In Richard Linklater’s film “Dazed and Confused,” a character defines their “every other decade theory”: “The 50s were boring. The sixties have changed. The 70s, my God, obviously sucks. So maybe the 80s will be, like, radical. When this film was released in 1993, the twenty-something audience it targeted laughed knowingly: Clearly, the 70s had been cooler than the 80s. seriously about the decade they were going through, let alone write a book about it.
Chuck Klosterman’s “The Nineties” entertainingly and insightfully wrestles with a decade few of us seem to understand. As the author of a series of incisively sarcastic books and articles about our tangled and often unnerving connection to the American pop culture zeitgeist, Klosterman seems perfectly suited to the task. Who better than the guy who wrote an entire essay on a character from the echt-Nineties series “Saved by the Bell” (“Being Zack Morris”) and names some of his chapters for iconic indie-rock slack anthems (” Fighting the Battle from Who Could Care Less”)?
From the start, Klosterman tries to look beyond the “grunge cartoon” view of the decade. That’s welcome, given how often cultural chroniclers reduce periods to worn-out clichés. He knows that simply confusing Kurt Cobain, the OJ Simpson trial, Biosphere 2, Boris Yeltsin, Bush v Gore, Timothy McVeigh, “Friends” and “Clear Craze” (Crystal Pepsi, Zima) does not produce a better understanding. This is partly due to Klosterman’s somewhat self-satirical distrust of certainties. He is most insightful when analyzing the tortured relationship his generation had in the 1990s with authenticity and popularity: Alanis Morissette “succeeded because of her honesty, but whoever succeeded had to lie.”
In riffing chapters whose mood swings between jaundiced, flippant, and gloomy, Klosterman tries less to uncover the true meaning of the decade than to communicate how it was lived. This, in turn, leads to explaining how different moments were viewed or even created by the increasingly media-saturated environment of the time. His passage on the Columbine Massacre is devastating in showing how a false narrative of misfit kids versus popular kids derived from fictional cheap high school tropes seemed more soothing than the genuine lack of meaning of the murders: “Television had become the medium to understand everything. ”
Though wacky, clever, and filled with ephemera on everything from Baudrillard’s influence on “The Matrix” to the “calculated blush” of Billy Ray Cyrus’ neck, “The Nineties” continues to spin in a pessimistic direction. This cartoonishly mundane period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the World Trade Center may sound like some today’s calm before the storm.