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Contemplating Culture



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 equally ass-kicking and entirely non-sucking essay collection.

Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs explores such topics as Internet porn, why Americans will never accept soccer, and how Pamela Anderson has been crucified for our sins.

Klosterman embodies all that's good about populist intellectuals. His conversational voice makes it easy to imagine him yapping these essays into my ear in some 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 at times profound. Academics use unreadable theoretical jargon to make pop culture as obtuse as Proust by arguing that poodles are not elephants -- i.e., that Indiana Jones films are not about feminism. Klosterman 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 doctorate candidate might make the same point, it just would take them 20,000 more words, most of them being "discursive," "phenomenological," and "counter-hegemonic."

Klosterman doesn't make the mistake of 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 he's not just another snarky critic trying to assert the superiority of his tastes or, worse still, the sense that his taste lends him depth. He's merely a geeky tour guide exposing facets of TV shows, rock stars and video games that you'd probably never think about.

He makes you care about why the Dixie Chicks (pre-Clear Channel scandal) are important. In the process, he shames anyone who ever said they "like all music except country." He'll even have you believing that Billy Joel's inability to craft a credible rock star coolness led to the unjust perception that he is "the FM version of AM."

In "Ten Seconds to Love," he breaks down the mystique of Pamela Anderson, whom he likens to a modern-day Marilyn Monroe. All a heterosexual man has to do, Klosterman argues, is tell women he's not attracted to Anderson and they instantly like him. But hating Pamela Anderson, in Klosterman's mind, is a lie.

"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 still render him unheard of, Klosterman is skyrocketing to the heights of minor celebrity. My hope is not that he'll grow up and say good-bye to all things Cocoa Puff, but that he'll take on some radically 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 can do on Iraq or health care or Joe Lieberman. Well, maybe not Lieberman.

-- John Dicker

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