They are yuck.
The catchphrase long-survived “Poltergeist II,” the forgettable 1986 sequel to the memorable 1982 film, now applies (the horror!) to the decade that followed, the subject of Chuck Klosterman’s new book, “The Nineties.” Dissecting slogans and other pop culture flotsam, he has built a solid publishing career.
A prolific essayist, novelist, and several other “-ists” (he wrote The Ethicist column for The New York Times), Klosterman turns his attention not to poltergeists, but to the zeitgeist again—specifically to a shrug, liminal period he believes. that it began, seriously or ironically, with the release of Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” in September 1991. He likens this event in rock ‘n’ roll history to an airplane picturing the noisy ’80s on autopilot crashing into a mountain. . (A perhaps injudicious metaphor, since Klosterman thinks the ’90s officially ended with the collapse of the Twin Towers.)
The era has been a source of curiosity lately, its aesthetic has been mined by digital natives who marvel at the freedom of a world where people partied and showcased themselves without being haunted by their online shadows. “Every new generation tends to be intrigued by any generation 20 years earlier,” Klosterman writes. This particular look back has a special romance, because, as he sneeringly writes, “The Internet was coming. The Internet was coming. The Internet was coming.” But the internet as we know it wasn’t quite there yet yet.
The 1990s were the twilight of a millennium and monoculture (as it was); the last time we (whoever “we” were) seemed to be on the same page: one we could crumple in our hands. Judging by the way things are going in the 21st century so far, it could also be the last time Americans could reasonably break history down into digestible 10-year chunks, a practice that goes back at least as far as the Gay years’ 90s – the 1890s.
The more recent 1990s certainly deserve to be remembered, but for anyone who experienced them, as they say in comedy, it can feel Too Soon.
Klosterman’s simple subtitle, “A Book,” underscores the erosion of the physical world in the years that followed. He explores sports, politics, crime, and experimentation like Biosphere 2, but he’s especially interested in the arts and diversions of the decade delivered by endangered technology. “Nevermind” was released on records, cassette tapes and compact discs, and later pirated on Napster. Do you remember plugging in phones and the brief, heart-pounding excitement of chasing mysterious callers with *69? The fear of Y2K? What about the fading rolls spat out by fax machines? Beeping, dial-up modems? VCRs? Klosterman did, with measured amazement; he admits that the contrast between life then and now can be quite subtle: ‘soft differences’.
Now nearly extinct, the video library, which this reader viscerally remembers as a depressing pit stop full of plastic, fluorescence and frustration, is here elevated as a temple of serendipity and erudition, unconstrained by pigeonhole algorithms. The stores were the birth of maverick movie directors like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, who ignored the studio systems that denounced prequels like “The Phantom Menace” and the nostalgic parody “The Brady Bunch Movie” — prototypes for the reboot factory. from today.
Movies in the ’90s, a high point for independent authors, were undeniably king, but television, newly recordable and replayable, was everything to us, Klosterman argues. And nothing to us either. He’s kind of a hedger, answering a self-asked question about the commercialization of culture: “(Yes.) (No.) (Sometimes.)” “Must See TV”, like “Seinfeld”, was supposed to be the definitive show about nothing, but also hours of boring background programming on VH1 and the like. (“Here we are now, entertain us,” sang Kurt Cobain of Nirvana gloomily.)
Some of the most important public decisions were influenced by live TV appearances, such as James Stockdale declaring, “Who am I? Why am I here?” during the 1992 vice presidential debates, or Clarence Thomas’s emotional demonstration that prevailed over Anita Hill’s cooler testimony during Thomas’s 1991 hearings. “Everything you experience through the screen of a television becomes a TV show,” Klosterman explains, a bit too drastic. Is the personal computer really “a television that you could talk to, and a television that would listen. A television that knew everything. A television made up of people” – or is it a completely different beast? He is wrong that Generation Z cannot grasp the concept of ‘albums’; rather, they contributed to a recent and robust vinyl revival and seem fascinated by other tactile phenomena that you would expect to disappear forever, such as stickers, polaroids and actually videotapes.
Klosterman prefers to roll around with his own generation, X, with its flannel shirts and fizzy drinks: “the least significant of canonical demographics,” he writes, due to its small size (it is indeed often completely erased in meme wars). “Yet one distinction can be applied with conviction. Of the generations yet to die, Generation X remains the least annoying.” How so?
Douglas Coupland, the man who popularized the label, is still with us today, and Klosterman interviews him and several other prominent figures from the ’90s. It’s sobering to be reminded of those not with us—David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Cobain—and how depression, despite the wider relative peace and prosperity of the time, was a hallmark of their output. Overall, one is left with a chilling sense of X’s insignificance, his preoccupation with what more politically motivated successors call “lush micro-worries.” It would be more vulnerable to cancellation if it hadn’t already canceled itself. (Isn’t X the symbol of cancellation?)
By declaring his cohort recessive and unirritating at best, and writing indifferent lines like “times change, because that’s what times do,” Klosterman is cunningly setting the bar for this project low. Does it make it clear? Well, yes. New. Sometimes.