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Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: Review

As children of the '90s will know, the perfect mix tape is more art than science. However, as Luke S.H. Raggatt discovers, Chuck Klosterman's pop culture manifesto 'Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs' comes mighty close to combining both.

“People who speak in metaphors should shampoo my crotch.”

– Jack Nicholson

Chuck Klosterman would enjoy watching a certain mix (video) tape from my VHS collection.

It’s pop culture. It’s post-modern. It’s professional sports with an epic battle. And if I were to put some real hard, dope-induced thought into it, it might even be a great metaphor for entertainment in the ‘90s.

Above all else perhaps, the contents of the said tape are just really fucking cool. And I have a hunch that the former writer for Esquire, Spin and Rolling Stone magazines, and author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, would totally agree.

But Chuck Klosterman is a man who appreciates the form on a deeper level. He looks beyond the en vogue novelties of nostalgia that mix tapes tap into, and beyond their poor quality that has now propelled them into that all too familiar status of ‘kitsch’. And clearly, Chuck has spent an awful lot of time perfecting the art of putting such tapes together.

This might explain then why Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, the title of his 2003-released book, has been crafted in much the same way. You see in Chuck’s imaginative deliberations of pop-cultural symbolism, even mix tapes themselves serve wider sociological functions than merely a platform for listening to music – such as getting laid – so why not construct a book then, working on similar principles?

“Like most uncreative intellectual men, almost all of my relationships have been based on my ability to make incredibly moving mix cassettes,” Chuck confides in Chapter 11, titled ‘Being Zack Morris’.

“I would estimate that magnetic audiotape directly influenced 66 percent of my career sexual encounters”.

Chapters in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, are arranged like a track list from your favorite compilation album – ‘Sulking Lisa Loeb on the Ice Planet Hoth 1:49’ being Chuck’s savvy description of ‘Chapter 12’.

Chuck has strung together his favourite (or most relevant) essays and articles written for various magazines, and presents them in a way that epitomize the very ideas of postmodernism he’s commenting on.

His book is a retro-flective mix of self-involved anecdotes which detail how he, Chuck, makes sense of the media-infused society he is a part of; where ironic self-reference, parody, and intertextuality share an intrinsic relationship with self-definition and social interaction.

This is of course, all quite clever, and being clever is something that Chuck is rather good at. So thinking back to my own mix video tape, it occurs to me that Chuck Klosterman would not only agree that it is a totally cool piece of entertainment, but also perhaps, see it as a product ‘dribbling’ with metaphors and social implications that are just begging for an intellectual brainstorm.

It is after all the 1995 season of the NBA (American professional basketball) we’re talking about, and according to Chuck, the NBA “remains the only game that matters”. To him, the mere motions of ten super-athletic giants jostling about on a timber deck with a pigskin ball are almost nihil ad rem. It stands for so much more. Politics. Corruption. Race. Class. It’s all there.

“Everyone who loves pro basketball assumes it’s a little fixed,” declares Chuck. And this he suggests, might just be a lot like life in a (Western) capitalist democracy.

Watching Michael Jordan drain a record-breaking 55 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, on this rickety old tape of my own, I get the feeling that there’s some neat little socio-political metaphors going on here, before my previously unaware eyes.

Here we’ve got ‘Air’ Jordan staging the comeback of comebacks. “THE RETURN OF HIS AIRNESS”, screamed the headlines at the time. It’s a sellout crowd. Thirty thousand mad punters from the ‘city that never sleeps’ all crammed in to The Garden together. And they’re hootin’ and hollerin’ in their ‘90s eclecticism well before the little white man in stripes throws up at the first jump-ball.

Perms-and-pedal-pushers! Blue-wash-denim-with-shiny-white-runners! Mustachioed-men-with-Wall-Street-money-and-season-tickets! Home-boyz-will-flat-tops!

And there amongst this mob of New York attitude is Spike Lee; Spike sitting conspicuously close to the action in his usual courtside position. The African-American Brooklyn film director dons his trademark baseball-cap-and-circular-spectacles look, and he’s all giddy about tonight’s showdown that we’ll soon learn, might only be matched by that tête-à-tête between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ten years earlier. Spike knows the politics of this stoush runs deep.

“Every time I watch a Spike Lee movie on HBO I get nervous”, declares Chuck in Chapter 8.

He’s referring to the kind of regular Spike Lee movie subtext that seems to be taking swipes at racist America. The great rivalry between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers (mostly black players) and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics (mostly white) throughout the 1980s, is a pivotal point of discussion in one of Spike’s movies, writes Chuck.

He sees it as the perfect metaphor for the underlying racism that existed in an era where issues like Affirmative Action and equal (employment) opportunity were hot topics of debate, and fought out not just in the infamous south, but in the ‘liberal’ streets of the east and west coast too.

Chuck’s theory on the epic battles between the Lakers and the Celtics during this period regards what these teams stood for as being what really counted. It was not just about their wins and losses, but rather the race and class of each team’s base, and the political climate of the cities to which they belonged. These were the real struggles and triumphs, and the stakes were high.

But then there are the outdated Lexus advertisements on this old tape of mine too, that might also have Chuck’s mind ticking away on the irony of disposable consumerism. A few years on and here we are looking at a ‘luxury’ car that seems worlds away from the symbol of wealth and indulgence it was once  represented; it is now but a set of wheels and steel worth a pittance of the original price tag.

The assumptions being made at the time by the advertisers about just who their target audience was that were supposedly watching the program is a peculiar consideration in hindsight. Just how many cashed-up hoop geeks, I wonder, would have actually been more excited about throwing a hundred grand on a new car back then, than hitting their local park to work on their fade-away jump shots with their ball buddies?

In ‘Billy Sim 0:12’ (Chapter 2 of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) Chuck raises a similar argument. He describes his experience with the computer game The Sims (a pre-cursor to its modern counterpart Second Life). Frustrated by the materialistic nature of his game character (‘SimChuck’), he points out that ‘it’ (or he) never really seems content with doing any ‘action’ in the game other than buying fictitious products. 

“He (‘SimChuck’) is a self-absorbed, materialistic prick,” (the real) Chuck says, before delving into a discussion about the ideologies of consumerism, and its shortcomings.

“This is perhaps the most disturbing element of The Sims: The happiness of the character is directly proportional to the shit you elect to buy him.”

Chuck sees the game as a puzzling reflection of human nature.

“I never enjoy the process of buying anything, but I get the impression that most Americans love it,” he says.

“What The Sims suggests is that buying things makes people happy because it takes their mind off being alive.”

Finally though, Chuck would like my mix tape because of the promotions for the new (in the 1990s) album by Stone Temple Pilots, which pops up from time to time in the recorded ad-breaks. Chuck loves rock, and is a keen advocate for rock music’s value in society.

His previous book – Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota – took this a whole step further, chronicling his teenage years as an ‘80s metal enthusiast in middle America. Ultimately he was seeking to illustrate how this one genre of music helped define an entire generation (X) of kids who had (supposedly) vastly differing ideas about capital, career, family and pop culture to their baby-boomer – hyper-capitalistic – parents.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs also utilizes the nuances of rock music as a reference point for Chuck’s witty interpretations of the world around him.

‘Appetite for Replication 0:56’ (Chapter 5) for instance, is an amusing first-hand look at the bizarre nature of rock ‘tribute’ (i.e. imitation) bands such as Paradise City. After spending a weekend on the road with this group of oddball wannabe rock stars, including a chaotic and downright dangerous trip in the band’s van, Chuck observes that Paradise City appear to be more keen on being Guns ‘n’ Roses, than the actual Guns ‘n’ Roses members themselves.

Later, he hypothesizes that in songs like ‘Born To Run’, Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen somehow managed to capture the hearts of  “desperate intellectuals who halfway believed that – when not recording or touring – he (Springsteen) actually went back to New Jersey to work at a car wash.”

And in ‘Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have his Drink 0:44’ (Chapter 4), Chuck declares (with a worthy justification) that Billy Joel’s total lack of ‘coolness’ is completely irrelevant to the fact that he is still ‘great’.

Critics of Chuck have argued that Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is nothing more than a collection of late night ramblings written heavily ‘under the influence’ (which might be partly true). But it seems to me that after reading Chuck Klosterman’s work, soon enough even the most mindless pieces of pop-cultural crap seem to get the synapses firing and have you thinking about this stuff in an entirely different, sometimes profound, way.

Anyone who can find convincing metaphors for broken relationships, and the complex connection between time and human memory within a trashy teen sitcom like ‘Saved by the Bell’ (which he does actually do) deserves commendation in my book.

For good or for ill, pop culture is a fundamental cog in this great wheel of modern society. It’s hard to say whether or not Chuck’s work is truly original, but Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs does provide a fresh, and stimulating take on how so-called ‘low culture’ might just be able to transcend it’s own trivial nature.

Perhaps it really can tell us something more about the very people such throwaway entertainment is designed for; us!

And true to form, aware of his own smug cleverness in doing so, Chuck Klosterman happily embraces the self-mocking parodies that are an essential part of the postmodern idea he’s commenting on in the first place.

Luke S.H. Raggatt is an emerging journalist and  final year Bachelor of Jounalism student at La Trobe University.

Upstart is collating the essential list of #topjournobooks. See what else has been reviewed so far here, and feel free to send in suggestions and your own review pitches.

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