Saturday, January 6, 2024

Chuck Klosterman takes us back to what the 1990s means, Part 2

Chuck Klosterman has become one of the icons of contemporary pop-culture commentary. His latest, The Nineties
is an essential overview to a decade worth remembering through his eyes. Here are some of my favorite takes from the second half of the book. You can also read my takeaways from the first half.
  • “What seems weird now didn’t seem weird then … for example, that Pauly Shore spent much of the nineties as a bankable movie star.” All five of his move viewed today are “astoundingly insipid.” At the time, The Weasel hitting it huge was just what it was, it made sense somehow.
  • Presidents, like Shore, were also celebrities. In fact, they are always guaranteed to be celebrities, no matter how lacking their accomplishments might be, for all time. Day-to-day policy-related news the presidents make is largely forgotten in the future as people come to only remember, perhaps illogically, the men themselves. Bill Clinton, for example, will always be remembered as a serial adulterer, primarily for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. People who didn’t live through the nineties will never embrace him, especially in the post-#MeToo era. Another way he might be remembered is his embrace of centrism, which could be seen as setting the scene “for pretty much every dilemma of the twenty-first century (including the election of Donald Trump).” Part of Clinton’s centrism came from his consultant Dick Morris, who polled Americans and really only cared what undecided voters in those polls said, all the while keeping Clinton very close to those answers as part of their “Bridge to the 21st Century” messaging.
  • American Beauty was highly acclaimed as the best, Oscar-dominating film of 1999, but it no longer holds up in terms of content. Kevin Spacey plays a middle-aged suburbanite who fantasizes after his daughter’s 16-year-old best friend. This is taken to be a standard fantasy of married men at the time. Meanwhile, his wife, played by Annette Bening, is seen as cold for having an extramarital affair. The problems loudly examined in the film are “micro-concerns” at best for today’s younger audiences and it’s probably “the last time in history such problems would be considered worthy of contemplation.”
  • The Y2K problem that fascinated people throughout 1999 was based on a theory that was posted on a digital message board in 1985. People and the press were so frenzied that people truly thought elevators would start dropping through their chutes, for example, and the federal government updated their computers at a cost of $8.5 billion. Some ended up saying it was an example of preventative science doing the best possible job, but it’s tough to tell if there really ever was any type of real threat.
  • Looking back at the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the three events had terrible ratings and Gore kind of looked like the loser in hindsight. While Bush could barely express cogent thoughts on the topics, Gore’s sighing and grimaces and condescension at Bush’s clear idiocy made him look like a jerk while Bush came off looking ok to the low-brow masses. The announcement of an old arrest for drunk driving just a week before the election didn’t even stop people from preferring to have a beer with Bush than with Gore, according to a survey taken at that time by the Sam Adams beer company.
  • To recall just how close the Gore-Bush election was (although Al Gore did win the popular vote by a half a million): if just 1 percent of the people who voted for third-party candidate Ralph Nader in Florida - just in one state, Florida - the Supreme Court chaos would have never happened and Gore would have simply won.
  • Klosterman ends his book by looking at the headlines on September 10, 2001 and noting how markets all had their own news and journalism. Sure, there were some overlapping stories - such as the previous day’s NFL scores, the latest from the Chandra Levy murder, a suicide bomber in Israel - but there were still no viral stories or trending celebrities. “The world was big. The country was still vast. You could just be a little person, with your own little life and your own little thoughts. You didn’t have to have an opinion, and nobody cares if you did or did not.”
  • The next morning, as papers arrived on people’s doorsteps at the same time as 19 men passed through airport security at four airports with box cutters and the eventual result of killing 2,977 people … “the nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”
This is a very entertaining book, and enough time has now passed since the decade that most of us have probably largely forgotten the events or at least they have become somewhat blurrier. So it’s partly a nostalgia trip, but also a substantial contribution to placing the 1990s in context as the end of a fairly long era, mainly due to massive technological change in mass communications.

5 out of 5 stars

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