If you were writing an American History textbook you might be tempted to skip from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the September 11 attacks with just a few brief pitstops along the way. Even as they were happening the Nineties tended to feel less consequential than other eras, and in the years since there was been less nostalgia for them than many other decades. But of course there is always a lot going on, in politics, in art, in technology and science, and in all the ways these areas intersect.
Chuck Klosterman has set himself the task of putting the 1990s under a microscope and distilling the zeitgeist into a meaningful thesis. What were the nineties all about? Klosterman is mainly known to me as a podcast guest, where his takes on all manner of things tend to be extremely thought-out and well-argued, whether I agree or not. His calling card is how seriously he takes everything, weighing geopolitics and punk rock about equally. It can be entertaining or exasperating, depending on his chosen subject and whatever mood you might be in that day.
The essays presented here start out chronicling one particular aspect of the decade, examining it in detail and trying to place it within the context of how people were thinking and feeling at the time. Klosterman choice in subjects ranges from the logical cultural touchstones like Nirvana, Michael Jordan, and Ross Perot’s presidential campaign to more ephemeral pinpoints like Crystal Pepsi, Biosphere 2, and Pauly Shore.
Klosterman continually gets hung up on the contradictions of the decade. Garth Brooks was statistically the biggest star in music but no one really thought of him that way. Nearly everyone watched TV all the time but hardly any of them thought it was important. Everyone knew it was stupid to get mad at an artist for “selling out” but they kept on getting mad about it anyway. Klosterman is especially good at delineating precise generational markers that distinguish Generation X from the Boomers that came before and the Millennials who came after. One particularly amusing example is that only Generation X understands why Winona Ryder’s Reality Bites character chooses Ethan Hawke over Ben Stiller. Boomers and Millennials both think Hawke’s Troy is bad news.
The early essays following this format of zeroing in and then expanding are largely successful. Later on, Klosterman tends to start out with a thesis about the decade and then zip around various subjects trying to prove his point. Thus, some of the most memorable events of the period get discussed at capsule length. You almost get the sense that Klosterman decided he didn’t have much to add about O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, or Columbine. While there are still trenchant insights to be found, they are farther apart and lost in the whiplash-inducing changes of subject.
As someone who lived through the decade, The Nineties was a mostly-pleasant guided tour down memory lane, though the book, much like the decade itself, wore out its welcome near the end.