Pity those with the compulsion to rationalize their obsessions; theirs is a battle with no end. Chuck Klosterman proves with his oral history of heavy metal, filtered through the eyes of a perpetually uncool kid from rural North Dakota. A freewheeling meditation on bands like Mötley Crüe, KISS, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses, Fargo Rock City is already significant as one of the first attempts to legitimize the cultural importance of the spandex-clad, hairsprayed army of badasses who saw their heyday in the late 80’s to early 90’s. But it is also a love letter to a childhood where love of music was tied to a sense of self and belonging. And the undying desire to rock.
Klosterman declares early on that he wants to confront two of the most egregious accusations hurled at heavy metal: that 1) it is frivolous and disposable (therefore “not art”), and 2) it is offensive and dangerous. He argues that these two sentiments can’t both be true at the same time. Being a danger presupposes a potency that contradicts frivolity. It may not be elevating art but heavy metal mattered, particularly to the crop of hormonal teenagers of post-Reagan Middle America.
Every chapter starts out with a “milestone” date, which probably makes people assume that the book is going to be a linear narrative. Instead they end up with what The New York Times called a “part memoir, part barstool rant.” The dates are merely touchstones from which Klosterman can riff, using everything from garish album covers to committing ATM fraud in trying to explain why a musical genre that many people would rather consider an aberration meant so much to him.
I think I should’ve prefaced this post by saying that my initial contact with some of this music was already as videoke staples at the drinking parties my dad and uncles used to have. My favorite hair band is Bon Jovi, but that is like saying that Downy is my favorite fabric softener. Still, Klosterman’s writing style is intensely enjoyable, and it’s easy to be swayed by him. In an A.V. Club article he equates trying to review GNR’s Chinese Democracy to reviewing a unicorn. How can you not love that? Yes, he rattles off obscure bands and subgenres like a semi-automatic, but I simply let everything wash over me. This is non-fiction that’s not about learning something, but feeling it.
And then we came to the part about the feminists. In the couple of months that yawned between finishing Fargo Rock City and writing this review, I’ve constantly thought about how I’m supposed to feel about Klosterman’s overwrought attempt at explaining away heavy metal’s tendency towards sexism and objectification. His defense is basically that that because hair bands were so baldfaced about their sexism, they somehow transcended their own objectifying tendencies and became commentaries on sexism. I mean, what? You can’t suddenly transcend sexism by becoming too good at it.
I couldn’t help but feel resentful that he decided to include that section in the first place. I had already bought into his premise for more than half of the the book, accepted his descriptions of 80’s actress Tawny Kitaen humping a Porsche and his exegesis of the Eddie van Halen / David Lee Roth symbiosis without censure. Having to read that old-school feminists are humorless crones but new feminists must be nice to sleep with was terribly offputting, after all the goodwill I had invested. He should have simply written, “Heavy metal is sexist because many of the band members were sexist and a lot of their fans were probably sexist. And now I am going to do a deep reading of the November Rain music video.”
Perhaps that chapter was the extension of his ethos–whatever wrongheaded baggage may come with his cause, he has decided to do die on this hill. The coda that Klosterman wrote following its first publication actually held the entire book together for me, with the tug-at-your-heartstrings anecdote about an old rocker practically begging his fans to listen to his new stuff in exchange of playing their real favorites. Nobody interrogates pop culture quite like he does and for all its bombast and problematic aspects, Fargo Rock City is a heartfelt potty-mouth of a book about being a kid and wanting to be cool.