Culture Critic Chuck Klosterman on Why He Writes About Disco Rather Than Opera

Kris Drake
Chuck Klosterman speaks at the Dallas Museum of Art 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 20
Nostalgia is a controversial topic in artistic circles. Critics hate it (it’s uncritical and lazy), but audiences love it (it’s fun and escapist). Culture critic Chuck Klosterman traffics heavily in nostalgia, with essays and novels written for our inner fanboys or girls, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

After all, he says, our worlds are composed of “a few grains of reality surrounded by illusion. In order to have a satisfying existence, you have to consume the illusion the same way you consume the reality," he tells the Observer.

Klosterman could only be writing the way he does about the things he does in the 21st century. The flattening of culture and our shared obsession with nostalgia for even the most recent past means the kind of writing Klosterman has become synonymous with — impeccably researched and always insightful examinations of everything from cover bands to Britney Spears to the enigma that is/was Tim Tebow — is consumed in bulk. Klosterman is frequently able to publish new essay collections.

Klosterman will be at the Dallas Museum of Art on Tuesday, June 20, to talk about his latest book/essay collection, Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, as part of the museum's Arts and Letters Live series.

X is a collection of some of his published work from the last two decades and includes profiles of Kobe Bryant, Jonathan Franzen, and Jimmy Page, as well as pieces on the best television show of the past 10 years (spoiler alert: Klosterman thinks it’s Breaking Bad); his love of Kiss, written as the group was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014; and the disparity between watching live television versus recorded television.

Klosterman is arguably the originator of a specific but highly influential vein of cultural criticism that has become somewhat rote in the 21st century. It's characterized by an often self-deprecating self-awareness, an effort toward universal relatability and a deep knowledge of subjects once considered beneath serious writing. It's criticism for the postmodern age in which we spend equal amounts of time parsing the latest Kendrick Lamar album and the Venice Biennale.

“In a hundred years, a lot of the subjects in this book will be lost to history; however, just because it’s lost to most people doesn’t mean it will be lost to everybody,” Klosterman says.

“When you’re looking at work from the past, a lot of times what’s interesting about it is not the technical proficiency of the writing or the subsequent importance of the subject,” he continues. “A lot of times it’s interesting just to see how much culture evolves in a short period of time.”

"I'm not writing about [Noel Gallagher of Oasis] with the idea that this guy is going to be like George Washington or somebody," Klosterman says.

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As a steadfast chronicler of popular culture, Klosterman knows a thing or two about how fast culture changes. His 2006 profile of Gnarls Barkley, included in X although Barkley has already faded from the spotlight, is one example.

Klosterman uses another, Noel Gallagher of the English rock band Oasis, whom he profiled for Grantland in 2011.

“I’m not writing about him with the idea that this guy is going to be like George Washington or somebody,” Klosterman says. “This is somebody who was very famous, is relatively famous now and might sort of be like trivia 50 years from today.”

Whether you think the care and diligence with which Klosterman writes about his subjects is valid probably depends on your age and how open-minded you are. Does The Real World really deserve the same amount of consideration as a show like The Sopranos? Klosterman has chronicled both.

“Certainly there are different levels of art; you can’t be a critic and operate from a conclusion that all art is the same,” Klosterman says. “However, that’s the technical difference between the opera, disco — whatever the case may be. The practical difference is negligible to the consumer. My intention is to think about all of these things in the same way.”

Once someone is invested in a subject, whether it's comic books, sports, pop music or reality television, he or she is invested. Klosterman is writing for those people.

“Some critics get upset when I say this, but I’ve always felt the main utility of criticism is that it’s kind of intellectual entertainment,” Klosterman says. “It doesn’t have that big of an impact on the world or even on the kind of art they’re [critics are] commenting on.

“My book isn’t something people need, but it might be something people want," he continues.

If you nerd out about sports, rock music or celebrity culture, this book is probably exactly what you want. And Klosterman would love to be your self-aware guide through the highs and lows of the last 20-plus years of mainstream American culture.

Chuck Klosterman, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., $20-$40,