Icebreaker with…90s author Chuck Klosterman
OJ. The real world. Really slow internet. The 1990s feels like a different universe, but at the same time so relatable.
But what was it really like to live in the 90s? Writer Chuck Klosterman has spent his pandemic trying to unravel this. In his new book, The ninetiesKlosterman takes readers on an energetic tour of what could be the last decade that actually felt like a decade.
We talked to Chuck from the 90s.
Why were so many 90s sitcoms set in cafes?
In the 70s and 80s, there was this archetypal singles bar. There was this show called company of threeand 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.
This idea became an inappropriate cliché in the 90s. I think the idea of a café was a less loaded and less sexualized version of club culture. And part of that had to do with Starbucks becoming this meaningful thing that you could find anywhere and succeed anywhere. It became indicative of how a young person lived. What’s interesting about a show like Friends, for example, is that apart from the two main apartments, the cafe is the main setting. And what’s intriguing about the Central Perk cafe on this show is that it’s unlike any normal cafe that has ever existed. It’s not a chain, it’s not cool, it’s pretty big, it seems to work from this idea that a cafe is just a restaurant without a lot of food. There is no secondary meaning to this. If they make it a Starbucks, then there’s this corporate violation message. If they make it super cool, then the characters become super cool, and that’s another thing too because they’re trying to make a show that’s really relatable. So what they did was create this cafe that didn’t exist in the 90s, or in New York, or anywhere at any time. This is the most generic idea of a cafe, so you can put a TV show there because it can have whatever 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 cinema, and it was believed that it would become the center of film culture, because in the 70s directors ruled the film industry and the medium was the medium of ‘a director. You go into the 80s and it becomes more of a producer’s medium. Movies were being made by people asking, “What is a successful formula, who are bankable stars, how much money are we spending to ensure that even if everything goes wrong, we will reach the threshold of profitability?
The 90s come and there is this sudden realization that you can make a movie with credit cards; that you can make a movie for less than $25,000 and not only can you make that movie, but thanks to technology it will look as good as a studio movie, or at least come close. And it will be taken not only as seriously as a studio movie, but in many ways more seriously. So it looked like the movie was going to go back to where it was in the 70s…until Titanic came out of.
Titanic had a $200 million budget at a time when having a $100 million budget was considered a huge gamble. And it was three hours long, so theaters can only play it once a night. There’s no way this movie will make money, it will be this cataclysmic failure. But it was huge in a way that no one saw coming, not even James Cameron. And that brought film culture back to where it was in the 1980s to some extent. And that’s where we start to see the idea of a Marvel universe, and the practicality of making the kind of movies that are mostly about cinematic architecture: world-building, the fact that we understand everything what we need to know about the character and villain the first time they’re introduced.
Was there a particular moment from the 90s that you enjoyed reliving while researching this book?
I wrote this book in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, so my kids were both home because the schools were closed, and what I would do is get up at five in the morning and I’d go out to my office and write for five o’clock, then at 10 o’clock I’d come home and do some 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 keep up with the news, and it was disenchanting to exist within, so for me almost every part of the 1990s that I looked back at was more reassuring and happier than the reality I was living.
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What is the hardest thing about writing a book? (Editor’s note: Chuck asked himself the question during our interview.)
You’re supposed to say the actual writing, or the research, or the editing, but for me the hardest part is staying the person I am after the book comes out, because the book will never evolve. So if someone comes back and reads [my previous books] they basically engage with a 29-year-old version of me that I have very little relationship with.
And yet, it’s not as if it were false, it was totally real when I wrote it, and I just kind of have to understand that I can’t change my job. 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 a stranger to me.
It’s like people are digging through your old tweets.
I guess this would be the most modern version of it. One thing that social media is absolutely going to do is make it harder for people to grow intellectually. Suppose you are a progressive and successful young politician. You may become more pragmatic later in life or realize that some of your ideas were good in theory but impossible in practice. And normally it would show your maturation as a public intellectual. But now people will be able to go back and see the things you tweeted when you were in your twenties, and it’s going to make you look like a hypocrite. So what you’re going to see now are political figures that don’t change over time. You’re going to see people who basically exist at 50 with exactly the same mindset they had at 19. And I think that’s going to be difficult for a lot of people who are going through this life, because they’re just going to have to accept that they’re not going to be in a position where they can erase the misconceptions that they once had.
could pulp Fiction were made today?
The exact movie? No. The language would be a problem, first of all.
We are moving more and more into a world where everything is partially retro but nothing from the past can be perfectly reproduced. In other words, any movie, any book, and TV show, really any type of public persona a celebrity might express, are all retro versions of things that have happened before. . But at the same time, it has to be that kind of collective gumbo of ideas. It cannot be a simple retelling of an idea, because any old idea is now considered problematic. Yes pulp Fiction were made today, what you would kind of see is a version of pulp Fiction which could also air on CBS. It would be similar, but all the things that made it surprising and repulsive at the time would fade away.
Let’s say the US government has tasked you with creating a time capsule from the 90s for our future alien overlords. What would you put in it?
It’s a great question you ask, but not because I have a great answer. Because I realize it’s not necessary. Everything from the 90s still exists, we haven’t got rid of it. We don’t need a time capsule, because we live in this perpetual now world, where everything that has ever existed still exists to some degree for us, except for the things that we have literally forgotten. The 90s time capsule is probably the world we live in – we just open it every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.