Chuck Klosterman weighs in on Nirvana, the Internet and the ‘ecstatic complacency’ that defined the ’90s

Chuck Klosterman, a former staff writer for Spin, Esquire and the New York Times Magazine, takes an amusing and informed look back at that distinct decade in his new essay collection “The Nineties.” If, like him, you came of age during the “end of history,” you might find Klosterman’s fair-minded discussion of Ross Perot’s unexpectedly significant 1992 third-party candidacy and the still-very-strange story of the 2000 presidential election a useful reminder of where our current divisions began to take root.

If, like me, you were born during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term and are thus too young to be a member of Generation X and too old to be a proper millennial, these essays will vividly bring back some of what we are the last generation to remember. The buzzing static of a dial-up modem, the collective apprehension at the ubiquity of the Internet, having to be at a specific place and time to have a phone call or watch a television show, and knowing exactly where you were when you first heard the words “white Bronco.” Klosterman’s appraisal of the ’90s’ legacy, while limited in some ways (there could have been more about hip-hop, for example, which Klosterman admits), is an engaging, nuanced and literate take on the alternately dynamic and diffident decade.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you want to write a book about the ’90s?

A: I was 18 at the start of the ‘90s, so the decade obviously meant a lot to my life. One of my previous books, “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” was in large part about how I specifically experienced the ‘90s. This book uses a different, less subjective approach. I spent a lot of time thinking about the way that moving through time used to feel like traveling down a straight road and observing what passes as you go. Now I think that experience is more like wading into a vast, shallow ocean where anyone can dip their bucket in and get whatever they want.

Q: At one point, you write “people inject their current worldviews into whatever they imagine to be the previous version of themselves. There is no objective way to prove that This Is How Life Was. It can only be subjectively argued that This Is How Life Seemed. And this is how life seemed: ecstatically complacent.” Can you explain more about this?

A: Ecstatic complacency, to me, was the unspoken desire to not reflexively engage with any life outside of the one you already had and to focus on the projected interiority of your own existence. I realize that sounds pejorative, but in the ‘90s there was an acceptance that, within certain limitations, you could be who you wanted to be, separate from the rest of society.

People might see this as depressing, but there was also a sense that you had more mental autonomy, and that your thoughts were your own, even if your options were limited. Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t really a Gen X figure but he had a line from a 1991 song that was accidentally relevant: “I don’t want to change the world, and I don’t want the world to change me.” In the ‘90s there was this constant worry about the acceleration of culture and an abstract fear of being force-fed everything.

Q: There’s a line where you point out a very ‘90s attitude: “I think I should feel guilty for enjoying something that I don’t actually care about.” I think people like Kurt Cobain really balked at the idea of mainstream success.

A: Well, on the surface, sure. That was his whole thing. Part of what you’re describing was called the New Sincerity – the idea that it started to feel weird to glorify people who didn’t seem care. I mean, was it somehow problematic to reward a sardonic band like Pavement for making fun of an earnest band like Smashing Pumpkins? It sounds strange to us now, but we all knew what was happening in that “Beavis & Butthead” episode where they watched a Pavement video and Beavis kept shouting “Try! Try!” at the TV.

I think Cobain probably wanted to have it both ways: He wanted to be successful and significant, but he also wanted to exist outside mainstream culture. And that was essentially impossible. And then there was a cultural switch later in the decade, where the attitude shifted toward an acceptance of the mainstream, and people were comfortable enjoying things like boy bands without that fandom having to reflect anything important about one’s own integrity.

It’s a little paradoxical: Once the monoculture evaporates, people become more interested in the handful of things that are still mega-popular. Right now, there’s an amplified media fixation on the small handful of artists who are so massive that everyone knows who they are. I used to say that I liked Poison more than Husker Du, and that was considered a shocking critical stance. Now people tend to think “Well, what everyone else likes is what you should be liking, precisely because it’s popular.”

Q: Having been born in the early ‘80s, I think that people like me fall through the cracks, generation-wise. We were too young to be Gen Xers and too old to be millennials. We’re the last generation to really remember a time before the Internet, who cast their first presidential votes in the chaotic 2000 election and were young adults during 9/11. You allude to this in the book. Can you say more about that?

A: It’s normal to feel like the specific alleged traits of a generation don’t apply to you — it’s like astrology. If you don’t believe in astrology, the concept that all people born in the same month are inherently similar seems insane.

But it wasn’t just the introduction of the Internet that changed everything. It was the sudden philosophical ubiquity of it, launched from an inception point where it initially didn’t matter at all. When I was in college, I knew two people who had email, and all they did was send images of the Batman logo back and forth. It seemed totally impractical. In 1994, I was working for a newspaper and the editors actively didn’t want the newsroom to get the Internet. They didn’t see it as practical. What I tried to capture with this book is that strange window of time where the dissonance between the way things were and the way things are now was invented.

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has appeared in the Baffler, the Guardian, the New Yorker and elsewhere.

Penguin Press. 384 pp. $28

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