a long talk

Lived Through This

In his book The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman tried to write about the decade as it felt at the time — at least to some people.

Chuck Klosterman, center. Photo-Illustration: Max-o-matic; Photos by Alamy, Shutterstock and Getty Images
Chuck Klosterman, center. Photo-Illustration: Max-o-matic; Photos by Alamy, Shutterstock and Getty Images

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In his new collection, The Nineties: A Book, the critic Chuck Klosterman works ground up from culture to build a sort of mood-board history of a decade that floats a little out of focus in the national memory: close enough to feel familiar, far away enough to feel weird. It was, he writes, “a remarkably easy time to be alive” — at least as it was experienced by someone like Klosterman, most known for his obsessive meditations on pop culture in books like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and whose “experience across the nineties was comically in line with the media caricature of generation X.”

There is indeed a lot about Reality Bites, and Nirvana, and selling out in The Nineties. There is also a lot of other stuff — about the internet, Ross Perot, the Biosphere 2 project launched out of environmental anxiety. Throughout, Klosterman tries to resist reducing the time to neat narratives about globalization and neoliberalism, American empire and the rise of the culture wars, or to impose the perspective of the decades to come on the past. But he also thinks the basic, hand-me-down cliché of the time is a pretty good shorthand. “The boilerplate portrait of the American nineties makes the whole era look like a low-risk grunge cartoon,” Klosterman writes in his introduction. “That portrait is imperfect. It is not, however, wildly incorrect.”

The editor Gavin Jacobson has called the ’90s an “age without qualities,” which I think describes a pretty common feeling about the decade — that it’s just kind of floating there in our memory, a bit undefined. What’s interesting about it to you?
It feels as though the 1990s weren’t just the last decade of the 20th century but sort of the last decade, period — the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own.

If you show someone an obscure film from 1965 and then an obscure film from 1995, anyone viewing those clips will be able to recognize which one is older. But I do not think that would be the case if you showed someone a movie from 1990 and a movie from now — the difference would seem much less. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to see something from, say, 2005 and get the sense that it was 15 or 16 years ago. Time seems to be microscoping.

Is that just the retromania of the internet and its infinite archive?
I think there are a lot of reasons, but the accessibility of the past is the main one. In the ’90s, there was almost a perverse excitement over discounting the past. I remember I was interviewing a member of the band Korn in the late ’90s, and he was like, “We don’t care about the Beatles. For us, it starts with Jane’s Addiction.”

I was born in 1982, and when I think of the culture of the 1990s, I think of the TRL half of the decade more than the Nirvana half of the decade.
What you’re describing is, I think, a pretty common perception — that there were two 1990s. There was the ’90s sort of up through — I guess we could use Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 as a marker. And then there’s the second period, which does seem significantly different. This might be a reflection of my specific age, but it feels like our conception of the ’90s is defined more by that first half.

The idea of “selling out” was something that had existed in the ’80s, but the idea was almost that the obvious way to think, if you were an entertainer or an artist, was to try to be successful. The ’90s was kind of a confusing time to want things or have aspirations or any desire to succeed. Like Reality Bites — the whole movie is about the problem of selling out. There was never a time when people were like, “I want to be poor.” They just sort of wanted to be rich with the trappings of someone who never wanted to be rich. But there’s a limit to how long that could happen. People see through that.

I mean, it is a fear that still resides in me. I find the idea of promoting this book about the ’90s very uncomfortable because I’m constantly thinking these things that I thought when I was younger.

But you obviously think the period was important to write about for some reason.
Yes. The ’90s are still a little bit of an unsettled era. There are certain things about the 1980s — the move toward conservatism, the emergence of MTV, Gordon Gekko — that today seem very entrenched. Those are the positions, and you either have to validate those or contradict them. Whereas in the ’90s, I did not feel like that. I went into writing this book with what I’d like to believe was a pretty kind of open mind, and I was wondering if the caricature or the cliché of the period in my mind is going to incrementally seem inaccurate. That didn’t really happen.

Did you ever see a documentary called Recorder, about Marion Stokes?

Marion Stokes was this woman in Philadelphia who, for a variety of reasons, started taping the news 24 hours a day, starting in the late ’70s. Stokes’s perception seems to have been everything is important that’s being presented through the media. It’s not like we have to prioritize this idea or this event over this idea or this event.

Round-the-clock news programming really shaped our memory of ’90s events like the O.J. Simpson trial and Columbine.
We often talk about journalism being the first version of history. What a situation like Columbine shows is that not only is the first version of history often, perhaps even usually, wrong; it also becomes more tenacious than the improved version that comes later. The things people still remember about Columbine are the false parts — the idea of a trench-coat mafia, for instance. And it doesn’t matter how many subsequent versions of Columbine are told and improved upon. The first one just sticks.

And that is partially just a consequence of the fact that with 24 hours of news, you gotta fill up all the time. When there’s no new information, we’re just going to recontextualize the old information and hammer these points home when the most eyes are on it. And then you really can’t overturn those ideas.

It’s a bit dispiriting for anyone who might hope we could ever see the past clearly.
I’m kind of prone to a certain kind of media-theory criticism, where we have reality and we have false reality, and the media is the false reality and it’s impossible to differentiate between good information and bad information. I think modernity is the process of distancing ourselves from reality. Everything that we experience in a mediated age is just this incremental creep away from a hard reality that we might’ve once experienced in the same way. And once you sort of accept that, it’s always gonna prove itself. It’s always gonna be that way.

You write a lot about authenticity — for example, when talking about Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair. You set their reputations and profiles against one another. What’s different about them?
Well, there were some pretty obvious differences sonically — Liz Phair is a singer-songwriter with music as stripped down as possible. You always felt the music was closer to a sort of punk idea where she’s doing it essentially by herself. And what you’re getting when you buy that record is her. Whereas with someone like Alanis Morissette, she’d been a child actress, she had toured with Vanilla Ice, and when she was making a record, the idea that this was going to be commercial was a part of the way the record was produced. You could hear it in the sound of her record.

Now, I’m guessing that when they were each making those records, they probably thought the sound almost matters more than the content. But then the way both records were received, the lyrical content became really dominant. I mean, as a rock critic, I could go through a bunch of things that made them different. But just as a person, what kind of felt significant about both of them was this idea that they were not seen as separate from their music. Is that because they were women? That probably did play a role. We wouldn’t have thought that Eddie Vedder actually knew a kid named Jeremy, even though that song is based on a real story. But if Phair or Morissette writes that song, it would’ve been, “Did this happen to you? Did someone in your class shoot themselves?”

A similar thing happened with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. We didn’t take those lyrics as autobiographical, exactly, but we did see the artist as the persona as the person as the music.
What is so profound about Nirvana is that the relationship ended up becoming real. The song “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” The idea that a person who writes that song also does commit suicide — that is so on the nose. People would say things like, “If that guy hates fame so much, why doesn’t he just stop?” We did not fully believe that Kurt Cobain was actually unhappy. And then when he killed himself, it made that music suddenly weirdly true.

He was presenting ideas in a culture where irony was the central understanding of all messages, and he seems to have had no ironic distance at all. It actually was incredibly sad and depressing to him that people he didn’t like loved his music. It legitimately bothered him that, say, homophobes liked his music. It bothered him in a way that for other artists, it would’ve been seen almost as branding.

Throughout the book, you write about politics primarily through the lens of culture, but you also spend a lot of time on Ross Perot.
He’s a pretty fascinating figure. One of two things is true about him. Either his run for the presidency did not actually impact the 1992 election, as the statistical data would seem to suggest. Or he did impact the outcome of that election — and I sense that he did — in which case his role in our history is vastly underrated. If he hadn’t become involved in the race and George H.W. Bush had won a second term, I think the Republicans probably become significantly less radical.

It was really the persona of Bill Clinton that put someone like Newt Gingrich in this position where he could be like, “We now have this adversary that we’re going to create as the representation of what our fears are about the American left.” Which is odd considering that, at least by the end of his tenure, Clinton was a centrist.

I’m not the first person to say that the ’90s were perhaps the easiest decade in the 20th century to be president. It felt as though there was much less at stake, that politics was still something that was sort of interesting and important but also detached from popular culture.

To some people, at least.
Maybe. But at least in my memory from the ’90s, you would meet young people who would have no interest in politics and not even pretend. It was like, Who cares about that? People who were hyperengaged with politics were sort of seen as operating more on the perimeter of the culture.

When you look at the present-day politics in this country, you could argue that Perot was the cause of all of it. He also did not seem at all like a ’90s character. He really had Depression-era values. You know, marijuana is bad, you should wear a tie to work, we need to look at the economy the way a businessman looks at his ledger.

You could say something similar about Trump, that he was really a creature of the ’80s who was somehow elected president in 2016.
That’s not going to be how he’s remembered now, of course, but that’s really what he was — the closest real-life person to Gordon Gekko. In Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, he mentions Trump like eight times, and this is a book that came out in 1991. He was just a shorthand for a superwealthy, greedy, nonpolitical figure.

A lot of what gives Trump his new life is the internet, which in some basic ways seems like something he shouldn’t even really know how to use and which nevertheless he is a kind of master of. But the internet that he is a master of is a very different internet from the one you write about in the book — a sort of anti-cynical, utopian space. What happened to that internet?
When you look at coverage of the early internet, like in early issues of Wired, it is really interesting how so many of the pioneers were — and I know this is a reductionist term — former hippies. They were dudes who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead. That was the kind of person who was drawn to this. When the internet was less well organized — before real practical, useful search functions — it was an incredibly amorphous reality that tended to draw an amorphous audience, people who were willing to deal with this completely unfinished mechanism that allowed you to create a system you wanted as opposed to operating within the system that was there. Their optimism was insane in an era when everyone sort of views the Zeitgeist as cynical and underwhelmed. But there was really no ceiling to the kind of change that the early internet adopters seemed to express.

They believed it would be revolutionary, which of course it was, if not in exactly the ways they had hoped or imagined.
They were working in a small culture. And they could sort of operate from a position where they assumed their understanding would become the normative understanding. But that it did not happen, because as soon as you cross over to other people — as soon as you got things like Google, which made the internet something a person with no previous computer experience could easily use — well, those people are not just going to adopt the values and ideas of the people who built the thing.

Napster tells almost the opposite story — there, the values of internet culture did change the way almost everybody understood the value of music. We all decided that it had to be free.
Well, for one thing, that’s 1998 basically. I don’t imagine that Shawn Fanning, in creating Napster, was like, This is going to change the entire music industry. But then everyone used it and was sort of startled, not only by how much music was there but how easy it was. The music industry seemed to understand it before a lot of other people did. The normal 35-year-old music consumer was like, “I still go to Tower Records, I still buy CDs, I don’t wanna log onto that, I don’t wanna get a virus on my computer.” But the music industry could see this is gonna happen. And they started trying to find ways to stop it and that only accelerated it.

Generally, there is not a lot of hip-hop in this book. Why not?
Well, I mean, there were many things that I couldn’t write about that did seem important to me. Brit-pop did seem important to me, but I didn’t feel I could get into it. And I do talk about Eminem and Tupac, and 2 Live Crew and Arrested Development. But also, frankly, I have more natural understanding of rock than I do of hip-hop. For me, hip-hop is a culture that I learned about as I matured, but I did not have an organic relationship with at first. In high school, I probably had four hip-hop records.

When I think about mainstream 1990s culture, the rise of hip-hop is sort of the first thing I think of.
But there’s also definitely going to be people who are like, “He barely talked about riot grrl.” There’s going to be people who are like, “He doesn’t even mention these boy bands and Britney Spears” — and all these things that were the most dominant music.

The idea that hip-hop came of age in the ’90s and by the end of the ’90s was the dominant form of youth music — that is true, that is real. But I could say that about so many things. This book, the size of it now, it’s like a normal-size book. I could’ve written a 700-page book instead. The director Michael Bay is an important figure in our culture, and he began in the ’90s. He’s not mentioned one time in the book. The difference is nobody is going to complain that I didn’t write about Michael Bay. And people will definitely complain that I didn’t write about hip-hop. But that’s life, you know?

Beyond hip-hop and beyond culture, though, there are plenty of people who, if they were writing a book like this now, would focus on the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, welfare reform and the Clinton crime bill, and Rodney King and the L.A. riots. And that’s not to say that material is not anywhere in this book, but it’s often on the margins — you write about the riots in the context of Ice-T, for instance. Was that because you were trying not to project contemporary political concerns back into the past or for idiosyncratic personal reasons, or … ?
A lot of those concerns run counter to my central strategy of trying to write about how things felt at the time, as opposed to how we perceived them later. There will always be someone who says, “I thought that at the time. You’re acting like no one thought that, but we thought that!”

You see this kind of thinking a lot now, when people will try to justify a situation by saying, “That was just how people thought at the time! That’s how people in 1840 thought about slavery.” And someone else will always say, “Well, what about this person? This person wrote the exact opposite.”

Right, though many people would say the work of history is partly calling attention to people like those abolitionists.
But a lot of those things can be reverse-engineered to come to the conclusion that you desire. It seems to me that when we look back at political moments — outside of the New Deal — we tend to look at them in a negative way. “They thought they were doing this, but then the result was that.” The fact of the matter is that’s just kinda how things work. Any attempt you make to solve a problem is going to create smaller unanticipated problems. That’s just how it is. The climate right now is to sort of view everything as a sociopolitical battle. I’m not going to do that.

Take the Clinton crime bill, for instance. In that documentary about Marion Stokes, they specifically show Hillary Clinton giving the speech where she’s using the term “superpredators.” Today, that is seen as a straightforwardly racist statement. But the idea at the time was more like, “Crime is going down, which is good.”

I have someone who helps me with research sometimes, and I had her read a copy of this book early. She was like, “You keep mentioning how the prison population is going up. You don’t seem to be saying how awful this was.” And I was like, well, the thing is, the idea at the time was not that an increase in prison population is some sign of oppression but sort of a reflection, or even proof, of greater mainstream safety, however you define that.

Now, that might sound like I’m trying to avoid this problem. But that really isn’t it. My book’s probably 70 percent culture, 30 percent politics. I guess I live in a reality that tells me that we tend to slightly overrate the significance of political action while slightly underrating the significance of cultural action.

Rodney King and the riots are a bit different, aren’t they? They were not narrowly political events; they were also cultural events. Nobody watching that footage on TV thought they were meaningless or trivial.
It was also a mediated event. That was another part. And you can look at the consequences of what happened after the verdict. You have Ice Cube on television being like, “This is what NWA songs were about, we told you this was going on.” But everyone was sort of shocked when it happened. Shock was the most common response to the riots. And then that all flowed into the O.J. Simpson story.

So I guess the question is: Is culture upstream from politics, or is politics upstream from culture? I guess I tend to work from the position of it being the latter. So I write more about culture than policy. I guess I am operating from the perspective of a historian. I’m not a historian in the traditional sense at all. So I kind of felt like, Well, it’s still my book.

Even so, just about everything we’re fighting about now was happening then — and not just in embryonic form.
Yes and no. In doing a book like this, the temptation is to look at the past through the prism of the present. That really distorts what the experience was actually like. When I was doing this book, I would often go through, say, a story from the New York Times or the Washington Post from the ’90s, and there might be some detail that would seem absolutely central to an issue we’re having now, but the fact that it was such a small detail in a much larger story proved that at the time it was not moving that way.

There’s this idea that you look back at the time and you say, “Well, the consensus was A, so therefore it must be that B was really true.” Or, “We believe artist X was really important, so it has to be that artist Y was important.” I assume in the next ten to 20 years, there will probably be a lot of writing about the ’90s, and most of it is going to be counterintuitive writing or personal writing. I suppose my book will kind of serve as the foundational text for people to disagree with.

Chuck Klosterman Lived Through This