Author Chuck Klosterman has opened up about his life as a music fan and writer. In a new interview, he discusses the reality of the 1990s music industry and reveals the true meaning of classic rock. Klosterman is a pop culture journalist who was born in 1972, smack bang in the middle of the golden age of rock music.
When Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991, Klosterman was a sophomore in college and got to witness first-hand the huge cultural shift that the Seattle grunge scene sparked. In his new book, The Nineties, Klosterman takes us on a deep-dive into some of the most iconic cultural touchstones of the decade, offering insightful analysis on everything from Grunge and The Matrix to Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan, Seinfeld, and the Clinton-Lewinski scandal.
Speaking to UCR, Klosterman was asked to define the true meaning of rock music, where its parameters lie, and where it ends: “It’s a tricky thing,” he began. “I think it’s as tricky to figure out where it begins…The Beatles, I think, created an interesting problem for classic rock, because songs off Abbey Road and the White Album will be on there. But you wouldn’t play the early Beatles material. So it does in some ways seem like, well, an album has to come out after Sgt. Pepper to be classic rock. But even that is kind of confusing.”
“Obviously, I think everyone agrees that the bedrock of classic rock is Zeppelin,” Klosterman continued. “They are the most classic-rock band — more than the Stones, more than anything else. The way they sound, what they present, that’s what classic rock is. But then, like you say, you have a weird decision. Are you guys going to somehow make a call that this is the last classic-rock record, and everything is different beyond there? Or you’re gonna be open to the idea that, well, classic rock now is actually like disco, and that if you make a disco song now, it’s still in the disco genre.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Klosterman addressed one of the most pervasive myths surrounding the 1990s: that grunge killed hair metal once and for all. While it’s easy to imagine that the bands shaping the culture of the 1990s were the most popular, the reality is that a lot of the bands we now deem to be irrelevant (Van Halen, Motley Crue etc) were still getting much more airplay than their grunge contemporaries.
As Klosterman notes: “That’s absolutely true, but the motive of how things got covered changed a bit, in that in the past, there had been this idea that some things needed to be covered solely because of their commercial dominance. So it didn’t really matter in 1988 or whatever that you didn’t like Motley Crue, maybe as a writer or a critic. Those records were huge, and they were all over MTV. And there was a sense that, well, you could write about the bands that you think are important, but you’ve got to write about some of these bands just because the magnitude of their success makes them important.”
“And then that kind of shifted in the ’90s,” Klosterman continued, “Because there was a sense that, well, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and some of these groups being as big as the unpopular hair-metal bands of the ’80s, we could cover these groups, and then also the groups that we think are — and when I say ‘we’, I’m saying from the media’s perspective — that we think are relevant or important or reflect something essential about what’s going on. And you can kind of ignore things despite their popularity…Bon Jovi still sold a ton of records in the ’90s, and yet all the coverage of them during that period was how they were over.”