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Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Klosterman (w/cornrows and a pudge)

OK, OK, so I rip on Pitchfork a lot for having horrible, short-sighted reviews. (Speaking of which, there hasn't been much to say lately, although I did want to say a few words about the Rapture review. Have they really changed their ways? Have I made a difference? Those college brochures were right!) And justifiably so: sometimes their pieces are just bitter hack jobs, a series of insults without any particular justification, meant purely for the entertainment of sour indie snobs, doing little to advance the music they profess to love but doing their own little bit to sink it slower and slower into the morass of insularity. They have published some bad, bad reviews.

But then there's this: the worst review ever. And it's not even in Pitchfork. It's a book review, of Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by one Mr. Mark Ames.

And the fact that it's a book review is probably the problem. Yeah, people are starting to doubt that kickoff manifesto in the Believer, but hopefully the ol' snark watch (currently featuring the above review at top) will pick up soon, presumably as soon as they get me to write for the Believer. (Hear that, Andrew?) But it's true that the harshest reviews are book reviews, because...well, because they're written by writers about writing, so there're whole other issues of bitterness and jealousy tied up there. If there was a good way for musicians to do harsh reviews in song, there would probably be some pretty stinging pissing matches there too. (Do we count "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Takedown"? Writers, lacking abilities in certain areas (socially if not physically, almost always--c.f. David Foster Wallace's essay about how being a writer turns you into an observer rather than a participant, and vice versa) learn to defend themselves with words. And that defense then becomes an offense as other more blatant modes of conflict fall out of fashion outside of adolescence. As Dalton Conley puts it, "thinking of a quick retort...was the perfect training...That's what we do. We sit around snapping on each other." And as a friend of mine likes to point out, going to college and majoring in one of the disciplines that requires less of your logic-and-thoroughness skills and more of your arguing skills (English, politics, etc.) gets you to this point where you can pretty much argue any point with anyone successfully. This is undeniably a useful skill, but we have to be careful how we use it, and too often we become enamored of how entertaining and enjoyable it can be to zing really funny, witty, harsh insults at each other. And sure, it's funny, but you kind of have to be aware of how you're doing it. Ripping on someone who won't hear it is one thing, ripping on your friend in a bar another, ripping on a public figure another, and all of these are OK, but you sort of need to be aware of the context. And you very much need to be aware when you're doing it to a peer. So there's the Bowers way--which ends up being kind of nice despite the exceedingly funny snaps he gets in there--and then there's the Mark Ames way. (Which is not so different from the Chris Ott way, but that's another story.)

Let's knock down the obvious ones first. Geez, let's see: there's the focus on the author photograph, which Ames spends four paragraphs talking about, and along with the fact that he mainly talks about the book's cover, the book's title, the book's prologue, and the first few essays, it sure does sound like Ames didn't really prep well for this particular book report. There's the repeated use of a made-up word he never defines, "Beigeist" (it's even capitalized for no reason!), which was so bad even Gawker readers talked about it. There's the idea of accusing Klosterman of "coming off as a sex offender," which is such a low standard that it makes me wonder if he thinks Jarvis Cocker looks like someone who masturbates onto the pope's hat every night. There's the fact that Ames' own personal bitterness, jealousy and resentment are so close to the surface that it's embarrassing even to someone who disagrees with him.

And there's the fact that his main argumentative technique is to quote a bunch of things Klosterman said and then let them lay there, like it's so obvious how wrong they are that he doesn't even have to waste his time explaining it to us. So, for instance, here's one of his rebuttals: "Are you scratchin’ your chins over that one, Gen-X- and Gen-Yers? I dunno–my forefinger and thumb are getting pretty raw; I need a special chin-scratching machine to help me through all the thoughts that one inspires. There’ll be nothing but bone and tendon hanging from my lower jaw by the time I figure it out." Now, it's funny when it's on the Simpsons--that bit about the electric clue-finding machine and whatnot. But in an ostensibly substantial and argumentative book review? Uh, not so much. The problem with reviews like this is that since the author is "smart" and he has become very very convinced of his own smartness, he has a really hard time admitting that other people might have legitimate disagreements with him, especially when it comes to things that are subjective rather than objective, and as such just tends to dismiss things out of hand that actually require a bit more elaboration. Like this:

"Billy Joel is great."

Wrong. And someone should pick up a chair and crack it over Klosterman’s head for writing this.

The extra special problem with this is that the quote isn't a random observation on Klosterman's part; it's actually the point of the whole goddamn essay it comes out of. He acknowledges that other people might disagree and he spends a few pages trying to convince them otherwise. In other words, there are other things Ames could have taken issue with about Billy Joel than just the outright statement. Klosterman, in other other words, has already proved him wrong.

But by far the biggest sin this review commits is...well, let me put it in a dictionary definition so it's clear.

miss·ing the fuck·ing point v. colloq. [superl. really missing the fucking point.]
1. Not quite getting it. "Dude, I think you're missing the fucking point."
2. [motion of palm passing over head accomp. by imitated sound of plane]
3. Mark Ames

[Middle English mysnyg thee fyceng pynt, from Old English cl?less. See mis- in Indo-European Roots.]

The point he's missing is that Klosterman does not always mean exactly what he says. I can see some of you bristling out there, worried that I'm going to use the word "irony" (I could, since he's being actually ironic instead of "I'm-making-a-joke-about-Webster" ironic, but I won't), but let's think this through. Klosterman doesn't mean everything he says. Sometimes he may, in fact, even mean the exactly opposite of what he says. He may not believe in what he's saying at all. But this is OK for two reasons. First, it's a book about fucking Saved By the Bell and Billy Joel, not a book delineating the administration's foreign policy. It's a standard literary device, and it's OK. But the other reason it's OK is because it's actually pretty damn useful and really really effective.

So, for instance, Ames complains about the essay in which Klosterman blames John Cusak for his inability to sustain a relationship because Cusak has projected this particular romantic charm that no normal guy can live up to ("This is Emo"). Ames, predictably, responds to this mainly by saying that Chuck can't get wimmins acause he's ugly, but in the midst of this 12-paragraph, um, critique, he does make two substantive objections, and examining these might be illuminating.

#1: 'Underlying this lame point of media criticism is the false notion that other people, not Chuck of course, are incapable of distinguishing media fictions from reality–a stupid premise that was marginally interesting long ago in the hands of Barthes, Baudrillard and Gitlin, but deserving of a milkshake on the head in the case of Klosterman. Only hack media critics believe that "regular" people are somehow more susceptible to the pop culture bacillus than they are, probably because they don’t spend time among these "regular" people.'

Absolutely wrong. What's underlying this essay, instead, is Chuck's own implication in the whole scheme. I'd be the first to pounce if he was indeed doing what Ames is accusing him of, since it's one of the things that really bugs me about media criticism. But he doesn't. Midway through he even says, "personally, I would never be satisfied unless my marriage was as good as Cliff and Clair Huxtable's (or at least as enigmatic as Jack and Meg White's)" and he finishes the essay by saying "I want fake love. But that's all I want, and that's why I can't have it." For the love of everything fried, the essay's called "This is Emo." Klosterman is clearly putting himself squarely in the center of this problem. It is, in fact, this quality--of simultaneous self-effacement and honest implication--that makes the essays so effective. They're not mocking his lessers: he's writing about horrible pop culture artifacts he himself absolutely loves, and in some cases, is even kind of obsessed with. And anyway, we really all do do this, if not with TV or movies, then with books (the Madam Bovery thing) or biography (politicians getting a bit too into their idols, etc.). We're all part of this. Even Ames, a man who, after all, moved to fucking Russia to escape the tyranny of prime-time television, which is one of the most fucking melodramatic things I've ever heard. If you want to get away from USA consumerism, Mark, there's always Canada.

#2: 'Sick thing is, Klosterman, as a proud North Dakotan hick, spent all too much time with "regular" folks. He knows their presumed susceptibility is a lie, but also knows that this lie is what the coastal Beigeocracy [the what now? -ed] wants to hear. He’s only too willing to sell them all out in order to please his Manhattan masters, who have their own set of clichés that they expect to read. Hence, this gem of a media-crit cliche: "The mass media causes sexual misdirection: It prompts us to need something deeper than what we want."'

As we know from the Billy Joel thing above, Ames has a problem with taking things out of context, and this is no exception. This quote doesn't refer to Cusak, but instead to Woody Allen. And here's how that section begins:

'Of course, this media transference is not all bad. It has certainly worked to my advantage, just as it has for all modern men who look and talk and act like me. We all owe our lives to Woody Allen. If Woody Allen had never been born, I'm sure I would be doomed to a life of celibacy.'

So he's not, in fact, dumbly railing against the evils of the media's mediation of desire; he's saying it can be kind of cool sometimes. And the Woody Allen point is a fucking fantastic one. Here's what comes right after the quote Ames pulls: "This is why Woody Allen has made nebbish guys cool; he made people assume there is something profound about having a relationship based on witty conversation and intellectual discourse. There isn't. It's just another gimmick, and it's no different then wanting to be with someone because they're thin or rich or the former lead singer of Whiskeytown." So yeah, there's nothing profound about having a Woody Allen relationship, but there's nothing profound about having any relationship. This is the point. The mass media convinces us that there is some meaning there, but that's OK, because that seems to help us out, relationship-wise (gotta narrow down the field somehow besides our random seuxal tastes), same as with music, or literature, or anything. It's all pretty much subjective. Then again, sometimes that actually fucks things up, confuses them. And it's that ambiguity that's so useful, because really, that original "bullshit media critique" had some real value to it. It's just been oversold and we can't really say it without wincing anymore. Klosterman's doing his best to reclaim and refine it for us.

What Ames doesn't realize is that he and Klosterman are both using that power of lethal argumentation that I talk about above, but Ames is using it for evil, and Klosterman is using it for good. Klosterman doesn't really believe that John Cusak can be blamed for the failure of his relationship; he even says as much: "And someone needs to take the fall for this. So instead of blaming no one for this (which is kind of cowardly) or blaming everyone (which is kind of meaningless), I'm going to blame John Cusak." But he does believe in the other points he's making, about the possible dangers of fictional images (a theme explored in Don Quixote for the love of criminey) and the problems of romance and Woody Allen. But if he stated them outright, they wouldn't hit as hard. So he's working his way around to them; he's, you know, writing. If comedy is the "sheen" or "overproduction" of literature, then like with Justin, you need to look beyond that here to the remarkable subtlety underneath. Klosterman isn't just trying to bludgeon us over the head with a supposedly self-evident truth like Ames is; he's trying to give us arguments we can use. And he does so over and over again.

I really love Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. It's a goddamn great book. One essay is about Saved By the Bell and is so amazingly geeky about it that I can't help but identify. One essay is about a Guns 'n' Roses cover band that has some of the best lines I've ever heard in my life, and Chuck clearly really likes these guys. One essay is about the Dixie Chicks and how teenage girls are the new teenage boys. And a whole lot of other stuff which I may or may not comment on in the future, including a real bit of scholarship about Kid Rock that was, hands down, the smartest thing I've read in the last 6 months that wasn't written by Hannah Arendt.

And one essay is about The Real World and how since that's been on, every single American under 30 now acts like one of the 9 personality types adopted by cast members of that show. Again, this is clearly not true, but it is interesting. And that's what I like about Klosterman: he doesn't go half-assed on these things. He gets an idea and he just runs with it, not because he thinks it's right so much as because he's interested in where it will take him. And that's a technique I really like. One of the problems with criticism is that we're so concerned with taste--understandable, since it's the closest thing we have to theorems or formulas, real, quantifiable things you can base scholarship on--that we can't get beyond it. Klosterman's not even really doing the reverse-snob backflip, since it's clear from even a cursory survey of the Real World essay, among others, that he is way too obsessive about these programs to be liking them "ironically." This is a real and genuine love, and he is neither ashamed of it or proud of it; he just has it, and he uses that to go somewhere. I think too often critics find themselves liking something and then resist it, or find some reason to dislike it, but aside from my usual point about how dumb it is to say no to pleasure, I think these Klosterman essays prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how really liking something you're not supposed to can lead you to a conclusion just as valid as if you started from Blood on the Tracks.

My time here is almost done (see, you wait three years for the album and then it's a double-disc), but before I go, let me just address the issue of geographic bias/determinism.

Mark Ames lived in America, but he got disgusted with "all the other Gen-Xers who never even had the brains or guts to wade into the margins in the first place." And so he moved to Russia (aided in no way, I'm sure, by money gained from the same shallow Amerikkkan system that produces such soul-killing hogwash, etc.) and writes about Russian whores. No comment necessary, I guess, although I will say that his critique makes one wonder how he can accuse Klosterman of peddling "shallow media criticism" with a straight face.

Chuck Klosterman grew up in North Dakota, moved to New York City and is now editor of Spin. He has written a book called Fargo Rock City about loving heavy metal and growing up in the midwest. These facts irk some people; Ames for one, of course (sample: 'I suppose this must go over well with his Manhattan handlers, who just love "authentic" hicks who can write roughly the same Beigeist-intellectual drivel as they while still keeping to their "roots." Here Klosterman is the hick equivalent of an Oreo...'), but it's apparently a widespread idea. See, for instance, here:

With his autobiographical yarns about communing with heavy metal culture in rural North Dakota in the mid-to-late-'80s, it's rather evident (to those keeping score) how Klosterman hit the right notes to break into the NYC media--a creature from the land of slackjawyed yokels who figured out how to channel his earnest consumption of mass produced glam rock into a memoir that resonated with the medium funny set because it was just folksy enough.

The basic gist of all this Klosto-bashing is that he can't possibly actually be like this, and moreover, no one from those flyover states we've never actually lived in but feel a lot of sympathy for could possibly agree with him. It's only elitist Manhattanites! This reminds me of the argument a while back that Saving Schmidt was insulting to Midwesterners, that it was just reinforcing its big-city audiences' stereotypes. The problem with that, of course, was that the people saying this were elitist Manhattanites themselves, not Midwesterners, and they had only seen the movie at preview screenings in Manhattan; in other words, they were just, you know, assuming that people from the Midwest would be insulted, purely on the evidence that non-Midwesterners thought the movie was funny. I saw it in Indiana, and it was both well-attended and well-enjoyed, and I got similar reports from three or four other Midwestern states. Now, you could make the argument that these people were just too dumb to realize they were being mocked, but is that an argument you really want to make? Is that an argument you want to make about anyone from North Dakota who likes Klosterman? I'd have a lot more faith in these particular critiques if they weren't being made by guys in Moscow and Toronto and were being made by guys in Fargo. (Of course, they're too "out of the loop" to understand the complicated politics of the big-city media game, right?) All the Midwesterns I know who've read Klosterman have absolutely loved it and were not offended at all. When you're wondering why some guy you don't like is successful, you have to consider the horrible possibility that he might just be really good. It's possibly, maybe even likely, that Chuck Klosterman got hired at some publications because the editors were riding a hick-authenticity fantasy. But it's nearly certain that he gets read and liked because he's a great fucking writer.