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Understanding the nineties: Chuck Klosterman on the lasting legacy of a consequential decade

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Chuck Klosterman, a best-selling author and journalist, about his must-read book, The Nineties.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Chuck Klosterman, a bestselling author, journalist, and cultural commentator who writes with exceptional range, from music to politics to basketball. His latest book, The Nineties, reflects his unique perspective by providing a comprehensive window into a decade that gave us, among other things, the end of the Cold War, the rise of grunge music, and the beginnings of the internet. The Nineties, which is now out in paperback, is a must-read to remember this odd decade and its lasting legacy. Chuck, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Oh, well, thank you very much.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a big question. You write in the book’s introduction that, in hindsight, the nineties were “a remarkable, easy time to be alive.” Why? What do you mean?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, I mean, that is expressed from a very specific perspective, but for a large section of North America, this was the perspective. Which is that the nineties were this strange middle ground between the world we understand now and the 20th century. There were no wars happening, hot or cold. The Cold War was over, and there were skirmishes that the U.S. was involved with, but it wasn’t a full-on embrace of that sort of wartime mentality. The economy was good. The internet was still perceived as something that was only really a potential idea that seemed to have very little downside. Even though there were some concerns about it, for the most part, it was like, “Well, this might be the answer to everything.” The stakes, in general, were lower.

Now, there’s always going to be a person who hears that and says, “Well, not from my father. He was living on the street during that time; the stakes couldn’t have been higher.” And of course, that’s always going to be the case. But I’m trying to write a book, or tried to write a book, that used a pretty wide lens. And this is maybe a strange thing to admit, but I know that going forward, there’s going to be a lot of writing about the nineties from an extraordinarily subjective lens where people are going to look back at this period and say, “Well, we all thought this, but actually this was true. Or we thought this band was important, but there’s actually this other artist we should care about. And this film director got a lot of attention, but this other person no one knows about is more significant now.” My book is the baseline to push against. It is a pretty standard take on the conventional view of the nineties and what that meant because I am a person who really believes that in many ways, the caricatured idea of a time is the most meaningful. Because for the casual person, that is how they understand it. And even if they learn information, true information, or that contradicts the significance of that period, it’s still working through the idea and through the prism that, well, this is what was the accepted way to understand the time.

SEAN SPEER: The decade was a coming of age for those in Generation X which you describe as the “least annoying generation.” What makes it less annoying than the baby boomers before it or the millennials who followed it? And how did this generation’s taste and preferences come to shape nineties culture in a way that was different than the boomer-driven culture of the previous decades?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, I have two answers to that. The first was the answer I built into the book, which was that the main reason Generation X is the least annoying generation is because it’s the smallest generation. It is the least number of people, so the least potential to be annoying. There also seemed to be a sense that the baby-boom generation was almost pedantic about their criticism of the people who came next. And the generation following Gen X seemed much more enraged and angry and distraught and grievance-built. So there was less complaining from that middle sector of people. Now, some people say that that is a weird thing to be happy about. It’s almost like bragging about apathy. But I don’t know; there’s a fraction of truth in that.

The other thing I will say is that on the page of my book where I called Gen X the least annoying generation, many people who are older and younger than me hated that and criticized me for saying that, and couldn’t believe I said that. Now, everywhere else on that page, it basically says how Gen X people were apathetic. They’re not that meaningful. There will probably never be a Gen X president. They were willing to accept things that they’d consciously maybe disagreed with but didn’t care. You know how many Gen Xers have complained about that? None. No member of Generation X has complained about the multitude of negative things I said about them, and yet there’s been this minor firestorm over the fact that they said they weren’t annoying by everybody who’s not them. So that’s proof of their lack of annoyance: that they did not complain about the negative things I declared them to be.

Now, your second thing you asked was, “How did this shape the way we think about culture from that period?” Well, the nineties in some ways are split into two sections. There are two nineties; there’s the first half up through, starting actually with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind arguably ending when Kurt Cobain killed himself. And then there’s that second half of the nineties. The cliche of the period is that first section. All the things, when we think about the way people dress, the way people act, all of the things that would be in a cartoon about the nineties happened in that first section. And that really is, I suppose, like the vortex of the Gen X sensibility. That the idea that there was something unseemly about being aspirant, an adversarial relationship with commercialism, and selling out in all of these things. By the end of the nineties, that was over. I mean, just using music as the example, again, if you look at ’98, ’99, 2000, when boy bands are coming out, Britney Spears is coming out, a lot of these things that are happening were almost the most overt disposability that you could imagine. But that’s in the nineties too. It’s just that we don’t think of that as nineties thinking.

SEAN SPEER: Okay. You mentioned Nirvana’s album, Nevermind, which looms large in the book. I want to take that up now, if it’s okay. You write, “The video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was not more consequential than the reunification of Germany, but Nevermind is an inflection point where one style of Western culture ends and another begins mostly for reasons only vaguely related to music.” I also love the line, “The legacy of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was not transposable, it had to be this song, delivered by this person.” What was its significance as a cultural marker for the decade? And what do you think, Chuck, was behind its popularity and notoriety?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, the short answer to its popularity is just merit-based, okay? Nevermind is a very good record made by a very talented band. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the best manifestation of what they were doing musically at the time. It was well produced. It was essentially a record with punk aesthetics that was produced like a Metallica or Motley Crue record. So there were people who would’ve never in the past been interested in outsider music who now were, that didn’t seem like outsider music at all. But the real significance of that is non-musical. You can certainly argue that there are 10, 20, 50 records, depending on your taste, that are better than Nevermind. But Nevermind is the shift point from what we think about the ’80s, the idea of like Gordon Gekko, hair metal, the Reagan era, MTV, the real almost distaste for hippie ideology, shows like Family Ties, or a movie like The Big Chill, where these people are dealing with the failure of the ’60s.

And then you get this thing, this record, that comes out. And for all the people who had been uncomfortable with the world that the ’80s seemed to symbolize, they now had something to be like, “Well, this is the artefact that overturns all that. And in fact, it is not just a good record; it is like a microscope into the mind of the modern young person. So everything we do—everything that we sell, everything that we make, everything that we build—has to be understood through this specific person.” And I was recently listening to a podcast that Courtney Love was on, and she was talking about how there was some interest in making “In Bloom” the first single off Nevermind. And she really believed that it’s a superior song, and they should have done that.

Almost everything is different, I think, if that happens. I don’t think that the idea that Kurt Cobain had this exceptional position in the culture occurs if the first thing we hear is a song that sounds the way “In Bloom” sounds. It had to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Now, I could talk for an hour about the specific musical qualities of it that make it that, I think that would be boring to a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s transposable with other songs. I do think that there are some things that aren’t just the right time at the right place. Some things are—they need to be the thing.

SEAN SPEER: I should just say in parentheses, Chuck, that I remember as a young person sitting in the back of my parent’s minivan on long trips listening to a recorded cassette of Nevermind. And as you say, what a break it seemed to represent from the music that my parents listened to at the front of the van.

Let me follow up, though, because as I was reading the book, one thing I wondered is the odd dynamic in which Nirvana, in its form of the youthful grunge genre, defines the decade’s music, but Seinfeld, and its quirky yet mostly observational humour, defines its television. What do you think explains this dichotomy? Or do you disagree that the two are dichotomous?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: That’s a great question because those are two things that don’t seem to have much in common. But remember, rock music, pop music, in general, is a rarity among 20th-century art in that it was the only art ever defined by young people, made for young people. The whole idea is that this is youth music. Pop music is the only thing where the opinion of a 75-year-old critic means less than any 13-year-old. Like, if we’re talking about a new song and you can ask Robert Crisco or you can ask a high school girl, everyone’s going to believe the high school girl. Most art isn’t like that, okay? Television, of course, skews older. Kids watch television, but they watch what’s on or what’s almost a time filler for them. And certainly, in the nineties, music mattered more than television to young people. It’s not that way now, I don’t think.

But Seinfeld had this like a—it was sort of an encapsulation of the dominant form of humour during that period which was post-modern irony, basically. Irony was everything in the nineties from a comedic perspective. That was the only thing that we seemed to understand as funny. And the post-modern aspect of Seinfeld was the constant recognition that this was a TV show we were watching; that on this TV show, they were trying to make a TV show about their life in the TV show. Seinfeld wasn’t about reality. In fact, as the show went on it became more and more absurd.

The show that was probably just as meaningful though over time has been Friends, because Friends was more of a replica. People attempted to make versions of Seinfeld that didn’t really work. I mean, there are many examples of this, but Friends was different. Friends was something that existed almost out of time. I mean, I think it’s very interesting to me that the show Friends was about people in their 20s in the nineties dealing with problems of middle life, between when you leave your family and your friends are more important than your family, and all that. But we don’t see that as having Gen X characteristics because that show is made outside of time.

And as a consequence, a young person can still watch Friends and connect with it in the same way that people did at the time. Because when you watch an episode of Friends, it’s very difficult to know exactly when it’s happening. They make some cultural references. There’s this show episode about Hootie and the Blowfish. There’s an episode where Jean-Claude Van Damme is on. For the most part, it’s impossible to tell. It almost pushed culture more than it pulled at it. People all had haircuts like Jennifer Aniston’s for a while. It wasn’t like Jennifer Aniston’s hair was based on what was happening in the world. So, I mean, those two shows, those two sitcoms played back-to-back on Thursdays, is probably the way to understand nineties television if you’re going to use a real small sampling.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that leads to a question I wasn’t going to put to you, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask it. You write in the book that Friends wouldn’t have made it if Seinfeld wasn’t already around. What do you mean, Chuck?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, I can’t guarantee that it wouldn’t have made it, but there was the idea that Friends in some ways was built off of the Seinfeld model, which is like, “Okay, so it’s set in New York, but even though it’s clearly filmed in LA. Dating is really the core problem, but the B-story is always about the quirks of the characters.” And Seinfeld had become a popular thing in 1994 when Friends came out. And that was during a time, which seems very antiquated now, where the most important thing about any TV show was the show that directly preceded it. I mean, now because we stream things, like my kids have no sense of when a television show is actually on. The idea of waiting for a television show seems absurd to them. They don’t even really understand what—they’re almost like, “What would be the purpose of that?”

And it’s like, “Well, there was no purpose. It’s just the way it was.” You can look through this whole lineage of shows in the nineties, something like Veronica’s Closet. That’s a show that’s on after Seinfeld, and it’s a fourth-most popular show in the country. They move it to Monday, and it disappears. There was a show called The Single Guy, and the idea was almost like, “Well, this is almost a younger Jerry Seinfeld or whatever.” What it cost to buy advertising on that show was massive, even though it wasn’t a fraction as popular as, say, a show like Murder, She Wrote, because there was also the understanding in the nineties that certain audiences mattered more. A young person living in a city was much more important than three people living in suburban Omaha or whatever who were in their 50s. So the relationship between Friends and Seinfeld is pretty strong. It’s not necessarily maybe in how the show feels to someone watching it now, but from a constructive standpoint if you’re in D.C. at the time.

SEAN SPEER: One more question about art and music. You write that Garth Brooks was the biggest musical act of the decade. What’s the legacy of his so-called “Walmart school of business?” Did it influence the future, or was it the last gasp of a pre-internet age in which specialization and niche audiences came to trump Brooks’s volume-based model, which you describe as the “Wonder Bread genius of his generation?’

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Yeah, well, there are two ways to look at this. I mean, one way is to say that Garth Brooks is this bizarre anomaly who was not only the biggest artist of the nineties but the biggest singles artist ever in terms of selling records and moving units. Nobody was bigger than that. I think his least successful record in the nineties was a Christmas album that still went double platinum, I think. And that was his second attempt at a Christmas album. I think there was only one year, maybe two years, in the nineties where he didn’t put a record out. He was very prolific. And yet we don’t think of him as a nineties figure. If we were making, I don’t know, a collage of nineties figures, somebody would be like, “Well, we’ve got to put Eddie Vedder in there before we put in Brooks, or we need to put Liz Phair in there before we’re putting in Garth Brooks.”

So in a sense, it was almost like, because he is very separate from the imposed zeitgeist, what we like to retroactively consider to be what the nineties were like, he is in some ways less significant than he should be. Although, I suppose there’s another school of thought who say, ‘Well, when you look at Spotify now, you have these songs that have these huge listener counts, that their plays are just massive, and these people don’t seem famous at all. It almost seems as though it is just background music. And that the meaning of the artist, what culture that artist comes from matter less.” And maybe you could say, well, that is an extension of the phenomenon in Garth Brooks or whatever. Because there were a lot of people who liked Garth Brooks who did noted associate themselves as being fans of country music. They maybe didn’t have any other country records in their collection.

But they were like, “Well, I like this, and I don’t really care what it means.” I mean, it’s intriguing because there’s—Brooks wrote a song about the LA riots that was pretty sympathetic toward the rioters. And he was pretty forward-thinking thinking progressive on gay rights. In many ways, you would think, “Well, he was going against the conservative underpinnings of how we see country music.” But his audience didn’t mind; he was not seen as being liberal. He was not really seen as being conservative. He didn’t really have any kind of meaning outside of his music. And that in many ways explained his success that people who consumed his work were only consuming the work and did not therefore have to say, “Well, this says something about me.” All it says is, “I like it.”

SEAN SPEER: I should just say, Chuck, as I was preparing for the interview, I was struck by how many Garth Brooks songs I knew, and even the lyrics. And yet I don’t recall spending a lot of time listening to Garth Brooks songs; as you say, it was just part of the background of the decade.

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, I mean, it was the end of the monoculture. And in a monocultural world, that happens. I had written a book—my first book was about heavy metal of the eighties. Bands like Poison and Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, and stuff. And over and over again, people would say, “I didn’t even like any of these bands but I remember all of them.” That is a harder thing to have happened now. I mean, there are TikTok influencers who have millions of followers, but if you’re not a specific follower of them, you’ve never heard of them. And that’s the siloing off of our world, which I’m not necessarily saying is terrible. You can make an argument that it allows people to have more of a personal relationship with these things. But it seems strange because I was so used to the other thing for most of my life.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s turn to politics. I was struck by how much attention you dedicated to the figure of Ross Perot. Why do you think he was such an important political figure, and how much do you think he presaged the rise of unconventional candidates like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: When I was working on this book, that was actually the first essay I wrote. Because I thought to myself, I know I’m going to have to write about politics, and I’ve got to make sure I can do this in a way that is to my standards and the standards of other people. So I was having a lot of conversations about Perot. And what I found was that if I asked someone, “What percentage of the vote did Ross Perot get?” They would often say something like this: “Oh, quite a bit. He did pretty well. I bet he got 5 percent of the vote.” And he got 19 percent of the popular vote. It’s one-fifth of the country, essentially. And that’s really strange. That’s really weird when you think about it. I mean, if a third-party candidate got 19 percent of the vote now, I think that they would be seen as transformative. Like if a figure like Andrew Yang or whatever got 19 percent of the vote, people would be shocked by that.

Now, he was interesting to me because, from a mechanical standpoint, if we look at just the statistics from what people said coming out of the voting booth, essentially half of the people who voted Perot said they would’ve voted for Bush if Perot wasn’t in the race, and half said they would’ve voted for Clinton. So, of course, a lot of mathematicians argue that he actually had no impact on the race. That he split a fifth of the populace, who would’ve bifurcated themselves into the traditional parties had he not been there. But that’s not really accurate because he dramatically changed that race. He was very aggressive toward Bush because—people don’t remember this because they think of Perot just as this figure who was interested in running the country like a business and this common sense economics. But the fact of the matter is he first got in the race because he was upset about the Gulf War and about basically America’s involvement with wars overseas.

But when the Gulf War ended the way it did, seemingly, a super success for Bush, he pivoted to this different kind of person who was against Bush as an idea, and that allowed Clinton to be pretty much only charming. He never had to really go to war with Bush. He could be this young, optimistic person who was like, “I think America can be great for all these different reasons. And I think we just need to shift in this direction.” And you can’t find any content of Bill Clinton attacking George Bush for the Gulf War because, at the time, it was seen as political suicide to criticize a guy for winning a war, but Perot didn’t care. So Perot did that. And I do think that if Perot is not involved in that race, Bush probably does win. And that has a huge cascading effect over time. If Bush wins reelection, it is possible that the Democratic Party’s like, “Well, we’ve got to completely reinvent ourselves.” Okay? And I also think, as weird as this sounds, I think the Republican Party would be less radical if that had happened. But by losing that race, it installed Newt Gingrich as the face of the Right, and that’s when things started to get crazy. So I do think that Ross Perot is a very underrated figure in contemporary political history. Yeah, so that’s what I wrote about.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to Gingrich in a minute. But before we get there, one of the most bizarre things about modern U.S. politics is that we’ve seemed to have gone backwards generationally. If Bill Clinton’s defeat of George H. W. Bush was to usher in a period of generational transition, the prospect of Donald Trump running against Joe Biden in 2024 would be a sign that such a transition not only never happened but it’s seem seemingly been reversed. What do you think explains that, Chuck?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: I think the biggest factor is in a way, non-political, in terms of you talking generations in the sense that a 30-year-old person now lives much closer to what was the previous conception of a 21-year-old. And a 50-year-old person lives in a younger way than a 50-year-old person from, say, our parents’ generation. So the age of Trump and Biden, the number is big, but they’re not the kind of elderly person that we would’ve seen a hundred years prior. But outside of that, I think if you really want to get into the political aspect of this, I think, particularly how the 2000 election was decided—no one likes to say this now because it seems like a reductionist way to argue, but the narrative of going into the 2000 election was that Gore and Bush are essentially identical.

They’re both guys who went to Ivy League schools from political families. Bush would speak Spanish at a Republican debate, and they’d be like, “He’s a compassionate conservative.” Gore was married to Tipper Gore, and Joe Lieberman was his running mate. So it was almost like, “Well, maybe he’s actually the more reactionary guy.” I often reference the fact of like one Rage Against the Machine video, which is just footage of Bush and Gore saying the exact same thing. So it isn’t like this is what the elites thought; it was common for people to think that there was a—the whole idea of like, “Who would you rather have a beer with?” That comes out of that election. Because that was like, “Well, it doesn’t really matter anyways, so which guys just seems comfortable?”

But then the situation happens in Florida is unsettled, who won became impossible to know, the Supreme Court just makes a decision, and then the world became very binary. Because it was almost like American culture got hit in the face by a hammer and said, “Here’s how it is now. There are two sides, and that’s it. There are two opposing sides, and there is no room for this sort of nineties haziness where it’s like, ‘Well, both of those things might be true.'” The nineties were a big cognitive dissonance period where you could have two contradictory ideas in your mind and express them. And it was like, well, that makes you reasonable. That was over. So as we move from 2000 and over the next 23 years, that bifurcation becomes greater and greater, a chasm becomes wider. And the strange deal now is it’s like, sometimes you’ll see someone like Herschel Walker will run for office, and it will just seem insane.

People will be like, “This guy doesn’t believe in evolution or whatever. He doesn’t know anything. It’s like, how could he possibly be a viable Republican candidate?” But the fact of the matter is he’s almost just a voting machine. If there’s a more reasonable, educated Republican in that position, they’re still going to vote the same way Herschel Walker would’ve voted. So the idea of like Biden and Trump, they really are just figureheads for these blocs that are only going to think one way about everything. And that might be why it seems as though the best candidate to run now is just whoever has the highest name recognition. I mean, I’ll have political conversations with people, and they’ll be like, “I think Dwayne Johnson should run. I think The Rock should run.” And then everyone chuckles. And part of me is like, “That might make sense.” Because we’re no longer voting for a person; we’re voting for a list of ideas that that person is going to enforce regardless of how they feel.

SEAN SPEER: You write that the decades’ politics were marked in part by a growing rejection of so-called political correctness. One doesn’t want to be deterministic about these things, but that was arguably part of Newt Gingrich’s appeal in the 1994 congressional elections. Chuck, do you see any parallels today with the rise of so-called wokeism and its own emerging critiques and backlash?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Absolutely. I mean, it seems to happen about every 25 years or so where this occurs, where there are these kind of profound semantic arguments over the meaning of language. Now, it’s a little different now because we’ve moved from this idea of working toward equality to working toward equity, which are much different principles. I don’t think people realize how different those two ideologies are. In the nineties, it was more of an insular academic argument. I mean, there was fear that, “Oh, you can’t say whatever you want now at the office.” There was true. There wasn’t a lot of it though, probably in a quite positive way. There were certain limitations. In media, the limitations were actually loosened, and suddenly you could say things on NYPD Blue or South Park or something you couldn’t have said in the past.

So it was almost as if this idea of political correctness was like a thought experiment. And now it is happening again, but the thought experiment has imbued personality now. But I mean, in both cases, what I did is that it prompts people to see their political philosophy as mostly a rejection of a political philosophy of a person they don’t like. Okay? And it’s not always necessarily that they don’t like that person’s politics, they don’t like that person. They don’t like that type of personality. But if that type of personality holds the political value, well, then it’s like the value becomes the problem. And there was some of that in the nineties as well. But like I said, in the nineties, it was more like, you’re in college, you’re in an English class, you’re debating whether or not boxing should exist or whatever.

It was like these ideas that it was like, “Well, what if they actually spilled into the world?” It was like—that’s actually maybe the best way to describe it. There was this idea, like, “We’re talking about these things, and wouldn’t it be interesting if this actually became part of everyday life?” What is different now is it is part of everyday life for a lot of people, or at least people who are online, which represents another bifurcation. The difference between people who care about what’s going on on social media and the people who don’t.

SEAN SPEER: Talk about Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. How were the 1990s a harbinger of right-wing extremism?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: I guess that’s a tough one in some ways, because certainly he emerges from a kind of right-wing idealism. I mean, he read the Turner Diaries, right? He looked at Ruby Ridge and he looked at Waco, and he was like, the government is in this position where they were basically oppressing—it was just one of those weird things where you could argue he’s to the Right because he went so far Left. He came all the way around, like with his fear of government or whatever. When that happened, there was this initial belief that, ‘Well, it must be Syria who did this.” Like you look at all the news reports from the day it happened. You’d have people on CBS and CNN saying, “Well, this is all the hallmarks of an explosion in Beirut or whatever.

So then turns out it’s this guy used to be in the military. He’s from upstate New York. That’s like, “Wow, this is weird. Is this is the most dangerous person? Somebody who exists in this country and ends up more dangerous than somebody who has an ill will toward the United States as a country from another place?” There’s always a temptation to connect all of these things. You can connect the contemporary protest movement back to the Weatherman and the Black Panthers. You can connect the current right-wing mania to Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh, and all these things through time. I mean, he’s a harbinger of the present, if you believe that.

And a lot of people do. I’m not saying I don’t; I’m just saying that if you’re trying to make this connection, it’s like if you make the mental connection, it exists because all it is a projection, right? It’s not as though people are, I don’t think, like, “I have these political views as a homage to Timothy McVeigh.” I don’t see that expressed. But the things that he feared or hated, or disliked—whatever word you want to use—those things don’t really change. They’re still present.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned in a previous answer today’s online world. You also write in the book that 1995 “seems like the year the future began because of the rise of Netscape Navigator and the early version of the internet.” Why don’t you talk a bit about how it came to influence and shape the decade?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Well, it’s very easy to imagine a future where, when people think about the nineties—I’m saying in a hundred years—and maybe the only thing that they really remember is the internet, and possibly the beginning of cloning. Those might be the two things that become the only memory of this period. Now, what is interesting is that the internet certainly existed in the nineties, but it was so different than the way we think of it now. What we project our present understanding of what the internet is like onto what we assume the dominant mindset must have been. So you mentioned 1995. Okay? So Amazon starts that year, but they’re only selling books. Craiglist starts that year. We had no idea that that was going to devastate the newspaper industry. It did, but that was just like an epiphenomenal effect of it. I mean, it wasn’t like his intention. Search engines and the ability to search starts changing.

But a lot of the things that we think about the internet now, if you ask someone, if you were to ask your listenership, it’s like, “What are problems with the internet?” They would give you this list. And what they would really be doing is giving you a list of problems with social media, which didn’t really exist in the ’90s. And that is like a—you could still be a person in 1999 who wasn’t on the internet, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, I was working in media, so of course I was more involved with it, but there was a long period where it was like, “Oh yeah, I use the internet. It’s great for fantasy football. It’s great for driving directions. Unlimited pornography. You can find a recipe for chicken parmesan real fast.” The idea that it would both connect people and make them more alienated at the same time, that was something that people said but not really felt. So what is important to me about the internet’s relationship to the nineties is that it’s both over and underrated. It is the single most important thing that happened but did not affect the period as much as we now imagine or pretend.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penltimate question. How should we think about the decade in hindsight? Was it an era of fleeting optimism, or a precursor to many of the challenges that we faced in the subsequent two decades?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: I mean, this seems like uncool answer, but I don’t think there is a right way to think about the past; I don’t. I’m saying about any decade. I don’t think there is a way that we should think about the fifties. My thing is always I want our thinking to be accurate. Okay? The way the nineties felt at the time, at least to me—so I’ll, here again, I can’t speak for every person in the world, but from my perspective, trying to be as objective as possible, was that the world is slightly underwhelming. It doesn’t seem as though the future is what the future was imagined, say, in the seventies. There was a security in that, but you’re not always conscious of security until it goes, right? I mean, that is the big thing about 911 or whatever.

It’s hard to get back to the mindset that it didn’t even really occur to people that America could be attacked by an outside source. It was like, “Well, it happened at Pearl Harbor, and that was the last time the—” So the security that existed in the nineties was unconsidered, right? I think this is maybe a better way to answer your question. When we think about the nineties and we think about what was positive about it, in a weird way, many of the upsides were things that were just not considered. They were just not talked about. They did not seem to be on the table. Whereas now many things seem on the table that in the past would’ve been, I don’t know, a fantastical idea or something you’d seen in alternative fiction or whatever.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. Final question: what’s your favourite story, anecdote, or insight in the book?

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Oh, I don’t know if this is my favourite, but this is one that I think is interesting because it just shows the way marketing operates and the way marketing operated at the time. There was a strange mania over clear beverages. Zima being clear, basically a clear version of Coors that tasted a little bit like Champagne and Sprite. And then no one had really asked for clear beer. I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “The thing I don’t like about beer is that it’s too hard to see through. It’s not transcluscent.” But then it comes out and people are interested. It seems futuristic. Then came Crystal Pepsi, which was exactly like Pepsi except clear. There was absolutely no difference. The taste in fact was identical. What was weird is that tasted different to people because your mind projects what they expect.

But Crystal Pepsi exists, and for one year, it does really well; it launches during the Super Bowl. The ad is based off of a Van Halen video, and it looks just like the video. Exactly like the video. They’re interchangeable. It does very well. So Coke sees Crystal Pepsi, and they’re like, “Well, how can we deal with this?” And they have an idea. We have this product called Tab, which is the first diet beverage, and no one likes it. It has a terrible aftertaste. It’s completely replaced by Diet Coke and all of these other things. It’s like Tab is the least popular beverage that Coke has. So they make a clear version of it, knowing that if they make a clear version of Tab in a store, it’s going to be placed next to Crystal Pepsi. They’re going to put the clear beverages next to each other, and people are going to think Crystal Pepsi must be like Tab, and people hate Tab.

So both of the products fail, on purpose. Like Coke consciously kamikazed Crystal Pepsi by making a drink that was even worse, knowing that the consumer would see that terrible beverage as associated with the thing that they may have wanted. And I just think that that is like in some ways— it’s like you talk about I say how irony was the only way we understood anything. Even in marketing, we need to do an ironic form of marketing. We need to make something so terrible that it will infect things that are just placed next to it at the store. That’s a very nineties thing.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that’s merely one example of the tremendous depth and insights reflected in the book, The Nineties. We’ve only scratched the service in this conversation, but I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. Chuck Klosterman, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

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