Klosterman’s reflections on the 1990s are sure to spark debate
Chuck Klosterman quickly recognizes his prejudices. On page 8 of The ninetieshis new non-fiction book, the American author and pop culture critic devotes a long, amusing footnote to his “service as a demographic cliche”: Born in North Dakota in 1972, he is a cis man white heterosexual “whose experience through the 90s comically fit the media caricature of Gen X…” backwards baseball caps, cardigans and all.
If you are a reader whose experiences also place you in this demo, The nineties will make you feel seen in a way uncommon for those in the neglected cohort of people born between 1965 and 1980: it’s your book.
That’s not to say that Klosterman’s coasting journey over the past decade to have a monolithic mainstream culture (before the internet irrevocably split it) can’t be enjoyed by anyone. It’s erudite and funny and pulls together theories using a dazzling array of cultural references, but it’s sure to be best enjoyed by those in their twenties when Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit arrived, readers who said there was a chapter named after a song by Ben Folds.
It’s impossible to encompass all the ways, both significant and mundane, in which our world changed between 1990 and 2000 (or thereabouts – Klosterman has his bookend theories), but the Fargo Rock City the author certainly gives it the old college try, and it’s largely a pleasure to parse out its arguments.
Particularly pungent are his explorations of the supposed characteristics of Generation X, as illustrated in the film reality hurts (“The concept of ‘selling’ – and the extent to which this notion has altered the meaning and perception of almost everything – is the most 90s aspect of the 90s”, he writes) and a chapter that uses The matrix, Timothy McVeigh, OJ Simpson, The Clarence Thomas Trial, Fox News, and Columbine to talk about the effect television has on our construction of reality.
Of course, there are pitfalls in trying to sum up the zeitgeist of an entire decade, and Klosterman falls into several of them.
The nineties is predominantly American; while Canadians are obviously inundated with American news and politics, the chapters on presidential elections and baseball may not be universally applicable.
Klosterman also makes sweeping generalizations that initially seem true but do not hold up to scrutiny. In his intro, trying to identify how the era differed from anything before or after it, he mentions that if you missed an episode of Seinfeld, you just missed it unless you caught it in replays, adding “but of course that limitation wasn’t something people were worried about because caring so much about anyone what TV show wasn’t a normal thing to do. And even if it was, you’d pretend you weren’t, because it was in the 90s.”
Feigned apathy was certainly a thing, but even the school-coolest Gen Xers were deeply invested in television; we wouldn’t have missed an episode of twin peaks that we would have abandoned our Doc Martens.
Some of the examples he uses to prove his point are simple and don’t hold water: Crash Test Dummies’ mmm mmm mmm mmm does not fit into the category of “songs where ‘the lead singer did not sing or rap but rather spoke monotonously and nonsensically over atmospheric background music’; one could argue strenuously that the Flaming Lips She doesn’t use jelly is not a “novelty song”.
But that’s part of the joy of books like this – they inspire strident disagreement and impassioned defenses in equal measure. Person who writes the phrase “So much time and effort has gone into the star wars the obsession that the film has been mentally reimagined as something it never was: a film about human emotion, made for adult humans” isn’t bad for a fight.
Of course, the stereotypical Gen X reader might just ignore and say, “Well, whatever, whatever.”
Jill Wilson is a Free Press editor born in 1971 whose photo appeared on the front page of that newspaper’s arts section in 1994 in an article about the new generation known as the X.
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
Read the full biography