How Growing Up With Cassettes Made Us Better Listeners
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Inside Dope

Why Music Means More to Us Than It Does to Our Kids

A conversation with author Chuck Klosterman about being a Gen-Xer in a streaming world

Cassette tapes with various band names with a drawing of Chuck Klosterman superimposed over the cassette spines
Peter Arkle/Chris O'Riley/Courtesy Steve Vistaunet

Chuck Klosterman, the author of books like Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live, is Gen X’s most incisive cultural commentator. His ninth nonfiction tome, The Nineties (out now), focuses squarely on that decade, which was as important to him personally as it was to the culture at large.

“I was sort of like the epitome of a young adult in the ’90s,” he says. “It was the period of my life when I became a grownup, so my memory of it is pretty clear.” 

As he prepared for the release of the book — and his 50th birthday — he spoke to The Arrow about finding new music in midlife, and how maybe having access to everything all at once isn’t as good for you as it sounds. 

DAVE HOLMES: What’s your relationship to physical media now? Are you a vinyl person? 

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: No. I never really was, because when I got into music it was the cassette era, and you could play them in your car. And then we moved into the CD era, and I acquired a tremendous amount of CDs. And then at one point, I got rid of all of those. I went through the arduous and time-consuming process of digitizing all of them, which of course is pretty much worthless now because they’re all just available everywhere. 

DH: I feel like you were a very good maker of mixtapes in the ’90s. 

CK: Oh, yeah. Sure. 

DH: How do you scratch that itch now? 

CK: Well, you know, I’m married now, so I don’t really have a need to make them anymore. But the simplicity of making playlists has basically euthanized the idea of making mixtapes as a skill. You’d pay a lot of attention to it. You’d be like, "This Elastica song is a minute and forty seconds, so it’ll be good to slide in if I have a little extra room at the end of the first side." But that’s all done now. 

DH: God, I loved doing it though. 

CK: Well, it’s one of those things it was easy to be good at. 

DH: Is there music that you dismissed in the ’90s that you’ve come around to? 

CK: Sure. One of the upsides of everything being available on the streaming services is that it’s very easy to reexamine the past. It used to be that getting music essentially meant buying new music. You could go through all the work and expense of assembling the whole Fleetwood Mac catalog, but you wouldn’t. Now I can go back very easily. There was a lot of music that was very popular that I dismissed because it was popular, and also things that were so niche, I didn’t put any effort into them.

DH: I don’t know if teenagers now understand how much our identities were shaped by the music we listened to. The kind of music you liked told the world eight other things about you, and I don’t know that kids have that anymore. 

CK: Well, they don’t. One of the many things that Napster and file sharing did is that they eliminated the idea of non-virtual musical subcultures. There are still subcultures of certain things online, of course. But for us, because of the scarcity of things and the cost of things, if you went and bought a Nine Inch Nails record, you were like, “Well, I gotta listen to this thing constantly, and then I’ll buy another record in two weeks when I have money again.” When I was in eighth grade, I had five cassettes, and I listened to those five cassettes constantly, and I read the liner notes of those cassettes constantly. As a consequence, there were probably things in that music that I heard and experienced that weren’t actually there. I just put so much work into it. I think that process was pretty enriching, and having access to 5 million songs at any given moment doesn’t really give you that.

DH: Now if it doesn’t grab you right away, you skip it and move on, and you never have to think about it again. 

CK: Right, and just in general, music that is immediately accessible is also going to immediately fade from your consciousness. Music you love tends to take awhile. I don’t know if it would be possible for people to say, “The first time I heard [Pavement’s] Slanted and Enchanted, it was great.” For me, the first time playing it after hearing about it in Spin, was like, “This sounds f__kin’ bad.” But we all kept playing it, and then we loved it.

DH: Obviously, I need to know what those five cassettes were. 

CK: Shout at the Devil, Bark at the Moon, Pyromania, [ZZ Top’s] Eliminator, 1984

DH: All that stuff seemed so menacing back then. One of the first things I was really scared of as a kid was Ozzy Osbourne — he seemed so completely terrifying. But you listen now and all the songs are like, “Hey, it’s fun to rock.” 

CK: KISS is the ultimate example of that. They were seen as the most dangerous thing in the ’70s, and all their songs are about partying and girls they liked. But I guess I was drawn to the idea that all of this was dangerous. I was the right age to be into that kind of music, which is like the mainstream version of subversion. It was like a simulation of rebellion and danger. 

DH: How do you find new music now? Do you go by recommendation, or what? 

CK: Now things find me. You used to have to put in some effort to learn about new music, but now I feel like I sit around and things just sort of appear. But also, I think to myself, I’m going to be 50. What does it mean if a 50-year-old person is really into music being made by a 23-year-old person? In some sense, if I’m listening to it and I love it, it either suggests that the 23-year-old is an absolute genius who can transcend age and demographic, or they’re doing something that really isn’t that meaningful if I’m getting it. It would suggest that they’re being led to make music that sounds new and interesting to someone who doesn’t know what new and interesting is.

DH: Okay, that hurt. Is there anything new that’s grabbed you recently?

CK: No. I don’t like the way music is recorded now. My whole life, I was one of these people who thought audiophiles were idiots. I was like, I like songs, I don’t care how this music is put together. Now I realize I was wrong. The things I thought I liked were actually a product of how the music was being made. Music is made differently now. There’s a cheaper, faster, more effective way to make music, but there’s a shallowness to the way it’s expressed. 

DH: Do you remember the first time you felt like what was new was not for you anymore? 

CK: The first time I noticed being out of the demographic was probably nu-metal — 1997, ’98, ’99. I was covering the Family Values Tour: Korn, Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit, Rammstein and maybe one other act. I went to the show, and Korn had this huge cage on stage, and kids from the audience could get in it and watch the show from behind it. I thought, on one hand, That’s smart in that they’re making fans for life. Those kids in those cages are going to remember this and love them forever. But I also remember thinking, This is pretty far from my memory of what being into a band was like. Also, the whispering. I didn’t get the whispering.

DH: What was good about being young, in the dead center of Generation X, during the ‘90s?

CK: It is really the only period of the 20th century when there were no hot wars or cold wars. Life was kind of underwhelming, and nothing was that big a deal, so it was like: do what you want. You wanna hang out and do nothing and not have a job and just get by? That was acceptable. Nobody perceived that as some awful thing to do. It wasn’t embarrassing to not have a plan. 

I think as people our age get older, we might perceive the world as less critical, like the things that are happening within culture are not always make-or-break things. You can have an idea that’s morally complicated, or that could be perceived as offensive by someone. For people younger than us, those things must be avoided at all costs, but I don’t know if people our age are going to feel that way. I think that’s probably a healthier way to live. Now, someone could say, "That’s actually a form of denial. Life is important. If you’re not engaged with politics, you’re allowing bad things to happen and allowing a bad morality to take over.” I don’t know. As someone who comes from that period, I don’t like the way the collective worldview has shifted. 

But maybe that’s how everyone feels as they age, that the way the world is changing is worse.

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