Sunday, February 12, 2023

Chuck Klosterman takes us back to what the 1990s means, Part 1

Chuck Klosterman has become one of the icons of contemporary pop-culture commentary. His latest, The Nineties, is an essential and fairly massive tome to a decade worth remembering through his eyes. Here are some of my favorite takes from the first half of the book. To be continued here after I read the rest ...
  • It was perhaps the last decade in history “when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional.”
  • The worst thing you could be was a sellout and you needed to be some kind of your own brand of cool.
  • Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, and Nirvana's Nevermind came together to form the general representation of young people in the 90s.
  • “It was a confusing time to care about things.” In Reality Bites, Gen Xers mostly wanted Winona Ryder to pick toxically masculine Ethan Hawke over beta male Ben Stiller, a choice that would have been reversed just about any other time in history. This was again a product of this time-specific fear of selling out.
  • Every generation is assigned a character. A difference for young people of the 90s is that it bothered them less than other generations.
  • Writers of their decade David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest, Elizabeth Wirtzel of Prozac Nation, and Jon Leyner have mixed bodies of work, “as is the memory of why it mattered.”
  • Grunge was the most morbid genre in pop history, with too-early deaths by Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, Mia Zapatista of the Gits, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, Chris Cornell, and now Mark Lanegan and Van Conner of Screaming Trees.
  • While the movie Kids introduced a way of looking at teens as they possibly actually are and In the Company of Men looked at toxic males as they possibly are, Pulp Fiction kicked Natural Born Killers’ butt in helping define where the movies were at (the result of video store nerd and movie expert Quentin Tarantino) in the decade.
  • In the lengthy section (fittingly) on the rise of the Internet and the dawn of portable phones, it's interesting to note that area codes originated in a way so the densest areas had the lowest numerical area codes so all those people situated in the region wouldn't get such sore fingers from dialing high numbers on the rotary phone dial.
  • People were always findable before the internet. In fact, phone customers were charged a monthly fee if they didn’t want their home numbers listed in the phone book.
  • The X Files in the ‘90s truly mainstreamed conspiracy theories, with many viewers identifying with Mulder’s want and need to believe. Conspiracy theorists began to think of themselves as curious, open-minded, and normal.
  • Michael Jordan’s habit of sticking his tongue out was because his father’s tongue used to stick out when he was at work fixing car engines.
  • In the 90s, there were some who thought dumbness was smart, like the creators of Zima and Pepsi Crystal.
  • The 90s ushered in “new country” music when Billy Ray Cyrus hit big with the awful “Achy Breaky Heart.” Then Garth Brooks ruled the decade and had completely inoffensive stadium tunes that championed working class and gay people and never talked down to anyone or irritated anyone. Think of how far Top 40 has come since then, when it’s ruled by divisive racists like Morgan Wallen.
  • The reason Seinfeld’s characters could pitch a show (within their own show, very meta) about nothing was very insightful. Think of all the shows, like Room for Two and Major Dad, that pulled in millions of viewers but have completely and rightfully been forgotten. George Costanza was correct, people would watch their show because it was “on TV.” By the 90s, TV was an appliance designed to waste peoples’ time and distract. Much of pop culture, like Garth Brooks from music, was working the same. The popular stuff doesn’t even merit an historical footnote. The same can almost be said about Friends. The characters weren’t particularly cool, and maybe not even that memorable, but the show was obviously monumentally popular.
  • Part of the country’s obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial was that he was obviously guilty but we wanted to see if his Dream Team of lawyers could get him off the hook.
  • MSNBC and FOX News launched a mere 12 months after the Simpson debacle. Nobody much took FOX seriously because it was clearly partisan from the start. MSNBC, on the other hand, was taken seriously, as a new kind of news that merged Microsoft’s grasp of the internet with NBC’s expertise in broadcast news. It was only later that MSNBC became the polar opposite of FOX, as the home of Democrat talking points. We were slowly learning that viewers of these channels watched purely for entertainment and emotional reassurance and didn’t want to hear things that were different from their own beliefs.

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