Thanks to shitty, music-geek movies like Almost Famous and High Fidelity, plus a bio of late-great Lester Bangs, attention-starved rock writers proclaimed 2000 the “Year of the Rock Critic.” September 11 stole our thunder, but hey! rock crit’s still making noise outside of its magazines. Neal Pollack, self-proclaimed “greatest living American writer” (ho hum), once again lends his name to a caricatured author-protagonist in the witless “rock ‘n’ roll” novel Never Mind the Pollacks. You may remember this pointlessly self-reflexive shtick from The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Here, rather than aping Gore Vidal, Pollack lampoons American media’s easiest targets (guess who): rock critics. The title references a Sex Pistols album, see?
Chuck Klosterman, who once reviewed movies in North Dakota and is now a hot-shit senior writer for Spin, embodies all that is great and irritating about rock scribble. He and Pollack are both snarky, unabashedly self-involved thirtysomethings who grew up between coasts and began writing for big-name magazines after publishing their first books. (Klosterman produced a series of unironic, autobiographical essays on ’80s rock called Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey.) Chuck’s Friendster profile is much funnier than Pollack’s.
In the sunnily combative Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman brings his slapstick, rock-crit-inspired lowcultism to bear on The Sims, homelessness, The Real World, Billy Joel, journalism, soccer, basketball, Pam Anderson, and—guess what—rock criticism itself. When he claims, in a piece on Vanilla Sky, that “science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people,” a footnote reads, “As opposed to this essay, which tends to be philosophy for shallow people.”
Edie Brickell, who must be smart and deep because she’s married to Paul Simon, once purred: “Philosophy/is the talk on a cereal box.” Klosterman’s obviously not the first to knowingly conflate pop and philosophical discourses. It is his maddeningly simplistic but often enough convincing rhetoric, taste for the critically uncelebrated, and blunt, un-p.c. manner—traits pioneered by loudmouthed Voice music editor Chuck Eddy—that gives Klosterman enough rope to hang his detractors with.
I disagree with much of this book. I do not believe that the staggering amount of “amateur” interweb porn satisfies cybersurfers’ need for grounding in reality (there’s no more “amateur” porno online than in your local video store, for one, and the question of women watching it, he dismisses—”I can only assume it has something to do with licking your own nipples”). Nor that The Sims celebrates unbridled consumerism (it satirizes it), or that the producers of The Real World “were unintentionally creating . . . the youth of America” (Harold Bloom’s belief in the power of Shakespearean archetypes notwithstanding). “My witty banter and cerebral discourse,” Klosterman announces, discussing his inability to truly connect with women, “is always completely contrived.”
Whose isn’t? On a recent road trip I asked a woman with whom I have a vertiginous romantic relationship to read excerpts from Cocoa Puffs. Her outraged but carefully reasoned dismissals of Klosterman’s big ideas were occasion for much “lively,” subtly shaded debate. While he’s obsessed with detail (how Kid Rock hates Radiohead because Pam and Tommy loved them, for instance) and intricate arguments, Klosterman eschews complexity; he’ll footnote a passage like “it’s a well-executed example of a certain type of entertainment” with ” ‘A certain kind’ meaning ‘bad’ “—to be honest, and for laffs, and to needle smart people (his audience).
As someone who’s shared a few drinks with Chuck at informal rock-critic gatherings (real hoo-has, those), I can tell you this is exactly how he holds court and conversation. He’s great fun, but obdurate and occasionally too noisy. Ask someone to read his book aloud to you; at least you’ll both be able to get a word in edgewise.
Klosterman’s most closely held belief may be that “fake love,” as learned from movies like When Harry Met Sally, has overtaken real love. Neal Pollack, who fancies himself a lovable literary scamp, believes in fake writing. His is a fraud playing a fraud. Never Mind the Pollacks ploddingly retells the history of rock and its criticism, substituting over-the-top amplifications of the most obvious rock ‘n’ roll clichés in a lame, numbingly cynical attempt at parody. The laffs are emptier than MC Hammer’s bank account.
Narrator Paul St. Pierre, a composite of academically inclined critics like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Eric Weisbard, researches the life of Neal Pollack, a gonzo protagonist modeled after Lester Bangs—after, we find out, having murdered him in 1994. Like a music world Forrest Gump, Pollack’s life intersects with every historical figure’s: Elvis runs over his father, and he sleeps with Kurt Cobain’s mother. Sam Phillips, remembering first meeting the wildcat critic, tells St. Pierre, “Somehow, I thought, I have to give that boy a chance to express himself through popular music criticism.”
For anyone familiar with rock history, this story could not be more banal; everyone else will be overwhelmed by inane references to semi-obscure albums and events. I’ll give you the book’s best punchline, because no one should have to pay for it. Pollack is trying to steal Nico’s drugs: “Nico wrenched away, dove for the door, and ran downstairs to the bus. Lou Reed was simultaneously giving and receiving a blowjob.” If author Pollack expressed any affection at all for rock, never mind criticism, this book would still suck—but at least we’d know he’s human. How sad, to be incapable of even fake love.