So I’m sick. On vacation. This is, as they say, a first world problem, so instead of whining about it, I’d like to tell you about how I’ve been spending my time (leaving out the tissue-box-monopolizing, ibuprofen- and pseudoephedrine-swilling parts, of course): I’ve been reading books! That’s right — the plural form of “book”! An ocean of quiet, peaceful reading time is a pretty fantastic substitute for being well enough to enjoy the actual ocean, and I’ve been taking full advantage.
First up was I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), by a favorite writer of mine, Chuck Klosterman.
Klosterman has the gift of virtuosic insight, not unlike David Foster Wallace’s (Klosterman mentions Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in I Wear the Black Hat, which made my soul smile widely), and a big part of the fun in following Klosterman’s logic as he drills down to the center of a topic is watching extraordinary intellectual honesty in action. Klosterman devotes a chunk of most everything he writes to his biases and how they factor into the argument he’s making, which I suppose he could do without putting it on the page, but I enjoy the connection he fosters by letting you in on these internal debates. It’s a little like when your math teacher used to tell you to “Show your work.” As a result, I trust Klosterman’s conclusions even when I don’t agree with them, and I’m always excited when something he writes, be it a piece on Grantland or a book of essays, is published.
[My sister just reminded me that Klosterman currently writes “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times, which, if you ask me, is some pretty solid evidentiary support for what I’m trying to claim here. Anyhoo…]
There’s an essay in I Wear the Black Hat that takes Klosterman’s powerfully honest style to an extreme that’s somehow both satisfying and perplexing at the same time. The essay’s called “Another Thing That Interests Me About The Eagles Is That I [Am Contractually Obligated to] Hate Them,” and it travels swiftly (foreshadowing here is accidental but pleasing nonetheless) from a discussion of why people hate The Eagles to a list of the bands Klosterman has hated over the years to, yes, Taylor Swift. The governing idea that informs the essay is that Klosterman is no longer capable of hating musicians the way he used to. Or at all, for that matter. He claims that the “closed circuit” created by his mind and the nonmusical information about an artist cannot be trusted, since both are removed from the actual sound waves that the artist’s music creates, and expressing likes and dislikes relies on a self-fulfilling system of articulation.
At least I think that’s the argument he’s making. The last few paragraphs are somewhat heady and include the phrase “my mind is not my own,” so I’m not totally sure. Either way, I love the spirit of his conclusion, that the same things that lead you to hate an artist could alternatively cause you to see that artist as interesting and even worthier of your time and attention. Given how hard I work to guide my own thoughts on music down a positive, supportive path, Klosterman’s essay left me feeling optimistic. It also left be feeling challenged, because…
… and I hate saying this kind of thing on the Internet, but…
…I am one of the Taylor Swift haters Klosterman is trying to reason with. I can remember the exact moment she crossed over to the (or my, I guess I should say) dark side — her performance of “Mean” at the 54th Grammy Awards show. It just struck me as so… mean. God knows she’s been wronged, but those lyrics — “Someday I’ll be living in a big ol’ city and all you’re ever gonna be is mean” — felt so malicious. It’d be one thing if she wasn’t already rich and famous, and was expressing a courageously maintained self-confidence, but that “someday” has already arrived. She’s already won. That changes everything. The ethos of “Mean” is “an eye for an eye” at best and rubbing someone’s nose in wrongness at worst, neither of which appeal to me in the slightest.
In my mind (which is an ironic way to start a sentence in this context, I suppose), this is an example of how an artist’s lyrics and nonmusical behavior can come together to produce a totally traceable negative feeling. Then again, to Klosterman’s point, I may have been primed to dislike Swift by something that happened a month and a half before her Grammys performance. And I do agree that it’s unreasonable to think that you can completely understand the inner workings of your own mind. People who think they can are fooling themselves. That’s what’s most incredible about Klosterman’s essay — the person who I see as most trustworthy when it comes to insight is telling me that he can’t trust himself.
Only makes me trust him more.
I Wear the Black Hat is a exceptionally good read, and I strongly encourage you to click here and snag it from Amazon. And because it feels like the right thing to do, I’m posting “Mean” below. (Honesty sucks sometimes.)