Great Books

What We Forgot About the ’90s Is More Interesting Than What We Remember

Chuck Klosterman's new book on the most misunderstood decade will shock you with details you forgot.

Originally Published: 
American rapper, songwriter, and actor Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), poses for a portrait during the 199...
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The nineties aren’t what they used to be. Or rather, thanks to the internet, we tend to not remember the ’90s as they actually occurred. The difference between reading a book about this decade and scrolling through BuzzFeed lists is striking: The ’90s the internet has constructed for us isn’t exactly the same one that we all lived through.

As one of the best and smartest cultural critics of all time, author Chuck Klosterman knows this, but the difference between him and most of us is that he tried to answer the basic question of why.

Why does the ’90s feel like the end of history? Why does it feel like both the last and first decade of the internet age, simultaneously? Why do we feel like the ’90s were the most cynical time for American culture, but also the last decade of hope? In his new book The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman attempts to answer these questions by walking us through a variety of fascinating cultural paradoxes. The result is a book that you’ll read in about two days, but then want to re-read to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Through it all, Klosterman makes one thing fairly clear: Our memories will play tricks on us every single time, and how you feel about a moment in time is slippery, especially if you lived through it and used VHS tapes to record everything. If you grew up in the ’90s, this book will challenge a lot of what you think you know about your “youth,” but also make you take stock in the variety of parallel experiences. It’s a book that is arguably the opposite of internet consumption habits, which is what makes it great.

However, since I’m writing about this book for the internet, you may need additional persuasion to read it. I am not LeVar Burton and you cannot take my word for it, entirely. And so, to give you a taste of why Klosterman’s The Nineties is so great, here are five things you’ve surely forgotten about the ’90s that this book will shock you into remembering.

Michael Jordan’s baseball career happened during a strike

Talking about Michael Jordan’s basketball career is easy. Talking about his brief baseball career is hard. In the chapter “Three True Outcomes,” Klosterman dives into the hows and whys of Jordan’s brief moment as a minor-league baseball player. Klosterman says that Jordan’s decision to play baseball is “harder to reconcile” than Jordan’s (brief) 1993 retirement from the NBA. And, although Klosterman didn’t forget this, it’s a good bet that many casual Jordan fans have overlooked one shocking detail of this period. In 1994, there was a massive strike in professional baseball. And, as Klosterman argues in this chapter, that strike really redefined baseball, forever. The fact that Jordan was in the mix of all that just makes it even weirder. You literally cannot imagine something like this happening again.

Tupac wasn’t from Los Angeles

Although Tupac Shakur would forever define West Coast rap in the 1990s, he was not, in fact, from LA in any way, shape, or form. As Klosterman illuminates in the chapter “I See Death Around the Corner,” Tupac was from Harlem and went to the Baltimore College for the Arts. “He acted in Shakespeare plays, studied ballet, and wrote poetry,” Klosterman points out. Tupac’s image, later, to many who knew him, was seen as a false persona. This doesn’t detract from Tupac’s excellent albums. However, because most believe he was killed over East-West rivalry, it’s bizarre to think that his kind of allegiance wasn’t even remotely connected to his background.

Video stores basically only existed in the ’90s

Although the first Blockbuster video opened in 1985, Klosterman effectively argues that the heyday of the video store was in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, the idea that an average person could become an armchair expert on random indie movies was basically impossible. In the chapter called “The Movie Was About a Movie,” Klosterman talks about the ways that video stores democratized the movie-watching experience. The flip side of this, of course, is that after video stores began to fade away in the early 2000s, a brief, somewhat self-determined period of movie-watching vanished. He doesn’t say this outright, but after the early version of Netflix allowed you to rent anything you wanted, as long as you could wait, some of the inherent randomnesses of video stores vanished. Once we could get anything we wanted with movies, basically, we ended up getting less.

Ross Perot was a bigger deal than you remember

In the Chapter “Nineteen Percent,” Klosterman goes hard on trying to figure out why nearly 20 percent of the American public voted for Ross Perot in the 1992 Presidential election. This chapter is fantastic, but the one factoid everyone probably forgot is the moment when Perot totally dropped out of the race. Again. Try to imagine this happening now: Not only are third-party candidates basically a punchline in terms of impact, nobody can imagine a major candidate for President dropping out and then making a massive impact on the actual election.

CDs were important — but not the way you think

Kids today might view the CD as a joke, but in many ways, the rise of the compact disc is the defining feature of the 1990s. However, what you may have quickly forgotten is just how expensive CDs were. Unlike cassettes, or, arguably, even vinyl records, the early and mid-’90s explosion of CDs was a very mixed bag. As Klosterman points out in the chapter “CTRL+ALT+DELETE,” when the average price of CDs shot up to roughly $17 bucks a pop, record labels claimed the reason was that CDs could hold a lot more data. As Klosterman writes, “This was an upside that often became a downside.” Suddenly, CDs were not only more expensive but also, perhaps, over-stuffed.

We don’t tend to think of the 1990s as the decade of excess, but oddly, CDs accidentally predicted the newer digital age of music consumption defined by minimalism. In the ’90s, albums were bigger than ever. But, by the 2000s, the idea of an album would be almost totally extinct.

If you’re interested in thinking hard about the ’90s, including many pages on the film Reality Bites, you owe it to yourself to get Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties: A Book. It will make you love the ’90s more, for sure. But, just like Neo questioned his reality in the 1999 film The Matrix, this book might make you wonder if recent history is really just a funhouse mirror being distorted by the internet.

Snag a copy of The Nineties: A Book, right here.

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