Published by Penguin Press on February 8, 2022
Genres: Non-fiction, History
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The Nineties: a wise and funny reckoning with the decade that gave us slacker/grunge irony about the sin of trying too hard, during the greatest shift in human consciousness of any decade in American history.
It was long ago, but not as long as it seems: The Berlin Wall fell and the Twin Towers collapsed. In between, one presidential election was allegedly decided by Ross Perot while another was plausibly decided by Ralph Nader. In the beginning, almost every name and address was listed in a phone book, and everyone answered their landlines because you didn't know who it was. By the end, exposing someone's address was an act of emotional violence, and nobody picked up their new cell phone if they didn't know who it was. The '90s brought about a revolution in the human condition we're still groping to understand. Happily, Chuck Klosterman is more than up to the job.
Beyond epiphenomena like Cop Killer and Titanic and Zima, there were wholesale shifts in how society was perceived: the rise of the internet, pre-9/11 politics, and the paradoxical belief that nothing was more humiliating than trying too hard. Pop culture accelerated without the aid of a machine that remembered everything, generating an odd comfort in never being certain about anything. On a '90s Thursday night, more people watched any random episode of Seinfeld than the finale of Game of Thrones. But nobody thought that was important; if you missed it, you simply missed it. It was the last era that held to the idea of a true, hegemonic mainstream before it all began to fracture, whether you found a home in it or defined yourself against it.
In The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman makes a home in all of it: the film, the music, the sports, the TV, the politics, the changes regarding race and class and sexuality, the yin/yang of Oprah and Alan Greenspan. In perhaps no other book ever written would a sentence like, "The video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was not more consequential than the reunification of Germany" make complete sense. Chuck Klosterman has written a multi-dimensional masterpiece, a work of synthesis so smart and delightful that future historians might well refer to this entire period as Klostermanian.
Two things first. One – this is the first book by Klosterman I’ve read. Two – I, like Klosterman, am firmly a Gen X-er. I graduated high school in ’93, college in ’97. I got married in ’99 and had Amber in 2000 (which counts because Klosterman doesn’t consider the ’90s officially over until 9/11). If I’m an adult, that was the decade I became one. I don’t know if you have to be a member of my generation to enjoy The Nineties, but I’m sure it helps.
If it was part of the culture during the ’90s, it’s in here: Nirvana, Reality Bites, American Beauty, Pulp Fiction, Seinfeld, Friends, Columbine, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, the Clintons, Dolly, Garth Brooks, Clarence Thomas. It covers TV shows I watched, bands I listened to and rappers I didn’t, news stories that feel different when you look back at them than they did at the time. Klosterman talks about why the person and/or event seemed so significant at the time, and whether that significance has carried through to the present day or not. He talks about the attitudes of the era. He discusses some events that were seen as positive then but have not aged well. It was a fun combination of a nostalgic walk down memory lane and reassessing how I viewed things then and now.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I still listen to Lithium on Sirius XM and made Amber watch Pulp Fiction and From Dawn till Dusk at the drive-in last year, so take my opinion for what it’s worth.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: