Author Chuck Klosterman brings his inimitable brand of pop culture postulating to the Mercantile Library’s 2035 Lecture, a forward-thinking discussion that will focus on his 2016 book But What If We’re Wrong? We chatted with him about Trump, the media, and Paul Westerberg’s early stuff.
You do a lot of these readings/lectures—how do you generally like to approach them?
Well, it depends on what the audience is like. What I usually do is come out and talk for about 10 minutes, then maybe read for 15 minutes, then talk for 10 minutes more, then I just take questions from that point on. Unless it’s a scenario in which I can tell there will be no questions, or there’s going to be 1,000 questions. Then I skew either way. Sometimes I think I should just take questions, because I suspect that when people go see a writer, they have access to the books, and I just think reading aloud is incredibly boring to watch, so I assume what people want is to have access to the person who wrote the thing that they already read or plan to read. But in some situations, you can just tell that people are there to watch an event, and then you have to read.
Is there a standard reading for each book you do or subject you talk about, or do you cater it to each event and location?
Yeah, I talk about current events. Sometimes I talk about what my hotel room is like. Sometimes I’ll talk about what I remember about other times I’ve been to Cincinnati, or the handful of things I know about the city. Sometimes I talk about the room in which I’m giving the lecture. It depends—do people have to pay to get into this?
You can pay to be a member of the library, and if that’s the case, it’s free. If you’re not a member, it’s like $10.
That affects it too. I always feel if it’s a free event, I can kind of do whatever I want, dress how I want. But if people are paying money, I have some obligation to give a show that corresponds with that investment. If it’s $5 to get in, I think my talk has to be good as a lot of candy. Or if it’s $12 to get in, I need to be as good as a Rush cover band. One time I gave a talk that was like $25 to get in, so then I had to wear a suit. I thought if someone pays $25, they are going to want to see someone in a suit.
I realize this is a somewhat meta question for an interview, but you have this reputation where people want to ask you pensive, introspective questions, and expect interesting answers. Is this a persona or reputation you enjoy?
Well, it’s not really a persona in the sense that I don’t find answering abstract questions that difficult. If people were asking me math questions—the square root of a large number—that’d be difficult to do live. But when somebody just wants my opinion on politics, or sports, or a film, if I’ve ever thought about the thing before, I obviously have some sort of an opinion, and it tends to be a generally subjective query, or sort of a philosophical query where I’ve unconsciously thought about the problem before. It doesn’t seem that hard to me because of what’s at stake. I used to think about this when I wrote The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine; people would ask if I felt a lot of pressure answering these questions. I never saw it that way, because it’s pretty clear that I have a limited degree of influence. If someone wrote a question to The Ethicist about whether they should get plastic surgery and whether it was inherently superficial, I would say what I thought about that fully aware that I don’t then have to do the surgery. I guess it’s just my personality.
You’ve written about a ton of different topics in your career. You started as a music critic, but is there a genre of questions you get most often?
It does depend on the venue. It also depends very often on the nature of the first question I am asked. I have found that if I do a book event, and the first question is about the Cincinnati Bengals, I’ll probably get mostly sports questions. If it’s about Guided By Voices, I’ll get more music. It seems as though people are very much affected by what they think other people want to know about. This is sort of a cliché thing, but when the audience is mostly young males, it’s mostly sports and hard rock. When the audience is heavily female, they tend to ask more questions about the books themselves. And if the audience is older, they want to know about politics, or me specifically—how did you get into the position to come to this library and lecture us about reality? Which is a good question.
How do you feel you have changed as a writer and critic over the course of your career?
I’ve been doing this for 25 years. In those 25 years, I have changed a lot as a person, as anyone does. What’s different about being a writer is that there are concrete examples of how you once used to be. If someone reads Fargo Rock City, which I wrote in 1998-99, they are going to come to the event as if the book they just read is the person they are going to see. They are actually going to have a closer understanding of what I was like as a 28-year-old than I do. I see that through the prism of who I am now, imagining a younger version of the current me, which isn’t actually how it is. I think the main thing that has changed is that I have gotten technically better as a writer, and certainly more rationale as someone who thinks about problems. The downside is that the writing is less loose, more constricted. There’s an upside and a downside. Let’s use music as an example. I’m sure Paul Westerberg believes that he is better as a songwriter now than he was in his 20s, and by any objective measure, he is. And yet many people would prefer the early Replacements work to what he’s doing now. Because what they actually want is not technical perfection, but a sense that what they are hearing is real and resonates with them on an emotional level. This is something I worry about. I realize as I get better at doing this, it might not scan as better to people consuming it.
Do you feel people are more critical or have higher expectations now?
Maybe. It’s odd. My second book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, was very popular, maybe more than all of my other books combined. From that point on, there was initially an expectation that I was going to write these huge, best-selling books. But what seemed to happen was that there were a certain number of people in the world interested in these books, and every time I wrote one, I would have to see how many of those people I could convince to stay interested. But then this last book came out (But What if We’re Wrong?) and sold better than any book I’d ever done in hardcover, and seemed to reach people who had not even read the other books. So now I don’t know. I did sort of think that, at least from a commercial perspective, I had peaked. That’s what seemed to have happened. And that I could sustain a career, but it would never be as big as it once was. Now I don’t know what will happen.
Do you think the success of But What if We’re Wrong? had something to do with the broad nature of the book?
I think it was an idea that many people immediately understood and intuitively related to. You can describe what that book is very quickly to someone. I think that it probably expanded into an audience who doesn’t necessarily care about popular culture, which is sort of where I was before. If people didn’t like my work before, it was because they didn’t get the references, or didn’t want to spend time reading about something they associate as frivolous entertainment.
Is it the most research/reporting you’ve done for a book?
Well, I suppose. Actually I suppose Fargo Rock City was because I had accidentally been researching it for 25 years. But yes, from the amount of work I did from the inception of the book to the end, yes.
Was that something you intended to do?
If I’m going to write about the possibility that we’re wrong about universally held beliefs, I first had to establish what those universally held beliefs are. So I had to talk to these experts to define what we think will happen. And then I would work from the possibility of that being incorrect. Working in newspapers and magazines, there was lots of reporting involved, and I think initially I got into book writing because it sort of freed me from that in a way. Instead of reacting to other people’s ideas, I could have my own. So it felt closer to that, but the obstruction was invented by me, so it didn’t feel like I was being stopped. It was a choice.
One thing that book made me think about a lot, which you touch on a little bit in it, was whether the premise is an affirmation or indictment of faith and religion.
I think part of the reason we suspect we could be wrong about our view of reality now is that we were clearly wrong about our view of reality from the past, and that was very often an extension of religion. Now it’s a much different world. The U.S. is still a very religious country—religion is still the dominant social factor in our society—but the intellectual community sort of works from a purely secular position. We live in a secular reality now. It seems as though a secular reality should be more stable than a religious-based reality, because a religious based reality allows the person to explain away problems. We don’t have that option now. We tried to replace that option. I think sometimes that’s what the scientific community is trying to do. They’re trying to create the illusion that we understand things that cannot be understood. So in some ways that is really just filling the role of religion, but in a different way—it’s not oppressive. It’s almost as though they are saying, you don’t have to believe this, but you’re crazy if you don’t. As opposed to religion, which says, you have to believe this or you’re a bad person.
I guess I was thinking from the point of view of that chapter about gravity: In 500 years, our understanding of gravity is likely to be different, but the basic principle of Christianity will ostensibly be the same.
Right—we change textbooks, but we don’t change the Bible. Or at least we haven’t for a long time. They did initially, so maybe that’s a bad example. But when you say to people, What if we’re wrong? Maybe we’re wrong about these commonly held ideas, people will naturally apply the thing that they are opposed with. If you ask a scientist, what if we’re wrong about the way we view reality, they will say yes, it’s crazy that 80 percent of the country believes in angels. But if you say that to a religious person, they will do the complete opposite and say, you’re right, science can’t explain everything, there are still these missing gaps in our understanding. I think that gets back to your previous question—the reason people might be drawn to this book is that it allows them to feel more secure in whatever it is that they don’t believe.
You mentioned starting out in newspapers. With the way the current Trump presidency is going and this constant search and push for truth, do you feel like that will cause a swing back to reporting and investment in that type of newspaper journalism? Or are we past that point?
No, it won’t swing back, because as it turns out, the media played a huge role in Trump’s election, by doing what they believed is right. And when I say they, I’m talking about institutional media—The New York Times, The Washington Post. What they believed they needed to do was take an adversarial relationship with Trump, because the idea of him being president was legitimately dangerous. So they took an aggressive stance against him in way they’ve never really done with a modern politician, and what that actually did is validate Trump’s claim that the media was out to get him, which I think convinced a lot of people that what he was saying was true. It’s a hard thing. In retrospect this now seems obvious, but the media would have been better off covering the election objectively and allowing people to make a decision based on what they saw these people saying. But what the media really did was galvanize this idea that the conspiracies Trump was promoting were real. They always look at Trump’s approval rating and that it was so low. It was the same with Hillary, so they kept saying, whoever wins, it will be the least popular president of all time. But the approval rating of the media is even lower—it’s like below congress or lawyers. So this idea that the media will be the antidote to this presidency seems completely impossible to me. Because the media is the only thing people seem to like less than Trump.
I listened to a recent podcast you did in which you were discussing Trump and his impact on culture, and I was intrigued by your point about how you think it’s problematic that everyone seems to be viewing everything in life and culture through the lens of the election and the Trump presidency. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone make that argument.
No one else is, because what they don’t want to admit is that all criticism is a kind of fashion. All public discourse. And right now, perceiving everything through a political lens is fashionable. It’s not so much that people have this desire to be cool or trendy, it’s just that it’s the only content that people care about at the moment. If you were to review the movie Get Out non-politically, I can’t imagine anyone reading it. If you did, the writer would be criticized—that kind of review would be perceived as somewhat racist by denying the central question. That’s just the period we’re in now. The real question is this: Is this how it is going forward, and it will always be this way, or is this a moment in time? The early ’90s were a little like this too, when political correctness was a new idea, everything was jammed through that construct, and then it swung back.
I was curious if you felt like it had been like this before.
The Bush election in 2000, that was a complicated deal because going in to that election, there was this belief that the two candidates were almost identical. The race being so close seemed to support that premise, so people seemed upset more with the process breaking down more than the guy we ended up with. Of course there were partisan people, but it was as if we were making this choice between people who were fundamentally the same. Obama was different because there were people invested in him who had never been interested in politics before. This actually hurt him as his administration went on, because those supporters disappeared. But neither of those scenarios was like it is now. There’s almost a shorthand for criticism now: You just say what you’re going to write about, and then follow it with “in Trump’s America’s.” And that’s the piece, that’s the whole thing. A lot of people who write about music and TV and movies, they really want to be political writers, that’s what they aspire to do. But they understand art, so they are trying to weave their political vision into their criticism. Music criticism, that’s what it is now. The only place that still reviews music as music, weirdly, is Rolling Stone. They will still view a record based on how similar it is to Bob Dylan or the Eagles. But everywhere else—there’s a new song by HAIM, is this politically progressive or reactionary?
I was paging through some of your older books, and you had a chapter in Eating the Dinosaur about “what the kids are listening to,” and how that was an interest for you. But you’ve recently talked about how you don’t listen to as much new music because you have more albums or records than you could listen to in a lifetime. Is this because of the way the music industry has changed, or is it just something that happens to people as they get older—they no longer have the capacity for new music and just go back to what they know?
There’s some of that—that’s partially true, the latter thing you said. What has changed even since I wrote that book is that part of my interest in what young people were listening to was built around my interest in wanting to understand young people, and I don’t know if music fulfills that role anymore. Music was completely central to the teenage experience in the ’50s, ‘’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, started to fade with the rise of the internet, and now seems pretty ancillary. I know we’re supposed to be happy about the fall of the music industry—that the labels are done and there’s no monoculture, but that false world created by the record company did give music a little more meaning. There was a time when it meant something to be into goth music; it said something about who you were. Or metal, or country. There were unifying cultural elements within this silo of what you were into. But that’s not really how things work now. Now it’s a total singles-based music community, the idea of a kid having 100 songs they like that have no relationship to each other, and none of which are an obsession. They’re all background. That makes music less meaningful in a cultural sense. Music will always be popular, because people like sound. But we’ve moved away from the period where you could understand someone through the music they liked.
Yeah, when I was in high school, a lot of people were into emo music, and that defined who they were or how they dressed, the people they hung out with.
Right, and there was an idea that if you were into emo music, you would seek out people who were also into emo music. That alone would be connecting fluid for a relationship. That’s what music culture was. I don’t know if they still exist, but for a while, every mall had a Hot Topics store. It was kind of “mall goth” or “mall metal” or whatever. But if you wanted to enter that subculture, you could buy the shirts or the makeup there and get the records, and could make yourself that person. Now, you might have been seen as fake by the people who believed they were “real goth or whatever.”
I’m not someone who goes around saying there’s no good music now. I think there is. It just doesn’t seem as meaningful or significant. It’s just not popular in the way it used to be. And I know that’s dumb to say, that somehow popularity makes something important, but there is some truth in that.
I’ve never really thought of it that way, but that sense of how people are defined by a certain kind of music—maybe country music now, for some people, has that impact, but that might be it.
Yeah, and country has changed less than rock and pop. The genre that is kind of pejoratively called “Walmart Country,” that is actually unchanged from the ‘90s. There are still people who are going into Walmart to buy those discs to play in their truck. That still exists.
You’ve done some features for GQ over the past couple years, but you seem to be writing less magazine and digital work. Is that because you’re focusing on books, or a factor of not needing to write as much anymore?
It’s many things. One is that I write slower than I used to. There was a time in 2004 when I was writing books, had a full-time job at Spin, had a column at Esquire, a column at ESPN, and was doing features for GQ, and it didn’t seem that impossible. Now I couldn’t do it. Partially because I’m married and have two kids. When you’re single and the most important part of your life is writing, you can really do a lot. I would sometimes stay home on a Friday night and think to myself, other people are out having fun, but I am working and getting things done. Then you get into a relationship and it’s tougher because you can’t stay up all night and write—you write in the afternoon. Then you have kids and you have to write in the morning. Also, there did become a sameness with doing magazine profiles. I did so many of them. You can’t deviate from the pre-existing formula. I think I do a little bit, and that’s part of the reason why I get asked to do stuff. But there are not many people left who I’m really excited to interview. A few years ago I did an interview with Eddie Van Halen for Billboard. This was somebody who when I was a kid, the idea of talking to him was impossible; I know all of this about his music and have listened to it so much, I’m actually qualified to do this. I want to do this. But there’s less and less people like that now.
Is there anyone you haven’t profiled or interviewed that you want to?
I’ve been trying to interview Axl Rose for 15 years, and it’s never happened. I think every single place I have worked for—newspaper, magazine, website—has tried to get Axl Rose to be interviewed by me, and he’s never said yes. That’s really the only one. I would like to interview Bill Clinton, but I get the sense that the things I want to ask him about are somehow inherently off the table. Even though he’s not a sitting president anymore, I don’t think he will ever give an interview where he talks about Monica Lewinsky. I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m not sure why—well, I guess I am, and if you’re president, that gives you a degree of leverage forever. I would have liked to interview David Letterman, but my reasoning was because he was extremely influential on me in 5th and 6th grade, so maybe what I’m saying is that I don’t want to interview him, I just want to thank him for that. But that’s not the same.
Anyone you’d be afraid or unsure about interviewing?
I would never say no to an interview because I was afraid of the interview itself. I’ve never had that issue. My very first job in Fargo, like three weeks into the job, I was going to interview Nikki Sixx of Motley Crüe, and Motley Crüe had been my favorite band for most of my adolescence. So I was nervous about this. But then 10 seconds into the interview I realized he’s just another guy. He’s just like anybody else. And I don’t think I’ve been nervous about any interview since. I get nervous because I want it to go well—I interviewed Kobe Bryant, and I wasn’t nervous to meet him, but I was nervous that he wouldn’t be engaged. Because at that point, I’ve committed to doing the story.
I’m assuming the Tom Brady story was kind of like that?
GQ came close to killing that story. Because GQ felt that Brady had betrayed them and misled them, had given them the impression that he was going to talk about anything, and then did not. But it was also the Man of the Year issue, and they had already photographed him, and he was going on the cover. So what happened was that I did the interview, and obviously it just didn’t work. He didn’t say anything. So then I decided to just write an essay about him, and I did that, and then I realized what I should actually do is take the part of the interview that didn’t work and drop it in the middle of this essay. And that’s what it became.
Who do you prefer in general to interview—athletes or musicians?
Musicians. Athletes are tough. They have no motive to be interesting. I interviewed Steve Nash like 10 years ago or whatever, and I’m asking him about different NBA players, and at one point he just says, “Can I tell you something off the record—why would I do this? Why would I criticize Jason Kidd? I have to play Jason Kidd.” A musician is different—if Noel Gallagher criticizes someone, it might make people more interested in Oasis. But it doesn’t matter if people are more interested in an athlete; their performance is the only thing. Also, if you’re talking to an artist, there is a high likelihood they have thought about their art. If you talk to an athlete, there’s a possibility that they don’t really think about what they do, because there’s no upside. A QB will talk about his craft, but if you talk to Marshawn Lynch about running the football, he’s an intelligent football player, but his success is based on his physicality. Once his physicality disappears, it wouldn’t matter what he thought about running the football. Whereas someone like Bob Dylan, that’s not how it is—the more he thinks about his craft, the better it gets.
You mentioned talking about the city you are in for a reading—anything stand out about your experience or relationship to Cincinnati?
Well when I worked at The Akron Beacon Journal, I was a pop culture reporter, but I did have one beat: the roller coaster beat. Because as I’m sure you’re aware, Ohio has more roller coasters than any fucking state in the country. It’s crazy. So I do remember driving to Cincinnati to ride The Beast, which at the time was the second-largest wooden roller coaster in the world. I loved WKRP in Cincinnati growing up, too. Outside of that, and I feel kind of weird admitting this, but what blew my mind when I went to Cincinnati—this will be unsurprising to you—I did not think it was as much like the South as it is.
Oh yeah. Especially if you were living in Akron. I lived in Cleveland for a while, and they are vastly different cities.
Right. Cleveland thinks it’s the east coast. Toledo is the way Pittsburgh used to be. If you go out west, Dayton and stuff, that feels like the Midwest. But Cincinnati feels like the South. This is why I think it really does make sense that Ohio is such a battleground state politically—it is the most like all of America in one place. But when I was driving to Cincinnati, I’d see Confederate flags flying in people’s yards, and I was like, did I go too far? Did I drive to Alabama? I did not think Cincinnati would be that way. I assumed it would be like Cleveland, but it was not at all.
August 8, mercantilelibrary.com