What You Know About Gravity, The Beatles, And The Unabomber Is Wrong—Just Ask Chuck Klosterman
An interview with one of the world’s most fascinating cultural thinkers
Photo courtesy of Chuck Klosterman
The fun thing about talking to Chuck Klosterman is that when you ask him a question, no matter how random, he responds as if he’d been pondering that question for months. Probably because he’s expounded upon virtually every aspect of American popular culture his entire career, which exploded into the mainstream with 2003’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. With his latest book, But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman does the asking. The nonfiction bestseller, which comes out in paperback April 25, explores the concept that our society unquestionably accepts many seemingly obvious truths that will be regarded by future generations as laughably wrong (such as our understanding of gravity or the importance of disco).
Mr. Klosterman recently spoke with GOOD about some of the many disparate ideas that fueled his interest in this intriguing thought experiment, while also weighing in on such topics like how the Unabomber differs from Thomas Jefferson, what happened to “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and how we wish JFK really did destroy the men’s hat industry.
In the book, you point out aspects of our culture today that we don’t realize might seem strange to us in the future. Like how nobody on TV laughs when a character says something funny.
Yeah, if you watch a show like 30 Rock, there is a joke every 20 seconds, and yet everyone is completely unreactive to that. The audience just thinks, ‘Well, that’s just how TV is.’ So it’s interesting to watch a TV show like Catastrophe, where someone says something that would naturally make someone chuckle and the other person actually chuckles.
You also examine how certain artists or works we consider ‘important’ today will be replaced in the future by something else we’re currently kind of overlooking. Kind of how “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is no longer regarded as The Beatles’ best album.
When I first looked at lists of the definitive Beatles’ records, “Sgt. Pepper” was always No. 1. Now it never is. There are many different reasons for why, but the weird result is that “Revolver” now seems way better, by a pretty wide margin. But I wonder if it would have seemed that clear to me when I was first introduced to all this and everyone was conceding that “Pepper” was better. I wonder if I’m able to really gauge things without the influence of complete strangers telling me the natural way to think.
Like how you write about ‘knowing’ that Frank Lloyd Wright is the best architect in the world.
Right. I knew he was the best architect before I knew anything about architecture. So whatever the qualities of Wright that made him the best are now going to seem self-evident. This is true for almost everyone, and it’s a difficult thing for most people to admit. Basically, you’re conceding you don’t have control over your own thoughts. And nobody wants to admit this, but it’s true. Of course, if you ask me a question about why Frank Lloyd Wright is the best, I’ll still come up with a reasonable explanation. Because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m agreeing with something just because everyone else is.
To get back to “Sgt. Pepper’s” for a second, what are some of the other reasons it’s no longer on top?
The biggest factor is that the songs aren’t as good, even though the thought and effort that went into those “Pepper” tracks was more sophisticated and considered. “Sgt. Pepper” was initially rewarded for the intentions of the band, as opposed to the result. That album proved that rock could be art, which was a new idea. But now everyone accepts that idea, so it just becomes a consideration of the work itself. Plus, “Pepper” was primarily Paul’s project, and critics tend to prefer John. It’s interesting how this works. When I first got into the Beatles, I thought their later albums were clearly the best. But the more I listened, the more I concluded that their middle period—“Help!” through “Revolver”—was the true apex. But now, as a 45-year-old, I absolutely prefer the earliest recordings. My taste evolved in reverse, and I'm not sure why that happened. But I don't think it’s uncommon.
What about Nirvana? If future generations don't regard “Nevermind” their best album, which would you guess ends up considered their best?
Maybe “MTV Unplugged,” because people like to pretend that particular version of “All Apologies” is a kind of public suicide note.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I’m sure people would read the Declaration of Independence differently if Thomas Jefferson had also burned down a barn full of 50 innocent people.’[/quote]
How do you react when you discover something that you thought was true, like an urban legend, turns out to be false? My dad told me that because JFK didn’t wear a hat, he was personally responsible for ruining the hat industry. That’s since been debunked, but what does it say about us to want to believe such a random misconception about the past?
That urban legend specifically seems to explain the way culture works. In essence, that the decisions normal people make are based off the decision one person has made, and this subconsciously suggests that one person can make a difference. They can make the entire world wear or not wear a hat. (laughs) But that’s not how it actually is.
Does that also explain the attraction to conspiracy theories?
The two main drivers behind all conspiracy theories are that they’re interesting and they’re fun. They also remove personal responsibility. Most conspiracy theories ultimately claim there is an unknown puppet master pulling the strings. The subtext is that life is rigged. So if your life is not as successful, or as happy, or as fulfilling as you want it to be, it’s not because of anything that you did. You were never playing on an equal playing field. Every small conspiracy theory is part of this larger assumption—that we don’t have agency over the world.
It removes the burden of worrying about fixing your problems.
Yeah. I mean, it’s wrong to assume we have no control over our lives, but it’s also wrong to assume we have real control. We have just enough control to move within the limited spectrum of our experience. And within that limited spectrum, we do have agency and we can sort of make our life what we want. But we’re not able to live any life we live that we want, and the fact of the matter is that most people like to pretend they’re existing in one or two of those polarities. They think they either have zero control or they have limitless control, and that strange middle ground of limited control is generally the most disappointing reality. Because you still gotta work hard, but no matter how hard you work, it’s never going to be ideal.
How much of a role do you feel that technology has on impacting society, especially in terms of outrage culture and internet trolls?
Things have changed exceptionally fast, and—obviously—the principle factors have been Facebook and Twitter. The type of people who are habitually offended by the culture have always existed, but they couldn’t really mobilize others to go after someone and potentially destroy their career. I think in some ways it’s going to be one of the key attributes of the memory of Twitter — it became a way for someone to destroy someone who, in the past, would have just been someone you felt like you didn’t like.
How do you see future generations using these platforms?
There are some people who suspect either the next generation or the generation that follows may have an adversarial relationship with technology. They may see technology and social media and all these things as the essence of what their parents and grandparents lived through, and they may consciously move against that. I’m skeptical of that because to me that seems like someone in the ’60s saying, ‘I think by the ’80s nobody will be watching TV anymore.’ And that didn’t happen, so ...
In I Wear the Black Hat, you write about how the Unabomber’s ‘manifesto’ is actually a very interesting piece on the societal impacts of technology. But everyone assumes it was just the scribbled ravings of a mad man.
Yes. I mean, I’m sure people would read the “Declaration of Independence”differently if Thomas Jefferson had also burned down a barn full of 50 innocent people. ‘This is the ravings of a madman!’ The Unabomber bombed people, blew up people’s hands, and that justifiably stops people from taking him seriously. But the point he’s really making is that technology puts a ceiling on freedom that people don’t even recognize. Technology limits our ability to be fully free, but we’re so immersed in it, it’s so central to our experience, that we don’t even realize this invisible ceiling exists. You’re not supposed to say this, but I think that’s a valid point. But because of the guy who made that point, I don’t want to say that.
The Onion once published a story poking fun at you (“Chuck Klosterman Corners Guy At Party Wearing Dio Shirt”), and I’ve always been curious your reaction to it.
The main thing I remember was being like, ‘Goddammit, now I need to pretend like I’m fucking happy about this.’ Because that’s what people expect. They expect you to enjoy all levels of attention, regardless of context.
From a practical standpoint, I know I should just tell you that I loved it. But there was one thing that was annoying about this—I would never go up to someone I didn’t know and start talking to them, under almost any nonprofessional circumstance. If I saw Axl Rose at the airport, I would never go over and talk to him. If I go to a party, and it’s an interesting party with a hundred interesting and fascinating people, and I see two of my friends standing over in the corner, I will talk to those same two friends all night. I won’t talk to anyone else, and that’s just the way I am. But the reverse of that situation happens to me all the time. I’ve had so many people come up to me in public, wanting to have a long conversation about some arcane rock band. So I guess in a way, it’s good satire, because the thing that’s constantly happening to me is the thing I’m supposedly doing to other people, and I have to say the guy who wrote it seems to have read a lot of the things I wrote, because he does an awesome job of making fun of me.
That’s one of the weirder things about being a public person—a big part of your life involves showing appreciation for attention you don’t necessarily want because otherwise, you’ll seem ungrateful. Like, if I get a bad book review, a high profile review that’s negative, I still have to say things like, ‘Well at least they’re talking about it. At least it’s out there.’ But in truth, I’m more like, ‘I wish they hadn’t fucking reviewed it at all!’
That’s why I never read the comments on my stories.
Everybody says, ‘Don’t read the comments.’ Well, first of all, just because you don’t read them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sometimes what you imagine might be worse than what is literally there. And you know, in some ways it’s reassuring to realize that people are insane. Sometimes a random guy will attack me on Twitter and people will say, ‘Just block that person.’ But I find it much better to go in and read the rest of that person’s feed, because they always seem like a fucking crazy person. They never seem normal. Or the other thing you’ll realize is that they write negative things to an entire list of people, every single day. That’s how they’re killing their time. So then you think, boy, their life must be depressing, and then you almost feel sorry for them and you kind of empathize with them. So I guess, in a weird way, I’m suggesting you read the comments.
In addition to the paperback release of “Wrong,” Klosterman has another book coming out in May. “Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century” is his fourth compilation of some of his best articles and essays from the past decade.