Culture

Review: The Nineties: A Book

Culture critic Chuck Klosterman's latest covers Nirvana, the first Iraq war, American Beauty, Waco, VCRs, and Ross Perot.

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Today, "if you ask a semi-educated young person to identify the root cause of most American problems, there's a strong possibility they will say, 'Capitalism.'" In the '90s, the more probable answer "would have been commercialism." So observes the wide-ranging culture critic Chuck Klosterman in The Nineties: A Book.

Without pronouncing judgment on the shift, the book riffs on it for a few pages before morphing into an analysis of the song "Achy Breaky Heart," then segueing to Garth Brooks, Seinfeld, and Titanic.

That's the overall experience of reading The Nineties—a collection of breezy and dryly humorous dispatches from our current moment about iconic events, artifacts, postures, and controversies from three decades ago. There's Nirvana and the first Iraq war; Google and steroids in baseball; American Beauty, Ebonics, and Waco; VCRs, Crystal Pepsi, and Ross Perot.

There is no overarching theme, and perhaps there couldn't be. Anyone imposing a neat message on 10 years of disparate events and trends is probably trying too hard to sell you on something.

But there are preoccupations, like how some of today's obsessions—politics, personal branding—were less important ("political engagement was still viewed as optional") or even anathema (people of the '90s had "an adversarial relationship with the unseemliness of trying too hard").

Klosterman frequently contrasts how things were perceived in the '90s with how they are or would be seen now. But he doesn't cater to modern readers by insisting today's evaluations are superior.

Much of what Klosterman writes seems obvious once he writes it, but in a way you wouldn't have been able to articulate beforehand. Far from stuffy cultural analysis, it feels like reminiscing with a witty, nerdy, insightful friend.