As I approach middle age, my brain has started to shrivel into the pickled nostalgia that’s the birthright of every generation, and because I attended high school during the ’90s, I’ve relived fantasies of youth by continually playing the music that was popular then, even if I didn’t actually listen to that same music when I was growing up. Driving aimlessly during those early months of COVID lockdown, I’d sync my Android to Bluetooth and call up the Spotify ’90s playlist. The gravely yearning of Tracy Chapman in “Fast Car,” everything on Alanis Morrisette’s still cutting Jagged Little Pill, the druggy grandiosity of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” the absurdly over-the-top Generation X brilliance of Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” and Tori Amos’ heartbreaking cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which Kurt Cobain hated). Suddenly, I was even listening to Dave Matthews Band.
Pulling an imaginary red flannel on as if it were a security blanket, I’d retreated to the ’90s as a kind of stop-gap for our present. Because ours is a nightmare epoch of coronavirus and climate catastrophe, political radicalization and digital surveillance capitalism, it’s hard not to valorize the last decade of the twentieth-century when dissatisfaction was a pose and not a requirement. When people assumed that the future would actually be better. As the often wrong, but always interesting, pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman writes in his new book The Nineties, it was “in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive.” The long nineties are a decade that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ended with the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001, the brief interlude of American le belle epoque between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of whatever it is that we’re living in now. Simultaneously the last normal decade and the decade where everything changed.
Within The Nineties, Klosterman posits two different hypotheses, an explicit one related to the intrinsic difference of that era and an implicit one concerning its fundamental similarity. For Klosterman, the ’90s were the moment before the wave crashed against the pier, the last vestige of an old order that, even with the approaching millennium, people didn’t quite understand was reaching its conclusion. “It’s hard to explain the soft differences between life in the 2020s and life in the 1990s to any person who did not experience both of those periods as an adult,” Klosterman writes, “far more difficult than explaining the day-to-day difference between life in 1960 and life in 1990.”
Whether in 1965 or 1995, people lived within a relative monoculture while all of humanity and all of knowledge (and misinformation) weren’t immediately available through a supercomputer in your pocket. There was no infinitely variable supply of content treated as a privatized utility available to stream instantly with algorithmic precision based on the consumer’s every potential desire (even those that they were unaware of). Consider the very specific strangeness of my opening anecdote, when out of an endless array of choices I was able to call forth a playlist from the digital ether because I wanted to pretend that it was 1997, where anything I might be interested about concerning Tracy Chapman, or Alanis Morrisette, or Henry Danger could be instantly called forth from Google, where I am forever reachable as a node in the transcendent digital imaginary. The very structure of feeling has undergone a paradigm shift. “In the pre-Google world, the internet had changed the way people thought about computers and communication,” Klosterman writes, “In the post-Google world, the internet changed the way people thought about life.” Thus, the dusk of one era and the dawn of another. As the youngest generation of that older world or the oldest generation of this youngest world, the change is disorienting (at least when I stop to think about it).
“Part of the complexity of living through history is the process of explaining things about the past that you never explained to yourself,” Klosterman writes, and despite some stumbling (the footnotes are annoying and unnecessary) it’s a task that he performs admirably. In making his argument, everything comes under the omnivorous Klosterman’s gaze – Douglas Coupland’s largely forgotten experimental novel Generation X and the “new sincerity” of Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace; the kitsch of Dallas which ended in 1991, and the prestige artistry of The Sopranos premiering in 1999; the unspoken honky-tonk mega-popularity of Garth Brooks and the pedestrian success of Titanic; the rise of Quintin Tarantino’s ironic hyper-violence and the “Rachel” haircut from Friends; Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and the 1994 baseball strike; Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall and Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office; Allen Greenspan’s corpuscular oracularity and Oprah’s maternal version; the apocryphal “Trench Coat Mafia” and the very real massacre at Columbine; Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and Theodor “Unabomber” Kaczynski’s anti-technological manifesto; Cobain shooting himself in the head and Tupac Shakur getting shot in the chest; manufacturing consent in the Persian Gulf and fixing the 1996 Russian elections for Boris Yeltsin; Ross Perot’s doomed third party candidacy and Ralph Nader’s dooming third party candidacy; the rise of the VCR and the unveiling of AOL Dialup, and of course The Real World “when people stop being polite, and start being real.” An irony in that show’s tagline, for if postmodernism was conceived of in the ’60s and ’70s, then born in the ’90s and came of age in this century. The nineties are precisely when things stopped being real.
For being the guy who is the author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota – our great champion of trash – Klosterman also has an adroit sense of media theory, economics, aesthetics, political science, and philosophy. What he may sometimes lack in depth he more than makes up for in breadth, which is precisely what The Nineties required. So complete is his litany that Klosterman not only makes arguments about a super-hit like Friends, but he also discusses instantly forgettable sitcoms like Suddenly Susan and The Single Guy. Keeping my own score, the only things he seems to have not mentioned are the death of Princess Di, Joey Buttafuoco, and Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape. The Nineties, however, isn’t a Generation X encyclopedia, but rather a cognoscente’s argument of synthesis, a kind of snarky pop culture addendum to Louis Menand’s recent book The Free World: Art and Thought During the Cold War. All of this ephemera from the time period, instantly recorded but not yet instantly recallable, makes the ’90s a transitional period, a decade that was “heavily mediated and assertively self-conscious, but not skewed and misshapen by the internet and social media.” This was the moment when the “structure of feeling” began to change; the decade when it began to make sense to say that, metaphysically, 1995 was much closer to 1965 than 1995 was to 2015. Klosterman writes that across popular culture secondary meanings began to matter more than primary meanings, where “Cobain was a rock star whose essential purpose was critiquing the concept of rock stardom. Seinfeld was a TV show where the characters aspired to make a TV show exactly like the TV show that framed their fictional existence. Reservoir Dogs was a fake crime story with another fake crime story built inside of it.” An aesthetics that prefigured the digital unreality of our current moment, the paradoxically eternal now and non-existent present that are both born from the internet.
A strength of The Nineties is in the aforementioned implicit argument about how our own toxic world cracked from the egg of that decade. As a creation myth, we should consider O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco being slowly chased by the LAPD on the 405 freeway the early evening of June 17, 1994. Cable news was enthralled by the once beloved Heisman Trophy winner driving with a gun to his head, the implicit potential spectacle of viewers being able to watch the former Buffalo Bill blow his brains out on national TV while fans lined the overpasses with signs that said “The Juice is Loose.” Simpson’s subsequent trial for the violent murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman was touted as the new “trial of the century,” and it has remained as such. Many people in 1994 thought that Simpson was guilty, virtually nobody still thinks he is innocent (his “fictional” ghost-written account If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer published twelve years after his acquittal ensured that). Guilt and innocence were almost incidental however.
During the unprecedented sixteen months of coverage the O.J. Simpson trial became America’s actual “Must See TV” with its own characters – dapper and unctuous defense attorney Johnny Cochran, professional and beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark, villainous LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, stern and contemplative Judge Lance Ito. Nominally the trial was supposed to be about bigger things, about race, class, and gender. Obviously the courtroom drama was about all of those things, but more than anything it was mainly just good television. It was also cruel television, where the people most often forgotten were the two who were murdered.
As Klosterman writes, the O.J. trial was a “hinge moment in U.S. media history… mostly for the way it combined tragedy and stupidity on a scope and scale that would foretell America’s deterioration into a superpower that was also a failed state.” A failed state, yes, but also one where the citizens are waking up from the hangover of ’90s excess. There’s a conveyance in The Nineties – though perhaps inadvertent – that the political polarization of the ’20s is an improvement over the drone-like uniformity of ’90s neo-liberalism, as now we at least have a vocabulary with which to explain our discontent. He writes that the ’90s were “perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional,” which seems accurate, and though he’s agnostic on whether that’s good or not, his readers don’t have to be. Explaining the fall-out of the nakedly ideological 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore which undemocratically settled the results of a presidential election by seeming fiat, Klosterman writes that “Moving forward, all differences would be ideological.” Good. Now at least we know the score.
By Chuck Klosterman
Published February 8, 2022