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A Decade About Nothing

There’s an old Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times!”. Well, the 1990s were interesting and I lived through them. They’re now a good ways behind us in the rearview of life, chronologically and culturally. So, no surprise that I enjoyed reading the book entitled The Nineties, A Book (truth in advertising there!) by Chuck Klosterman. But I’m not sure I’d like Mr. Klosterman quite as much.

The ’90s were interesting…just not as interesting as the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or the decades which have come after it. It was all in all, a comparatively docile, almost boring time when, on the grand scale, not a lot happened. There were two minor skirmishes in the Middle East but the Cold War had ended, temporarily as it now would seem, acts of terrorism were generally small, localized and more often than not overseas, putting North American minds at ease. Most economies were doing just fine… at least on our side of the world. Russia was struggling a little, but at least they were peaceful and electing their leaders, so we figured all was dandy in that part of the world. And for people like myself, it was when our generation – Generation X – found a name and its footing in the Grown-up world. Klosterman speaks to all these topics and much more in his book, a decent summation of the 10 years, or 12, we call the ’90s. Wait – I can hear you saying “12? A decade by definition is 10 years!”. True as that might be, Klosterman suggests the “’90s” began in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting Germany and putting a visual to the concept of the “Iron Curtain” dissipating and freedom sweeping former Communist lands. And it ended, he argues, on Sep. 11, 2001, when the carefree days of the ’90s suddenly came crashing to the ground.

Overall, its a nice, nostalgic look back at the decade when people still generally considered a phone something attached to your wall that you called to talk to people on and when you had to be home on Thursday nights to see “Must See TV”, or else… you missed them (unless your VHS was set up and didn’t go on the fritz). No binge watching a whole season on the weekend back then, needless to say.

Which leads to the biggest change-maker of the decade – the internet. Only by 2000, many Americans still couldn’t comprehend how much of a life-changing factor the “World Wide Web” was going to be. But as the author points out, at the time, about half the population didn’t have internet access, or in many cases any interest in obtaining it and those who did probably used AOL and to get there had to listen to half a minute of screeching sounds as their dial-up modem connected. Newspaper readership was still about the same in 2000 as it had been about 30 years prior and Napster was in the process of being shut down but seemed like a college phenomenon to most older people who still bought their music. On CDs – compact disc sales actually peaked in the year 2000, at just under one billion units in the U.S. alone. By 2010, they’d be a quarter of that.

Klosterman looks over the big news events of the ’90s like the brief Gulf War, the “Waco seige” (as someone who knows many people in Waco, I can add that the locals hate that description and almost invariably point out that the compound and the uprising took place some 20 miles away from the city), the Columbine shooting and of course, O.J. Simpson. He has some interesting details and insights into each and lets his opinions show through. He refers to O.J.,like so many of us do, as a killer who got away with it : “two people had been brutally killed by a familiar celebrity.”

And of course he reminds us of Monica Lewinsky and the man who made her a household name, Bill Clinton. He writes a lot about Clinton.

As befitting a book by a Gen X-er about the ’90s, he also looks back at pop culture. How alternative music became the norm. How Seinfeld and Friends ruled the TV world. He disliked both but preferred Seinfeld, it would seem because being a “show about nothing” was different and fit the times. Curiously, he forgets to give a shout-out to the ultimate TV symbol of the times, the Simpsons. To him, it only merited one passing brief mention, in context of a movie it spoofed . He mentions how Titanic succeeded to not only make a profit but become the biggest movie ever at the time, despite long odds against it. He correctly notes that for all the hype about Nirvana, Garth Brooks sold more records that decade than anybody else. In his opinion by taking on the persona of a classic rock macho man, dressed up in a country costume, to replace the aging rockers made redundant by the Seattle grungers.

Which leads to my personal beef with the book. While it’s great Klosterman expresses his own opinions, I find them at times both contradictory and sometimes condescending. He’s the typical hipster art snob in places, the one who thinks that Quentin Tarantino was the only person making worthwhile movies but wasn’t elevated to James Cameron or Steven Spielberg heights because only a tiny handful of people like Quentin and himself were smart enough to understand them. And then he writes as much about Reality Bites as almost any other film or cultural event, but only to detail how it only appealed to us Gen X types because everyone else could see how idiotic the Winona Ryder character was in it. He seems to in places deride Nirvana but then spends three pages praising “Smells like Teen Spirit” suggesting will still be a cultural cornerstone 50 or 100 years from now and that it , and only it, changed the face of popular music. “(it) is not transposable. It had to be this song, delivered by this person.” (Italics his, not mine.) But then he casually suggests in that time period, Pavement might have been the best band in the world, while limiting R.E.M. to a brief passing reference and forgetting about U2 – the biggest touring rock act of the decade – altogether. Such are the contradictions of Klosterman. Which are expanded when looking at politics.

While seemingly identifying himself as a “progressive” rather than even a “liberal” or “Democrat”, he barely disguises his disdain for President Clinton, although he grudgingly admits “the Nineties were a good time to be president and (Clinton) was a good president for good times.” Much of this was due to Clinton’s willingness to compromise to get things done, but more than anything it seemed to revolve around Ms. Lewinsky. He states that a “progressive” a decade or two from now will not be able to comprehend how “slick Willy” could be elected, let alone twice, and worse yet, have been popular! Whether or not you agree with that, or somehow think Arkansas Bill was the very first president to have sex outside of his marriage, it seems incredible that the left-wing Progressive writer in turn had no real complaints about Clinton’s bookends, Presidents Bush 1 and 2. In fact, he didn’t see any differences between George W. and Al Gore, other than people thought Bush wasn’t as condescending and would be nicer to have a beer with. Perhaps correct, but it seems silly to suggest that Bush pushed the same agenda Gore and the Democrats did, and sillier yet to suggest the American public didn’t care at all who won the election and were bored with the recounts and tussle after the 2000 election. He must have been on another planet to have experienced it that way; I was in a different country but saw day after day of stories about the election and the protests about it in the news and how high the fevers ran on both sides.

However, he might be right in suggesting that in the end, the course of the country for the 2000s might not have been as influenced by the “hanging chads” as we thought then. About nine months after Florida was officially called for Bush’s favor, who knows what would have happened had Gore been in the White House. Because then the World Trade Center came crashing down and as Klosterman states, all at once, “the Nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”

The Nineties. Sort of a “decade about nothing”…which isn’t such a bad thing we now can see.