Opinion

From slacker to sellout: my ’90s salad days

The other morning I was driving my son to soccer practice and trying to avoid the subject of my 50th birthday when Pearl Jam, a favourite band from my university years — one of the pioneers of the Seattle grunge scene and pillars of the ’90s — came on the radio. It was, to my chagrin, the Classic Rock station.

How did that get there, I thought to myself? Later that day, I checked the post and the insult was compounded: I’d received a membership form from the American Association for Retired People.

It was all confirmation that the ’90s, formative years that so long felt to me as though they were just over my shoulder, were, in fact, well and truly in the past and even capable of now being evaluated as such. Chuck Klosterman, the prolific author and cultural critic — who is also turning 50 this year — has done just that in a new book, The Nineties.

In retrospect, he writes, this fin de siècle seems like a period “when the world was starting to go crazy, but not so crazy that it was unmanageable or irreparable”.

The internet-straddling ’90s are, to me, a period of lasts. It was the last time I would handwrite school papers. Only one student in my university dorm had a laser printer. If he was not feeling charitable, you had to go to a separate computer lab and appeal to the surly forerunners of today’s tech support for help printing a document. It was the last time music would be physically contained on cassette tapes you fast-forwarded through and rewound with a twitchy finger. It was the beginning and end of a unipolar world with America at its centre, and a mirage of security. It was the last era of appointment television viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons.

My most ’90s experience was a summer I spent in then-sleepy Austin, Texas in a rented house with friends after my sophomore year of university. Why Austin? Because it was then the capital of Slackerdom and — alongside Seattle and Portland — a cultural node of the ’90s. We got counter jobs at restaurants and bars which, it turned out, were absurdly difficult to come by because everyone else wanted to be a Slacker, too. I recall interviewing at the Smoothie King shoppe and feeling as though I needed to be a legacy to win admission.

I eventually got a job at a restaurant with live music where much of the staff was high at any given moment. (This may have also been the last era in which students did not need a summer internship.) The pay was lousy but you could eat for free all over town through an informal system in which restaurant folks gave other restaurant folks free food and drinks. (I’m not sure the owners were party to this bargain.)

We went to clubs and listened to grunge bands and throttled each other in mosh pits. Even at the time, I wondered why we did this. Without social media, we haunted coffee shops, where we read a bit, and looked at girls we would never actually talk to.

Within me, a spiritual crisis was brewing: I was torn between what I would do after graduating and the desperate desire not to “sell out.” As Klosterman writes: “The worst thing you could be was a sell out, and not because selling out involved money. Selling out meant you needed to be popular, and any explicit desire for approval was enough to prove you were terrible.”

At least once a year I still wince at the memory of an encounter with a university friend’s adult neighbour. “What are you planning to do when you graduate?” the courteous gentleman asked me after we were introduced. “I don’t know — probably sell out and go to law school,” I replied. “Oh, I’m a lawyer,” he informed me.

Eventually, I made my way to New York, and as the decade progressed, the notion of “selling out” would change. A friend-of-a-friend was an internet pioneer and became legendary in our circle for selling a start-up for $7mn — a sum that now sounds quaint. Selling out has long since become “cashing in” or “monetising” — a most glorious life event. The authenticity I sanctimoniously strived for in my 20s is now reserved for cheese and interiors.

Like myself and Klosterman, denizens of the ’90s are now turning 50 in droves. In a recent interview he said he did not intend his book as an exercise in nostalgia. But it seems inevitable the ’90s are destined for such treatment. Soon enough, somebody will make a lot of money selling retro cassette tapes and other kitsch to me and my ilk. Sell outs!

Joshua Chaffin is the FT’s New York correspondent

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