Wow. I don’t usually have too many emotions about non-fiction books, but Chuck Klosterman’s “The Nineties” in one word must be w-o-w. Klosterman opens the book with an introduction to an era not punctuated by the date January 1, 1990, rather with important events to close the 1980’s like Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment (which leads to a fascinating discussion on the “Mandela“ effect, a phenomenon where a group of people misremember an important event in history/ pop culture) and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Klosterman takes the reader on a journey. An early stop on this literary adventure concerns — who is Generation X? What are their values and how did they shape 90s culture in the U.S.. Gen X is characterized by their high degree of skepticism, which can be epitomized by their collective distaste for “sellouts,” people who compromise their values in order to get rich. For example, like when a band changes its style to reach a broader audience. Klosterman muses that the female protagonist’s decision to get with the “authentic jerk” at the end of the 1994 film “Reality Bites” rather than the “likable sellout” perfectly captures this quirky generational predisposition.
The author claims that art can only move society so far, but if there were one song that shaped the start of the nineties it was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and not just the song, but also the album “Nevermind” from which it originated. It was pop-y but not in the way that pop was perceived in the 1990s. It was punk; it was grungy; it was famous for many reasons. The name of the song is never once mentioned in the lyrics; the guitar riff is similar to Boston’s hit “More than a Feeling,” and the beat is edgy. Klosterman goes into a deep analysis of the song, concluding that it exudes a sort of “intellectual apathy” that really resonated with the young people of the era (a highly moralistic bunch). “The Denial” a line that is repeated nine times at the end of the song, but a denial of “what” is never explained, adding to the absurdity but also the profundity of the words. The chorus goes “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” and Klosterman comments that it is “a series of striking words that almost rhyme.” In conclusion, Klosterman writes, “It was a version of nothing so close to something it accidentally became everything,” (pg. 40). In short, it transformed the musical scene and the role of rock for the coming decade.
This book covers so many big… things! The appearance of Ross Pierot as the third-party contender in the 1992 presidential election; the rise political correctness and redefinition of words/ concepts like “gay,” “queer,” and “Ebonics;” the cloning of the sheep, Dolly; the flawed Biosphere 2 experiment, “The Real World,” Michael Jordan’s transition to baseball, the “Oprah-fication” of society, Monica Lewinsky, the white Ford Bronco, and so much more.
Regardless, Klosteman’s “The Nineties” is not a simple chronology of what happened in the 1990s. Rather it traces the cause and effects of significant events, situates them in a particular moment in time, and critiques them in a way that is intellectual, poignant, but also sporadically comedic. For example, Klosterman connects the ubiquity of the video rental store with the rise of acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino to showcase how the ability to more cheaply re-watch movies led to the proliferation of indie films in the nineties (among other consequences).
Klosterman concludes with events at the end of the decade including the end-of-the-world fears about the Y2K computer programming glitch that ultimately yielded few problems (after millions of dollars were poured into fixing the error) and the contentious 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush (and Ralph Nader, of course!). Klosertman ultimately describes the race as an “…an amicable quagmire with few provocations and an absence of passion” (pg. 322) (which is a funny thing to say out of context 😉 ).
However, like Klosterman mentions at the top of the book, the 1990s did not end on January 1st, 2000, rather the culture that defined it most definitively collapsed when the Twin Towers did on September 11, 2001.
This book was a whirlwind. What a witty commentary! It was so fun to read and then look up the references that Klosterman details. Whether you were around in the nineties or not, if you are a fan of pop culture and history, then do consider checking out Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties.