Q&A: Chuck Klosterman On Taylor Swift, Harry Potter, And LCD Soundsystem
Chuck Klosterman's 2003 book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto was unofficial required reading for everyone I knew in college. His thoughtful deconstructions of topics like heavy metal, Saved by the Bell, and Real World hit a nerve with pop culture–obsessed readers, helping pave the way for how we now discuss music, entertainment, and sports on the internet.
In his latest volume, X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, Klosterman collects some of his best nonfiction writing from the last decade, originally published in outlets like Esquire, Grantland, and The A.V. Club. The book tackles everything from Breaking Bad to Miley Cyrus, and includes his notable GQ cover stories on Taylor Swift and Tom Brady.
In the introduction to a feature on Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Klosterman notes that part of his job as a journalist is annoying people he admires. Upon getting the opportunity to interview him, I instantly understood what he meant.
Over email, we talked about everything from big magazine profiles of celebrities to commoditized internet nostalgia to whether he'll ever reverse his position on the Harry Potter series.
One of the biggest evolutions in pop music has been the idea that stars can use social media to control their own message, bypassing journalists and critics and going directly to their fans. How do you think celebrity profiles have changed in the social media era — for journalists and for the celebrities themselves?
Chuck Klosterman: I don't think celebrity profiles have changed at all, in the sense that 60 percent of them have always been pretty bad. Social media has very little impact on this. It's so rare that anyone — regardless of their level of celebrity — says anything legitimately interesting on Twitter. They're basically answering questions that no one would ever possibly ask. Before I interviewed Taylor Swift, I maybe looked at her Twitter feed once. Because if there's anything remotely meaningful on that feed, it inevitably migrates into the conventional media anyway.
In the collection, you have a piece on the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who it seems can’t publish a piece about bird-watching without running into backlash online. Conversely, in the introduction to your piece about Taylor Swift, you note that you would never write about how she looked or how she was dressed for fear of being perceived as misogynistic.
How much is the eventual audience of a piece in your mind when you write something versus the ideas you want to explore about a person?
Klosterman: That's an interesting question. In the past, I would have said that I barely considered the eventual audience at all, because that's borderline impossible. People don't know what they want until they get it, and cultural desire is such a weirdly specific quality that it can't be anticipated. All you can really do is write for some unknown version of yourself.
But the thing that has changed is that — now — many people only consume media so that they can respond to it online. They view everything as a two-way relationship, where their personal perspective matters as much as the story itself.
So now, when I publish anything, I need to consider the degree to which some people might lose their minds, and to weigh the abstract consequences of that reaction. Control of the public discourse has shifted to the extremists, in both directions. But that's been happening for a while now.
One of your essays in X is about your thoughts on nostalgia, which you wrote in 2011. It seems that in the last six years, nostalgia has continued to become more commoditized, to where you could argue that there was more buzz about the 20th anniversary of OK Computer than about the actual album of new material that Radiohead released last year. We now have a whole channel devoted to classic MTV; Pitchfork now releases reviews of “classic” records every Sunday.
Has the critical community’s perception of nostalgia changed since you wrote the piece? Is it more widespread because nostalgia is good for business, in that it’s easier to get someone to read something about music they’ve heard of versus an artist or album they haven’t?
Klosterman: It's very difficult for new ideas to find social traction, because there's so much competition. At this point, a new Radiohead song is literally competing with every song that has ever been released, including older Radiohead material. The amount of time people will invest in new music is limited, and that makes its meaning harder to quantify. But the meaning of OK Computer has already been galvanized by time.
People feel like they know what it signifies, or what it's supposed to signify, or what other people allege that it signifies. And that makes writing and thinking about it much easier.
In your piece about Danger Mouse and Gnarls Barkley, you have a footnote about how the perception of auteurism has changed since you wrote the story in 2006, replaced by the idea that “everything of value is inherently collaborative.” However, we’re also now in an era when the television showrunner is somewhat deified in the critical space, and pop stars release singles created with laundry lists of writers and producers yet arguably maintain the perception of being “auteurs.” There are many critics who revere David Lynch and Twin Peaks, or put Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar at the top of their year-end lists.
Why do you think this disconnect exists? Which side of the argument is winning?
Klosterman: In theory, people want to promote the idea of all things being collaborative, because that aligns with the political ideology of the moment. In practice, people are more fascinated by the possibility of one person's singular vision representing the totality of the art, because that's how we like to think about artists.
Look at it like this: If you asked someone, "What makes a good TV show?," without mentioning any specific program, they would likely say it's the orchestration of a good idea and a great script, directed by a talented showrunner who casts a lot of talented people within the context of a network that understands and supports the project.
But if you ask someone what makes Fargo a great TV series, they will immediately start talking about Noah Hawley. If you ask someone what's important about Scandal, they immediately focus on Shonda Rhimes. Critics view auteurism as "problematic," but auteurs are what people want.
You have a newer essay in X about people mourning online after the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. We just went through the process again with Chris Cornell. What was strange to me was that while David Bowie and Prince’s careers were unassailable, Cornell’s résumé was a bit more complex; I don’t think I had read a positive word about Audioslave in my entire life. Yet there were pieces about Cornell's music and legacy written in a way they hadn’t been in years. (A similar thing happened with Scott Weiland and Stone Temple Pilots.) It seems like, for some people, it’s not socially acceptable to say you like someone’s music until that person dies.
What happens when we get to the point when more people from nu metal and third-wave ska bands start dying? Why does it take someone dying to crack the critical consensus about something?
Klosterman: It depends on when these people die. If people who loved those bands as teenagers are coincidentally in positions of media influence when those artists start to die, you will see deep, heartfelt eulogies about guys from The Deftones that will feel totally justified.
I mean, look at what happened with pro wrestling: Whenever a pro wrestler from the 1980s dies, everybody writes about the guy like he was George Washington, even though nobody took that stuff seriously at the time. But that's fine. That's just how this works.
Obviously, if you had asked a lot of music critics what they thought about Superunknown two weeks before Cornell died, many of them would have made dismissive jokes, partially because the grunge era is such a great period to make jokes about. But after a death, we allow people to reverse their opinions and pretend the way they feel today is the way they've always felt. Which, on balance, is probably positive for society.
When someone dies, the dead person deserves 48 to 72 hours of people saying nice, semi-accurate things about their life. The real perception and meaning of his or her life will be defined by historians. The passage of time will remove the emotional component and shape the ultimate memory. But criticizing a person who just died yesterday is a form of narcissism.
You appeared in the LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits, which was about the band's ostensibly final show before breaking up. In the introduction to your 2010 piece in the Guardian about James Murphy, you note that you’re a little annoyed by the band’s reunion, but that the role in the film was a job you were paid to do, so “you got what you deserved.” The band received a bit of backlash for reuniting so soon, to the point where James Murphy had to explain and apologize to fans.
Do you feel like the criticism toward LCD Soundsystem's reunion is fair? What differentiates James Murphy’s decision to reunite the band from the several other artists who have “retired” and then made a return to the spotlight?
Klosterman: I don't know what "fair" or "unfair" represents in this equation. I suppose I retrospectively question the sincerity of the original decision, but people get to do what they want. I like their music, and it doesn't really make sense for someone who likes LCD Soundsystem to be upset that they're making music again. If you like the band, you should probably want them to exist.
My only disappointment was with how the reunion will impact the film, since the film was something I was actually part of. I feel like it's a pretty good concert movie that no one will ever watch again.
I’ve found that one of the more difficult things about the streaming era is how to navigate and manage your cultural consumption diet. You’re a big sports fan — half of X is made up of your sportswriting — but you’re also up to date on movies, music, and television. Now you have small kids, Netflix is dropping entire seasons of shows every Friday, and football and basketball seem to be on seven days a week.
How do you prioritize and keep up with your cultural consumption diet? What have you scaled back? How do you still find time to write?
Klosterman: My honest answer is that it's not a priority. It can't be. There is no way I can watch and hear everything I want to watch and hear. But because there is now so much more of everything, experiencing 25 percent of the culture in 2017 is still more immersive than experiencing 95 percent of the culture in 1980.
And writing is just something I'm compelled to do. I mean, if I'm not writing, what am I doing?
And just for fun: You have an essay in the book about not being a part of the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Since that piece was published, you’ve become a father.
Do you now expect to one day enter the world of Harry Potter? When should we look forward to your book of essays on the Harry Potter universe?
Klosterman: I'll be pretty happy if my kids want me to read them 500-page books about fucking wizards.