Monday, February 09, 2009

Chuck Klosterman, "IV- A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas" (2006)

You have to be either extremely pretentious or tragically hip to bill your own book as containing "dangerous ideas" in the contemporary media environment. Chuck Klosterman certainly fits into the latter category. Throw him in the bundle of latter day pop culture critics that insist on injecting a self-conscious and irreverent post-modernism into their work. I'm under the impression that IV has been named to reference the number of books that the author has been successful in publishing previously. It's also apparently a shout-out to what Klosterman considers the genesis of the heavy metal rock genre- the Led Zeppelin album of the same name. That's a heady presumption for someone analyzing the state of modern music.

It's easy to make fun of a guy like Klosterman, who commits his rather formidable wit and imagination to topics as inane as Brittany Spears, classic rock tribute bands, and the movie Road House. In fact, a quick Google search will provide plenty of exposure to the vast pool of negative reaction to Klosterman's antics. But all of this should be taken in context. The periodicals that the Minnesota-native has written for have been an odd mix of mass market pap and respected establishment vehicles (GQ, Esquire, The Washington Post, Spin, The Believer, etc.). Sure, his attitude is decidedly populist, but that kind of approach is increasingly in vogue in this post-ironic environment.

That's not to say that Chuck Klosterman is without a certain degree of cynicism. He is perfectly capable of identifying the worst instincts of the American collective consciousness. Still he seems to be beholden to a Midwestern respect for the everyman. In one essay, he absolutely rejects the notion of a lightly-held "guilty pleasure". He points out that one may actually derive enjoyment from something morally unsound, but that's not what people mean by the term. Klosterman is stridently defensive about his tastes. He insists that his love for Billy Joel, KISS, and other bad hair metal bands is sincere. The last thing he would feel compelled to do is apologize for his preferences.

What you have to understand about this collection of essays is that Klosterman takes his subjects seriously, regardless of whether he is analyzing the contributions of a white basketball player, the significance of Johnny Carson, the lyrics of a British hip-hop artist, or a rock-and-roll cruise featuring the likes of REO Speedwagon, STYX, and Journey. If mass consumption disturbs you, it is likely that the themes throughout IV might leave you a bit cold. This is a guy who suggests that one of society's greatest needs is more substantial video game criticism, and he is convinced that anyone that fills that niche will be wealthy. But he'll also let you know that he doesn't necessarily have time for that.

It would be foolish to say that Klosterman's writing is devoid of compelling insight. Oftentimes he is provocative and original in his ideas. There may be a high level of superficiality, yet the spectrum of social commentary includes a wavelength for which he is ideally suited. And he is clever. One of the features of IV that I found interesting was the inclusion of inquiry-based introductions for each piece. In order to draw the reader into what may be a litany of observations about minutiae, Klosterman posits some "very big questions". An example: Would you rather be anonymous, or remembered for something completely peripheral to how you lived your life? It seems to me that Chuck Klosterman is hedging his bets.

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