Unpretentious populist 

Essays from the real world

It would be a minor tragedy if a title this cool wound up sucking, so I’m happy to report that Spin magazine staff writer Chuck Klosterman has followed his ass-kicking heavy metal memoir, Fargo Rock City, with an über ass-kicking and entirely not-sucking essay collection.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs mines such topics as Internet porn, why soccer will always be a loser’s sport, and how Pamela Anderson has been crucified for our sins.

Klosterman embodies all that’s good about populist intellectuals. (For all that’s bad, see Jim Hightower at www.jimhightower.com.) His conversational voice makes it easy to imagine him yapping these essays into my ear in a dive bar or the bleachers of a forgotten minor league ballpark. (Requisite props to The New Yorker, but I’ve never once imagined Hendrik Hertzberg spilling beer on my lap while kickin’ it on national security.)

Klosterman’s populism is entrenched in his subject matter: low culture. What makes him not merely a good writer, but an important one, is that his passion for “low” culture is accessible, infectious, funny and profound. He does not just stay in the realm of geekland, but connects it to larger social concerns. Academics tread the same turf by deploying unreadable theoretical jargon to make pop culture as obtuse as Proust, arguing that poodles are not elephants, i.e., that Indiana Jones films are not about feminism. Klosterman, on the other hand, uses ordinary language to excavate the counterintuitive.

Take, for example, his argument that amateur online porn is a quasi-Marxist attack on celebrity worship: “There are certainly differences between the nipples of Alyssa Milano and the nipples of an Olive Garden waitress in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” he writes, “but the similarities greatly outweigh the disparities. Web surfers are robbing celebrities of their privacy and—in effect—stealing back power.” Granted, any number of Ph.D. candidates might make the same point, it just would take them 20,000 more words, most of them being “discursive,” “phenomenological,” and “counter-hegemonic.”

In “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” the author admits to being an amateur Real World scholar who’s watched every episode of its 12 seasons no less than three times. His premise is that The Real World constructed broad twenty-something archetypes that were quickly adopted by the same demographic. The networks searched not for people but for types, which Klosterman calls “the ______ guy.” Folks whose single-issue identity (black militant, gay militant, naïve hick) is instantly apparent by the second commercial break. This, he claims, filtered down into the populace where friends he knew would suddenly discuss the imperative of “confronting” a roommate. His big fear is that TRW’s legacy is a pervasive sense that “being interesting is being replaced by being identifiable.”

Klosterman doesn’t make the same mistake made by so many culture writers, which is to presume that our taste says anything significant about who we are. It’s a welcome sentiment because it confirms that he’s not just another snarky critic trying to assert the superiority of his tastes or, worse still, that his tastes lend him depth.

Not only can this guy make you care about the Dixie Chicks (pre-Enemy-of-the-State Dixie Chicks, that is!), but he’ll make you ashamed you ever said that you “like all music except country.” He’ll even make you realize that Billy Joel’s complete inability to craft a persona of rock star coolness has led to the widespread and unjust perception that he is “the FM version of AM.”

In “Ten Seconds to Love,” he breaks down the mystique of Pamela Anderson. To get in good with an office full of women, Klosterman argues, all a heterosexual man has to do is claim not to be attracted to the modern day Marilyn Monroe. But hating Pamela Anderson, in Klosterman’s mind, is an entirely conscious decision that does not bode well for the American psyche. Kick it Chuck:

“What they hate is that Pamela Anderson is the incarnation of the perfect, idealized icon we all sort of concede is supposed to be impossible. We’ve established this unrealistic image of what we want from the human race, but it angers people to see that image in real life. It sort of shows why most Americans hate themselves.”

In the sense that any emerging writer you’ve never heard of is on his way to a greatness that will render him still unheard of, Klosterman is skyrocketing to the pinnacle of minor celebrity. My hope is not that he’ll grow up and say goodbye to all things Cocoa Puff, but that he’ll take on some new subject matter.

Because if this guy can make me care, or even think twice, about Billy Joel or The Dixie Chicks or some stupid virtual reality game I’ll never play, imagine what he could do with Iraq, or health care or Joe Lieberman. Well, maybe not Lieberman.

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