There are few writers whose flaws I can easily identify yet ignore out of affection. Chuck Klosterman is one such person, a pop culture essayist with five books—most famously Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs—and a frequent contributor to Esquire, GQ, The Believer, and Spin (before it sucked).
But more specifically, Chuck Klosterman is the guy who talks too loud and rambles too long about pop culture conspiracies (think Tarantino’s “Like a Virgin” monologue from Reservoir Dogs). He’s like David Sedaris if Sedaris tackled rock ‘n roll, Joel Stein if Stein’s “Awesome Column” in Time wasn’t a total misnomer.
So when The A.V. Club says that “There is no one in the world more qualified to review the exhaustingly anticipated new Guns N’ Roses album than [Klosterman],” they‘re absolutely right.
The new Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy, is more of a cultural icon than an actual CD anyone wants to listen to. After thirteen years in production, we’re more interested in drinking Dr. Pepper than hearing Axl Rose’s grating tenor.
With a production as time-consuming as Chinese Democracy’s, we, as Americans with a penchant for cruel irony, want it to be terrible. Even ignoring the fact that, as a Guns N’ Roses release, it will awful no matter what, we yearn for Democracy to join the ranks of Boston’s Corporate America, which was critically panned after eight years in production.
And of course, Chuck knows this. The review’s opening is classic Klosterman—shrewd and facetious—but the rest of the piece is overwhelmingly positive. He really likes this CD, but recognizes that you probably won’t love it.
[Rose] makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end… This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.
The article reveals more about Chuck Klosterman than it does about Axl Rose. Throughout the piece, he focuses mostly on the the album’s notorious recording process. He writes, “I suspect [Axl] cares less about the degree to which people like his music, and more about how it is taken.” This seems as true of Mr. Klosterman as it does to Mr. Rose. He’s a guru of all things pop culture and cleverly employs emphatic prose and heavy footnoting, but Klosterman’s forte has always been an uncanny self-awareness. He knows what people expect to hear and plays devil’s advocate.
So when Klosterman takes the unpopular opinion, it’s actually kind of predictable.
Over the past few years, there’s been a Chuck Klosterman backlash, which is to be expected when somebody becomes universally liked. When his motives are this transparent, the arguments—no matter how funny—fall pretty flat. Instead, his writing is strongest when he makes an obscure, left-field argument. (This is the guy who convincingly named Radiohead’s Kid A the best album about 9/11, despite the fact that it came out a year before the towers fell.)
Here’s a great example: Klosterman predicted that the New England Patriots would become more famous if they lost Super Bowl XLII than if they won. At the time, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the undefeated Patriots would trounce the New York Giants, who had only fluked their way past the Packers to win the NFC.
Klosterman didn’t doubt the Patriots—no, that would just be ungrounded contrariness. Instead, he wrote about the resounding reputation the Pats would have if they lost. They would become more infamous for losing against all odds instead of winning as what some have called the greatest team to ever play the sport.
As someone from Boston, the Giants unlikely victory is something that’s still hard to fathom, let alone think about, but I’ll be damned—Chuck was right. Who’ll ever forget Pats Coach Bill Belichick walking off the field early or The Boston Globe’s embarrassing pre-sale of 19-0: The Historic Championship of the Unbeatable Patriots?
And when it comes to Chinese Democracy, an album we anticipated to be as bad as much as we anticipated the Patriots to win, this reversal of our expectations may be exactly what secures its place in history. Or maybe we’ll just remember Klosterman as the only person that liked it.
1. “Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?” from “Chuck Klosterman reviews Chinese Democracy” in The A.V. Club.