Remembering the Present: On Chuck Klosterman’s ‘But What if We’re Wrong?’

June 30, 2016 | 9 books mentioned 15 4 min read


Chuck Klosterman is the king of pop culture. No other writer has evidently spent so much time having smart conversations about The White Stripes, “The Sims,” or U2. Books like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs helped elevate discussions about pop culture from who’s sleeping with whom or fanboy arguments over which Pixies record is better, as Klosterman found esoteric connections between AC/DC and ABBA, or Nirvana’s In Utero and the Branch Davidian disaster. It was Klosterman’s odd, poignant observations that made me pick up Killing Yourself to Live in 2005 (that and the premise of visiting sites where rock stars died — I was kind of morbid then), and I still thank Blender for publishing a short review of the book. Books like this, or Eating the Dinosaur or Chuck Klosterman IV, made obsessing over pop culture cool. He deconstructs episodes of Saved by the Bell, dissects the importance of Morrissey to the Mexican community, and convinces people that heavy metal matters. Even his banter about sports was tolerable for the sports illiterate. I no longer had to feel embarrassed about caring more about what was happening in music and movies than about NASA’s latest discovery. The way Klosterman includes anecdotes from his life shows we’re all a little obsessed with pop culture, and that it’s okay.

covercovercoverSix books later and he has me mulling over questions like what TV show will most represent life in the 21st century? Which musician will be the face of rock music? Will the multiverse theory sound more plausible? With But What if We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present as if it Were the Past, Klosterman takes a break from dishing on pop culture to consider the way we will be remembered in the future, by people who view our present day as the past. I was skeptical when I first heard the concept of the new book and suspected that it would be complex and hard to follow, like his last book, a treatise on villainy called I Wear the Black Hat. Klosterman didn’t quell these fears by opening with “This is not a collection of essays.” And he’s sort of right. The book is more like a college research paper: he presents his argument, provides examples, and cites from interviews he’s held with people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Byrne in hope of bringing readers around to his brand of thinking. But even as he’s presenting complex scenarios, like why we don’t know everything about gravity or whether it’s possible our life is just a simulation, he brings the humor and wit prevalent in his writings on pop culture. And Klosterman can’t help but turn to pop culture to help clarify his arguments.

Though most of his arguments are well thought out and complete, there are a few that aren’t so clear. In the chapter “The Case Against Freedom,” Klosterman talks about how some parts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are outdated and how no efforts have been made to update them, bouncing from claims that Barack Obama is the greatest president to people having the right not to vote. These observations are interesting, but they feel like tangents distracting readers from the overall mission of the book. Meditations on the posthumous legacy of pro-wrestlers like Macho Man Randy Savage are witty and smart in Klosterman form, but difficult to relate back to his original argument. Even Klosterman seems concerned that we’ll lose the thread, and repeats the purpose of the book several times throughout.

Klosterman’s interviews with experts are a highlight of the book. He talks about how rock music will be remembered with Ryan Adams and asks Kathryn Schulz and Junot Díaz and George Saunders what kind of writers will be recognized in the future. His conversations with Neil deGrasse Tyson and string theorist Brian Greene prove to be fascinating, if creepy, measured discussions of whether life might be a simulation. The interviews balance out the book: it’s a testament to Klosterman’s credibility as an observer of modern life that he was able to loop in so many bright lights.

So what are his findings? For television, he throws readers for a loop, shunning “Golden Age of Television” shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards for, of all things, Roseanne. The musician that will ultimately represent rock music is Chuck Berry and the writer that will be most remembered is someone totally unknown. His choices may seem jarring, but they make more sense as they’re unpacked. Roseanne wasn’t picked for the great writing; rather Klosterman feels it most represents our reality. The show’s family members didn’t look like they stepped out of a modeling agency, their house was often messy, and they weren’t afraid of bickering. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll; “simple, direct, rhythm-based music. Even John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.” And the writer who’ll be remembered in the future? Both Klosterman and Shultz argue it’ll most likely either be someone totally unknown or currently unappreciated, based on retroactive views on Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina. These conclusions don’t come easy. He goes through various choices for each and spends time working why they would and wouldn’t be appropriate, as if trying to convince himself.

Klosterman’s conclusions hold up pretty well. He attacks the argument from various angles and provides different examples to convince both readers and his interviewees. Some of his arguments are more well thought than others; though the Roseanne conclusion makes sense, Klosterman spends more time arguing why certain shows don’t make the cut than explaining his pick. He doesn’t address those who don’t see themselves represented by Roseanne or point out that, in the end, the show was all inside Roseanne’s head (bringing it back to Neil DeGrass Tyson!). As he talks through his choice, even he seems unconvinced, and ends the chapter defeated, saying he doesn’t know if he’s right at all. Nonetheless, the chapter is one of the most engaging in the book.

Though he may convince readers, he doesn’t always convince his peers. Both Ryan Adams and Jonathan Lethem disagree with his findings on Chuck Berry, with Adams arguing it’s not the inventor that matters, but rather “the symptom of the thing that was set in motion,” e.g., Twitter rather than Twitter’s creator. Kathryn Schulz actually seems to change Klosterman’s opinion regarding writers. He originally argued the writer to be remembered will be someone totally unknown until Shultz said “The likelihood that the greatest writer will be known but not fully appreciated?…That would be more like fifty-fifty,” at which point he beings to argue from her point of view. Often times Klosterman will play devil’s advocate to challenge the expert opinion; sometimes they’ll change their opinions, sometimes not. Klosterman allows himself to be swayed, and allows himself to be wrong. The ebb and flow of opinions shows how difficult Klosterman’s project is, and how charming a writer he can be.

writes and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.


  1. A Poor Man’s Greil Marcus for men who beg for blowjobs and then pout when the blowjob is kind of half-hearted due to the fact that the blowjob was given under protest by the giver of the blowjob. There are literally millions of people who can talk about pop culture in the same manner this guy does. The phenomenon is why it was him who was chosen to be the one who got to speak about it in the loudest, most obnoxious voice possible.

  2. Klosterman is funnier than Marcus but less trustworthy in his opinions; you can read lots of what he writes about what he supposedly likes without feeling you have a clue as to what he likes. Further, is it worse to feel genuinely touched/ guided/ improved by Billy Joel’s music or worse to affect such a stance in order to seem brave/ fresh/ genuine? (The answer to that question: yes). Klosterman, as a Philostopher (to borrow F. Zappa’s term), is like a food critic lavishing his powers of gustatory description on a Twinkie without ever digging deep enough (or taking a step far enough back) to mention what should have been the first and most important point of his analysis: a Twinkie isn’t food. For that info, you’d need to go to Marcus.

  3. @il’ja

    [as if speaking into a spy device secreted in the collar of my raincoat:

    “I’m afraid I won’t be much fun if we wrestle over Klosterman, because A) I’m just not passionate on the matter B) I actually find his material entertaining… I hate TV so I’ll read books like Klosterman’s, sometimes, instead…I own at least four or five of his books… this, plus my comment up-thread, is probably as much as I can find to say about C. Klosterman… ” ]

  4. @Steven Augustine

    That works. But can I ask you to stop reading my mind because it’s getting a little creepy? And go with the shoe-phone: more secure and can be used as a weapon.

    Jonathan Russell Clark recently had a really good piece on Klosterman over at LitHub – okay, I’m not going to search, I think it was LitHub – essentially just asking the question whether or not CK was going to be relevant a half-century, a century down the line. Given the subject matter, given the decidedly context dependent character of his line of inquiry into said subject matter – (and I hope I’m not stripping his view of nuance) JRC concluded, “it remains to be seen, but probably not.”

    Still, I think he matters to us now, because he elevates the level of discussion on stuff that’s just – let’s be honest – stupid. Or worse – mediocre. If Klosterman’s approach serves as a nice gateway drug to a broader interest in critical thought or the formulation of a critical aesthetic among person(s) conditioned by pop culture’s low expectations then, hey, that wouldn’t be a horrible outcome.

    The little I’ve read of him, I like that he doesn’t engage in cheap politicization (mostly), but just let’s the ridiculous phenomenon be what it is, and this age could use a little more Kant, IMO.

    The Billy Joel thing flipping mystifies me. I was being educated at hard schools in the American upper midwest in the late 70s-early 80s, and all I can say is that I was nearly convinced that Billy Joel composed – let’s call it ‘music’ – on commission from Student Union buildings.

    I’ve been lurking at the site. There’s some wicked, and wickedly funny stuff there.

    Advice, unsolicited. TV, whatever. Get your hands on some Soviet films outside what I assume is mandatory at film school. I give the film “Afonya” about half the credit for the fall of the Soviet Union.

  5. Late. Tired.

    “just let’s the ridiculous” is, I think, supposed to mean “just allows the ridiculous”

    And, in a totally graceless move, forgot to say “thanks” to the author of this. I think your treatment of CK is evenhanded, but it does tell you something when Ryan Adams says “you’re wrong about Chuck Berry” but Klosterman apparently remains unconvinced.

    Anyway, good stuff. Thanks.

  6. I’m sure I would enjoy his work as much as I have enjoyed this piece — well done! –but as for hiss lingering importance? Hmm, not sure . . . Who can know what the mysterious denizens of the future will value? I’ve given up trying to predict the canon of the future since I have a difficult enough time just recommending books for my book club, whose tastes are wide and free and altogether different from my own — and these mysterious beings are my exact peers in age and era.

    Maybe he’s just fun to read now, with no actual pretensions to immortality, as are most of the entertainments he champions. If so, good enough, as in Il’ja’s “gateway drug” to wider (deeper?) critical thinking .

  7. Hit the damned button by accident . . .

    There’s much to be said for “mere” entertainments, especially when they seem to cross over into something deeper or at least more hilarious. There can be truth there, too. Will be looking out for Afonya — though still smarting from Tarkovsky.

  8. @priskill

    Jump on in, priskill, this water’s fine. Afonya is a far other beast than Stalker, etc. The protagonist, Afonya, short for Afonasii (Athanasius), is a plumber employed by the State Utilities Agency, and he reads like a George Saunders character – too real by half. He is blood-relation to, I strongly suspect, the plumber that to this day services my building. Fear not, this is an entirely different brand of subversive.

    On the surface, Afonya is a film that Chuck Klosterman probably would have written about had he been born in Sverdlovsk rather than the Dakotas.

    Much to be said for “mere” entertainments, indeed.

  9. All this talk of Klosterman caused me to dig out one of his books yesterday afternoon; I’d read c. 20 pages of “Killing Yourself to Live” years ago, then something had called me away from it, so I decided to finish it, finally, and I was struck, near the end, by how much of the book was writerly sleight-of-hand. Klosterman’s wimpy-frat-boy charm (working with his comic timing) manages to gloss over the fact that this is a road trip that promises pretty much what every road trip from my youth promised (epic adventure) and which delivers what my road trips all delivered, in the end: a handful of moments that felt a lot more epic/interesting as they were happening, but sort of fail to blow your friends (who weren’t there) away in the telling and re-telling.

    From a technical point of view, you can see why CK needed the device of *the three versions of dream-girl*, and the “suspense” regarding how each relationship would resolve, to jazz up the proceedings. Also, to jazz things up in relation to the stated premise of the book, Klosterman has to come up with a fresh epiphany about death every x-number of pages, a tic which kept me extremely aware of the mechanics of CK’s style and the mechanics that are basic to the form.

    Interestingly, in light of our recent discussion in the Paul Beatty thread, Killing Yourself to Live feels more successful as a narrative than, say, The Sellout,
    (not the least reason for which being that it needs to accomplish so much less), but its disappointments come from the same place: both books are a kind of juvenilia. The Sellout’s juvenilia is collegiate and Killing Yourself’s is pubertal! Laugh. Klosterman’s self-mythologizing ruminations on unrequited love (mixed with distant, awestruck, giggling and probably imaginary glimpses of naked ladies) remind me very strongly of being 13. Klosterman is a smart man who wishes he’d been born rock-star handsome instead, and he uses his authorial magic to conjure up a parallel self who is and was the constant focus of the (albeit frustrating/ confusing) attentions of hot babes. Writers are fantasists, as we know.

    One thing CK manages in Killing Yourself is to provide a perfect little nutshell of what we call “White Male Privilege” (which is too often thought, by us non-Whites and/or non-males, to be about having butlers and institutional respect… its much more scaled down, in most cases, than that):

    ‘”A critical moment in our courtship occurred after we saw a documentary about Henry Kissinger that accused the former secretary of state of war crimes. There is a scene in this film where Christopher Hitchens explains why Richard Nixon appreciated a Jewish intellectual like Kissinger, despite the fact that Nixon generally despised both Jews and intellectuals. What Nixon loved (according to Hitchens) was that Kissinger always knew what to do without being told; this struck me as one of the most insightful definitions of true intelligence I’d ever heard. When I told this to Diane during our postfilm debriefing at some boringly expensive bar in Greenwich Village, she was aghast. “This movie is supposed to help you understand why Henry Kissinger should be in prison for politically motivated murder,” she said. “It is not supposed to make you think he’s somehow more interesting.”’

    See? “White Male Privilege” is mostly nothing more fancy or advantageous than some degree, or other, of Obliviousness.

    Klosterman’s huge appeal to his target demographic probably has something to do with the extent to which he wallows in this kind of WMP. Lots of CK’s 20-something White male fans would probably love to be a lot more Oblivious than they can realistically get away with being. The Obliviousness of a 13-year-old boy in North Dakota (in 1985) is probably the Gold Standard.

    Anyone seriously wanting to debunk CK’s philosophical (self-mythologizing) method needs only have a close look at his famous “Kid A prefigured 9/11” gag . Which only necessitates finding, online, the actual lyrics to Kid A. If you compare a chronological layout of Kid A’s lyrics to Klosterman’s *supposedly* painstaking (though actually quite fuzzy/ impressionistic) comparison of Kid A’s timeline to 9/11’s timeline, you’ll realize that 100 albums could have fit Klosterman’s need to author that particular meme, which being the welding of a world-historical event to a pop artefact that comes with a huge following… with some Whoa Dude “spooky-weirdness” tossed in for fun. You just know Chuck wishes he’d come up with the Dark Side of the Moon/ Wizard of Of meme…

    PS As Killing Yourself winds down, CK starts deploying the word “weird” like fairy dust… the more banal things get, the more CK pronounces them “weird”. Ah, the magic of Writing.
    PPS Kind of disappointed that, as CK was describing how Thom Yorke constructed the lyrics to Kid A (by pulling phrases out of a hat), he cited D. Byrne’s earlier use of that method but not Bowie’s or Burrough’s/Gysin’s. “Weird” omission.
    PPPS I learned exactly one thing reading Killing Yourself to Live: that Ricky Nelson burned to death in 1985. How did I miss that?

  10. @Steven

    Is there a way to drop you an email over at the site? I’m struggling with interfaces all day, that and Independence Day wishes from well-meaning Ukrainians. What to do but love ’em?

  11. il’ja!

    On the blog I think you mean, I’ve pasted an email address on the page of the section called (winkingly) “The Imperialist Question”.

    And a Happy Colonial Toffs’ REXIT to you, too! (which is, along with Invadersday and Oeufster, one of the holidays I never feel nostalgia for, after having fled the country in 1990 and, again, permanently, in 2000)

  12. What is wrong with Independence Day? The Indian thing, the White Male Privilege thing? How does any country get to be a country? Were we any more imperialist, cruel, greedy than anyone else in history establishing new digs?
    At least you put your money where your mouth is and relocated. Most libs just persist in “if so and so is elected, I’m moving out of the country,” but never do.

  13. Kirk, I like how conservative types sweep through here (and other not-terribly-conservative sites), from time to time, like the Iranian morality police, keeping an eye out for small (but actionable) transgressions against Murrka, WMs and Owa Twoops. I imagine you in a green and white uniform with dollar-sign epaulettes, swinging a wee baton as you strut up and down the comment thread with an eagle-eye for the ideologically impure. This heel-clicking salute is for you, Sah!

  14. >>>“This movie is supposed to help you understand why Henry Kissinger should be in prison for politically motivated murder,” <<<

    Or, and I know this is way out thinking nowadays, he might have thought for himself and disagreed with the film.

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