The satellite radio player in my car has ten presets. The station in the primo #1 slot is the indie rock station, but that’s mostly aspirational: the two most-played stations in this particular automobile are 90s On 9 and Lithium, your source for “Nineties Alternative And Grunge.”
And yet, even as someone born in 1979 who remembers the nineties in rich detail and who spends probably too much time reliving them, I was blown away by the depth, breadth, and insight of the material in The Nineties. This is, of course, par for the course for author Chuck Klosterman, whose work, from his music reviews for Spin to his sports journalism for the late, lamented Grantland to his “low culture manifesto” Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, is scholarly in its aims and encyclopedic in its completeness yet never as dry as all that would seem to imply thanks to Klosterman’s tone—wry, witty, and cutting when called for without being snarky.
From the opening chapter “Fighting the Battle of Who Could Care Less” (get it?) to the penultimate “I Feel the Pain of Everyone, Then I Feel Nothing” (get it?? It’s a Dinosaur Jr. reference and a Bill Clinton reference), Klosterman delves into the nineties not just as a decade, but as the defining era of Generation X—the slacker generation whose experience was informed, as Klosterman puts it, by “an adversarial relationship with the unseemliness of trying too hard.”
Each of the book’s twelve chapters summarizes a particular overarching topic, within which Klosterman dives into the details with vignettes about various news events and pop culture oddities, always explaining them with enough depth to make sense to the uninitiated while offering a fascinating new perspective to the already familiar. At hand throughout are his two greatest strengths as a writer: the ability to offer specific examples that instantaneously, ingeniously sum up a broad concept in a way you’ve never considered before, and pithy one-liners that cut to the quick. Case in point, on grunge, he can go deep—“Down-tuned bands of the nineties were more interested in recapturing the fuzzy sound of the seventies, and really just the distorted anti-pop center of those particular years (a combination of Black Sabbath in ‘73 and Neil Young in ‘78).” Or more succinctly: “Grunge, by a wide margin, was the most morbid genre in pop history.”
Beyond grunge, all the usual suspects are present, both the good and the bad—the meta comedy of Seinfeld, the referential filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino, the presidency of Bill Clinton, the discourse around political correctness, the Persian Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, the murders of Tupac and Biggie, O.J. Simpson, Columbine, and much, much more. But even in these well-worn topics, Klosterman finds new ground, primarily by tying these past events into modern society—the way, for example, that the 24-hour news cycle meant that the coverage of violent incidents (like Oklahoma City and Columbine) often led with information that turned out to be wrong, and how that led to the erosion of faith in the accuracy of news that is only exacerbated today. Some of his connections seem a bit far-fetched—his theory of how the Republican Party would have prevented its hard shift to the right had Ross Perot not entered the 1992 presidential race is a little Charlie-Day-explaining-his-yarn-map— but then others, like how it’s not hard to draw a line between the hunky, aspirational conspiracy theorizing of Fox Mulder on The X-Files and the litany of nonsense that controls the public discourse today, seem downright profound.
Scattered throughout are a greatest hits package of mostly/entirely forgotten nineties tidbits—Biosphere 2! Dolly the cloned sheep! The TV show Studs! Klosterman is most at home when digging deep into pop culture ephemera—movies like Reality Bites, Kids, In the Company of Men, American Beauty (and how the discourse about white privilege has lessened its standing in the ensuing decades), and American History X (“an antiracist film that could potentially be enjoyed by a racist”); the clear beverage craze; the inevitability of Pauly Shore’s fame at the time and the inconceivability of that fact in hindsight. One of the best portions of the book is an essay on the differing reactions to and treatment of Alanis Morrissette and Liz Phair and how it serves as a summary of the state of feminism in the nineties. Klosterman’s writing throughout is impeccable, so imminently quotable that I struggled to keep this review from turning into one long string of excerpts. For a historical primer of an era not that far in the review mirror, I don’t know how it could get much better than this. | Jason Green
Click here to read an excerpt of The Nineties, courtesy of Penguin Press.