It’s weird to see your past become mythology. Part of me is certain the 1990s were just a few years back, instead of more than three decades ago. Surely it’s too early to start talking about what it all meant?
But in Chuck Klosterman’s engaging new collection of pop-culture writing, The Nineties, he attempts to use the controversies and celebrities of the past to explain how we became whatever us mixed-up humans are today.
Klosterman himself is a very ‘90s kind of voice who made it big starting in the 2000s with essays that went down like a surprisingly smart, funny stranger holding forth at the bar – slightly overbearing, but worth the listen.
His essay collections like Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs sparkle with off-kilter insights and a respect for even the most disdained of pop culture like Guns N’ Roses tribute bands, while earlier works like Fargo Rock City, about loving hair metal while living in rural America, have a sincerity that can’t be hidden by all the snarky wit.
Known for writing lengthy pieces on things like the relative merits of KISS members’ solo albums, in more recent years Klosterman has tried to branch out into broader cultural criticism. But to be honest, excavating the contradictions and curiousities of pop culture is where his voice is strongest.
I like Klosterman quite a lot, but The Nineties doesn’t quite manage to be a defining statement despite his best efforts. “It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive,” he writes. Which is only really true if you came, like Klosterman and I, from pretty comfortable white middle class American existences.
The Nineties is a strong essay collection burdened with the expectation of defining a decade. The central thesis of The Nineties is that it was a time when everything was about to make a huge paradigm shift, with the looming shadows of the internet, 9/11 and extreme partisanship spawned by the Clinton years and Bush/Gore election that came to dominate US politics.
Klosterman is chatty, digressive, trivia-filled and open-minded, which means The Nineties is an easy read, but sprawling and inconclusive about whatever the 1990s even meant other than that things were about to change. And that’s pretty much his point. “It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming.”
Generation X was perched in a weird spot in space-time, before the internet fully emerged and yet smothered in a mass-media bubble of celebrity culture in old-school magazines and TV shows that foreshadowed many of today’s influencer obsessions.
The monoculture that once was splintered into pieces with the advent of social media. As much as we like to imagine it was all flannel, riot grrls and grunge from Sub Pop and people reading Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” the ‘90s was also an awful lot of people watching Friends and Titanic and listening to Garth Brooks, by far the decade’s biggest musical star.
Wrestling with an entire decade is difficult work – Klosterman rightly points out decades are only about “cultural perception,” when you get down to it. He hits all the expected high points – Nirvana’s Nevermind, the rise of AOL, Bill Clinton, Pulp Fiction and Clarence Thomas. He mostly avoids tiresome “remember this?” type nostalgia and instead focuses on giving broader context.
Klosterman likes to equivocate, rarely coming down firmly on an issue and sometimes passing off some pretty dire zen cliches as insight. “Things changed, but not really,” the nineties were “a good time that happened long ago, although not nearly as long ago as it seems,” and “The future can’t exist until the present is the past.” These vague sentences clunk awkwardly against his better observations.
What’s best about The Nineties is where Klosterman pinpoints precisely how the culture has changed. The very way we tend to think has mutated an awful lot in 30 years. A culture based on ‘likes’ and never having to go further than your pocket to look information up is really as futuristic as rocket ships and hoverboards would have been.
“Selling out,” for example, is a concept that seemed to consume much of the decade, with the agonised fears of stars like Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix about what it might mean and entire movies like Reality Bites based around it. “Selling out” barely even exists as the same concept anymore in a world filled with TikToks, YouTubers and influencers all selling themselves as hard as possible.
The OJ Simpson case has been written about ad infinitum, but Klosterman paints a convincing through line to the mindset that dominates today’s fractured, everyone-has-a-hot-take internet. Watching the crowds cheer on OJ on his bizarre slow-motion car chase through LA, waving signs, Klosterman sees “what would eventually drive the mechanism of social media – the desire of uninformed people to be involved with the news … because it was exhilarating to participate in an experience all of society was experiencing at once.”
The Nineties is best enjoyed less as a final, definitive statement and more as a frequently amusing and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation. I kind of think that Klosterman, who I’ll always picture as the guy holding forth at the bar, would prefer it that way anyway.