When analyzing pop culture, Chuck Klosterman makes broad strokes. In his 2003 New York Times bestselling work Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, the renowned author wrote: Coldplay “manufactures fake love as frenetically as the Ford fucking Motor Company.” In 2005’s Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, he hypothesized that Led Zeppelin are “the only group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that every male rock fan seems to experience in exactly the same way.”
Now Klosterman, who recently dipped into fiction with a pair of novels and also serves as the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist, returns with a new nonfiction work, I Wear The Black Hat. In it, Klosterman, 41, grapples with villains – and more specifically, why society has come to embrace some while holding others up as the torchbearer of evil.
Rolling Stone rang up the author while he was vacationing at “an undisclosed location” to discuss James Gandolfini’s role in reshaping television, why Klosterman is no longer capable of hating bands and how to him Fred Durst remains as intriguing a subject as ever.
I won’t ask the obvious question of “why villains?” But when did you first have the inclination to write about this topic?
Well, I guess the question is “when did I first become interested in this concept?” It probably has been a slow construction over time. Part of the reason that I did this book now is sort of based on the premise to me that, you know, when you look at characters, fictional or nonfictional, it’s somewhat aspirational. As you mature you find that because your personality is already created, you’re kind of using other characters to understand yourself. The process of maturation makes you naturally more inclined to relate to problematic people. So I probably started thinking about this as an idea for a possible book about 10 years ago. But then I sort of got more serious about it maybe in the last two or three. I tend to sign two-book contracts: one nonfiction and one fiction. So I signed a deal to do a novel and a nonfiction book. The novel ended up being The Visible Man. And the nonfiction book is this one.
In the last few weeks, with the passing of James Gandolfini, there’s been lots of talk about how his character of Tony Soprano helped jumpstart a widespread adoration for the antihero. But I feel like – and I’d imagine you’d argue – this has been a much longer-brewing trend.
The Gandolfini thing is interesting because that is true in terms of the medium of television. I think that the adoption of the antihero is kind of the only hero America still creates. It started with books and moved into film and rock music really. And then eventually got to television. Television is sometimes the last to adopt culturally adversarial ideas because it’s such a populist medium. The Sopranos probably was the first show doing this; it was kind on an island on HBO where they were saying: “We’re going to make this character who, he’s a murderer and a criminal” – that’s the first thing we know about him – “and we’re going to work the story sort of through his eye.” And I think that [Sopranos creator] David Chase initially was probably very worried about the fact that he had this main character who was classically a villain type of personality. But it worked so effortlessly and so brilliantly that now it’s almost the central way to make a high-end television show. All of the really good television shows – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, all of these good show, even Game of Thrones – in every case the villain is not only the most interesting person but also oddly relatable. I don’t think that would have been the case 15 years ago.
It‘s intriguing that people can relate to classically evil characters. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan took an interesting approach: he said that he wanted to develop Walter White as a character by having him become more of a villain over the course of the show.
The interesting part about it, especially in television, is that people are trained to understand the program or the narrative through whomever is the first character they’re introduced to. So when we’re introduced to Walter White, he’s immediately a sympathetic person and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s going to do over time to most people. They’ll have a really hard time breaking away from the fact that that is the character they understand the show through.
In one of the book’s most interesting essays, you discuss how you no longer have hatred towards musical acts – like Eagles and Coldplay, for example. You say you “still cared about music, but not enough to feel emotionally distraught over its nonmusical expansion into celebrity and society.”
Particularly dealing with musical acts or any bands or my relationship to rock music or whatever, it’s one thing to dislike an artist. And to dislike an artist means you don’t enjoy the experience of listening to them. And of course I still have that experience. But the idea of hating an artist is different. “Hate” and “Love” aren’t opposites. The opposite of “Love” is “Indifferent.” So if you actually hate something, it actually means you have a pretty deep emotional investment with what that expression means. Like if you hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers or you really hate The Doors or whatever, you’re really doing this for other people. And that’s the part that I don’t have the relationship with anymore. Like the idea that I need to hate the band in order to somehow suggest my worldview to someone else. My relationship to the world is somehow more reasonable. And that essay was kind of about that: realizing that over time not only are my feelings about bands sort of a construction, it’s also an unreasonable construction.
Do you feel that you’re able to be a music critic anymore? You note “being emotionally fragile is an important part of being a successful critic.”
I probably think that period is over for me. I mean, I certainly know how to do it. I know how to sort of perform that act. Part of being a good critic means that you will let something affect you in a way that is more profound than the average listener. And that’s what makes you a different person. But somehow it doesn’t feel right to me. Because I know that so many feelings in my mind are beyond my control. It would be one thing if when I listened to say, the new Drive-By Truckers record, if I was actually having a relationship with the music. But part of me knows that also having a relationship to all these other bands I’ve listened to, all these things that have happened in my life, what I think it means to like Drive-By Truckers – all these things that are really outside of the music, and I can’t get away from that anymore. Once you make that jump, you can’t go back.
You discuss the parallel between shock-rap act 2 Live Crew and stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay in your essay on vulgarity and the political correctness of the early-Nineties. As it relates to 2 Live Crew, you say that other acts may push the boundaries of vulgarity as far as them, but none will ever go further. And yet contemporary names like Riff Raff and Lil B come to mind as acts moving in a similar direction.
That’s the thing: you could argue that they are actually forwarding more problematic ideas than Andrew Dice Clay or 2 Live Crew. But what I find very interesting about that period of time, which was really sort of the apex of the collective argument about political correctness – we used to use this term all the time – that that argument pushed a certain kind of artist to a linguistic extreme. They were literally going to rap nursery rhymes that said the word “cunt” in them. That was the whole thing. It wasn’t even about the words meant. It was ‘we’re going to see how far we can use language to sort of offend people or upset people.’ Almost every aspect of culture has become more coarse; there is a reality to that claim. Like when people say that culture is coarsening, there’s some truth in that. I just think it’s really surprising that the two places where that hasn’t happened are stand-up comedy and hip-hop. Those are the two places that we most often use as a gauge for the most insane end of the cultural spectrum. And yet it was that period in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties where that kind of peaked. A character like Andrew Dice Clay would not work now. If there was a comedian whose whole act was doing consciously offensive material that didn’t necessarily have some incendiary idea inside of it, or if it was a hip-hop act who was incredibly profane and sexual but it didn’t seem like they were giving any injection of reality or any way of expressing the experience the audience might have, I don’t think that would work anymore. It only worked during that period where simply swearing was enough to be interesting.
A recent Playboy profile on Dice-Clay makes the argument that he‘s experiencing a comeback.
Here’s what I would say: all the things that are happening to him right now seem as though they are the signs of a comeback: a Woody Allen movie, which is shocking; Showtime has given him a special; he was on a series of episodes on Entourage. When you describe that in those terms it seems like the comeback is happening. When I mean the comeback won’t occur, I’m saying I don’t think the perception of him will ever change as it did for other controversial comedians who at one point were problematic and later in life are beloved. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen to him. He was Patient Zero in this war against political correctness that wasn’t really happening but people wanted to imagine was happening. And he was at the center of this. He’s been tied to this idea of shocking people for the worst possible reasons. If a comedian performs material that really is a reflection of who they are as a person – “This is me. I can’t be anyone else” – people will forgive that. And also people create a character – The Colbert Report is a great example. He’s totally created this character. People are like ‘OK, that’s almost an acting skill or an interpretive skill.’ But when someone’s in-between – when they’re halfway creating a character and halfway saying, “I am who I am” – people don’t forgive that over time. Because it seems like they want to have it both ways.
Fred Durst is one “villain” whose place in society you seem to have more trouble coming to terms with. You reference a hilarious anecdote where a junior staffer at a music magazine asked you why he hated Fred Durst.
I find him sort of a fascinating character. Not musically, but just sort of the space he occupies. It was the same way that both Creed and Nickelback had this experience. Hootie and the Blowfish went through this in the Nineties. I feel like Bush had this experience; Stone Temple Pilots, too: Bands or artists where it becomes absolutely acceptable to hate them arbitrarily. You can make an argument for what’s wrong with them musically or culturally. But that’s not even required. The kid who came up to me and asked me about Fred Durst, I just thought it was really fascinating that he was asking me why he hated Fred Durst. I found it a strange question. I thought that was something I should be asking him. It’s almost that he had started from the premise that he hated this guy and he just wanted someone to give him the words to explain why. I find that a very compelling idea. I’m just one of those people that sort of imagines most of what we believe socially is made up; it’s absolutely not real. It’s almost as though there’s certain feelings people want to have and they’re just gonna happen about something and if we can just collectively agree on what those things are we’ll all feel more comfortable.
In the past, you‘ve mentioned that your nonfiction books sell far better than your fiction. My hypothesis is that people feel a person can only do one thing exceptionally.
You’re totally right. It’s just that it sort of goes against the entire history of writing. Many writers wrote both fiction and nonfiction. That was an incredibly normal thing to do in the Nineteenth century and the early part of the Twentieth century. There’s still people doing that all the time: Jonathan Lethem writes both extremely well. But somehow in the past twenty-five or thirty years, the idea has kind of galvanized that fiction and nonfiction have this huge chasm between them. I guess the mentality to writing fiction is different than writing nonfiction, but not so profound that it doesn’t seem possible. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that if I’d written novels first and then starting writing nonfiction it would be the same thing, just in reverse.
In the preface of Black Hat, you make an intriguing observation: “I rarely remember the names or faces of nonfictional people.”
Well, there’s kind of a double meaning to that. And I suppose in some ways this is addressed throughout the book. When I say a fictional character, well, obviously I’m talking about someone in a novel. But also in some ways I’m talking about like, Mick Taylor. As far as I’m concerned Mick Taylor is a fictional person. For my real relationship with who he is and what he does, he’s a character who does something. And I know he’s a real person obviously. But that’s sort of what I meant. I often forget the names of people I actually met at a party. But when there’s people who I relate to for all practical purposes in a fictional manner – they are just a character in some story I’m consuming, even if that story is real – I always remember them. I don’t know why that is. I have no idea.
I can totally relate. I’ll remember the names of drummers of obscure bands but can’t remember someone I met the night before.
Apparently Tom Keifer from Cinderella has a new solo record out. We were talking about Cinderella and we were talking about the drummer for Cinderella, Fred Coury. And it seemed really weird to me that I remember who the drummer for Cinderella was. I like them as a band. But there are many people in my life whose name I’ve forgotten. But I can remember who Fred Coury is.
People had mixed reaction last year to your taking on the role as Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine. But I feel that you seem to take the same even-handed approach to most of your nonfiction work.
I’m glad you think that. That makes me happy. It’s true. One thing that I do not like about the culture as a whole is in my lifetime: people seem more comfortable with biased sources. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties there was this idea about objectivity. And the idea was that objectivity doesn’t exist because no person can be completely objective; no person can be a robot. Well that is true: no one can be perfectly objective. But in my mind the objective of journalism and nonfiction writing was to be totally aware of your own biases and be aware of them when you diagnose something. You try to get as close to an objective take as possible, while conceding that of course you’re still human. You’re going to have some feelings in there, but the reader should be able to detect that. The goal is to be as evenhanded as possible, particularly about things that you know you have a horse in the race on. So I would like to think that when I talk about, in one way, these objectively bad villains, in a subjective manner I am doing so fairly. Maybe I don’t. For the most part this is an entertaining book. I tried to write something that’s interesting that’s an accurate depiction of how I think about the world.
It’s funny you say that because I was curious how it was for you as a journalist to have the tables turned, and now have to discuss – and perhaps even justify – your work.
I appreciate a good interviewer: They’re asking you questions that haven’t occurred to you. And then you’re in this weird position of trying to give an interesting, meaningful response to something that you really are chewing on the spot and doesn’t really reflect who you are as a person. You know you have to answer this question because it was asked. The other thing is sometimes you get asked stuff that is a totally reasonable question but the thing they’re asking about is actually the thing you’re most naturally comfortable with so you don’t have to focus on it. I remember once I interviewed Jack White and I really wanted to talk to him about a couple guitar solos on one of the early [White Stripes] records. And it was very uncomfortable, because it was pretty clear that for him playing guitar solos was the most natural thing possible. So natural in fact that he didn’t have to have an intellectual understanding of it. So I had been thinking more about these solos than he had in some weird way. And for him it was the natural thing to do. If you ask a question about writing, if I had to think about it, maybe I couldn’t do it. When someone asks you about a passage from book and they sort of say to you, “What did you mean when you wrote this?” I always think to myself, “If I could be any more clear about this, I would have wrote it that way. The way I wrote it is my best attempt at getting this across. So I don’t really have any extra thoughts about it that are better.”