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Donning the black hat

July 11, 2013
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Donning the black hat photo by Kris Drake
Discussing the nature of villainy with Chuck Klosterman

Over the past decade, Chuck Klosterman has become one of the preeminent voices in the world of pop culture analysis. He has combined an encyclopedic breadth of knowledge with insightful wit to create his own unique voice - a voice he has used to dive beneath the shallow surface of our cultural waters and explore the seemingly-mundane with passion and precision.

He has written a number of popular essay collections that have explored diverse topics spanning the cultural landscape - the realms of television, movies, music and sports. Whether it's an exploration of the true nature of Zack Morris's Bayside, a breakdown of the deeper meaning behind the 1980s rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics or an in-depth interview with Britney Spears, Klosterman has repeatedly found ways to take the pulse of the zeitgeist and report on it with a style and panache that is his and his alone.

Klosterman's latest offering is 'I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).' It's a look at the nature of what makes a villain, viewed through the cultural lens that has become his calling card. These essays tackle the concept of the villain from a number of angles. Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Clinton, the Eagles, Al Davis, O.J. Simpson all of these ideas and more are presented with the clever charm that is Klosterman's trademark.

Mr. Klosterman was kind enough to take time to speak to The Maine Edge in advance of the book's impending release.

The Maine Edge  What prompted you to use villainy as the theme for this book?

Chuck Klosterman  That's the question that everyone asks. And I understand why. I guess there was something happening in my unconscious. I had signed a contract to do two books with Scribner. The last time, I had done one non-fiction ('Eating the Dinosaur') and one fiction ('Downtown Owl'). This time, it was going to be 'The Visible Man' and 'I Wear the Black Hat.' Both of these latest books deal with the idea of what happens if the protagonist is a bad guy, if the person you're supposed to 'root for' is a bad person.

When you're young, you aspire to goodness. That aspirational nature leads you to look at people and say 'I want to be like this guy' or 'I want to be like that girl.' But when you're an adult, you come to terms with the fact that this is the person you are. As I got older, I found that I related to villains more and more.

I might also be overthinking things. I started the book two-and-a-half years ago who knows what I was thinking back then.

TME - So how did the book start? Did you begin with the concept or did you write some pieces and realize that this was the direction in which you were kind of headed?

CK  Actually, I started with the title, which is something that I almost never do. Well the title and the idea. And I kind of worked from there. 

It actually started when I was still writing 'Visible Man.' I found myself interested in writing about Bill Clinton, wanting to write about the Oakland Raiders. So I jotted down all of these ideas and when the novel was finished, I had the groundwork for this book.

It was supposed to be super-comprehensive; I wanted to do 500 pages and say everything there was to say about the subject. It didn't work out that way. In the end, I decided it would be better to have a book that was slim and interesting rather than comprehensive and repetitive. Plus, I had a lot of stuff that I wanted to do and just didn't.

TME  Your baseline thesis is an interesting idea. Your through-thread seems to be that villains are essentially the people who know the most and care the least. Where did that idea spring from?

CK  That wasn't actually pre-decided. I was writing about all of these different people, but the whole time I was thinking that for this to be a cohesive book and not [just] a collection of essays, it would need a unifying element. And I realized that villainy isn't just about the acts that people commit. Villains aren't necessarily the ones on whom the media decides.

For most people, what really bothers them is when people have no emotional investment in something, yet are still capable of doing things with very real consequences.

I was watching a documentary on Lee Atwater, who was one of the preeminent political strategists of the 1980s and 90s. Atwater just arbitrarily decided to be a Republican. In a lot of ways, he was one of the most skilled and dangerous guys out there and he just decided. If he had decided to be a Democrat, the whole political landscape of the time could have changed. He was the guy who knew the most and cared the least.

That's the sort of thing that upsets people most of all.

TME  Do you think that the concept of villainy is as clear-cut now as it was, say, 20 years ago? Or have we created much more of a cultural gray area between good and evil?

CK  Oh, it's definitely less clear. And you can really see this through all the various mediums.

Books were first; people have been intrigued by villainy in literature for a long time, even back in the 19th century. Next came music, when genres like jazz came to the forefront. For movies, it was probably the auteur movement of the 1970s films like 'Easy Rider' and 'Bonnie and Clyde.' 

And we're seeing it on television as we speak. Just about all high-end television [shows like] 'The Sopranos,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Mad Men' is built on seeing the action through the eyes of someone who, while not necessarily 'bad,' is definitely a problematic person. We're becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that seeing the world in simple terms is unrealistic. It's like any representation of a fairly good person no longer seems real to us. 

Honestly, you could submit that the only heroes that America really produces anymore are antiheroes.

TME  In the book, you say that the most purely evil of acts is tying a woman to a railroad track, which seems pretty accurate. Have you given any thought as to what might be the modern-day equivalent of that act might be?

CK  That's a really interesting question. The thing about tying a woman to the railroad tracks is that it's twofold. It's overtly villainous there's sadism there but it's also incredibly impractical, going to all that effort.

I wish I had a better answer. I suppose in the minds of the populace, something like the recent NSA/WikiLeaks/Edward Snowden thing might qualify. We live in a world where we all readily sacrifice our privacy to [social media] but we still have expectations. We believe that we're supposed to have control, and when it turns out we don't I don't know. It's not a perfect analogy.

Really, if I had a better example, I'd probably have used it in the book.

TME  In one of the pieces, you talk about how you've lost your capacity to hate rock bands. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin do you feel like you've lost the ability to love music like you did in your younger days?

CK  To love bands like I did when I was younger? Yes. There are still new bands that I really like; for instance, I was really into the Hold Steady five years ago I mean, I'm still into them, but I was really into them but it is nothing like how I was into Motley Crue when I was in the seventh and eighth grade.

It has very little to do with the actual 'quality' of the music. When you're young, you use bands to tell people what you're like. Say I'm really into the Smiths. You don't know about me, but you know about the Smiths that will convey some level of information about me. That went away as I got older; as a consequence, my relationships with bands became much more intellectual than emotional.

TME - You discuss the impact of 2 Live Crew and Andrew Dice Clay and their lack of relevance today. Do you think possible for an artist today to polarize the masses the way they did?

CK  The internet has really changed the criteria for what's considered polarizing now. [2 Live Crew and Andrew Dice Clay] hit the scene at the very height of the political correctness movement something that we pay much less attention to today. Back then, the debate was solely over content: is this something that we should allow our children to experience?

But now, the polarization centers around whether something warrants the attention that it is receiving. When someone like Lady Gaga does things, no one is arguing whether what she is doing is bad for the culture. Instead, it's all about whether or not she deserves the fame and notoriety she gets for doing them.

It's actually a debate about technology. It isn't about a higher percentage of coverage, but rather that there are unlimited outlets for that coverage - the 24-hour news cycle and such. There are more stories about Kim Kardashian in a year than there were about the Beatles in three years. No one is saying that she warrants more coverage than the Beatles; there are just so many more venues devoted to talking about this sort of thing.

The polarizing factor is no longer the content itself, but rather whether the content deserves the attention being paid to it.

TME - The last piece in the book is about your archenemy, MLB player Rick Helling. You talk about how by placing him in the villain's role in your life, you yourself became the villain of your own story. What message are you trying to convey by closing the book with this piece?

CK  It just seemed like it made the most sense to end with [that piece].

As far as a message, when you write something and you know this it's rare to have a specific message that you want to convey. If you try, it tends to come off as heavy-handed. When I write these essays, I'm not trying to persuade you. I'm not telling you how to think, I'm telling you that I'm still trying to figure things out for myself. 

I'm still confused. I'm more confused now at 41 than I was at 21. And when I turn 61, I'll probably be even more confused. If you'd have asked me when I was 21 where I'd be at now, I would have assumed that the world would make more sense to me. It doesn't.

TME  So have you made any sort of peace with regards to your feelings toward [Helling]?

CK  My relationship with the idea of Rick Helling is very similar to my relationship with the idea of the Eagles. I've come to the realization that I am unable to trust my own emotions.

My feelings [about Rick Helling] have nothing to do with him; they're all about me.

The idea that I can actually control my own thoughts and feelings is false. And it isn't just me; I think it's the same for everybody. We all want to believe that we can, but we can't. They are ephemeral things that we just can't control.

WEB EDITORS NOTE: Click here to read Allen's review of 'I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).'

Last modified on Thursday, 11 July 2013 09:31

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