Chuck Klosterman Remembers ‘The Nineties’

The author revisits a weird, hybrid decade during which it seemed like nothing was happening, but everything was actually starting to happen

While pop-culture junk chronicler Chuck Klosterman’s new book is titled, with understated self-deprecation, The Nineties: A Book, a more honest name might have been The Nineties: Generation X Rising, Half-Heartedly. Tucked neatly into the midsection of the introduction are three crucial, qualifying sentences, one accompanied by an almost Pavlovian parenthetical, which may help you, dear reader, decide whether this book – and, frankly, this book review – are for you: “It’s impossible to claim that all people living through a period of history incontrovertibly share any qualities across the board. It’s also difficult to dissect a decade that was still operating as a monoculture without habitually dwelling on the details of dominance (when I write ‘it was a remarkably easy time to be alive,’ I only refer to those for whom it was, and for whom it usually is). Nothing can ever be everything to everyone.”

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The Nineties, then, is an exercise in then-mainstream Conventional Wisdom that will resonate most strongly if one was sentient, low melanin, and reasonably middle-class during the decade in question. Compared to David Halberstam’s erudite, furrowed-brow The Fifties–an 800-page tome that could double as a murder weapon, and probably has–Klosterman’s study is pithy, interested only in a core handful of phenomena, events, and people. The Nineties is absolutely no-one’s professed idea of rigorous, omniscient scholarship, which is just part of what makes the book so satisfying and devastating to read.

I adore 2003’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and shrug at 2005’s Killing Yourself to Live, but both are shaggy, showy, and digressive. There’s a focused, incisive bent to Klosterman’s arguments and framing now that makes it easier to take him seriously, even when he’s off; if he’d attempted to write 2016’s But What If We’re Wrong? back when he was a SPIN staffer, it would’ve been completely unreadable. He’s ready.

The Nineties remembers the (American) past selectively and with emphasis; it’s the local radio station, not a subscription to Apple Music. What that means: nothing about the Wayne’s World movies or the Bosnian War or De La Soul, Cornershop and Piss Christ don’t come up, and the Hubble Space Telescope is missing in action. Rather, Klosterman trusts in universality, to include 2 Live Crew, Bill Clinton, the Unabomber, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jordan, Garth Brooks, Titanic, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the dawn of the Internet.

The economy was humming; the youth were hopelessly disaffected, daydreaming about the 1970s. Across the board, people barely voted; were the candidates really that different? My high school and college years fell with the timeframe this book examines, and believe me, the perceived sense of boredom was almost epidemic. Activism was almost negligible among the people I knew. Irony, or “irony,” ruled. Did the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall–the end of the Cold War–usher in the new decade? Nah, Nirvana’s Nevermind did that in late ‘91. “It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming,” Klosterman writes. “That was the thinking at the time.”

It was a world changing imperceptibly, half-asleep, and The Nineties does delight in noting how quaint, innocent, and alien it seems in retrospect–the Mandela Effect representing a daily way of life, landlines as social anchors, national network news actually mattering, Pauly Shore starring in big Hollywood movies. Yet this lull merely presages the diversified chaos of the 21st century, and shadows slowly infiltrate a pastoral as this book slouches nearer to nearer to the Florida Recount, then to September 11, 2001. Klosterman sprinkles cryptic foreshadowing in here and there as he goes, a device that theoretically should merit eyerolls–ooo, portent!–yet invariably make my stomach clench.

We just got used to too much without being aware of it, the author posits. We’d watch the world fall apart on television so often–the stage-managed Gulf War I, the languid White Bronco Chase, the static facade of Columbine High School as anchors prattled on–that we lapsed into a certain passivity as the new presented real life as entertainment thick with postulations that replaced actual facts. Reality was increasingly fungible. We peered deep inward, and forgot about what was outside. We obsessed over the inconsequential. The Internet was an optimistic novelty that gradually, then suddenly, consumed society whole, as the era of rock stardom was ending, movie stars became more important than the movies they anchored, outsider politicians rocked the boat, and the rise of video store culture minted a new, obnoxious breed of film director. The Internet later became and subsumed television.

“Every message or image is preceded and followed by a different message or image with which it has no natural relationship, except to modify the meaning of whatever is currently being experienced. It is literally a context of no context, thus negating the very notion of contextual meaning,” he writes, describing a talking point from Ways of Seeing, a BBC television series from the early 1970s. “[John] Berger’s hypothetical future is our inescapable present. Yet it was his second point, about the ‘narrow limits’ of television, that was even more prescient, probably by accident. Those narrow limits have been obliterated. The internet turned every computer into an object that was almost (but not entirely) unimaginable in 1972: a television you could talk to, and a television that would listen. A television that knew everything. A television built out of people.”


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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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