Reviewing The Onion from 20 years ago: May 17, 2000
Relive Napster, "Battlefield Earth" and more very "hey, it's 2000!" moments. Plus the first Point/Counterpoint of the 2000s
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, trying to find out what’s still funny and examining the cultural impact. Today, we look at the issue from May 17, 2000.
Welcome to new subscribers, especially if you came here through Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie’s kind tweet:
New here? Sign up below for one fun email a week — no cost, no demands.
What issue is this?
Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 18, This is the 17th published Onion issue of the 2000s, as The Onion skipped March 29, 2000.
“Relationship Based On Mutual Love Of Woodcrafts” was part of this issue but is listed elsewhere on today’s website.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
From The Onion’s article, but this really was a screenshot from Napster, as you can see here.
The Napster battle was in full swing 20 years ago, with Metallica suing the service and the record industry gearing up for a long legal and PR battle that … sort of worked? Napster didn’t emerge as the king of downloads, much less streaming, but the music industry was never the same. Credit (or blame) Napster for a lot about the music business in 2020, along with the iPod, high-speed wireless internet and Pandora, to name a few.
The Onion wisely jumps onto this news story with “Kid Rock Starves To Death,” mocking the record industry’s hyperbole about the evils of Napster and downloading. There’s a lot of fun detail about the musicians who are out on the streets or dead, and here are a few other things that stood out to me:
Kid Rock only turned 29 during 2000. He has always looked at least 40, right?
Downloading music was difficult back then! This article claims we had to endure “seven hours downloading the compressed MP3 files of all the album's songs onto their home computer's desktop, decompress it into an AIFF sound file, and then burn the data onto a blank CD?"
Kazaa didn’t start until 2001, and LimeWire apparently was 2 weeks old at this point. How many of you used AIM file sharing to get music from friends? That was a big deal when I was in college.
Powerman 5000 is mentioned in the same sentence as Metallica and System of a Down.
The article says Elton John was driven into destitution and an early death in 1976 by private ownership of cassette decks.
Your friendly grocery store worker
My other favorite article this week is “Employee Forced To Appear In Training Video,” in which Dave Willis is made to appear in a video for his employer, Banjo's Food Ranch (a great fake business name).
First of all, he is a 24-year-old man and his official title is “stock boy.” So, it’s already a tough gig for him. He’s also forced to be chipper and cheery in delivering his lines, and the video itself is mean to compel employees to be friendly and enthusiastic. After all, we all know the way to generate great customer service is to mandate it under threat of punishment.
The video was created, Banjo's Food Ranch officials said, to help enforce a new chain-wide policy requiring all employees to greet each customer they encounter with a smile and an "acceptably enthusiastic verbal greeting." Examples cited in the video include, "Hello there!" "Nice day today!" and "How ya doin'?"
I edit a couple of HR newsletters at my job, so maybe that’s why this article hits home for me. But we all have experienced how important grocery stores are right now, and how employees there are at greater risk. So, it’s maybe not the happiest article, but it feels right at home in 2020.
Mundane (and slightly unreal) moments in real life
The Onion is often at its best when it takes little moments in life and crafts fake stories around them. I’m trying to keep this newsletter a manageable length, so I’ll just list these articles, all of which touch on something relatable:
“Bodybuilder Extensively Explains Difference Between Bodybuilding, Weightlifting” — we could use an update for CrossFit, P90X, etc.
“Top Cute” (photo)
Of course, The Onion wouldn’t be The Onion if it didn’t twist ordinary things into the silly and surreal. I wish a whole story were written about “Sentient Couch Thinks It Would Look Good Over By The Window” instead of just a photo.
“New Partially Digested Doritos Eliminate Tedious Chewing” has the regrettably 2000-white-guy use of “biz-zay” but continues The Onion’s fascination with Mountain Dew, this time calling one flavor “a soft drink that is 40 percent urine.”
And anyone who’s seen an old Western or action movie in which town rises up against the bad guys (or 2019’s “Hobbs & Shaw,” for that matter) will recognize the joke in “Villagers Turned Into Crack Fighting Squad Overnight.”
Were the infographics good?
“Top Reasons For U.S. Divorce” is a great topic but I think there could have been funnier, smarter jokes overall.
I sort of appreciate the double “i” in “Cyndii,” which apparently makes her even more of a troublemaker than “Cyndi” or “Cindy”?
We also learn more about “Battlefield Earth,” the movie that was sort of a pre-“Gigli” in terms of derailing the career of a troubled, egotistical male star.
You can tell The Onion produced content ahead of time, as the infographic assumes “Battlefield Earth” will have just had a monster opening weekend. In reality, it made back less than half its production budget.
What columnists ran?
We have the first Point/Counterpoint column of the 2000s with “The Future Will Be A Totalitarian Government Dystopia vs. The Future Will Be A Privatized Corporate Dystopia.”
I shared this article on Facebook a few days ago, and the first comment was “Why not both?” So you might see where, in 2020, this article feels less like a goof than a warning.
Every great Point/Counterpoint is less two opposing columns and more two narratives that dovetail into each other. Both arguments here rely on works of fiction (but not the same authors); an overwhelming force conquering opposition; technology being fantastically advanced but mostly used to subdue humans; and so forth.
Has anything actually come true? This prediction comes closest:
The average citizen will spend nearly all of his waking hours neurally jacked into the futuristic grandchild of the Internet, roaming cyberspace rather than moving and interacting in the inelegant, inconvenient three-dimensional world.
What was Point/Counterpoint?
Point/Counterpoint was one of the greatest long-running Onion features, and like most of them, it’s been discontinued, with the last column appearing in 2018. I’m guessing it was deliberately copied from USA Today and its daily use of opposing viewpoints. It was also maddeningly inconsistent in timing — there are 3 more coming in 2000, but then none until after 9/11.
Who else had a column?
Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel is indefatigable, appearing for the 16th time in 2000 with “So My Readers Wish Me Dead.” It’s a classic Zweibel tale of 90-year-old references, florid and inappropriate language, tales of murder committed, and his general disdain for The Onion’s staff and the public at large.
We also have “That Teen-Abstinence Rally Totally Rocked!” by Brian "Bri" Knoepke, described as an “abstinent teen.” “Bri” seems like a nice kid, so it’s hard to go after him too much. This is a paint-by-numbers, if detailed, parody of the abstinence movement. That’s fine — it’s just not a darkly humorous classic in the way “Oh My God — The Baby!” was a couple of weeks back.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Cardinal John O’Connor. Swiss Guard. George Orwell. Robert Heinlein. William Gibson. Neal Stephenson. Philip K. Dick. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sergio Oliva. Frank Zane. L. Ron Hubbard. Rob Zombie. Carnival.
O’Connor, mistakenly referenced last week by Jackie Harvey as Carroll O’Connor, appears in “Archangels Already Sick Of Cardinal O'Connor Telling Them How They Do It In New York,” which is standard New York character mockery but still funny.
The Swiss Guard apparently splits its time guarding the Pope and T. Herman Zweibel.
Orwell, Heinlein, Gibson, Stephenson and Dick are all mentioned in the Point/Counterpoint.
Schwarzenegger, Oliva and Zane are bodybuilders cited approvingly by Glen Tuttle in “Bodybuilder Extensively Explains Difference Between Bodybuilding, Weightlifting.” As Tuttle says:
“… those guys were incredibly strong, but you have to remember that they were also tremendously graceful. And when it came time for the pose-down, they really knew how to put on a show."
Hubbard and Zombie are mentioned in the “Battlefield Earth” infographic, while the Brazilian event Carnival is mentioned by Pennsylvania dental hygienist Joan Pavlik in “Woman Who 'Loves Brazil' Has Only Seen Four Square Miles Of It,” but she has not actually attended it.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Not a lot of strong quotes, but several concepts that feel very dated in a 2000-or-earlier way. For instance: Joan Pavlik booking her Brazil trip through a travel agent; the mention of Powerman 5000, with its zero top 20 albums; and the Point/Counterpoint sentence that begins “When we do log off the CyberNet, …” even if “log off” still is in use.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
A sentient couch is as close as we got to either.
What was the best horoscope?
I like this out-of-left-field burn on marketing from this week’s horoscopes.
Sagittarius | Nov. 22 to Dec. 21
This is an excellent week for your creative side, spelling doom for your promising career in marketing.
What holds up best?
You can be an optimist and disagree with the entirety of “The Future Will Be A Totalitarian Government Dystopia vs. The Future Will Be A Privatized Corporate Dystopia,” but it’s the rare example of an Onion topic (or a real news topic) still being relevant as a point of debate 20 years later.
Think about the 2000 election, for example. The few topics that continue to resonate in 2000 do so to different degrees today. I’m sure someone is talking about Social Security privatization, but it’s not going to be the leading topic at a presidential debate this year. Likewise, there were nascent worries about cybersecurity and people’s privacy online in 2000, but not in the way our society is debating it today.
I should note that parents who read this newsletter will probably say “Five-Year-Old Convinced Dinosaur Bones Are Buried In Backyard” holds up best, and they aren’t wrong.
What holds up worst?
A few of the divorce jokes don’t age well, and the same goes for the “What Do You Think” feature, where The Onion asked people about the FDA’s ruling on saline breast implants.
(That said, the quote “We sure have come a long way from the days when our ancestors carved breast implants from antler and horn” makes me laugh a lot.)
What would be done differently today?
Obviously, we would have more political content, and the coronavirus would dominate everything. The divorce infographic would probably change to something about how no young people are getting married.
A few of the sillier stories that touch on real life might survive today, if the May 15, 2020, story “500-Mile Dead Zone Found Off Atlantic Coast Linked To Runoff From Olive Garden Alfredo Pipe” is any indication.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published May 17, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from May 8-14, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
Putin appoints prime minister, consolidates control of provinces, raids largest private media company. FTC settles case against music companies, with CD prices expected to drop. EBay emerges with 25-cent opening bid turning into $135,000 sale — but seller later admits fabrications and is suspended. Gun control marches in D.C., other cities. Rudy Giuliani separates from wife. Microsoft tries to avoid breakup after verdict. Army investigation backs claims by female general against male general. “Cyberspace Programmers Confront Copyright Laws.” National Park Service blamed as controlled fire gets out of control. Former Louisiana governor convicted on 17 counts. FDA approves marketing of saline breast implants despite risks. Big Pharma agrees to lower prices for AIDS drugs. 2 winners in $366 million Big Game lottery. Ford: Our SUVs have flaws. Airlines hope to shorten lines. China cracking down on liberal intellectuals. Small, premature babies can face later problems. UN peacekeepers struggle in Sierra Leone. Cardinal O’Connor buried, successor named.