Getting it mostly right and completely wrong

Lots of people seem to either like or hate Chuck Klosterman. As someone who never particularly formed any opinions regarding the guy, I’m happy to continue in my unwavering agnosticism towards his writing. But I am interested in a particular piece he wrote this week for Grantland, reviewing Lulu, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration based, apparently, on the Wedekind play of the same name.

Let that sink in for a minute. Lou Reed, who is old as dirt, and Metallica, who are only slightly younger and haven’t done anything of significance in a decade, have combined forces to put out an album which takes its theme from a play about the sexual mores of Wilhelmine Germany. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG WITH THIS SCENARIO?!

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “everything.” From Klosterman’s extremely funny review, I gather that the result is about as unpalatable as one could possibly expect. Klosterman spends a lot of time on the awfulness of Lulu, which seems totally appropriate, but it’s towards the end that his article goes off the rails and into some really problematic territory (how you like them mixed metaphors?).

See, the problem for Klosterman is that it seems to be causing him to re-evaluate his stand towards the collapse of the record industry (or if it’s not the catalyst, it at least seems to be a contributing factor). Klosterman’s allegation is that if we still lived in the 1992 where the record labels ran the show, something like Lulu would never exist. Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether this is even true; I would argue that the music industry has made its share of terrible decisions throughout its existence, and the only reason Klosterman thinks this is that he’s suffering from a common sort of cognitive bias where he only remembers the good stuff from the 90s. In the penultimate paragraph, Klosterman praises the concept, writing that “I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.” He concludes:

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Klosterman doesn’t come out and say it outright, but the implication of his last two paragraphs is that he thinks that this is a problem; that the actual realization of Lulu, while based on an admirable concept, is a mistake. With this, I beg to differ.

It has been my fervent belief for many years now that the most interesting of our cultural debris is the weird stuff. And not just the weird stuff, but the stuff that’s so divorced from any plausible standard of aesthetic quality that one struggles to comprehend how it even came to be. If I asked you to imagine Lulu, you couldn’t do it; you would either wind up with some forced Pynchonesque, or something far more mundane than actually happened. The fact that Lulu exists at all, the fact that we live in an environment which makes it possible, is, to me anyway, extremely important. Not because I would actually listen to Lulu (because I’m lazy enough as it is, and I refuse to expend cognitive effort to merely enjoy something ironically) but because its existence means that even in the stodgiest, most regulated corners of the cultural space, there exists an opportunity to do something mind-bogglingly stupid. And mind-boggling stupidity, especially produced in this way, is hilarious.

Failure is as much of an art as success, although typically success is achieved by consciously creating something of value, whereas artistic failure is something generally lucked into: either by dint of overreaching on the basis of your previous achievements (e.g. Lulu) or by being hilariously awful (e.g. Plan 9 From Outer Space, although honestly I never found it to be nearly as cringe-inducing as its defenders claim). The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a hardwood masterpiece made flesh, a team that won an astounding 72 games; the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets were a hilarious embarrasment to the league, winning a mere 12. Sure, you’d rather watch the Jordan Bulls play (assuming you’re a neutral) but as a narrative, isn’t the Nets’ despair infinitely more compelling? After all, you already know a team like the Bulls is destined for a ring, but the Nets, right up until the end of the season, had the potential for badness of historical proportions (that they fell just short of that is disappointing in its own right, although they did set the historical mark for worst start to the season with 19 straight losses). I cared nothing for the Nets, but couldn’t help checking their results every morning just to see if the lows they’d fallen to would go even lower (further bizzaritude: of the three wins that kept New Jersey from tying for the worst-ever season, one was a win on the road against eventual finalists the Boston Celtics, and two more came in double-overtime wins against the Bulls and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams). Were not the historically abominable Detroit Lions far more interesting than if they’d gone 4-12? Of course they were, and you know it.

The same thing holds for artistic endeavors as much as athletic ones (though in truth the lines between the two are blurry). Is not the existence of a film such as Howard the Duck irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God? In what kind of just world would it be possible for the profoundly schizophrenic Hudson Hawk (which seems to begin as a relatively unremarkable action/heist film, and yet goes on to contain a scene in which a little girl in a museum is told “You’re a disgrace to your country!” in a scene which has only the remotest contextual relevance to the plot) to exist? Only in a world in which it was possible for someone to take Bruce Willis seriously as a screenwriter.

These various failures are like a sort of Ozymandias lining our cultural highways: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. They are, by and large, fascinating examples of people trying out completely preposterous, downright stupid ideas, and winding up with colossal failure that demands appreciation on an aesthetic level. Studied competence is a quality we demand from doctors and civil servants; our artistic products, to be interesting, should be either transcendentally successful, or implausibly horrid. Edgar Bulwer-Lytton (he of the much-and-unjustly-malgined “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, an opening sentence about as unremarkable as they get), towards the end of his life, concocted an absurd proto-science-fiction story about a subterranean race that thrived on a mysterious form of energy. The novel apparently caused a minor mania, becoming an obsession of Theosophists and people who thought Atlantis was real, as it was taken as a veridical description of reality; can anything remotely similarly fascinating be said about one of Hardy’s ponderous chronicles of English peasant life or the interminably dull regional fiction of a Sarah Orne Jewett? Sure, Bulwer-Lytton is considered to have failed aesthetically, but he failed in such a spectacular fashion that you can’t help but admire the audacity.

The best of our aesthetic artifacts share this kind of demented energy with the worst; they contain sparks (or even full-blown fires) of something crazy, something you won’t see if all you shoot for is competence. Metallica producing a competent, or even relatively good (say, on par with the Black Album) record would not arouse the slightest curiosity, but Metallica teaming up with Lou Reed to adapt Wedekind is a fascinating, not even but especially since it’s so disastrous. Klosterman is wrong to be filled with (admittedly limited) nostalgia for the world of record label control; the fact that the destruction of that world allowed something like Lulu to be created is direct evidence that we’re better off without it.

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