Convincing a book publisher that you’re the right person to synthesize an entire decade of American history takes some institutional authority. The scribes who shared the second half of the 20th century were academic historians (Bruce Schulman’s The seventies), mainstream political journalists (David Halberstam’s The 50s), or a combination of the two (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and reaganland). All were serious professionals with serious credentials doing serious work.
So what does it say about the 1990s that the most remarkable retrospective of the decade so far – The nineties – was written by Chuck Klosterman, the pop culture critic who once described his binge-watching experience saved by the bell reruns as being in a “parasitic relationship”.
To borrow a stylistic tic from Klosterman, it’s not that bad. But it’s probably bigger than you think.
As Seinfeld, the defining television program of the 90s, was a show about nothing, maybe the whole decade was about nothing. So goes the dominant perspective of the rearview mirror, the idea being that Francis Fukuyama’s statement about “the end of history” might be literally true and not just a prophecy about the hegemony of liberal democracy.
If the 90s were a wasteland of world events, it makes perfect sense that the best-selling popular story of the decade would be written by a laid-back Gen Xer known for injecting navel-gazing memoirs into meta-comments on cultural detritus – rather than a public intellectual like, say, Jill Lepore.
In The nineties, Klosterman does not seek to dispel the myth that little happened between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11. He describes the period as “highly publicized and self-aware”, but so easy and trouble-free that you could argue society as a whole was “barely there”. “It was a time of ambivalence,” he writes, “defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and especially American life, was disappointing.”
Policy in The nineties is portrayed as downstream from the riches of TV pop culture. Kurt Cobain gets about as many words as Bill Clinton, and annoying former MTV personality Pauly Shore gets only slightly less attention than George HW Bush. Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich, pivotal figures on both sides of the aisle, are barely making an appearance.
Klosterman’s rationale for the book’s focus on pop culture is that technology had “accelerated culture” and changed the human relationship to reality by the 1990s. In his 2005 book, publicizedmedia theorist Thomas de Zengotita had a name for the “psychic sauna” of media representations that we glide to the surface of, like “a little god, dipping here and there” – he called it “the Blob”.
The nineties settles on a 90s pop culture reference to describe it: The matrix. the 1999 Keanu Reeves’ movie seemed to be about the future of computers, Klosterman claims, but it was actually about television (which is essentially what the recent sequel, Resurrections, is about). “The matrix resonated with so many viewers not because it was fantasy fiction, but because it wasn’t.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that the 90s were a purgatory of hyped hyperreality. Last month, the Illinois State Museum emailed me a survey to help inform an upcoming exhibit about Generation X and what it was like growing up in the 80s and 90:
Tell us about watching TV when you were a kid. Did you have cable? What was your favorite music as a teenager and what did it say about you? What role have books and magazines had in your life?
The fact that almost all of the surveys focused on media consumption preferences and habits reflected the fact that my generation, Gen X, has been inundated with mass media since the day we were born.
It is true that the Reagan and Bush years marked the twilight of the American community, of institutional faith, and of public life. What has begun to fill the void of identity and meaning is the cult of self-expression and the conspicuous consumption of pop culture. star trek was wrong: the ultimate frontier was not space — we were losing ourselves more and more exploring the cultural products constantly exported from Hollywood, Disney and Silicon Valley. Because of this solitary retreat and the absence of a hot or cold war, perhaps the 90s were like one long episode of Seinfeldthe one in which Bill Clinton yada yadas through two terms and Ralph Nader briefly appears as Kramer.
Or maybe not.
The nineties worth reading for its incisive observations on books, movies, and music, but Klosterman’s observations on politics and economics are largely about their appearance on television: the nasal voice of HW Bush, the little size of Ross Perot, Clinton’s affair show with Monica Lewinsky.
Klosterman’s worst observation of the decade is this: “This was perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still considered optional.”
This was perhaps the case with the depoliticized mass media of the time. The stereotype of the apathetic flannel-clad slacker loomed large while the pop class consciousness that influenced 70s and 80s entertainment – snobs versus slobs comedy movies like Caddyshack to sitcoms like Cheers — slowly gone. In the mid-1990s, in the era of “must-see TV,” almost everyone on screen belonged to the broad and vaguely defined professional executive class.
But that doesn’t mean everyone was a passive observer.
As leftist writer Freddie deBoer recently argued, Generation X was actually a passionately political generation in the 90s. Many students and activists fought for racial, gender and environmental justice. This wave of radicalism has been called a “politically correct” movement, provoking a backlash led by right-wing culture warriors – reminiscent of the “woke” wars of the past half-decade.
“At the time, people felt like they had never seen anything like this new generation of students, who seemed only politically engaged and committed to the rhetoric of ‘no compromise’,” deBoer writes.
It wasn’t just the kids making noise on campus. In 1991, more than seventy-five thousand people (organizers estimated it was double) marched in Washington, D.C., to protest Bush’s Persian Gulf War while smaller protests took place in dozens of cities across the country, including a gathering of thirty thousand people in San Francisco.
The left also came out in force against the World Trade Organization in 1999. In what has been dubbed the “Battle in Seattle“, more than thirty-five thousand people took to the streets in angrily protesting the for-profit capitalists pushing global free trade agreements that offered few protections for unions and the environment and more incentives for workers. companies to build sweatshops overseas.
WTO protests, Gen Xers are gone and political figures like Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders have been kicked out of VH1s I love the 90s retrospectives, and it is not surprising that they are a fringe force in Klosterman’s narrative. Also, The nineties has little to say about the bipartisan neoliberal consensus of the time, worshiping the free market, which led to the outsourcing of manufacturing, the deregulation of America’s financial systems, the strangulation of the workforce and to Clinton’s war on the welfare state that coincided with mass incarceration.
This missing story would surely be told in a 90s retrospective by Perlstein or, say, Thomas Frank. But for now, we have Klosterman, who has clearly been caught up in The Matrix for too long to separate the lived experience of the ’90s from its own media distortion.