He has a new book out, “Chuck Klosterman X,” a collection of magazine pieces, such as profiles of Taylor Swift and Kobe Bryant.
This week on Recode Media with Peter Kafka, writer Chuck Klosterman called into the studio to talk about his career in journalism and his new book, “Chuck Klosterman X.” (The X is a Roman numeral 10, as in this is his 10th book.) The two discuss trends in journalism, writing about the famous and whether football will disappear.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m here at the Vox Media podcast studio, sitting all by myself because … This doesn’t happen very often. I think only once before … our guest is not in studio with me. He’s in Portland. He’s Chuck Klosterman. Hey, Chuck. How are you?
Chuck Klosterman: Good. How are you doing?
I am well. You are the author of many things. I’m looking at one of them right now. Is it “Chuck Klosterman X” or “Chuck Klosterman 10”? Can I go either way?
It is Chuck Klosterman 10, but this is proof of why I make a lot of bad decisions. First of all, I overlooked the popularity — or I should say the lack of popularity — of Roman numerals in modern society. There’s no reason somebody would see an X and immediately assume that it was a 10 unless they’re really consciously keeping tracks of how many books I’ve written before, but that’s an arrogant thing to assume.
Or they spend a lot of time looking at Super Bowl logos.
Exactly. The other thing that really kind of proves I’m a moron is that this has happened before. The fourth book I put out was an anthology. My name is Chuck Klosterman IV, and that was IV, and many people would say it’s Chuck Klosterman I-V like it was a medical textbook or something. This is just something I keep doing and I guess it’s my hope to end up being like the band Chicago.
All right. I think I would have got the IV part. I got X, too. I just thought maybe we wanted it to go both ways. It’s great. I bought it. I bought a signed copy. It’s a physical book that I bought. Happens very rarely. The subtitle is “A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century.” Another way of putting it is stuff that you’ve written for other publications that you compiled in one place. It’s great. I recommend it.
You’ve written many other books. I’m not going to read the entire … It’s not called an IMDb. I guess it’s called a bibliography. Anyone who’s listened this far knows that you are a writer and a commentator. You write about music, sports. That’s your sweet spot, right?
That’s been most of the work I have done, certainly, for other publications, yes.
I watch games. I listen to music and I daydream about the rest of reality. That’s from the intro. I like that. I want to talk to you about a bunch of things but I want to talk to you about your day job, writing for other publications primarily. I think you are really good at it, and I think there are fewer and fewer people who do what you do, which is writing for places like GQ full-time.
I don’t work for them full-time.
You don’t work for them full-time, but you have strung together a bunch of contracts, I assume. That’s how you pay your rent?
No. They’re all one-off things.
There was a four-year span where I was writing a column for Esquire. This would have been 2004 to 2008. That was a contract. I think I was paid four grand per column and they were yearly contracts. I had a contract with the New York Times Magazine in 2003, but contracts with the New York Times Magazine are very strange. They’re not like you’re being paid consistently. It just changes the way you’re described when they give your bio and you get paid a little bit more. I was, I guess, on contract with Grantland, although that was different because that seemed like a more immersive … you’re just an employee. I was an employee at Spin, but for the most part now, I haven’t had a lot of long-term contracts.
Rather than me describing how you make your living, you tell me how you make your living. It’s for writing for other people, though, right?
Okay, in the 90s, I was a newspaper reporter and that’s how I made my living. Then, I was like maybe I’m going to see if I can write this book in my spare time, the first book. That came out in 2001 and then in 2002, I got hired by Spin so I moved to New York. At that point, I was still mostly a working journalist who also wrote books. Then, as the years moved on, those flopped so now I’m somebody who writes book and then occasionally does journalism. I think, as I’m moving forward, it seems like books consume by far the majority of my time. I guess that’s how I make a living. Also, I guess technically I’m unemployed. Technically.
By the way, what are you doing unemployed in Portland? What’s going on there?
What is my day like?
Yeah, why are you in Portland? I used to spy on you. I used to sneak around you in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Yeah, why didn’t you ever come up and say hello to me if we were in the same Starbucks?
Although I seem incredibly confident on a microphone, I’m hesitant to walk up to people who I don’t know who I admire and say, “Hey.”
Well, actually, that’s a good quality. That’s a good quality for people to have.
It generally doesn’t work out well.
Well, no. I think it’s good that you’re not the kind of person who’s like, “I’m going to try to network with every person I see.” That’s a good thing. Why am I here?
Well, let’s see. My wife and I had an apartment near where you lived, which was a great apartment when it was just the two of us. Then, we had one kid and then we had another kid.
I’m familiar with this story.
Now, there’s not enough space so then, we have to choose between one of two things. We have to move further out in Brooklyn and pay a ton of money for a house that might not even seem that great anywhere else in America.
That’s the Peter Kafka story.
Or, we could move to Portland, where my wife is from. Her parents are still here. Her sister is here. What I do, it doesn’t really matter where I’m at, so it was really a family-based move entirely. Both my wife and I were not jacked about leaving New York. We loved it there. That’s absolutely my favorite place to live ever. I still kind of miss it. It hasn’t been that long, I guess, I’ve been away. We begrudgingly did this and there are some huge upsides to being here, too. I think it really was the smart move.
I assume you’ve been to Portland before interviewing … Actually, wasn’t Malcolm X from Portland?
He was there. I guess I’ve toured through here, and then because my wife is from here, we would come back here for holidays.
You know it. I’m curious …
I’d probably been here 12 times before I moved here.
Okay. All I know is lots of people I know want to live there, but don’t live there.
Well, I think that especially for people in Brooklyn, I think that they look at other cities and be like what would be a realistic analogy. There are certain cities that always come up. Portland is one. Austin is one. Minneapolis sometimes. Those are all the cities we talked about moving to, I guess.
Yeah, I grew up outside of Minneapolis so I know that it’s actually not like Brooklyn at all.
I know, but there’s something about the … Culture’s maybe the wrong word to use, but it seems whenever people from New York go to Minneapolis, they really do like it. Where out of Minneapolis are you from?
Oh, now, that’s the wealthiest suburbs, so were you very wealthy growing up?
Well, we used to be. No, no. I grew up in the lower-class part. We only had a one-car garage. We did not have a remote control.
In fact, isn’t that a cliché/? Don’t they call people from Edina cake eaters?
Yep, yep. The school mascot is the hornet but it should be the wasp. Then, actually, the other connection I had with you was, in purely my own mind, you had a part in one of your books, “Killing Yourself,” about going to find Bobby Stinson’s apartment — former Replacements member — and finding him and it was near the Bryant-Lake Bowl and that’s where I lived for a period of time. I remember thinking oh …
Were you living in that apartment?
No, no. Nearby. The guy who was sticking his hand out, smoking a cigarette?
I could imagine who that is, at least an archetype of that kind of person, who would stick their hand out while smoking a cigarette and then not answer the door. I always felt that connection. I’m rambling a little bit now. This is why I think it’s easier in person, but I appreciate the phone call.
I want to ask about how you do your job in 2017. You call it book writing. I think of it as magazine writing. I guess it’s because I’ve read an anthology of your magazine writing. Has it changed significantly? Has the way you actually do the work changed significantly over the last 10 years or so, either because of your success or because of technology or both?
Technically, the way the stories are done, I would say that’s almost identical. That’s actually the one aspect that I don’t think has changed at all. Everything around it has changed entirely, but the way that I would do a feature, for example, is the way I’ve always done them, the way I was doing them in 1994. There is nothing unique or rarefied about the way I do this.
Actually, there’s one thing that has changed. There is one thing that is different, which is that when I was younger, like I think many people who do this kind of work is they’re trained or told or convinced or persuaded that the idea when you interview someone is to just make it be a conversation. Forget that you’re recording it. Convince the person that you’re just talking. Get so comfortable with them that it’s just two people sitting at a bar chatting and that this is the way to get an authentic, realistic profile. But I’ve found that it just never really happens, particularly since I went through a period where I got interviewed a lot and I realized how fake that was, and in a way, how annoying it is to be with someone who’s trying to create the illusion that you’re just comfortably chatting and that this is not recorded and there isn’t going to be some product at the end.
Now, when I interview people, particularly if they’re very famous — you can’t really do this with just an average person, but somebody’s who’s mega famous. If they’re Kobe Bryant, Taylor Swift, I will just say, at the beginning, “Look, I know the only reason you’re here is to promote some kind of product. That product may be yourself, but it’s something that you are here to sell or produce. The only reason I’m able to ask you these questions is because I’m a reporter and I can ask you questions now that I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable asking you if we were friends, so I’m not going to pretend that we are and I’m not going to create some fake thing where we’re going to have a relationship beyond this conversation. I’m just going to ask you the things I want to know about and I hope that you respect the fact that I’m just being straight with you.” I find that that works much better.
You would dispense with small talk about Portland, then?
Yes. When you say that to a Taylor Swift or a Kobe Bryant, and it goes well, and you’ve got two profiles of them and there are great Q&As in there, in the book, do you think they’re responding to the honesty of that approach, the fact that it’s novel, or both?
I don’t know. I think sometimes they’re slightly surprised but I think more often they’re just like, “Good.” This is not going to be something where they have to pretend for 20 minutes, too, that we’re just having this attempt to … I keep using the word illusion but it is, that somehow there’s something natural about two people who’ve never met before with a tape recorder in between them and one person is asking probing questions about their life.
It’s interesting to me when I hear about Susan Orleans, or whatever. She’ll spend a month with somebody. I’ve never done anything like that. I don’t think I ever would. I certainly would never allow someone to spend a month with me if they were writing a story on me. I would think that would be awful to have just someone come into your life for a month.
I actually, I guess, do these magazine profiles probably a little closer to the way newspaper profiles worked, where there was no expectation that you were going to have four days with the person, or an entire weekend where’d you go on their boat with them. It makes the story easier to write if you do that stuff.
I very much recall, because people are aware of this, I was doing a story on the release of the first Audioslave record and I was interviewing Tom Morello in Los Angeles. At Spin, it was always important. We always had to open with some scene, so we went to this arcade. They set it up so we’d go to this arcade together, and we were walking into the arcade and he literally looked at me and said, “Is this the part where you talk about how you and me are in an arcade together?” I’m like, “Yes, it is. This is what we’re doing right now. We are pretending that somehow you and I ran into each on the street and decided to play Rampage.”
I was going to ask about that because people still do this, but it seems like you see less of them. I was just reading one where they’re interviewing Larry David’s daughter and the conceit was they were going to ride the subway, because she doesn’t like to ride the subway because she’s neurotic. They rode the subway to Queens and back. I was struck by the fact that you see many fewer of those now, where someone goes on a date or goes golfing or goes to an arcade.
Yeah, I do think that something has changed about the awareness of the consumer and the fact that also, the consumer of this is used to reading things on the internet that are so much shorter and that they’re used to reading vertically as opposed to horizontally, that if you start a story with a colorful, interesting description like in this Taylor Swift story I did. It starts with me and her in her car and she gets a phone call from Justin Timberlake. That’s not a constructed scene. I thought we were just going to her house. I assumed that the car ride … I’m taking notes because the tape recorder is not on. I think that’s one thing. It’s another thing if we would have said, “Boy, it would be interesting to spend time with Taylor Swift in a hot air balloon.” Then, me and her are in a hot air balloon and she gets a … That seems so dumb to me now.
Granted, the thing about a lot of profile writing, especially celebrity profiling, is there is a formula to this. There’s a certain expectation the publication has of what the story is going to be like. Sometimes you still have to work within that construct, but I hope that it’s never as … The profiles that always drive me crazy — and I mean, I’ve done this, too — it’s a profile that begins with the subject’s first name.
That’s a very men’s magazine style, isn’t it? Like an Esquire or GQ.
“Peter Kafka overlooks the menu.” I hate that. I’ll do anything to avoid it. And sometimes you’ll turn something in and the editor will try to move it in that direction and you got to find some way. I think it even just sounds better to just immediately use a pronoun instead of the person’s name, because certainly, the person reading this story knows who it’s about. If the story starts with “she” and Taylor Swift is pictured next to that story, no one’s going to be like, “Who was that? Who’s he talking about?”
How much agency do you have over the construct of the piece? Is it the publicist who says Taylor Swift want to meet you but she wants to do it in a hot air balloon, or does the editor say this is how I want to do it? Do you have the ability to say, “No, I don’t want to do it that way”?
What usually happens is the editor from the place calls you and says would you be interested in doing a profile on Person X? If I’m interested in Person X, I say yes, sure. It doesn’t really matter. That’s the whole thing now. I don’t want to fake interest in people. You end up hating the entire experience, especially the writing. I got to be legitimately interested that I actually have questions. They say, are you interested in Person X and I’m like, yes, sure. Then, they go, okay, it’ll probably happen the end of September or whatever. They’ll give you a rough date and then, at least in the last five or 10 years, immediately the conversation is, we’re not going to get much time with them. They said we’re not going to get much time with them.
It’s been set up. They’ve set it up with the interview subject, with their handlers, with their manager, PR person?
Yeah. There’s this whole industry of wrangling. At the newspaper, you had to do all that yourself. If you wanted to interview Rob Zombie, you had to call White Zombie’s publicist and get the whole thing. You did it yourself. Now, I guess the analogy is almost like being parachuted in or dropped in. Everything is set.
Right, that apparatus still exists in glossy magazine land. There’s still people doing that stuff.
Yeah. Particularly if the expectation is that you’re going to sit down with the person. I think you can tell in a lot of online journalism that these contacts, you can just see as you read what people say and all this, and the way it’s structured, that this was done through texting or Twitter or email. If the idea’s that you’re going to sit with the person, they are going to create this scenario and some writers really hate the idea if it’s just going to be dinner or it’s just going to be them in the hotel room, because they’re like, what am I going to write about? I never feel that way. I almost prefer that because my thinking is always if someone reads something I write and the thing they come away talking about is the way the story is written, that means it didn’t work. They should come away talking specifically about something the subject said that changed the way they now perceive them.
That’s why in this book, this anthology, there’s that Tom Brady profile. That’s a failed profile. I put it in there because I don’t know, I just did, but I know from my perspective that did not work because if anyone’s talking about that profile, all they’re discussing is that there was no new information.
You tried to interview Tom Brady, who basically did not want to be interviewed or certainly didn’t want to be asked about deflating balls.
Yes. I thought that was specifically why it was happening, so then there was a strange collision between someone asking one question over and over again and the other person basically being like, “That’s the one question I’m not going to answer at all.”
You kept it in. It’s still interesting.
What had happened was he was Man of the Year, so he was going to be in the magazine regardless. Once we realized there wasn’t going to be a normal profile, then it was like well, I’ll just write an essay about him. Then, I thought if I’m writing an essay about him, I should include something that isn’t just what I think. I just took the part of the interview that didn’t work and put it in the middle of the essay, because in an essay, even a failed interview is something. A failed interview in a profile’s a problem, but a failed interview in an essay can be interesting.
Yeah, I liked it. I have more interview questions for you during this interview, but I need to stop for a second, about 30 seconds, so we can sell some socks, I think. Socks are awesome. Can you hang on?
We’ll be back here with Chuck Klosterman.
Back here with Chuck Klosterman. I’m Peter Kafka. You know that because you’re listening to a podcast with the two of us. We were talking about the techniques of interviewing, how it’s changing, how it’s not changing. I wanted to ask you about profile writing, as well. There was something you mentioned at the beginning of the introduction of your Taylor Swift profile. Actually, I don’t know if it was Taylor Swift. It was one of them. You talked about not describing the way that women, I think in particular, look or how they dress because you don’t want to get blowback. You say part of the reason it’s so much easier to write about old white guys, nobody gives a shit how you describe them. I got to say, I understood what you meant and I was a little surprised that you put that in there because it seems like even saying that is the kind of thing that could raise someone’s ire at this point.
I suppose it could but it’s not that the blowback is the … I guess it depends how you define blowback. The thing is, it will change the way the story is received, particularly by people who don’t actually read the story. They’ll just isolate one part of the story and then the assumption will be that this is what the story must be about because it was all boiled down into this one little anecdote. It’s just not worth it to risk having the entire story be hijacked by something that, though, does seem like a normal part of profile writing.
You’re worried that if you wrote that Taylor Swift was wearing a short skirt or a long skirt or a tight-fitting thing or a loose-fitting thing, that would get removed out of context and all the attention would be placed on that, or however that situation might get.
Not even removed out of context. It would just be something that somebody would focus on, okay? It would just be, somebody would find that problematic that I described how she looked. It doesn’t matter if it was complimentary or insulting necessarily. It would seem as though I wasn’t taking her seriously as a musical artist, and the idea is that I do. That’s why I’m writing about her is because I do think she’s a meaningful, significant artist. It’s not worth the risk of having the story then get shifted by other people who perhaps just perceive themselves as somebody who’s a watchdog for certain signifiers or certain elements of the culture and that their job is to be on the watch for this. If your story then gets moved into that silo, that’s all it’s going to be remembered for.
It’s not a meaningful enough detail to take that risk, I think, because the ultimate idea is that you want people to read your work and to come away with either an idea that they didn’t have before or to take an idea that was preexisting in the culture and shift it or morph it into something that illustrates this complexity. What you don’t want is somebody to have a story just become a political dispute that has no connection with what you’re actively trying to do. It becomes someone else’s politics.
Did that happen to one of the pieces you wrote or did you watch it happen to other people and say, “I don’t want to go there, I’m going to shift lanes here”?
Both, I’m sure. I’m sure that has happened. Yes. I’ve seen it happen to other people, but I think it’s happened to me, too. I’m sure it has.
It’s something that you’re willing to put up with, willing to accept in terms of how you’re going to report and write, but something that still irks you enough that you want to call it out quietly or briefly in a collection of essays?
What it was … When you put together an anthology like this, you got to read through all your old features, you know? As I was rereading that, I noticed I never describe what she looks like, but I describe what Jimmy Page looks like. It’s like he’s wearing black and has a ponytail. I describe what Eddie Van Halen looks like. I always do that. Here again — particularly, again, writing for newspaper — when the art was a less meaningful thing, when the whole thing wasn’t necessarily built around a photograph of the person, or the person might be significantly less famous.
You could make the argument, why are you describing what Taylor Swift looks like? People know how she appears, but to me, that’s part of expository writing, describing what the person looks like. It’s a touchier thing now. It’s a more dangerous thing. But on balance, is it something that is so important to the story that it must be in here? The truth? It’s not like that. If it’s going to cause people to consume the story differently, it’s probably not worth the trade-off.
Do you think that perception of how your work is being received, either by your audience or by people who aren’t reading it but are reading about it, do you think that’s a new concept? That if, 20 years ago when you were starting, you would have been writing into a void? You would have got next to no feedback and you would have just gone on and written more stories and someone in New York would have kept hiring you so you wouldn’t know when you were doing well there, but beyond that, you wouldn’t have had any other feedback with your audience.
I said before how the way the story’s done has changed. The thing you just described is what has changed the most. I mean, I think that it’s always hard talking about these things because you’re almost … I’m going to say things that will make me sound antiquated. I think there’s a lot of people roughly my age, I’m 45, who are in media who probably feel this way.
Part of the reason I became a writer is because it was this completely controlled reality where I could do this thing by myself where you’d go out and you’d do the interviews and stuff, but then you’re back by yourself, transcribing and then writing. Then, when the story is done and you send it off, that’s the end. Now that’s the middle. Now it’s like, when the story is published, it’s the middle of the process very often because the consumer feels differently now.
Media is not a one-way relationship. It’s this two-way relationship where many people feel the reason they’re consuming media is to respond to it, that it’s not for the content. It’s so that they can use that content to have their response, their reader response. It’s not something to even criticize. It’s just how it is now. That is the expectation.
Right, and some people, especially the people who I think read the stuff that I write, who are in my world, media/technology, either love it or say they love it. They love interactivity. They wish there was more way to reach the readers or reach their fans. They love that interaction. You often don’t hear from people like you. I think probably because they don’t want to say it out loud and say I don’t want to participate in that world or I want to participate less in that world.
You know, things change. My first book comes out. Part of the reason that I was able to go … I had never been to New York — was living in Akron, Ohio — but suddenly was able to move into this world because I did something that, in retrospect, seems completely out of character for me. My home phone number is in the forward to that book.
That’s “Fargo Rock City”?
Yes. If you want to call me, I was like, here’s my number. It was my home phone number. I thought, at the time, well, people will think it’s funny I did that but they won’t actually call, but many people did. I got many phone calls. I ended up being able to do … The first event I ever did in New York was with David Byrne and Lydia Davis because David Byrne called me from the Denver airport because my number was in this book.
Now, sometimes people will say to me, “Why don’t you respond to people on Twitter?” People tweet at you. That’s the whole idea of it. I do book readings, and I love getting questions from the audience. That’s my favorite part when there’s questions from the audience that I can respond to off the cuff, but for some reason, I don’t feel that way about social media. I guess I have theories as to why I feel that way but I’m not certain if there are just ways …
Did you always feel that way or did it turn? You were in social media and then you decided at one point enough?
When I first got involved with Twitter, it seemed different than it is now.
Yeah, I agree.
Where there was less of that and, at first — this was 2008, I think, or 2009 whenever I first got into it, maybe 2009 or 2010 — it was almost as though the people on Twitter were so happy to see other people on Twitter, it was just this weird, strange “we’re all friends here.”
“Hey, welcome. You’re here.”
Yeah. Did I ever respond to … I will occasionally respond to people who tweet at me if I think they have an interesting question or they seem like a particularly sincere person who just wants to know something. You know what I think might be the answer to this is? The fact that it so quickly went from something that was this interesting ancillary medium to something that has become straight up now obligation and expectation that if you produce books or you write stories, that you are going to promote these things in this real aggressive way.
Even in 2001, that was just not part of this at all. When “Fargo Rock City” came out, the idea for me promoting it was they would say, “This alternative weekly in Omaha wants to talk to you. Do you want to do it?” That’s not how it is now. I do think it’s interesting because the relationship between how popular someone is on Twitter really has no relationship to say how many books they sell or any of that, but it’s the closest the publishing industry and the media industry has to an analogous metric.
It’s a super flawed metric. I also noticed that a lot of people who were really interesting on Twitter back in 2008 or 2009 have stopped. Whenever I use Twitter — not whenever but often when I use Twitter — I think, “Wait a minute, so and so used to be on here but now they’re not. What do they know that I don’t?”
I don’t know. Here’s something I was thinking about recently. How many people do you follow on Twitter roughly?
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s thousands but I’m sure there’s only a portion of them that are actually tweeting regularly.
Yeah. Okay, so let’s say that Twitter went from being a free medium to a paying medium, and it cost $1.00 a year to follow a person. If you followed 850 people, you had to pay $850.00 a year. How many people do you think you would follow if it were $1.00 a person for 12 months of content?
100? That seems like a good number. Even that seems high.
You think you’d still follow 100?
Yeah, I think probably professionally. I’m on a Twitter diet right now so I’m trying to cut down. One of the things I’ve figured out is you actually don’t need to look at Twitter at all to follow what’s going on on Twitter. You don’t need to follow President Trump to learn what President Trump tweeted because everyone else will tell you.
I think the notion — and I feel this way about the internet in general — the idea that the internet’s going to open the world and let you find cool niches and cool things or like-minded people or people you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, that seems to get drowned out by the reality of both modern internet and modern Twitter, where it’s louder and louder and scale and scale. The interesting stuff gets pushed farther in the margins.
I guess the things that you said did happen, though. This first description kind of has occurred but it’s just a strange thing because it seems so important now, not necessarily to the average person but to the person whose livelihood is built around media.
Another riff about social media in there that I wanted to ask you about, where you talked about the public bereavement when a celebrity died, and it’s still happening, obviously, but that string where David Bowie died and Prince died and whoever else died. Everyone would take to Facebook or Twitter to explain what it meant to them and basically you say in short it doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes a celebrity will die. It doesn’t even seem like a death. It seems like an auction to one-up themselves. You can see the positive part of that, right? For most people who aren’t famous, this is still just a way to beat their chest and gain sometime kind of validation.
What is the validation?
You get to say I have a thought, I have a feeling, this is important to me. By the way, everyone else is doing it and I want to join that group of people doing it.
Well, sure. I think I say in the paragraph after this, it’s not bad. It’s just weird to me. It feels strange to me that there is such a performative nature to reactions to celebrity death. It’s interesting to see people pick and choose which celebrity deaths they want to publicly mourn. I know this sounds cynical, but in a way, it does seem like a kind of branding.
Yeah, it’s like wearing a band’s T-shirt, right?
Yeah, a little bit. A little bit, although it’s different because wearing a band’s T-shirt would be like well, I’m going to pay $18.00 to buy this shirt. I was at the show or was in the record store and the band is selling this and I’m supporting this. The aesthetics of this group and the fonts they use, I like. I feel like when somebody dies, some obscure jazz musician, and you decide that you’re going to be the person who expresses sadness over this death partially because you want people to know you’re the kind of person who cares about obscure jazz artists, I don’t know. That seems odd to me.
It makes sense. I think at first, I did stuff like this. I remember one time Orlando Woolridge died. This guy played basketball. He was Number 0. He played for the Nuggets for a while, played for the Bulls for a while. He went to Notre Dame. He had this checkered cocaine past. He was always perceived as a selfish player. He died and I expressed, “Oh, Orlando Woolridge died.” I think what I was convincing myself was, well, he’s somebody who should be remembered. He’s not Michael Jordan but he’s somebody worth remembering, but then part of me, as I thought about it, I was like why did I pick him?
If it’s really that someone deserves to be remembered, well, everybody does. Everyone deserves to be remembered. I should be doing nothing all day except noting the deaths of various un-famous and famous people. I picked this guy, and it did make me question, and I’m sure a lot of people have this feeling. You question your motives for something. What was my unconscious reason for doing this? I made up this conscious rationale but why did I really do it?
You and I are about the same age and I think shared similar traits at one point, which is at some point, we identified ourselves because of the music and other culture that we like to consume. We were part of a minority of people who like to do that. A lot of people just listen to whatever, watch whatever, and it didn’t affect them. Do you think that’s gone away in 2017 or has that been replaced with something else, where instead of identifying yourself as someone who likes the Minutemen or Kiss, or whoever it is, you know like … I don’t know what the thing would be … or do you think that identification with a cultural product is still around?
Oh, it has definitely receded from the culture, and I think that different avenues within the internet have replaced it, partially because prior to the collapse of the music industry, post Napster, you didn’t have unlimited money if you were a young person. If you were going to buy a record, that might be the only record that you were going to get that month, certainly that week. If you buy a Cure album and you like it, you’re probably going to look for records that are similar to the Cure, artists that seem similar to the Cure, and all of the sudden, you’re a halfway goth. You have all this stuff and the ideas in that music are ideas you start to adopt and you find other people …
Plus, you’ve invested time in physically getting the stuff.
Yes, and you’re finding other people who also have made the left-turn decision to buy this record when they could have bought a Michael Jackson record, a Duran Duran record, Van Halen. They bought this instead and that was the creation of this little subculture. But now, we’ve moved back to the idea of singles being the dominant form of music consumption and the value of music is much less. I even feel that. I’m on Spotify so I’m paying the monthly amount for Spotify and listening to this huge spectrum of music that I could have never afforded, or would have never done, if I had to consume these. I’m moving backward through time now. I’m trying to go through all of the music in the 70s and the 60s that I read about but never really listened to. I couldn’t go back and be like, I’m going to buy every Love album.
Does that also allow you to go back and listen to music that you actively didn’t listen to because you thought it was bad or you thought it was culturally inferior? I was thinking of this. I was reading … it was a Ringer appreciation for one of the Def Leppard albums. Not Pyromania, the one I guess that came after.
Hysteria. It was just a surprising argument because Hysteria is easily the fourth-best Def Leppard record, but anyway.
I have very limited Def Leppard except for that they were a huge band, but I also knew they weren’t cool. The idea that they were going to make an argument for a mid-period Def Leppard album being awesome almost got me to go back and listen to it. It wasn’t like I spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I did think, “You know what? I bet I’m going to go listen to this and it’s still not going to be great.” It wasn’t just a cultural bias I had, but then I spend time going back and forth and wondering if I’m missing stuff because I was sequestered somewhere and where I might be opened up to a lot of stuff now that I have it all at my fingertips.
Yeah. When I go back and listen to almost anything that still has some semblance of meaning today, whether it’s Def Leppard Hysteria or Trout Mass Replica — anything, any record from the past, that for whatever reason still gets brought up in conversation by people, two generations or three generations later, some people are still like, “This is worth listening to.” And now detached from that secondary meaning of whether or not it’s cool or if this somehow applies to a person like me, I find most of it good, or at least interesting.
You strip the context and you can enjoy it.
Well, absolutely. There was so much. When I went to college, I bought REM’s Eponymous album and I was so embarrassed that I had bought it that I wouldn’t put it with my other CDs. I hid it because I had this association of what the kind of person who was into REM was like and what it meant to be into REM. Well, of course, now REM has become one of my favorite bands, it’s like I think that it seems strange to me to be into music for its coolness outside of high school. That seems like that’s the only time when you’re a young person and you’re using art basically to create a personality because you don’t have a real personality yet.
Yeah, it lasted longer for me. High school, college and then a couple years after.
I think it takes longer for most people. I think for me, too. Obviously I was in college when this REM thing happened. It probably took me to the end of college to change the way I viewed the meaning and significance of pop music.
We’re going to take a super-quick break and then I want to come back and talk about Nazis. How’s that sound?
Awesome. All right.
Thanks, Kara. We’re back here with Chuck Klosterman. As promised, we’re going to talk about Nazis, because here’s the thought I’ve been trying to connect. We were talking a little bit about the public, the performative … I love that word … nature of saying I feel bad that David Bowie died. I was thinking about that this weekend when I was watching the Charlottesville stuff on Saturday when the event was happening and on Sunday, when Donald Trump refused to condemn it.
Every single person in my Twitter feed was saying a variant of the same thing. “This is terrible.” “Donald Trump is terrible.” “This is terrible.” I was torn between thinking, “Boy, I really don’t need anyone else to come out and say that they’re against Nazis or they’re against the Klan or they think Donald Trump’s a terrible person, because everyone I know was thinking the same way.” I thought actually, for a time like this, this is actually a good outlet for people to be able to say, “I’m powerless but I want to say something,” and if it’s literally the same thing as everyone else, that’s fine. Do you see the virtue in that or the upside of that?
Oh, is it a therapeutic thing? Sure. It is interesting though how it’s like all realities are happening at the same time. I think it was either this morning or tonight. This is Monday, we should note. I don’t know when this is running …
Couple of days from now.
It’s like the Monday after. Okay, I see some people are making an argument that’s like, okay, if you’re a Republican who’s acting like you’re all upset now that Trump refused to say Nazis are bad, don’t pretend this is new. Since 1980 basically, the GOP has courted racial politics and has essentially been building toward this problem. Since 1980, this has been part of their strategy.
Yes. Okay. Then, a couple tweets later, I started seeing people who were reprinting the statement Ronald Reagan made after he had gotten support from the Ku Klux Klan. He was like, the KKK is repugnant. There is no place for this in America. Now, both people are essentially attacking Trump. You have the one person who’s saying this terrible thing that’s happened, it’s been happening since 1980. Then, there’s somebody else saying Trump is awful. Lookit, he’s not like Reagan. They’re coming at the same problem different.
It made me think many things. One thing it made me think is when I watched Trump’s speech this morning, and it was a terrible speech, but I was like, why did he even make it? Do you think that there’s going to be anybody who’s going to hear this speech and go, “I guess we were wrong”? “I guess he actually is a very reasonable person.” That didn’t happen at all. The response to Trump …
I think it was literally so he can say I said it and now there’s a certain group of people who can say “He said it. Let’s stop. Let’s move on.”
It will be, he’s on the record for saying he doesn’t support Nazis, but the real meaning … I mean, let’s look at Reagan saying that he did not want any support from the KKK or any kind of racist organization, but how many people on the left perceived the Reagan administration as being racially inclusive? It’s as if pretty much every idea that you want to exist now, you can find other people who have said something that aligns with you and you can just keep promoting this idea that your personal view is somehow collective.
Yeah, I see all of that, but still all in the same part of the ideological spectrum. Again, the idea that there’s a difference here in the spectrum, right? There’s no one who’s pro-Nazi. There technically are a handful of people, but no one cares about them.
Or they’re Nazi’s. There’s not many of the people who are like, “I’m not a Nazi, but I support this.”
That’s also why I hate the “We should come together.” I don’t want to come together with Nazis. It’s no fun. I’m sure someone said that on Twitter, too, so I apologize if I’m stealing that.
That was already happening on Sunday. Okay, so Friday morning, I’m at the gym and I’m looking at the TV as I’m listening to podcasts and the whole discussion is there’s going to be a nuclear war. Guam will not exist in 72 hours. That was the thing was there’s going to be a nuclear war. He’s going to create a nuclear war. Then on Friday night, the event happens, so Saturday, it’s people responding to the event itself but then by the time we get into Sunday, it’s actually, well, Trump’s response was insufficient so the spotlight is not on the event but back on Trump’s reaction.
And then you start seeing people saying, seemingly the more nuanced takes, basically it’s like the never-Trump Republicans are the people who ushered in this idea of both sides and that they’ve created this climate where it’s become acceptable to equivocate these two things. Then, you see a lot of people talking about false equivocation, which is interesting always, because just because you voice the take and its opposing take, you’re not inherently saying they’re the same. You’re just saying they both exist.
This is another thing that has changed in my lifetime. Just the anger people have toward what they perceive to be attempts at objectivity. They just hate it, and what they just want are people who are going to completely support their preexisting bias as news. It’s not surprising at all that this idea of fake news or the construction of news has happened. That’s actually the logical step beyond the move away from objective reporting, that once you say, “Well, people aren’t robots. They can’t be totally objective,” — which is true — somebody will be like, “We shouldn’t try at all.” Where in the past, it was always, “Well, as a journalist your job is to try to recognize your biases and compensate for them,” but people don’t want that now. It’s not even …
Well, actually … Not to “well actually” you, but that’s a fairly recent idea in journalism if you go back to the Revolutionary War times. By the way, in a lot of other countries, journalism’s always been super biased.
Absolutely. Especially when there were situations … our community would have 18 newspapers. There was all special interest newspapers, but that idea particularly moving through the 60s and 70s and 80s, I thought … Well, here again, this is my bias, I suppose. This is the cultural conditions in which I was raised under and which I pursued journalism under. That was part of the thing that drew me to the idea of being a reporter was I was like, this is something I can do, I think. My ability to detach my personal emotions from what I am investigating, while not perfect, I can do this. And now it turns out that the opposite is what’s desirable. I think it’s really going to change the kind of person who goes into media going forward.
Speaking of careers, you grew up in North Dakota. You got a job at a newspaper in Ohio. You wrote a book and got to New York. How do you think the career arc changes or doesn’t change if you were starting out in 2017? Presumably you wouldn’t go work for a local paper. I don’t know. They’re still around. They still exist.
The honest answer is when I think of what I was like at 19 and 20, I think, if I’m being totally honest with myself, I would have been very aggressively drawn to the aspects of media I currently hate. I know I would’ve. I know the kind of media writing that I find the most off-putting and that drives me the craziest, I think I would have absolutely … In fact, even some of the writing looks the way my writing used to look to me in high school when I was writing for the high school paper. Probably higher quality, I’m saying, but I’m saying the perspective. I’m not trying to say …
Tease that out. What does that look like? The stuff that drives you nuts?
Well, just the idea that who can be the most outraged about this or who can care the least about this? Or, this idea that this person is in the culture, and as a consequence, they have no right to anything beyond the fact that they’re owned by the culture so anything you write about this person is totally fine.
You’d be on Twitter or the equivalent of Twitter?
Yeah, I guess Twitter is part of this. I’m even just saying more like now, do people still talk about the blogosphere? Or is that no longer a thing?
I think it denotes our age, but yeah.
I think it’s done.
I don’t know what you replace it with, but yeah.
Okay, I guess also the idea of what’s happening right now, what do most people think? I need to have a take or response that either contradicts what most people think or is just completely unexpected, because the thing is, the one thing people do not want to consume is the obvious idea that this thing is good or this thing is bad unless you’re going to say it’s so good or so bad that it’s transcendent.
If I like something, I’m going to respond in a way that isn’t just going to be like, “I saw this movie, it’s a good movie.” It’s like, “This movie is changing movies. The fact that I spent two hours in this movie makes me want to kill myself and if I can’t kill myself, I’m going to kill everybody else in the theater.” That kind of thing. You know, when you’re young, you’re a real emotional writer if you’re a writer, I think. The thing is that is what translates the fastest.
If I was a young person now, I would be incredibly attracted to the idea that when you’re 22 you can be a national writer, which was impossible when I was 22. I can’t think of anybody when I was that age …
Cameron Crowe is the only one who did it, I guess. Right?
He did. He did, I guess, but even so, it was like when people were reading a Cameron Crowe article he wrote when he was 22, they felt they were reading about the Allman Brothers. They weren’t like, it’s Cameron Crowe, you gotta read this new Cameron … I think the closest might have been Joel Stein? I don’t know how old he is, I have no idea, but when I was living in Fargo, he was already kind of a famous person. He was in either Time or Newsweek or something. He seemed as young as you could be.
Right, there was Jay McInerney. There were versions, but they were writing books.
Yes. In publishing, that will happen because in publishing there is real excitement over the very young. The very young more so than the young. There’s more excitement over a 21-year-old novelist than a 24-year-old novelist.
It’s funny, because you’re describing — I think correctly — the idea of when you’re a young writer, you tend towards extremes, and now, in modern internet publishing, older people, people like myself, will encourage you to do that. They’ll say, what’s the point of having a middle-of-the-road opinion? Explain why something is great or something is terrible. If it’s just eh, let’s move on. It makes sense because that is, by the way, what an audience responds to. There’s a million versions of eh, why read those, but I understand your disdain and distaste for it as well.
Well, no. The longest time, the one thing nobody knew at any publication — be it newspapers or magazines — was who’s reading this or how many people are reading what? You put the newspaper out, you put an issue of Spin out, you know your circulation and that’s it. You have no senses of what stories are getting … You can kind of go by Letters to the Editor but not really. You don’t really have a sense of what is being consumed. You do all these focus groups. I remember at the Beacon Journal, they would do focus groups where I think they would even make people wear these special glasses to see what parts of the newspaper they’re looking at.
Yep, still do it.
Okay, well the thing is, though, because no one really knew, because nobody really knew what was being read, everybody was like, we got to use our best judgment. We have to think what is the most significant thing here or what should matter to people the most or what is the information they need as opposed to just information they want because we don’t know so we’re just going to have to trust our news judgment.
Well, now we actually know. We actually have the numbers, and that has been hugely detrimental to the industry in terms of being a writer and being a journalist and all of these things, because part of the reason the financial situation of this has shifted so much is the recognition that an incredibly well-reported story that took two months to do about what’s happening in this remote section of Syria, gets about the same amount of attention as someone reading that story and going, “I think what’s going on in Syria is bullshit.”
Right. I either have this debate in my head or out loud all the time when I got on both sides of it, because the counter to that, and the guys from Chartbeat, the people who actually put the dashboard up that shows what anyone’s looking at on your site literally by the second by second and it’s super depressing because they’re not reading anything. They’ll point out that the best-read story maybe of last year or the year before was a very long Atlantic piece about the … I guess the Taliban? No, about Isis.
They’ll say look, if you write an amazing piece and it’s interesting and timely, people will read it. You can’t force someone to read something that’s not interesting and the internet’s dispensed with that, but just shrugging and saying look, “The internet’s making me write shit” isn’t a good response. But I see the other way, which is I’ve seen a million people write “I have got to write shit because this is what the internet wants.”
I don’t even know if you’ve got to write shit. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m just saying that absolutely the biggest story is going to be the story where the most time and all that investment is, but what’s different is the gap between and responses to that story or stories that involved much less reporting. That should be a chasm. There should be no relationship between the actual story that is done and the idea of people just saying well, what about this though? Or linking to that story and just saying …
That is what, I think, has flattened out, and it’s hard to motivate people to put the investment in for that other kind of story. Here again, this is what worries me about myself. If I was a younger person, I would have been much better at that second category than that first category. I think that that’s what I would have done. I don’t know. It’s just a very different kind of job than it used to be, I think, but that’s probably the case with every job.
In your anthology, you’ve got a handful of shorter pieces you did for Grantland but everything else in there is fairly long. Some of it’s quite long. You’re writing it in an era where you’re fully aware that a lot of people are doing this short-form stuff, fast-twitch stuff. Do you push that out of your mind when you’re writing? Do you have to do that? Or, are you aware that you’re writing in a world where the news cycle went from North Korea and nuclear apocalypse to riot in Charlottesville and presumably we’ll be on a different news cycle by the time this podcast comes out in a couple days? Do you try to be conscious of that or do you just have to push it out of your head?
Well, I’m lucky, too. I never really had to do that. I came in. I was already established enough, especially at Grantland. I always thought I’d never have to be the first person to write about anything. I can almost be the last person. Just the whole reason this has happened, to me, is so much based on luck and chance and all these things. I’m almost hesitant to express that I’m happy that it worked out because it somehow, to me, still seems weird that it happened. I never felt pressure to do that, what you’re describing. That never was part of my life.
We said at the beginning, you write about sports and music and I have not asked you a single sports question. Before we go, let me ask you about that. Football. There’s the Malcolm Gladwell argument that says football is going to go away because it’s brutal and no one will want their kids to participate in it, and there’s another argument that says people are watching less football because we’re living in a Twitter, Snapchat age. The third argument from the TV folks and the NFL says football’s as popular as ever and any discussion otherwise is not valid. You want to pick a camp there?
Well, the Gladwell stuff, we’ve got to see how that starts manifesting itself at the high school level, because I do think that in some parts of the country, it’s already the case where there’ll be such social pressure not to allow your kid to play football that it will almost be like allowing your kid to do that will be seen as almost an anti-intellectual move. But now, in other parts of the country, that won’t be the case at all.
The question will be, can the college and pro game survive without the underpinnings of youth football? My suspicion is this: What it will probably do is it will reduce the sophistication of football players coming into college or coming into the NFL, but that will probably keep the game where it is now. The game keeps getting more and more complicated because now you have these kids who — instead of playing football in the fall and basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring — they just play football all year.
Play basketball full-time. Football full-time.
They play seven on seven. They’re all specialized. You’ve removed that … What that does is that makes college kids more pro ready. A lot of quarterbacks that come out of college now are probably more pro ready than a guy in the 70s would have been during his fourth year in the NFL. Maybe that will back off and the game will stay the same, in which case, at the pro level, it will never seem to me … There’ll never be a situation where we’ll say people, adults, can’t play football if they want to. It’ll never be we’re going to ban this straight up. I don’t think that will happen because we’d have to ban …
We still have boxing.
Bull riding. Would we allow people to go skydiving and all these things? Why is that possible? The only reason that football is different is because there’s so many people who are involved with it as fans, casually, that they suddenly feel complicit in this possibly unethical thing.
Do you think your kids and their peers, and by the way, kids who live in red states, will be watching football when they’re 18, 20 years old?
Certainly in the American southeast, absolutely. As long as football is on, it doesn’t matter what state you’re in, people are going to still be watching it. People in New York are still going to watch football if it’s on. They can say that it’s going by TV ratings, that football is slightly less popular. Well, everything is less popular. If everything on television is less popular, the thing that began at the apex of the mountain is still going to be the apex and that’s still live sports, particularly pro and college football.
Yeah, I make that argument the other way around, which is just that of course a different version of it is the same thing. The NFL guys were saying no, no, we’re just down because of … Well, they weren’t saying Tom Brady. They were saying it was down because of Trump. It was down because of the election, which didn’t make sense to me that people were spending time watching a debate instead of a football game. It just didn’t sink, but it did make sense, I think, that if people were watching less TV in general, they would also watch less football and that it wouldn’t be immune. But no one wants to hear that, or at least the NFL didn’t want to hear it.
I watch “The Red Zone” when I can. Now, no one has ever asked me what I’m watching on Sundays or ever. Is that still how television ratings are deduced or is there a way now … It seems like they should be able to put a chip in everyone’s cable box and tell us exactly what’s watching and what’s not being watched.
It’s automated, but it’s still a sample. They’re not scanning everyone but they’re no longer asking you to write down on pen and paper what you’re watching. They’re able to track more accurately what you’re watching but they’re still doing it from a sample.
It doesn’t feel like football is less popular, partially because it has become a more popular thing to anecdotally debate. Is the argument over whether or not football should exist still good for football? People are still talking about it then. It seems like it’s in the news more.
Although, I think they’ve pushed that debate down. I think it’s really hard to have that debate with any sort of rigor because it gets super uncomfortable because you talk about people blowing their heads off or being permanently crippled. If you see what Jim McMahon looks like today, and you’re our age, it makes you feel really not great.
Yeah, it also depends on who you’re talking to. I think that there are the conversations about the problems with football, the debate over that. There’s the public debate that we see on Slate, or whatever the case may be, where people are talking about it and that’s one kind of argument. Then, you have another kind of argument among people who don’t really care at all, and weren’t really interested in football, and the only thing they know about football now, or have the investment they have, is the recognition that you can die from it.
But then there’s this other debate among the dangers of football between people who love football. That one is hidden because even if you’re one of these people and say I got thrown onto one of these talking heads shows. Suddenly, I’m on “First Take” and this question comes up. I’m certainly going to think of myself as well, I’m in public now so I’m going to try to detach myself from basically any kind of emotional feeling I have about this and talk about it almost like I’m discussing some kind of business strategy.
Then, if I’m talking with the people I know who really love football, it is a different kind of conversation. We’re still talking about the same things, but it leads me to believe that the interest in the game is maybe a little deeper and more profound than the critics of football and its dangers realize.
Yeah, I don’t know if the critics are that loud, frankly. I think there’s Malcolm and a few other people. Most everybody wants to watch football when they can. Maybe they just watch a little bit less of it.
That doesn’t make any sense. Watch less of it.
No, the more articulate way of saying it is they’re watching a lot of other stuff, so football is one of the things they’re watching but it’s competing for their time with lots of other things like Twitter or their phone, or Twitter on their phone. Maybe they’re just going to spend X amount … That’s actually the more sophisticated argument for the NFL. They’ll say the number of people watching football is as great as it’s ever been. They’re watching slightly less. “Our reach is still good,” is their version of putting it.
The other thing the NFL’s doing is, it seems as though they’re hiring every expert in the world of CTE stuff. If you know a lot about CTE, the NFL is going to hire you and that’s a very smart philosophy because they’re just going to basically employ every person who understands this after a while. They’ll really be able to control the discussion.
I feel like we could continue this football discussion for a while. It would have to be over a beer and I would get less articulate as we go, so I’m going to cut my losses. Chuck, you were great. I want to do this forever. I’m glad we did it.
Thanks for having me on.