Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
I was supposed to love Chuck Klosterman.
Hype is a treacherous thing, isn’t it? There’s a fine line between getting excited and getting so excited that the actual thing can never live up your expectations. It’s why I manage so precisely my own exposure to promotional material; I usually limit myself to a trailer or a cover these days. But what can you really spoil with essays on pop culture? (Asks the woman who waited until she read A Year of Flops to archive binge on Nathan Rabin’s titular online column.) After all, I’m a ravenous fan who adores meta and an avid reader of The A.V. Club and Grantland. Nathan Rabin was the first writer who made me text someone in despair over how I could never possibly write like that. Based on that, it’s only logical that I would think Klosterman was directly up my alley.
But there is a key and significant difference between the way my favorite writers (fandom included) approach pop culture and the way Klosterman does. My favorite writers approach pop culture with open and willing hearts, eager to celebrate and thoughtfully critique the texts they consume. But more than that, they approach it with respect. By that, I don’t mean solemnity for their chosen texts, but respect for the fact that some people love texts that they will never get. Let’s Talk About Love is a brilliant, perfect example of them. After all, we often only lack context to understand why people love what they love. If it’s not hurting anyone (like, say, “Blurred Lines” perpetuating rape culture), then what’s the harm? Taste is strange, personal, and wholly subjective. Let’s dance!
But Klosterman lacks that open and willing heart; he comes to pop culture sideways, clearly ashamed that this is the stuff that fascinates him. Part of that is his own neuroses, which he readily admits to—this collection opens up with him stating that he will never find love because pop culture has damaged him. But the rest comes screaming through his approach to other people. While the bulk of the essays collected in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs focus on analysis or Klosterman’s own life, there are some where he goes out into the field and reports back. The second of these is “I, Rock Chump,” where Klosterman attends the Pop Music Studies Conference at the Experience Music Project. He rolls his eyes at the enthusiasm of academics, theorists, and critics happily comparing and contrasting notes. He rolls his eyes at the academics’ lack of a rock and roll lifestyle (someone prefers orange juice to booze!). And he rolls his eyes at a panelist who objects that the only all-female panel at the conference is titled “Personal Stories,” insinuating that male experience is general and female experience is individual. (Wouldn’t the latter be preferable, Klosterman asks, before shrugging and making more snide remarks.) At the end, he’s happy that the conference attendees can feel normal “for once.”
As you might imagine, women do not loom lovingly in Klosterman’s worldview, if this collection is the only thing to go by. He badgers a friend of his about dancing with a serial killer until she gives him the scoop, despite telling him that she’s trying to not think of that time she could have been murdered, thanks. His piece on the Dixie Chicks starts off dismissing the tastes of teenage girls before claiming that they’ve turned into teenage boys, what with their expressing their sexual desire and feeling pressure to have sex. He even concludes his piece on the cozy nature of amateur pornography by asking how women could possibly live without pornography. I don’t know where to start with that, beyond the obvious fact that his experience at the Pop Music Studies Conference includes a panel on explicit boy band real person slash fanfiction really should have answered that question for him.
As I said in my review of A Curious Invitation, I do not see the value of alienating people so casually and carelessly. It just goes to show who you think is in and who you think is out—who is “supposed” to be reading you. It’s like that sensation when reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lewis rolls his eyes at people who enjoy something so dull as economics. But because Klosterman comes off as ashamed of his obsessions and rolls his eyes at everyone he encounters or discusses, it feels like he’s trying to shut out everyone. While Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is advertised as a low culture manifesto, he doesn’t seem to be championing pop culture. When he considers The Sims 2 (he identifies it as The Sims, but he’s clearly playing the second generation), he concludes that computer games are programming children to be unimaginative little computers themselves. Personally, I disagree with that conclusion, but what I actually take issue with is the fact that Klosterman doesn’t seem to offer any way to change course. And this is true for all of his pieces—besides “George Will vs. Nick Hornby,” which calls for the abolition of soccer in the United States because the sport calls for “enforced equality” (95).
This is not to say that Klosterman’s analysis isn’t readable, cutting, or thoughtful. I even identify with his love of reading reviews for films he’s already seen to compare notes. Rather, this is to say that his analysis comes from such a mean-spirited place that I, as a fan, cannot connect with him. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was published a decade ago, and I know that Klosterman has undoubtedly evolved as a writer over the past decade. But based on this, I am not eager to investigate.
Bottom line: While Klosterman’s analysis of pop culture is readable, cutting, and occasionally thoughtful, his clear shame over pop culture and his alienating distaste for nearly everyone he encounters makes Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs impossible for me to engage with. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.