antithesis of what they preach they will do to other cultures. Smart people aren’t less hypocritical than stupid people. I think it’s quite the contrary, in fact.
Culture (books, films, records) do not automatically humanise us or make us better people. John Carey affirmed this quite categorically in his brilliant work What Good Are the Arts?
That’s true. What art tries to do, I think, is to humanise us. But what it really does is highlighting the immutable flaws we possess as a species. There seems to be no relationship between the “message” in a song, or a film, or a book, and the impact it has on society, apart from making a lot of people realise something that they probably knew already anyway.
Carey insists on the order of this sentence: poetry doesn’t make you more sensitive; since you are sensitive, you are attracted to poetry.
It might be able to make you more sensitive. I’m not so sure about that. Everybody has experiences in which they have consumed something that has made them change the way in which they looked at the world, even if this worked in a much more arbitrary way than it is commonly thought of. In general, we’re interested in art we consider interesting, or fun. That’s the issue. The language of criticism always tries to place an artefact in context for you to understand its social usefulness, the “reason” why that art exists. But what most humans do is following things they believe are worth following. There’s no such thing as a reason.
This is a book written from the perspective of otherness, from the point of view of the marginalised. A lot of people imagine that being a nerd is a kind of elitist whim, when in fact at the beginning you resort to the underground because you’re not accepted by the mainstream.
You might be right in general terms. In my case, it has to do with a contradiction that is inherent to me. I was born in an extremely rural setting within the United States, a place called North Dakota. My house was a farm in the outskirts of a town of five hundred inhabitants. Compared to all the people I’ve met in the media and cultural worlds in New York, I come from the most isolated place possible, from the most extremely rural place. In that sense, I’m the epitome of the outsider. But because I’ve been quite successful, and since I’m a white man, some people see me as someone trenched in privilege, as an insider. In practice, I’m marginalised. And my book should be read thus: as the reflections of someone who is, or has been, outside, in the outskirts of mainstream.
My question meant to go even further back: did you fit in when you were younger? Did you feel part of the community in which you grew up?
(The author looks crestfallen).
Did I ask something depressing, or trite?
Absolutely not! I was just thinking that this question almost made me answer yes, that I felt weird, that I felt I was different from the rest of the people, and that’s why I use the outlook I use now. But the truth is I felt as weird as I really was, but I didn’t feel different. I assumed everybody else felt like me: weird, alienated. There were twenty-three boys in my class, and I assumed they all felt as weird as me. For that reason, I wasn’t worried about it at all. I didn’t feel the angst of being alone. I, on the other hand, was a very introspective person, almost completely devoid of self-knowledge, something I consider ideal for a writer. Because you have to think about yourself all the time, yes, but at the same time too much self-consciousness might impact the text.
You affirm that people prefer Han Solo to Luke Skywalker because we cannot trust people who are (or pretend to be) 100% good. My additional question would be, I guess: is it not that we don’t like people who are 100% good because they’re lame?
For a person to be 100% good would be a very rare case, like Mother Theresa, a transcendent and elevated being, almost a saint. But that’s extremely unusual. People who pretend they’re good tend to be, up to a certain point, fakers.
“Good” people are always hiding something; I think that’s quite clear.
I’m not sure if they’re hiding something, or else they’re blocking from themselves a huge part of what’s human; which is even worse than just being a fake. By blocking that part that is inherent to human beings (“badness”), their behaviour becomes artificial. My book is about the uncomfortable relationship between vileness and authenticity. In the US, talking about “authenticity” is no longer in vogue, but I still do it.
I think that is part of our inevitable eighties background.
Yes. Young people don’t even have that word on their dictionaries, but if you were a critic in the eighties and nineties that was a fundamental concept. Now younger people think that worrying about authenticity is ridiculous.
Somehow it is. In Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s book Fakin’ it, they talk about all those “authentic” bluesmen that in the thirties and forties they sold to us as toothless farmers in dungarees, playing guitar in their porch with a cow nearby, but who in fact were sophisticated urbanites.
There’s something people forget when discussing such things. Many artists sell themselves as more “real” than they are. So the pack of values they sell is, somehow, a fake. But you need to observe this from the perspective of the consumer. The consumer wants to listen to something that, combined with his perception of who the artist is, gets near the heart of an authentic reality. Even if it has nothing to do with “reality,” and is only something they imagine. The “real” thing is secondary. I see our world as a society that moves towards a world that is becoming more and more phoney, and there’s a great abyss between our reality and what we consume. People are hungry for things to make them feel they are consuming something “real”. It might sound strange, but I think that if something seems real, and you don’t thoroughly know it, it might as well be real.
Many of us started ignoring the concept of “authenticity” when we saw that many things that weren’t considered authentic were cool as fuck. And in their own way they were authentic, like glitter and glam rock, for instance.
That’s the best example. Let’s consider this: a band like Kiss, and an artist such as Bruce Springsteen. Who’s the most authentic? The superficial answer would be Bruce Springsteen, of course. But if you go to a Springsteen gig, anything he does onstage –running from one end to the other, turn up his jean shirt collar, exchanging buddy comments with the band…– is rehearsed. It seems real, because it is presented as something spontaneous, but it isn’t. And on the other hand you have Kiss, who are not trying to mask their artificialness, and thus their masks are real. How could that not be real?
Let’s go back to vileness for a while. You say that you surprised yourself (briefly) cheering the Republican Newt Gingrich because at least you knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. In the Daredevil series we sympathise a bit with Kingpin because we know who he is and what he wants. He isn’t a Pharisee, or a prude, or a hypocrite.
There’s something that is difficult to understand when you’re young, but the meaning of which you start to get as you grow older, and it’s the simple axiom “good people are not as good as they look at first, and bad people aren’t as bad as they look either.” The difference between both extremes is smaller than we think. In fiction it’s different: there’s nothing at stake, because it’s fiction, and so Kingpin’s actions, as you used in your example, and his terrible crimes have no real consequences, since he doesn’t exist and is just part of the story. I think in my book I enjoy the luxury of writing about real events as if they were fiction and vice-versa. In many ways this is an intellectual exercise; that’s why I do what I do, because I’m a writer after all. When I imagine what would happen should Batman be real, the conclusion is that unacceptable actions in real life would become acceptable in a fictional framework. No one would accept Batman in real life. The debate that exists in comic books just wouldn’t exist.
I’m sad to agree with you in something that you also mention in your book: that you can’t hate some bands as much as you hated them before, with that mad animosity, as if they had done something to you personally.
When you’re young you use art to understand yourself, and for other people to understand who you are. But there comes a time when you are you, not the records you love or hate. So when you like a band or not it’s because of its music, not because of what it stands for. You don’t reflect yourself in it in the same way. There was a time in my life when I needed people to know I hated the Eagles, because hating the Eagles was something I thought was part of my personality. My personality was defined in part by that hatred. Obviously, that’s no longer the case. If I didn’t like the Eagles, it would be only because of their music, which, as I also say in the book, it’s not as horrible as I thought.
Besides, saying you hate such and such band is quite an empty affirmation. It doesn’t say a lot about you. Besides, if you have been immersed in pop and records for years, you know there are lots of people with amazing taste but a rotten soul. And then there are tons of people with a horrible taste, but who are wonderful human beings.
[He laughs] Absolutely! That’s the thing, and we’re going back to what we said before. Bad taste is real, not an imposture. Good taste, on the other hand, only means you have been reading the right articles and books, or that you have been following cool people. No one is born with good taste, that’s impossible. It’s a fact: without having read the articles, or had the conversations, or been in touch with what goes on, it’s impossible to decide whether Blur are more sophisticated than Oasis. Those are just constructions. So if someone has bad taste, or a contradictory taste, at least we know for sure it’s his taste.
Earlier we were talking about things we can no longer hate, but now that you mention them I realise I still can’t stand Blur at all (a lot less than Oasis). If I confess another loathing of mine, will you tell me one of yours? I hate bands or artists who are “weird” by force, like Zappa or the Butthole Surfers. Or the fucking Residents!
I get it. I tend to hate bands that are “political” in a conventional or classical way. I’m interested, though, in bands with a political hue that is pure and plainly weird. Like that band from the beginning of the 2000s, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, with exclamation marks. They said they were communists, not socialists. What are you going to do, vote Lenin? [He laughs, and his voice becomes higher]. You can’t escape that affirmation. They are supporting a political idea that has no place anywhere in the world and no one talks about anymore.
That’s what happens with political bands. Look at The Clash. I love them, but they kept going on about their horrible pamphlets. And they’re not the worst: those who try to copy The Clash are even worse!
Being the first in doing something is different than jumping on the bandwagon. That’s undeniable. The Clash tried to become politicised, but with the bands who try to become political after The Clash you can never be sure they’re doing it for politics’ sake or because of the cool returns they get for being similar to The Clash. Look at a band like At The Drive-In, for instance. Is their political stance similar to that of The Clash, or that of a band willing to be like The Clash?
In the Kanye West vs. Jay-Z, I clearly take sides with Kanye: the alienated, complex and dog-faced artist against the negotiator and nice artist who is too comfortable inside his own skin.
I’m also pro-Kanye. But, careful: I don’t feel an emotional bond with any of them, or with hip-hop in general, whereas I did with rock bands. To me, those two are almost fictional characters. I don’t think about them as real people, even if it sounds funny, but about what they stand for, the kind of artists they are. Kanye makes better music and has a more complex and interesting personality than Jay-Z. Jay-Z is an artist focused too much in pose and strategy. I love Kanye because he thinks he’s strategic, but his strategy is nuts. I look at Kanye y and I realise he’s an artist who believes he has it all under control, but in fact everything is out of control. From an artistic point of view that’s more interesting than someone who plays it safe. It’s clear that Kanye West used to admire Jay-Z, he says so in that song, Little Brother. [It’s actually Big Brother]. And even if it seems they’re both equally talented, Kanye is a lot juicier. It’s a complex relationship in any case.
An artist needs to be in conflict. Not in a melodramatic way, but there needs to be a battle. Without that battle: a) you’re not an artist, or b) you won’t produce anything of interest.
Of course! Jay-Z is a good example. He knows the keys he needs to play, but is a lot more of a conformist and boring. If you’re comfortable with who you are, and your life is OK, you can still produce art that is technically proficient, but it will be difficult to create art that is emotionally proficient, because there needs to be something to make you dig deep in the matter. Kanye should be given credit for how he creates conflict in his own life, conflict that wasn’t there a few minutes before. Part of his brilliance might come from realising that: that for his art to have transcendence and meaning, he needs to be confronting some element of adversity. He makes that adverse element appear. He makes his life worse knowingly, maybe because without those bad conditions, his art would be worse. Another example that comes to mind: Rivers Cuomo, from Weezer. His first albums are better than the last ones. The first, in particular the second, Pinkerton, were made when his life was a disaster, and he was wasted. And that’s his best work, no doubt. The reflection I would make after seeing this is: do I have to ruin my life to produce works with a certain degree of complexity?
The only thing that I find irritating about Kanye, and I know you do too, is his passion for fashion. I think that in your book you say, literally, “fashion is for mental retards.” I support your motion.
I think that an interest in fashion is the most superficial interest someone can have. That is: if (by definition) what’s superficial is what is placed outside, on the surface, clothes are the things more on the surface. Literally. They almost define the idea of “lack of depth.” If we’re interested in someone for the way they dress, for what they wear outside, we are saying, literally, “I like what he’s placing above his reality.” So the fact that Kanye is so into fashion makes no sense, if we consider the kind of guy he is. I almost feel like telling him: man, get an interest in something else, anything.
Fishing. Cooking. Astronomy.
Yes. Although a lot of people will say that all that is only resentment on my behalf because I have no sense of personal aesthetics whatsoever, and that because I dress like a hobo, I don’t like people dressing up. There might be some truth to that as well, but what can I do: the thing is that I don’t find fashion interesting. My hypocrisy is that I can obviously perceive when someone is elegant. If a woman is dressed in an attractive way, my reaction will be to admire how great she looks. And the worse thing is that I will feel as if I’m judging her as a person, when I’m really only judging the garments she has placed on her body. It’s ludicrous.
You say there was a time in the nineties when the excess of political correctness pushed artists to become more indecent, or dirtier, just to provoke, and in a way that was quite banal, like Andrew Dice Clay. But you put Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor in the same bag, and they were not superficial artists at all (even though he told some jokes about dicks).
It’s not exactly that. Maybe I wasn’t so clear as I wanted to be. What I say in the book is that some nineties comedians like Bill Hicks saw themselves as “problematic,” but as years went by you understood what they were doing, in hindsight, and you saw that their vulgarity and their rude language made sense in the political context. Andrew Dice Clay wasn’t like that, and never will be. Clay is the guy who will never be reinterpreted, maybe also because there was no political content to what he did. Unless you consider that, as happens to Donald Trump, people are “oppressed” by debates on identity and gender, and those male chauvinist jokes are their escape valve.
I’ve been watching old videos of Eddie Murphy as stand-up comedian and it’s shocking hearing how homophobic his jokes were, and on top of that they weren’t even funny. Louis C.K. tells jokes with homosexual content, and they’re no longer like that, there’s obviously no hatred now.
It’s two very different times. As long as I’ve been alive nothing has changed so much as the relationship of society towards gays and transsexuals. You mention Eddie Murphy; in the eighties, even accusing someone of being homosexual, as he used to do, was considered a joke. It was a joke in itself! Because it was obviously considered an insult. That has changed so fast (for the better) that we almost haven’t noticed. The nineties were a period of transformation, in that sense. In the film Crocodile Dundee II there’s a moment in which the protagonist is trying to stop someone from committing suicide, but when the other confesses he’s gay, he tells him, “oh, go on, kill yourself.”
Oh my god!
The joke sounds as if it was told a thousand years ago, right? But it’s not that old, only from thirty years back.
There are some artists who could only have been popular at a given time, like writer Richard Brautigan. His immaturity and childishness could have only triumphed in the sixties; and I’m saying this as a fan.
On the other hand, reading him now is an authentic answer to the times he lived in, I guess. What often happens is that we fuse our (imagined) perspective of a time with what it actually was. Look at Mad Men, for instance. The great thing about the series was its attention to detail, more so than the scripts. The show tried to say: the sixties were like this. But at the same time, that is an impossible act, because the show can only try to say: this is how people from 2016 think the sixties were like. Horrible sixties shows, such as Leave it to Beaver, do show us the real spirit of the times, the zeitgeist. That’s how the world saw itself in 1963. When you read that Brautigan, what you read is how people (or some people) saw themselves and the world in the sixties.
I’ve watched Seinfeld again (the whole series) after reading your book, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t agree with what you say in the book. It is indeed a bit darker than Friends, because anything is darker than Friends, but I don’t think the motto you repeat about Seinfeld is true: “No hugs, no learning.” They do hug quite a lot, and they learn too.
Seinfeld seems a lot more benign in perspective, that’s true, but I think this only serves to prove its effectiveness. It was the entrance door for a completely different kind of TV shows, for instance, Hulu’s series Difficult People. It’s on its second season. It’s about two people who are really mean and who hate everyone. That’s all. Or You’re the Worst, a romantic comedy with a couple that hate each other. This all exists, somehow, because Seinfeld made it possible. If you watch it now it seems quite normal, but in the nineties it was very weird. It wasn’t like anything else on TV at the time. The process is always the same: something seems radical until you look at it in retrospective, and then you say, “it wasn’t that radical.” And that’s because you cannot make your mind travel to the exact time in which that show existed. Let’s go back to Kiss for a moment. In the sixties, there was a certain debate around whether they were satanic or not. Kiss! It sounds mad now, but it was talked about. Or the time when people were afraid of The Rolling Stones! They thought they were dangerous, and that they shouldn’t be on TV!
“People hate you because you don’t hate anyone, no even when you should,” a great sentence from your book. Do you immediately suspect people without enemies? (Maybe it’s only my paranoia).
Are you talking about celebs or in real life?
Well, celebrities without enemies sound quite oxymoronic: no one can be famous and have no detractors.
That’s true. Well, my answer is that there are people who have no enemies, and I’m not suspicious of them. But then I meet them, and I understand why that happens. I’ll give you an example. It’s a very interesting question, and in fact we were discussing it in a bar the other day. I was with two friends, John and Greg. Greg and me were talking about John, who is sarcastic, a bit nosy, obviously far from perfect, but everyone loves him. People who hate each other do agree in that they like John. He seems to have no enemies, and we asked ourselves how such an aberration could happen. And the answer is: there’s something in his personality that makes people think that John is inherently good. You suspect that if there’s something you don’t like about him, that hasn’t much to do with who John really is at heart. When you meet people intimately for a long period of time, you invariably end up perceiving how they are at heart. Take out their job, their relationship, ruin their life, start a zombie apocalypse, and let’s say there’s still something good left. A lot of people are good deep down, but you wouldn’t notice in a million years because all their external layers say they’re bad. You should be their husband or wife to get their inner goodness. But with some people you get it a lot faster. “His heart is good.” To sum it up: I’m sceptical when it comes to celebrities, but not friends. Some people are actually good. That’s what I think.