Good cultural writing doesn’t necessarily end with a ranking of what is best or a determination that something is worth seeing. Rather, the best writing about popular culture — about music, about movies, about TV shows, about books, about whatever — interrogates the way we think rather than what we think. And two recent books are excellent examples of cultural critics thinking about how we think.
The first is Steven Hyden’s “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life.” As with many subheads, there’s a bit of over-promising here; I’m not sure Hyden’s musings on, say, Oasis and Blur made me reconsider the ways in which our reality is ordered. But the chapter on the dueling masters of ’90s Brit rock is informative insofar as it can help us think about how pop rivalries impact our sense of self.
Until very recently, Hyden hated Blur. He hated Blur’s association with pretentious, socially conscious pop and hated the fact that critics thought Blur’s body writ large was better than Oasis’s (which almost inarguably peaked with “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” in 1995), and he held these hatreds tight despite never actually, you know, listening to Blur. Blur, like many things we irrationally love or hate, was a totem. Eventually Hyden decided to ditch the hatred and give Blur a listen.
“I’m done depriving myself of [Blur frontman Damon] Albarn’s intelligent and engaging musical and cultural synthesis, and this is good if also slightly hollow,” Hyden writes. “His music is more amenable and less important to me now.” Hyden’s newfound respect for Blur isn’t particularly interesting to me; what is intriguing is the dissolution of an ethos. Similarly, what’s interesting (again, to me) in Hyden’s discussion of the rivalry between the White Stripes and the Black Keys has little to do with the bands or their musical styles. It’s the formation of an idea.
“I get that ‘Why can’t Jack White and Dan Auerbach [the frontmen for the White Stripes and the Black Keys, respectively] be friends?’ may seem like a frivolous question,” Hyden writes while interrogating the almost sociopathic way that White hates Auerbach, a hatred so deep it managed to work its way into White’s child custody proceedings. “Speculating on the status of the relationship between two similar celebrities is a silly exercise. But what I’m really asking is this: Why can’t I make more male friends?”
What follows is an interesting and entertaining discussion of male friendships — an oddly uncommon phenomenon, statistically — through the lens of two pop stars who “should” be friends. As someone who doesn’t care all that much about music other than a means to pass the time in my car, I’m not particularly invested in the relative merits of “Seven Nation Army” and “Tighten Up.” But using the two as a way to think about how we think about friendship? Now that’s something that piques my interest. It’s something that makes me see the world slightly differently, slightly more precisely.
I was not shocked to see Hyden thank Chuck Klosterman in the acknowledgments of his book, as Hyden’s work here has a vaguely Klostermanian bent. (That is to say, Hyden is concerned with using pop culture as a way to understand the world, doing so in a conversational-yet-informed-and-authoritative tone.) As it happens, Klosterman is the author of the second of the books I’d like to highlight today, “But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.”
In previous essay collections “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)” and “Eating the Dinosaur,” Klosterman has dealt with touchy subjects in deft ways; his 2010 reevaluation of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, for instance, is the sort of thing that could easily have devolved into mindless provocation in the hands of a lesser writer. Make no mistake: “But What If We’re Wrong?” is a series of provocations. Just not mindless ones.
“We live in an age where virtually no content is lost and virtually all content is shared,” Klosterman worriedly writes in the opening pages. “We’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.” The problem, as Klosterman sees it, isn’t that we’ve settled on the wrong answers to important questions: It’s that we don’t even know which questions we should be asking if we want to understand how the present will appear to the past.
So, for instance, in a chapter discussing television programs, Klosterman glosses over the question of which show is “best” because which show is “best” to modern observers has no bearing on which shows will be important to future historians. As he puts it, the proper question is “What is the realest fake thing we’ve ever made on purpose?” His answer is thoughtful and amusing, but essentially unimportant given that he’s replying to a hypothetical he’s asking himself about people who might not ever exist (that is, cultural historians interested in late-20th century TV). What matters is the thought process he uses to arrive at that answer. What genre of TV should we consider? What aesthetic elements would hypothetical future historians consider relevant? What eras would be considered most authentic (or offer the realest bits of fakery)? Et cetera, et cetera.
Again: The answers to these questions don’t really matter. They’re irrelevant. What matters is the question themselves and the way they serve to work around common blocks in conversation — what’s the point, really, in arguing (again) over whether “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” is the best show in TV history? Klosterman looks at the world and fears “the increasingly common ideology that assures people they’re right about what they believe.” Why? “It hijacks conversation and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible lives. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be.”
Klosterman is outlining the ideology of a contrarian here and reminding us of the important role that revisionism plays in cultural writing.* What matters is the way he thinks about thinking — and the way he makes you think about how you think. And, in the end, this is all that criticism can really hope to do.
* It is probably not surprising, then, that this line of thinking appeals to me.