With his new book, titled X, Chuck Klosterman proves once again that he knows a dissertation-worthy amount about a few connected subjects—namely music and sports. He’s a spider sitting in the middle of his vastly specific web, running his thoughts up and down the signal threads with a freedom most of us lack. So if you want a paradoxically deep but approachable dive into any given subject around his two loci, Klosterman is your man.
All of this matters, because writing about popular culture has never been more, well, popular than it is now. Anyone’s soapbox can serve as both a career launching point and as a form of convoluted art. Of course, the democratization of cultural writing means that there’s now more static than signals, and tuning in to only worthy frequencies is not only impossible in the subjective sense but the objective; there’s just too much noise. (And by virtue of writing a cultural essay on cultural essays, I’m contributing to and benefitting from this noise myself).
Which is why a book like X and an author like Klosterman stand out. His essays are rooted in his journalistic credibility and the quality of outlets where his essays live. Klosterman can spend 10,000 words writing about KISS, and it is not ponderous (well, maybe) or ridiculous (again, well, maybe). Why? Because he actually met and interviewed KISS for Grantland, a highly regarded, dearly departed site.
In short, Klosterman is obviously intelligent, and he obviously cares about popular culture.
This makes us forget that all writing on popular culture—and pretty much everything else, lest you think I’m only biting the hand that feeds me—is kind of ridiculous. But not, I make pains to note, pointless. To discount the power of pop culture would be tantamount to waving away the powers of religion or politics, to name-check more esteemed elements of culture. Pop culture is just as powerful; it’s just that taking it too seriously is … uncool.
It is telling, then, that X looks like an imperious book. It boasts a flat black cover with white type and page edges that look like they were dipped in squid ink. The only thing missing is plastic wrap to guard against hands pawing through the pristine tome. Contrast this downright sexy appearance with the copy on the back cover, however, its tongue-in-cheek raison d’être: “A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century.” The very book itself mimics the cultural essay—important but inherently unnecessary.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! Klosterman is a master of the high-low, his writing the rhetorical equivalent of Paul Rudd’s Amnesty International shirt in Clueless. He injects a level of intellectual rigor into subjects that receive precious little in comparison to their importance to the average person. Not that the average person would read Klosterman; it takes a particular type to love the cultural essay, one comfortable enough to adore popular culture from the fringes.
These people exist, obviously—one is writing this essay right now—and with the advent of the Internet they have, like all other specific groups, found new ways to coalesce into something more important yet less relevant than they ever were before. Their proclivities are trickling into the general population; BuzzFeed’s Rewind vertical is the incontrovertible, enjoyable proof. But this cheap listing of memories, good for a sugar rush, does none of the heavy lifting Klosterman does.
Klosterman’s essays matter, because—despite focusing on a bunch of middle-aged-white-guy-things—their content tackles well-known subjects. These are not meditations on obscure punk records; these are treatises on KISS, for fuck’s sake. It’s like pulling David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster from a black backpack covered in Toy Machine patches and poorly rendered Sharpie doodles. Klosterman pulls the literary equivalent of Jeff Koons’ art—validating your love of something with nary a pat on the head in sight.
With X, Klosterman wallows in the trivial—not even Led Zeppelin is that important in the face of physics—but he’s not trivializing. Instead, he’s “effectively narcissistic” (which is, coincidentally, how he describes the lyrics on Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy), proving that culture essays can teach us something about ourselves and the people around us. By focusing his energy on topics we have collectively deemed “worth it” via some plurality, each of his essays is a love letter to a moment.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.