Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman (revised 2001 edition): Chuck Klosterman has carved out a niche for himself as an iconoclastic cultural critic. He began as a music and entertainment journalist in America’s Midwest in the early 1990’s, first as a college student and then as a professional. Before that, he was a kid growing up in the 1980’s in the tiny North Dakota town of Wyndmere, where he developed a love for heavy metal — and, more particularly, ‘glam metal’ or ‘hair metal’, perhaps the most dominant musical genre in North America by the late 1980’s. But then grunge swept it away. Here, in his first book, he tried to bring it back — or at least provide a counter-narrative to the standard ‘Hair metal sucks!’
Klosterman’s musings begin with Motley Crue and end, pretty much, with the disintegration of Guns ‘n’ Roses in the early 1990’s. He makes a great revisionist case for the artistic merit of a lot of metal songs, albums and bands, all while remaining uncomfortable with the idea of critical praise (in part because critics don’t tend to praise the bands he’s praising).
I think you’ll probably find yourself mentally arguing with a lot of his conclusions, which is great — that’s part of what makes the book fun. Klosterman’s great weakness — a tendency to generalize or even universalize based solely on his personal preferences and experiences — is also his great strength. He can get you mad — or happy when you agree with him.
It helps that he’s both killingly funny and gifted at presenting fresh, involving autobiographical detail, whether that detail comes in the chapter in which he introduces his 1990’s alcoholism, or in imagining his teenaged self listening to Motley Crue for the first time. He evokes small, small-town life in telling detail (as he notes at one point, the small town of John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” would be a city to the residents of Wyndmere) without condescending to rural residents. Also, he invented and named his own drink (The Witty Chuck, a mix of brandy and ginger ale).
But it’s the musical contextualization and appraisal that makes the book really appealing. You’ll probably want to check out at least a few tunes that you haven’t heard for years (or at all), and the argument he makes for GNR’s Appetite for Destruction as one of the ten best albums ever is pretty fascinating and. depending on your taste, compelling. But the most interesting thing he observes about GNR is how truly real Axl Rose’s existential anger was, and how central it was to the band’s early success: once it was gone (or at least partially dissipated), Rose couldn’t fake it or replicate it, leaving Chinese Democracy in limbo for 15 years.
The great weakness of the book is its title, one that Klosterman notes himself he isn’t all that crazy about (he suggested Appetite for Deconstruction, which would have been hilarious). Oh well. All this and you also find out that Klosterman hates hippies almost as much as Eric Cartman does. A great, contentious book for any fan of popular music in the late 20th century. Highly recommended.