Book review: Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman



If this was… I was going to give Klosterman the honour (sic) of comparing him to Motley Crue but I just can’t do it. It would belie the very valid points he makes about the nature of their appeal (Klosterman is NOT cool, and would never pretend to be – indeed his nebbish outsiderness is something he’s proud of). Got it – if this was thirty years old it would be the book Lester Bangs wrote about the music he loved and never got around to publishing because it was a bit too self-obsessed even for him.

Cover

A sweet close-up portrait of a cow which, with commendable subtlety, has had its colouring arranged as a KISS design.

Plot

Klosterman sets out to explain why one of the most maligned and ignored genres in pop music, 80s metal (aka glam metal, hair metal, cock rock) has never been given a fair shake. In order to do this he delves quite deep into his rural youth in order to show that, if nothing else, this kind of music meant a lot more to a lot more people than is commonly admitted.

The good

It’s a fun idea that starts on the great cover, zips through the funny introduction, flies through the first few chapters and settles in for an enjoyable ride which Klosterman never lets idle. He has the reviewer’s ability to alternate between giving us what we want (personal anecdotes, rock anecdotes, lists, facts, figures, and the gonzo chapter where he talks about drinking too much), and trying to sway us toward his point of view.
This is not an academic treatise, nor is it a rock history, nor is it strictly a memoir, and this makes it more interesting than a lot of similar texts – it has as much, if not more, in common with Lost in Music (the story of a very-nearly-succesful glam-rock wannabe) than something like Bang Your Head (a straightforward chronological history of 80s metal, albeit by a big fan). I liked this approach, because, as I’m sure Nick Hornby would agree, having a passionate individual try to explain why they love, and argue why you should love, a particular style of music is such a familiar part of the life of anybody who takes it seriously at all that a book like this cannot help achieve verisimilitude even if it lacks factual examples or concrete logic.

Nonetheless, Klosterman makes some interesting points as to why metal matters. I love the comparison of Van Halen’s “Jump” video (Rockin’ rocks!!) with their “Right Now” video (Mattering matters!!) – when he hits the nail on the head, consider it hit. He also frames well the differences between becoming famous for rocking and being a rock star, and why the loss of the latter in music devalues some parts of a listener’s life. He addresses, with commendable honesty, all the standard criticisms levelled at 80s metal, then and now – its sexism, homophobia, unflagging commercialism and innate meretriciousness. He even adds a few points of his own (“The biggest criticism that can be made about glam metal is not that so much of it was meaningless, but that so much of it was boring”). At the end, though (including a nice little reprint-added epilogue) Klosterman admits that this is a labor of love in honour of a mistress who was born and bred to be as slutty as possible, and that a further part of her appeal is that unbreakable, almost arbitrary bond we form with the music that plays from the time we notice it until the time when we start gettin laid.

The bad

Klosterman’s approach works best, it needs to be said, if you agree with him and know what he’s talking about, OR are amiably undecided and hazy on the details. Like Bang Your Head, once he hits the nineties it all gets a little bitter and judgemental as he basketises and bangs the gavel on bands many would consider to be a lot more worthy of indulgence than the ones he’s just spent two hundred pages forgiving.

And forgive he does. Without the worry of anything even approaching academic argument, Klosterman makes some fairly spurious attempts to convince – another critical skill he possesses is the ability to form anecdote and digression into something that has the momentum of an argument but, once brought to a halt, is revealed to be hollow – the strongest points he makes are the big and simple ones, but even these can collapse under analysis. (For example, against the most basic anti-cock-rock charge – sexism – Klosterman frames the terms himself, and then builds to a closing point which seems inarguable: The sexism inherent in 80s metal is part and parcel of the time and society in which it existed. This seems inarguable because it IS inarguable – exactly the same argument could be applied to almost anything else that happened at any time, anywhere, ever, and does not excuse a bean. OK, giving the author the benefit of the doubt – he certainly aint stupid – we could expand this conclusion to say that part of this music’s appeal WAS its sexism, that this was simply the least subtle era of western civilisation when it came to encouraging young women to look like sluts, and thus they too sought out glam for this very reason, or perhaps, more darkly, that, about a millimetre below its hot-pink surface it indulged BOTH genders’ desires to cast off several decades’ worth of ideas about what they should and shouldn’t be looking for/at in sexual terms and to just get happily trashy and fuck who you want. The problem is, WE would have to make these finer points, because Klosterman certainly doesn’t, and perhaps the reason he wont is because he knows that it would require too great a depth of thought.) I suppose what I’m getting at is, like a great deal of what I seem to be reading lately, this is fun, occasionally funny, pleasantly personal, and really fucking lazy.

Oh, and one more thing – the second last paragraph of the epilogue (which I did otherwise enjoy), mentions that, looking back at some of his first writings, Klosterman is amazed at what a sexist, racist, homophobic, aggressive jerk he was at the age when he was most in love with this music. How could he have written an entire book about A- the jerk and B- the music without even considering the possibility of a connection between these two facts?

I must admit, the closer Klosterman got to the future the more he began to irritate me, and the more he began to irritate me the more this book reminded me of the same thing: Exactly like something I’d write, if I wasn’t so lazy, which is exactly why I’m being so harsh about something I honestly did enjoy. At one point he says he wrote the book he wanted to read, which is an honestly worthy goal, I think, and despite the touchy tone of the epilogue the front two pages are covered in good reviews.

What I learnt

That the videos for Don’t Cry, November Rain, and Estranged were a fucking trilogy! How sweet is that! I’ve never even seen Don’t Cry, yet now I experience a powerful urge (in my PANTS) to see all 3 in succession. I always thought Estranged was a bit…strange. For a metal clip. And who the hell DID shoot Axel’s wife at the wedding?



In short

Title: Fargo Rock City
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition
ISBN: 0743406567
Year published: 2002
Pages: 288

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.