What I’ve Been Reading – Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs/Master of Reality

Though I’d like to claim differently, pop culture is not my forte. I say this with caution – the last thing I need is a billion more useless references clouding up my head – but with certainty: I don’t want to use pop culture (as in, drop canny comparisons on unsuspecting friends) as much as I simply want to understand the joke.

What I’ve Read:

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

Master of Reality by John Darnielle

I just don’t know that much about pop culture. I mean, I get the grand schemes. I understand the obvious jokes, and when it comes to music and Web memes and certain genres of television and film, I can hold my own. (And don’t get me started on professional wrestling, 90s video game culture or The Beatles/Pink Floyd. Seriously. You don’t have enough time.) Overall, I’d say I only get about 50% of pop culture references*.

So, when Bill Simmons talks at length about Hoosiers and Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and early 80s butt-rock videos, I’m at a loss. My frames of reference don’t fit. They’re barely even sturdy enough to hold glass, let alone a free exchange of chuckles.

This is the mindset I brought into Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, a self-proclaimed “low culture manifesto,” though – let’s be honest, here – the book’s filled with enough high-minded theories to make a stoned group of film majors giddy with argument. These essays aren’t low culture in thought as much as they use pop culture as a vehicle for explaining human nature.

I, for one, enjoyed it. But I fear not as much as most of my friends would.

The essays take the standard “Rob Gordon in High Fidelity” approach to things, using music and film and television situations as similes for how life plays out in real life. What Klosterman does differently – and it’s what drives me to seek out more of his writing – is that he doesn’t use pop culture as a crutch. Indeed, he does the opposite, deftly explaining how pop culture helps shape our life – through experience and, ultimately, disappointment – all while shaping life’s more complex issues in a way that dullards like myself can understand.

Klosterman explains: Romantic comedies set us up for an unrealistic look at real love; everyone in the real world can be boiled down to a Real World doppelganger; Star Wars is responsible for Generation X’s attitude (and Luke Skywalker is probably the first grunge slacker).

However, the best essays move away from high-minded manifesto and into true journalism. “Appetite for Replication” follows a professional Guns N’ Roses cover band on the road, exposing every musician’s need for acceptance and sheer love for the material. “I, Rock Chump” takes the cover band mentality and applies it to Klosterman himself, throwing him deep into a circle of True Music Reviewers (and utter bores) at a national conference.

It’s inspired, and while I felt the essays tried a little too hard upon first reading, I find myself going back to them, reassessing them post-read, appreciating them for what they were: thoughts on real life using the common language of pop culture. I said “whatever” as I read them, but that “whatever” hasn’t stopped me from wanting more Klosterman.

John Darnielle, like Klosterman, isn’t a True Music Reviewer. Instead, he’s simply an indie darling, the voice and guitar and piano of The Mountain Goats and author of a 33 1/3 book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. A self-proclaimed metal maniac, Darnielle’s take on MoR moves away from the standard 33 1/3 review – thankfully, as I’m not sure how long I could handle a 100-page look at Ozzy Osbourne’s songwriting habits.

Instead, Darnielle goes back to metal’s roots. By which I mean, “the cassette players of young, angst-filled boys with a penchant for trouble.” This isn’t a review, it’s a love letter – written in the voice of Roger, a teenager thrown into a mental institute, forced to keep a journal and obstinately refusing to write about anything aside from his love for MoR and Black Sabbath in general.

It’s a pretty brilliant approach. Unfortunately, it’s also a short one. It’s by far the skinniest of the 33 1/3 books I’ve seen, and what should be a deep look into the heart of a confused teenage kid is truncated by the fact that the confused teenage kid is the one doing the talking. Sure, Darnielle captures the boy’s lack of emotional maturity, but it’s that same lack of emotional maturity that keeps us from seeing a little further inside.

Why Master of Reality? Why Black Sabbath? It’s explained as you’d expect: BECAUSE I THINK IT’S COOL BECAUSE YOU SUCK BECAUSE I HATE THE WORLD. And that’s about as far as the feelings get. Cool idea. But awkward execution.

That being said, both books took steps I couldn’t possibly attempt, co-opting the emotions of popular culture and parlaying them into an exploratory narrative of human nature. How does music play an important part in a locked-up kid’s psyche? How does Zach Morris represent America’s ability to suspend reality only when it’s convenient?

Don’t ask me. Let me finish this episode of Jersey Shore and I’ll let you know.

*This statistic = made up.

This was lovingly handwritten on March 2nd, 2010