OJ. The Real World. Really slow internet. The 1990s feels like a different universe, yet at the same time so relatable.
But what was it actually like to live through the ’90s? Writer Chuck Klosterman spent his pandemic trying to tease that out. In his new book of him, The NinetiesKlosterman takes readers on an energetic tour of what might be the last decade that actually felt like a decline.
We talked to Chuck about the ’90s.
Why were so many ’90s sitcoms set in coffee shops?
In the ’70s and the ’80s there had been this archetype of the singles bar. There was this show called Three’s Companyand when they weren’t in their apartments they were at this local bar called the Regal Beagle, and it was the idea of a club or a bar where single people go to meet other people.
That idea became an unseemly cliche by the ’90s. I think the idea of a coffee shop was a less-charged, less-sexualized version of club culture. And some of it had to do with the fact that Starbucks became this meaningful thing that you could find anywhere and was successful anywhere. That became indicative of how a young person lived. What is interesting about a show like friends, for example, is that outside of the two main apartments, the coffee shop is the main set piece. And what is intriguing about the Central Perk coffee shop in that show is that it is unlike any normal coffee shop that has ever existed. It’s not a chain, it’s not cool, it’s pretty big, it seems to operate from this idea that a coffee shop is just a restaurant without much food. There’s no secondary meaning to it. If they make it a Starbucks, then there’s this message about corporate infringement. If they make it super cool, then the characters become super cool, and that’s a different thing too because they’re trying to make a show that’s really relatable. So what they did was create this coffee shop that didn’t exist in the ’90s, or in New York, or any place at any time. It is the most generic idea of a coffee shop, so you can set a TV show there because it can have any meaning you want.
Could the Marvel Cinematic Universe have happened in the ’90s?
The first half of the ’90s had really been dominated by independent film, and there was a belief that this was going to become the center of film culture, because in the ’70s directors ran the movie business and the medium was a director’s medium. You move to the ’80s and it becomes more of a producer’s medium. Movies were being made by people who asked, “What is a formula that succeeds, who are bankable stars, how much money do we spend to guarantee that even if everything goes wrong we’ll break even?”
The ’90s come in and there’s this sudden realization that you can make a movie on credit cards; that you can make a movie for under $25,000 and not only can you make that movie, but because of technology it will look as good as a studio film, or at least close to it. And it will be taken not just as seriously as a studio film, but in many ways more seriously. So it seemed as though film was going to move back toward the place it had been in the ’70s…until titanica came out.
titanica had a $200 million budget in a period where having a $100 million budget was considered a huge gamble. And it was three hours long, so movie theaters can only play it once a night. There’s no way this movie’s going to make money, it’s going to be this cataclysmic failure. But it was massive in a way that no one saw coming—not even James Cameron. And that shifted movie culture back toward where it had been in the 1980s to some degree. And that is the inception of where we start seeing the idea of a Marvel universe, and the practicality of making the kind of films that are mostly about cinematic architecture: the building of the world, the fact that we understand everything we need to know about the character and the villain the first time they’re introduced.
Was there any particular moment of the ’90s that you enjoyed reliving as you were researching this book?
I wrote this book during the heart of the pandemic in 2020, so my kids were both at home because schools were closed, and what I would do is I would get up five in the morning and I would go out to my office and write for five hours, and then at 10 o’clock I would come in and do family stuff. So I had five hours a day to enter a portal and go back in time, away from the worst social period of my life. Like, 2020 was a terrible year, and it was terrible to follow the news, and it was disenchanting to exist within, so for me almost every part of the 1990s I reexamined was more reassuring and happier than the reality I was living.
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What’s the hardest part about writing a book? (Editor’s note: Chuck asked himself this during our interview.)
You’re supposed to say the actual writing, or the research, or the editing, but for me the hardest part is remaining the person that I am after the book comes out, because the book will never evolve. So if somebody goes back and reads [my previous books] they are essentially engaging with a 29-year-old version of me that I have very little relationship to anymore.
And yet, it’s not like it’s fake, that was completely real when I wrote it, and I just have to sort of understand that I don’t get to have my work change. And the more I change, the more uncomfortable I’m going to be, but at the same time I don’t want to stop changing as a person. So I just have to accept the fact that the person who wrote my first book is now an alien to me.
It’s like people rummaging through your old tweets.
I guess that would be the most modern version of it. One thing that social media is absolutely going to do is make it more difficult for people to evolve intellectually. Say you’re a young, successful, progressive politician—there might be a situation later in your life when you become more of a pragmatist naturally, or you understand that some of the ideas you had were good in theory but impossible in practice. And normally that would show your maturation as a sort of public intellectual. But now people will be able to go back and see the things you tweeted when you were in your 20s, and it’s going to seem as though you are hypocritical. So what you’re going to see now is political figures who do not change over time. You’re going to see people who basically exist as a 50 year old with the exact same mindset they had when they were 19. And I think that’s going to be difficult for a lot of people who pursue that life, because they’re just going to have to accept that they are not going to be in a position where they can erase wrong ideas they once had.
could pulp fiction have been made today?
The exact movie? No. The language would be a problem, first of all.
We are increasingly moving into a world where everything is partially retro but nothing from the past can be perfectly replicated. In other words, any movie, any book, and TV show, really any kind of public person that a celebrity might express, are all some retro versions of things that have happened before. But at the same time it has to be this kind of collective gumbo of ideas. It can’t be a straightforward retelling of any idea because any old idea now is seen as problematic. If pulp fiction were made today, what you’d kind of see is a version of pulp fiction that could also be shown on CBS. It would be similar, but all the things that made it surprising and repulsive at the time would whittled away.
Let’s say the US government put you in charge of creating a time capsule of the ’90s for our future alien overlords. What would you put in it?
This is a great question you’re asking, but not because I have some great answer. Because I’m realizing that it’s not necessary. Everything from the ’90s does still exist, we haven’t gotten rid of any of it. We don’t need a time capsule, because we live in this world of perpetual now, where everything that has ever existed still to some degree exists for us, except for the things that we’ve literally forgotten. The time capsule of the ’90s is probably the world we’re living in—we’re just opening it every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.