“What Used to Be the Fringe Is Now the Center of Everything”

Chuck Klosterman on how the approach to cultural criticism has completely flipped.

Chuck Klosterman.
Chuck Klosterman Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Chuck Klosterman, a cultural critic and author of numerous books, most recently Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century. Below is an edited excerpt of the show. In it, we discuss the changing ways audiences respond to art, how critics are adjusting to these new realities, and why music taste is so subjective.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Chuck Klosterman: Audiences are changing now. When I first got into criticism as a life in 1994 or 1995, one of the prerequisites of the job was, “Can you distance yourself from the life of the artist and just look at the art? Do you have the ability to do that?” Because at the time the thinking was: A lot of people can’t. A lot of people in the audience can’t do that. They can’t look at somebody like Marilyn Manson and not think of his character as a way that informs them about what the music means, but as a critic you’re supposed to be able to that. You’re supposed to be able to say, “I can just look at this art and examine its merits almost separate from the individual.”

And now that has completely reversed. Not only do people not expect you to do that—they don’t want you to. There is an expectation that, of course, you’re going to think about the individual’s real-life persona within even their fictitious work, so that has changed.

Isaac Chotiner: What’s your feeling about that?

My feeling doesn’t matter. [Laughs.] It doesn’t matter to me if I think it’s good or bad. That’s just what’s happened.

I am curious what you think about it though.

Maybe I’m not supposed to even have this opinion, I’m not sure. But I always think that as we move forward through time, things don’t really get better or worse. They just change. But because it is uncomfortable or awkward to have spent a bunch of years thinking and feeling one way, and then suddenly realizing that that thinking and feeling is now unfashionable or whatever, that people perceive then that things have gotten worse, but really things have just gotten different.

There’ve always been critics and writers who went outside of the text, where it would be like everybody’s writing about Hootie & the Blowfish, everyone’s writing about the Hootie & the Blowfish record, and they’re talking about whether the music is cool or lame or are they actually talented or are they not really talented or talking about who the audience for this music is.

And then there would be a few critics outside of that, who’d be like, “Let’s think about Hootie & the Blowfish as an idea. What does it mean for this to have happened that this band is so much bigger than all of these other artists who we perceive as being more talented or more important or more insightful. What does it mean, almost politically or socially, that for this brief period of time the biggest band in the world is Hootie & the Blowfish?”

There was always a sliver of people doing that. I suppose, when I first got into this, I sort of perceived myself as being in that sliver of people doing it. And now this has completely flopped. Now that is the overwhelming majority of criticism. That’s the only way to do criticism now. What used to be sort of the fringe is now the center of everything.

My feeling is that it doesn’t work as well. It worked better the other way, to have most people thinking about what something is at face value, and then having only a few people thinking about it the other way. But of course I would think that, because I was in this, I guess, privileged position of being the person who was allowed to do that. And actually living now outside of New York, some of these things are more clear to me than they were in the past.

Like the Super Bowl halftime show. The coverage of that in the media is all built around this idea of Justin Timberlake’s political intent or his lack of political intent, which is his own kind of politics and all of these things. But 103.5 million people in America—or whatever watched that performance—were not seeing it as an event outside of itself. They were seeing this famous person dancing, singing songs of various levels of familiarity or whatever. Someone was saying that at one point he should’ve shouted out to Janet Jackson to pay penance for the event that had happened the last time they appeared at the Super Bowl. I think that’s not an idea people are really working with when they’re watching. I would’ve always assumed that’s the kind of interesting idea for people who are specifically consumed with the possibility of thinking about art in this way that goes outside of the text entirely.

Do you think that’s because the people who read the media articles are interested in the political angle? Or do you think it’s because the media is interested in the political angle? Or is it just that the media and criticism has always been operating differently than consumers?

Well, that is true—that’s always been the case. There’s been that sense that the critical community and the consumer community—there was this chasm between them. The chasm is greater now. There’s no question about it. But also so many things have happened.
Criticism is now more important, say, in the world of music than it used to be. But that’s mostly because everything is less important. Music is no longer the center of youth culture, and because the music industry has collapsed, we don’t have this system anymore where it would be like, “Rolling Stone gives Black Sabbath a bad review, but millions of people like Black Sabbath, so who’s really winning this battle: the people who are thinking about Black Sabbath or the people who like it?”

But now that doesn’t really happen anymore. Everything is smaller. The biggest things are smaller. So the critical opinion of things seems like it’s a more meaningful distinction, but it’s confusing because it’s more important in a less important world.

I feel like I go back and forth on this because I’m completely exhausted by trying to find the political angle in everything, especially as a consumer who wants to read articles. I also think that the people who would feel differently than me have a completely fair point when they say, “Look, at a football game before the kickoff, there is a thanking all of our police and first responders for being great American heroes, and no one would ever see that as political.” But if Colin Kaepernick kneels and says, “We need to pay attention to police brutality,” that is seen as political. But we didn’t thank the cops as such because of power dynamics or racial dynamics or something else. I think that that is a fair point worth keeping in mind.

It is. I think that there is a small explanation for that, which is: In the past, before a football game, if someone comes out and thanks the local police and the local fire department, the average person goes, “Yeah, that’s bullshit. Who cares?” They don’t really perceive it is being a real political statement.

That’s the point. They don’t perceive it that way.

It just seems like filler. Not even the people who support that, and they work for the fire department or whatever—it almost seems like a useless PSA. So now that really changes when that kind of message is enforced in a way that does not seem fake—the fact that no NFL team wants to sign Colin Kaepernick. That’s politics we recognize. We recognize that something is happening here that goes outside his ability as a football player. You can make a lot of justifiable arguments as to why signing Colin Kaepernick could be a problem for a team that is not political, but at its core we know that it is. …

Here’s another example. I saw the Phantom Thread [recently]. I love P.T. Anderson. It’s hard for me to go to the movies now, but I wanted to see this, so I went and saw this movie. I’m unsure at first what the theme of the movie is. I’m thinking to myself, “Does this movie suggest that in order to really love someone you must be vulnerable?” I’m texting with a few people who’ve seen it. We’re talking about what we think of this movie and what we think it means. And we’re all using a personal context. We’re thinking about how this relates to relationships and sort of romantic love and all of these things.

Now, I see the big conversation about Phantom Thread is that people are saying this is a movie about how we need to protect the white male genius and that the Daniel Day-Lewis character is a representation of the idea of almost the auteur figure who, because we’ve decided what they do is brilliant, therefore everything in the world must cater toward their success, and his female counterpart just needs to almost do what she can to prop up his genius.

Now, you know what? That’s an interesting way to look at that movie. And it made me think about the movie differently, but I now get the sense that this is going to be the ongoing argument about the merits of this film as it moves through the award season—“Does this movie in some way suggest that the male, the white patriarchy, must be saved?” And while that’s absolutely a great thesis for an essay here or an essay there, I think it’s going to be weird if that becomes the overriding way to look at this movie because movies are fundamentally personal. This kind of movie is fundamentally personal.

So I’m not saying that my perception is the only one that should exist, but I hope that it’s not like because this movie is good, and because this movie is important, and because this movie could win an Oscar, we have to ascribe an inflexible political reading of this that you have to either agree with or disagree with. I think that’s bad.

That’s right. The question is to what degree is that going on beyond the small circle of people who read certain articles on certain sites? But I don’t know the answer to that.

Here’s the thing about that. And this is something I realized while writing What if We’re Wrong? There’s always two silos of cultural memory. They’re the real big silo, which is the way most people understand the event, particularly people who aren’t invested, that they know what happens. They know a person is important or not important. They have almost an unsettled understanding of it, but as a collective mass understanding.

And then there’s this other silo of people who write about it in this different way and can contextualize it in this larger way. One silo is huge, and one silo is small, but in the future, the silos are almost the same because the big silo is sort of the natural memory people have, but if someone is going to write about Phantom Thread in a hundred years … that probably won’t happen, but if it does, they’re going to go back and look at that smaller silo for guidance. That’s going to be the data they will have. So, these opinions that do seem to be happening in a small group of people, in the present tense, that is true. One percent of the populace is concerned about the political meaning of Justin Timberlake’s halftime performance. One percent.
But, as we move forward, that 1 percent will the only information that really exists, because everyone else will just straight-up forget and not even remember he performed.

I know nothing about music—like literally nothing about music. One of the things I have found asking people about music, compared to, say, novels or films is that there seems to me to be less consensus about what music is good. If I ask someone about a novel or a film, that person could have their particular opinion on the novel or the film, but I think it would be very easy to place someone, whether it’s Adam Sandler or Martin Scorsese or Jonathan Franzen or George Eliot, and say, “Here’s my particular opinion, but the conventional wisdom about Adam Sandler is X.”

With music what I find is that there is not consensus. So I have friends who know music who will say things like, “Everyone loves band X,” and another person will say, “Band X is so lame—everyone knows that.” Do you agree?

You’re right because there is a depth to the subjectivity of music that you can say the same thing about novels, but somehow it is not the same. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a great example of this. You look at the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Basketball Hall of Fame. Now there is a degree of subjectivity in this as well. But here’s something that never happens: There are people who there can be argument over—maybe Roger Maris should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, maybe he deserves it. Or maybe this individual who got in didn’t quite deserve it. It’s all people on the cusp. But no one looks at anybody in the Baseball Hall of Fame and says, “That guy’s terrible! That guy is awful! He was bad for baseball. He’s a bad player.”

In the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that happens constantly. Every year there are people inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame who a certain sect of fans and critics will say, “That music is bad!” And it in a way nullifies the value of having a hall of fame of something where the feelings can be that disparate.

I think the deal with novels, why there is more of a consensus with it or films, in a way, is like, “Well, the pool seems smaller.” I don’t know why that is. With movies it’s explainable. There’s only X number of movies released in a year. Books, there’s tons of books, but the books that get attention, there’s only a handful of them, in a way. So you can say, “This is the kind of the pool we’re working with,” and no one can read every novel, so you do trust what book critics and book reviewers are saying. You see that as a canonical thing. Also, books are ingrained in academia, where the creation of canons is almost everything. So you need to have this canon so you can disagree with it.

Music is different in that way. It’s super accessible. If somebody wants to have a negative opinion about My Struggle, the Karl Knausgaard series, that’s a lot of time you’ve got to invest. That’s a lot of pages you have to read, and it’s hard to imagine somebody who would read all those books and put all that time in and then be like, “Yeah, that was boring and sucked.” It’s a weird response. If you made that investment, you’re probably going to be psychologically on the side of the merits of the thing.

Music is not like that, though. Music you can hear the first 40 seconds of the song by the National and make a decision about the value of the music and the value of the band, and it’s not that surprising. It’s not considered insane to hear a song and instantly dislike it. I find this about pop music just so fascinating.

Pop music is really the only art form that was ever consciously created. … Its full and only intent was that this is supposed to be music for young people or teenagers, and as a consequence the opinion of a 14-year-old kid about pop music or hip-hop or whatever is immediately considered more valuable than the opinion of a 70-year-old guy who spent his whole life thinking about it.

Right, the movies made for younger people, it’s assumed that not only is the older person who says, “It’s a stupid movie,” is right, but it’s assumed that the 14-year-old will soon come to think that because they have matured. They are coming to adulthood, and they’ll realize Top Gun is not a masterpiece or whatever it is.

This is another thing that has definitely changed in my lifetime. I’m 45. I haven’t lived that long, but this is one thing that I have seen completely evolved, which is that there was a period where to be considered knowledgeable about any subject, there was almost this demand that you had a degree of knowledge about that thing’s history. So, if it was 1985 or whatever, like I’m in high school, and I want to talk about music with somebody older than me, their assumption is that your opinion doesn’t really matter unless you also know about the Beatles and you know about the Rolling Stones. You need to know about those things. You don’t have to necessarily like them, but if you have no relationship with that, how am I possibly going to take your opinion about R.E.M. or Cinderella or whatever seriously?

And that’s how it always was. Being smart meant you knew about things that you didn’t experience. If you were a student of history, it meant that you understood the expanse of history. Anyone can know what’s going on right now. To be smart you have to know what came before you, and that no longer seems to exist. Now the belief is sort of: Any of that stuff can be found on the internet in five seconds. I don’t want someone telling me what the past was supposed to mean and have that inform the way I listen to music now or I watch film now. I want to eliminate the past and only exist in this perpetual state of the present.

And that is a strange thing for me. Here again, I can’t say it’s better or worse. It’s just different, and because it’s different, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but there’s actually like an adversarial relationship with the history of anything, and that somehow that history is seen as oppressive. And you shouldn’t even know about it. It’s better to live in now. Maybe you disagree with that, but I feel like I’ve seen this change happen.