Book excerpt: Read a full chapter from Chuck Klosterman's 'I Wear the Black Hat'

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1991 (The Red Hot Chili Peppers): They seemed like all the idiots at my college who were constantly starting terrible bands and failing organic chemistry, except these idiots were famous and never wore shirts.

1992 (The Red Hot Chili Peppers): In the video for the proto-pussy smack ballad “Under the Bridge,” Anthony Kiedis runs along the Los Angeles River in slow motion. His arms cross his body; he had terrible running form. I also recall adamantly disagreeing with the assertion that Flea’s bass playing was (in any way) comparable to that of Les Claypool from Primus. My 1992 concerns were oblique. I purchased a kerosene lamp in order to impress strangers who wandered into my dorm room in order to tell me I was playing Primus too loud. It was the style of the time.

1993 (Mr. Bungle): I knew an interesting person who believed this self-indulgent side project was way more interesting than it actually was, thereby serving as my real-world introduction to The Problem of Overrated Ideas. The group’s singer was improvisational and gross, musically and otherwise. He once told a story on MTV News about how — for his own amusement — he used to eat huge portions of instant mashed potatoes, chased with an entire bottle of schnapps. He would then stroll into a local laundromat, open washers and dryers at random, and vomit onto strangers’ clothes. I could not identify with this behavior, although I don’t suppose that was his intention. Couldn’t he have just taken the L7 route and chucked bloody tampons at teenagers? At least that sustained the cycle of life. I found greater comfort with the singer’s other band, a more “conventionally alternative” collective with a spattering of mainstream popularity and some unanticipated insights into smoking angel dust and competitive pumpkin farming.

1994 (Pink Floyd): I was driving through suburban Minneapolis at dusk when something off The Wall came on the radio, prompting me to conclude that I was being intellectually crucified by an army of forty-year-old library patrons who couldn’t accept that cannabis was still illegal. I could never feel this way now, except in unconditional reverse. But I was twenty-two, an age where the commercial past always seems to be wrecking the limitless future; I was open- and close-minded at the same time. The Moody Blues were another band I hated that summer — they seemed like dead people I was supposed to learn about on PBS. Oh well. We all eventually become whatever we pretend to hate.

1995 (Ted Nugent): This one is tricky. I’m not sure if I decided to hate Ted Nugent because I was really into Tori Amos (which I was) or if I was just trying to sleep with a woman who worked at a candle shop and was really, really into Tori Amos (mixed results on this strategy). Maybe I just thought Ted was childish and uncool, qualities I intermittently worried about when not listening to KISS records. This aforementioned candle clerk came over to my apartment on Halloween and we played Double Live Gonzo, just to make condescending comments about its vagina-obsessed lyrics and retrograde aesthetic (although I still wonder why she wasn’t more skeptical of the fact that I owned four albums by an artist I supposedly hated). Further complicating matters was my parallel obsession with the Replacements’ Let It Be, which suggested (at least on “Gary’s Got a Boner”) that Bob Stinson thought the Nuge was a sonic mastermind who should have been elected governor of Michigan.

1996 (Blur): The Oasis vs. Blur feud had actually transpired the year before, but I was living in pre-Internet North Dakota and received my culture news roughly nine months after the fact (which was preferable, though I did not know this at the time). The notion of Blur pretending it had a “rivalry” with Oasis still strikes me as comically obscene; it would be no different than RC Cola trying to start a war with Coke. But my larger issue was a perceived differential in class: Every time I met someone who thought Blur was better than Oasis, it inevitably meant they thought like a rich person (so either they were rich, or they were raised with upper-middle-class sensibilities in a lower-class world). Blur was Britpop for American kids who wore neckties on campus and turtlenecks to keg parties; it was Britpop for American kids who could actually afford to spend a semester in Britain. I’ll concede that Blur has a handful of better than decent songs — I’d estimate around nine, plus the semi-ironic one that always gets blasted at hockey games — but it’s hard to imagine a snootier collective. Equally troubling was Damon Albarn’s well-publicized sex life with the striking lead singer from Elastica, an accomplishment that made me suspect he was taunting the proletariat with his semen.

1997 (Phish): ’Twas the apex of my deeply unoriginal I-hate-hippies phase, which some people do not grow out of. Of course, I was also into Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix (and Ben Harper!) at the time, so what the fuck did I know about hippies? Did I not realize hippies could be black?

1998 (The Eagles): Here was a turning point. Many things were happening simultaneously. One was that I had started to erroneously believe subjective criticism was more important than objective reporting; another was that I saw The Big Lebowski and decided the main character should become the model for all human thought. Electronica was on MTV, so music videos were mostly just Asian teenagers playing Ping-Pong and time-elapse photography of melting plastic cubes. Seinfeld was going off the air, so even grandmas were temporary postmodernists. Aspirant Urban Outfitter employees were excited about technology and really into Neutral Milk Hotel. It was the logical time to believe Glenn Frey was Pol Pot.

1999 (The Eagles): The Big Lebowski became available on VHS.

2000 (U2): I borrowed the documentary Rattle and Hum from the Akron Public Library, which would have been fine if I hadn’t subsequently watched it. I can only assume this movie makes U2 hate U2: The band is so consumed with their sincere adoration of southern black culture that they somehow seem marginally racist.

2001 (Coldplay): I wrote a book in 2001 where I claim, “Coldplay is the shittiest fucking band I’ve ever heard in my entire fucking life.” This is possibly the most memorable thing I’ve ever written, and arguably the stupidest. My intention (at the time) was to illustrate how people use popular culture to explain their own lives to themselves, and that I was hating Coldplay in order to avoid hating myself. But (of course) almost no one who purchased this book made that inference, which (of course) is nobody’s fault but mine. I still meet teenagers who attempt to ingratiate themselves by telling me how much they hate Coldplay. And while I did hate the tenor of their music (and still can’t bear listening to it, even when I’m shopping for trousers), I regret being so profane. It was cheap. It feels like I threw a rock at Gwyneth Paltrow’s gazebo.

2002 (Blur): I’d just moved to New York and discovered that people were still arguing about this, except Oasis was now a 7½-point underdog. Even poor people in New York think like rich people.

2003 (Yeah Yeah Yeahs): Nobody seemed willing to admit that this band (and particularly the guitarist) were postpunk joker zombies who sang power ballads about cartography. I don’t enjoy music that sounds broken on purpose; that’s supposed to happen by accident. In later years, I would grow to appreciate the singer’s solo attempt at “Immigrant Song” during the opening credits of that fourteen-hour movie about the Swedish tattoo artist who murders somebody with a Xerox machine, but the YYYs will always be fake art. They put way too much effort into acting like they were pretending to work hard at casual brilliance. Now that I think about it, they are the opposite of the Eagles.

There are fifteen artists on this list. Seven are already in the (admittedly meaningless) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two others will get there eventually. Twelve of them have recorded at least one song I love. They’ve all been hugely or marginally successful, except for maybe Mr. Bungle. But I hated them all, at least provisionally. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t like hearing the music or seeing their faces on MTV — it had something to do with viewing them as representations of what I wanted to be against. I didn’t see the artists I loved as heroic, but I saw the artists I hated as villainous. And that is a feeling I can no longer feel. Somewhere in 2003, my ability to hate the Eagles (or Coldplay, or Dave Matthews, or Mumford and Sons, or whoever) just evaporated. I could no longer construct antipathy for random musicians, even if they deserved it. My personality had calcified and emancipated itself from taste. I still cared about music, but not enough to feel emotionally distraught over its nonmusical expansion into celebrity and society. And this was a real problem. Being emotionally fragile is an important part of being a successful critic; it’s an integral element to being engaged with mainstream art, assuming you aspire to write about it in public. If you hate everything, you’re a banal asshole . . . but if you don’t hate anything, you’re boring. You’re useless. And you end up writing about why you can no longer generate fake feelings that other people digest as real.

There needs to be more awareness about the cultural impact of reverse engineering, particularly as it applies to fandom and revulsion. It’s the most important part of describing the day-to-day import of art, which is ultimately what criticism is supposed to do. But there are no critics who can admit to their own reverse engineering without seeming underinformed. It’s like arguing that the greatest Russian novel ever written happens to be the only one you ever finished.

Still, there are examples of this everywhere.

Take someone like Taylor Swift, a one-woman “Hotel California”: When Swift’s second album came out (2008’s Fearless), she was a regionally famous Nashville artist that most casual pop fans had never thought much about. But Fearless crossed over, and she was suddenly being noticed by people who traditionally ignored mainstream country. Because her songs were excellent (and because any genre slightly different from rock feels initially fresh to rockist ears), everyone decided that Fearless was great — and not only great, but culturally important. Mere appreciation of the music was not enough. This necessitated the unconscious construction of a reality where Swift herself could be taken seriously. So how could this be accomplished? The first step was to always mention her age as proof of unprecedented maturity: She was sixteen when she released her first album and eighteen for Fearless, but she seemed to handle her notoriety with unusual deftness and professionalism (Kanye West stormed onstage while she was accepting a trophy at the MTV Music Awards, but Swift’s response was measured and polite). She was an adult woman inside a teenage girl, and that validated the highbrow appreciation of a song like “You Belong with Me.” (Her fictional depictions of teen anguish were consumed as suburban realness.) The quality of her songs caused people to value her as a concept. But this worked too well. Swift became so abstractly imperative that she turned into a celebrity in the US Weekly sense: She became famous to people who’d never heard her music. All the qualities her previous audience had once used to justify her success as a pop star felt annoying to those who were caring about her for the first time. To the casual observer, she seemed unconvincingly shocked by her own success and obsessed with her market share. Instead of coming across as mature, it scanned as calculating. And this preexisting assumption is what new audiences injected into her third album, 2010’s Speak Now. The record was massive, but Swift got hammered for her self-absorption and a propensity for nostalgic oversharing (two qualities singer-songwriters are supposed to possess — but not, apparently, the young female ones). When she wrote about a failed relationship with John Mayer (“Dear John”), it seemed fake and exploitive, even though the love affair had actually happened. When she made a video for a song about the cruelty of critics (“Mean”), she literally tied herself to the railroad tracks and tried to convince capricious fans that she still self-identified as a marginalized victim. But that only worked on people who had never questioned her pose to begin with.

Now, the easy explanation for this shift in perception is “backlash.” But that’s only how it looks from the outside. What really happened is this: People who liked Taylor Swift’s music reverse-engineered a scenario in which they could appreciate her for nonmusical reasons; two years later, different people who loathed that construction had to find a way to preexplain why they weren’t going to enjoy her material (so they infused their prefab distaste of her persona back into her work). When Swift cowrote “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with Swedish hit machine Max Martin, critics could not deny that it was catchy and practical, so now they had to pretend it was an empowering takedown of Donnie Darko. [The reason behind everything always has to be something else entirely.]

How this principle applies to the Eagles is straightforward: They seemed like counterculture figures who were against the values of the counterculture (and it’s always the counterculture who gets to decide the long-term likability of any rock artist). They aspired to (and achieved) commercial hugeness; nothing about their magnitude was accidental. Soft-spoken replacement bassist Timothy B. Schmit was the only Eagle born in the state of California, yet they effortlessly represented what people do not like about Malibu. They were the antithesis of The Rockford Files. While many of their arena-rock peers were misogynist for how they physically interacted with groupies, the Eagles directed their distaste toward the secret interior motives all hot women allegedly possessed (“Witchy Woman” being the easiest example, “Lyin’ Eyes” being the most direct). Basically, they just seemed mean-spirited and wealthy. They were annoying to the type of person who is susceptible to annoyance. Which is how many people (including myself) choose to hear their songs. What do you make of a band that writes a disco track about how disco is insidious? I still don’t know. I know what words I’m supposed to throw around — “cynical,” “self-reflexive,” “clinical” — but I wonder if I’d use those words if I didn’t know Don Henley was the man who’d written the song. I fear I’m just describing him with those words, even though I do hear those qualities when I listen to “The Disco Strangler.”

But here’s what changed, inside my skull: Those qualities no longer make me hate Henley or his band. Instead, they make me appreciate the song itself with a complexity I cannot pretend to understand. They make me realize that I cannot be trusted about anything, and that I can’t even trust myself.

I appreciate “The Disco Strangler” because I now realize (and cannot unrealize) that this entire process is a closed circuit, happening inside my false consciousness. The only outside element is the sound wave containing the sonic signature — everything about its latent meaning and its larger merit is being imagined and manipulated by my brain’s unwillingness to hold an unexplained opinion. If I like a song (or if I dislike a song), I have to explain — to myself — why that feeling exists. If I’m writing about the song in a public forum, I have to explain it to other people. But my explanation is never accurate unless I flatly declare, “I like this and I don’t know why” or “I dislike this for reasons that can’t be quantified.” Every other response is the process of taking an abstract feeling and figuring out how I can fit it into a lexicon that matches whatever I already want to believe. My mind is not my own. And once that realization calcifies internally, there is no going back. Once you realize you can’t control how you feel, it’s impossible to believe any of your own opinions. As a result, I can’t hate the Eagles. It feels impossible. It feels stupid. The Eagles are real, but they don’t exist; they only exist as a way to think about “the Eagles.”

So often does it happen that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know there is no key.

From I WEAR THE BLACK HAT/ Klosterman (Scribner)

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