Dec 04, 2008, 07:25AM

Good writing via the crucible of asinine music

Although Guns N' Roses'—more accurately Axl Rose's—17-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy may have spelled doom for Dr. Pepper, it at least provided a pitch-perfect forum for everyone's least favorite, though insanely widely read, culture pundit Chuck Klosterman.

If you follow music and pop culture to almost any degree you probably know something about Chuck Klosterman. And if you've plowed through any of his collections of columns you know the man has a staggering capacity for such niches as The Real World and heavy metal music. His writing is devotedly egotistical, tragically erudite and, for many, a load of shit.

Political blogs included, you won't find a group of anonymous commentors more vituperative than on the threads over at The Onion's A/V Club. The A/V Club brought Klosterman in to guest review Axl Rose's Chinese Democracy, an album so long in the making it could hardly succeed as a pun while waiting in line at the keg. Who better to review such a record than the leading pundit of pop culture and unironically bad music.

The review is, in short, one of his best pieces of writing, and I think Klosterman knows this. Indeed, the set-up is laughably serendipitous. One highlight:

For one thing, Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that.

Bam. The man is nothing if not punchy, with an insufferable knowingness that drives, well, everyone crazy sometimes—not unlike Christopher Hitchens. Both writers are very aware of their available intellect and for the most part their writing reads like an older sibling smugly telling you that you don't know shit about shit. A good number of mainstream writers and intellects are pretty damn smart; the thing is that's almost never a prerequisite for good writing. With Klosterman I'm often struck by the question of whether the man himself is brilliant or if it's his writing that's brilliant. A long highlight:

Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, "What was Axl doing here?" but "What did Axl think he was doing here?" [...] On the aforementioned "Sorry," Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line ("But I don't want to do it") in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there's gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the "Sorry" vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, "You know, I've weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I'm going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human."

Even if Chinese Democracy ends up selling 20 million copies, a significant majority of Klosterman's readers (I might be going out on a limb here) are going to hate it, at the most, and simply not listen to it, at the least. Klosterman gave the record an A-, and the comment thread frenzied over terms like hipster and ironic and "Oh, what a contrarian douchebag." Klosterman is the hip mainstream's older brother. You really never know when he's fucking with you. It's ironic "awareness" taken to such an extreme that you really should just sit down and take a deep breath and maybe crack a beer.

Enjoy the writing for what it is. That's what Klosterman is doing.

  • Spot on with your description of Klosterman and Hitchens' older-brotherly condescension. Bravo!

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  • Yes, spot on about that. But, I don't understand what this means: "A good number of mainstream writers and intellects are pretty damn smart; the thing is that's almost never a prerequisite for good writing." Why is that? You say this as if it were a widely accepted fact, but I have no idea where you are coming from. Again, "With Klosterman I'm often struck by the question of whether the man himself is brilliant or if it's his writing that's brilliant." Still don't know what you're talking about.

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  • A review of a review... Excellent! Now which Splice writer will review this review? Perhaps you should start a game with a consortium of magazines and websites, a kind of chainletter/telephone challenge, where a writer from one magazine must review a review from another one. Then another must review that review, then another, then another, and on and on... I'm not kidding at all. Sharp insight about the Hitchens and The Kolsterman voice btw.

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