The Nineties: A Book

The Nineties: A Book



The Pequod Review:

With The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman takes on the impossible task of synthesizing a decade of cultural history into a single book. He does not come close to succeeding, but his review of key moments from the decade — O.J. Simpson, Ross Perot, Titanic, Nirvana, the Oklahoma City bombing, etc. — has a certain nostalgic charm. And while most of his narrative is quite superficial as it bounces from one cultural event to another, he occasionally has some deeper observations. Early on, he nails the anti-sellout ethos that was widespread among many adolescents and young adults:

In the nineties, doing nothing on purpose was a valid option, and a specific brand of cool became more important than almost anything else. The key to that coolness was disinterest in conventional success. The nineties were not an age for the aspirant. The worst thing you could be was a sellout, and not because selling out involved money. Selling out meant you needed to be popular, and any explicit desire for approval was enough to prove you were terrible.

The paradox is that the indoctrination of these attitudes had little impact on how the decade actually unspooled. The nineties ethos was deeply internalized but sporadically applied. The number of midlevel celebrities increased, as did the public appetite for personality-driven news. Unemployment peaked in ’92 but decreased thereafter. The economy boomed, much more than it had during the wealth-obsessed administration of Ronald Reagan. Banking deregulations untethered the financial superstructure from frugal orthodoxy, most notably the 1999 repeal of legislation separating commercial banking from investment banking. Income disparity enlarged. Many of the goals now associated with the eighties did not really come into fruition until the nineties. Despite an overabundance of historical information, the collective memory of the decade tends to be simplified and minimized, dictated more by the texture of the time than by anything that transpired.

And yet: The texture is what mattered. The feeling of the era, and what that feeling supposedly signified, isolates the nineties from both its distant past and its immediate future. It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming. That was the thinking at the time.

It is not the thinking now.

Now the 1990s seem like a period when the world was starting to go crazy, but not so crazy that it was unmanageable or irreparable. It was the end of the twentieth century, but also the end to an age when we controlled technology more than technology controlled us. People played by the old rules, despite a growing recognition that those rules were flawed. It was a good time that happened long ago, although not nearly as long ago as it seems.


The concept of “selling out” — and the degree to which that notion altered the meaning and perception of almost everything — is the single most nineties aspect of the nineties. The complexity, nuance, and application of the term sellout was both ubiquitous and impossible to grasp. Nothing was more inadvertently detrimental to the Gen X psyche.

The semiotic origin of the sellout accusation is technically unknown, though musician/ critic Franz Nicolay traces the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary to 1862.[*] Its application as an artistic epithet was universally known by the time the Who released The Who Sell Out in 1967, and Bob Dylan’s use of an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival might be ground zero. By 2010, it was hard to illustrate to a young person why this act was once seen as problematic; by 2020, it was difficult to explain what the term literally expressed. But its usage and centrality peaked at the onset of the nineties. What made selling out so psychologically vexing was the level of gradation inherent to its principles: It did not simply mean someone was trying to sell something in order to get rich. It meant someone was compromising the values they originally espoused in exchange for something superficial (which was usually money, but not necessarily). This action was particularly bad if the compromised person was still doing the same work they’d done before, except now packaging that work in an attempt to make it palatable to a less discriminating audience. Since the intent mattered more than the result, the success of the attempt was almost irrelevant—selling out and failing was no better or worse than selling out and succeeding.

Every exploit was graded on a sliding scale, and those following the rules most dogmatically were sanctioned most strictly. Conversely, if your only core value was conventional success, you would never be seen as credible, but you also couldn’t be criticized for abandoning the values you never originally possessed. In 1993, The Washington Post wrote this about the DC-based punk band Fugazi: "There are three facts about Fugazi you must know: It only plays shows where age IDs are not required. It charges $ 5 admission to its shows, always. It will never, ever sign with a major record label." 

Had Fugazi reneged on any of these points (at any time), they would have been crucified. It might have ended the group. An almost fascist refusal to sell out was Fugazi’s most critical feature. This, however, only mattered to those who cared about Fugazi for both musical and nonmusical reasons. In 1994, the aging country-rock band the Eagles reunited for the hugely profitable Hell Freezes Over Tour. Ticket prices were around $ 125 apiece, roughly $ 100 higher than the national average. There were complaints about the cost, but it didn’t change the way anyone felt about the Eagles. The Eagles did not possess the potential to sell out. There was an entrenched personality requirement to this credibility code, intertwined with its stance against compromise: An unvarnished desire to be loved (especially by strangers who looked and acted nothing like your peers) was viewed as desperate and pathetic, so any attempt to alter or soften one’s persona was inauthentic and weak.

These imponderable laws and limitations colored every extension of cultural currency. Taken at face value, such rules made life complicated enough. But hipsters of the nineties added one more psychosomatic layer to the conundrum: There was, in real time, an awareness that the whole idea of criticizing people for selling out was ridiculous, even as it was actively happening. It was understood to be a teenage mentality that ignored the realities of adulthood. It punished innovation and ambition, and it was so infused with hypocrisy that the thesis barely hung together. It was a loser’s game and everybody knew it. But it was a loser’s game you still had to play. Perceiving the concept as preposterous did not make it any less pervasive.

The result was a period of communal cognitive dissonance. It was insane to take selling out seriously, yet still unforgivable to actually sell out.

Following on the same point, his analysis of the 1994 film Reality Bites is one of the most astute parts of the book:

Structured like a standard romantic comedy, [Reality Bites is] now an instruction manual for a transitory set of values that only made sense in 1994. Set in Houston, it’s a love triangle involving a talented, unemployable documentarian (Winona Ryder) simultaneously pursued by a supportive but uncool TV executive (Ben Stiller, who also directed the film) and the most paint-by-numbers Gen X character in cinema history (brilliantly embodied by Ethan Hawke). The documentarian’s best friend is a jaded pragmatist who works at the Gap and worries that she has AIDS; the best friend’s ancillary sidekick is a guy who wants to tell his mom he’s gay. Everyone is Caucasian. The entire plot — including the motives driving the love affairs — is a struggle over the meaning and consequence of selling out. The production itself is imbued with this residue: Written by aspiring poet Helen Childress and loosely based on her own friends, the script for Reality Bites went through seventy revisions and is sometimes criticized as a plastic, mainstream interpretation of the indie culture it tries to encapsulate. Ryder’s fictional character has a similar experience to Childress, allowing her gritty self-made documentary about the lives of her pals to be converted into a garish, high-concept, MTV-like docu-farce. Saturated with product placement, Reality Bites is the sellout version of the problem with selling out, which is why it portrays the problem so intuitively.

Throughout Reality Bites, we are continually reminded that this could only be happening in a specific historical moment. Nostalgia for the unexperienced seventies is central to everything: The characters dance in public to a hit from 1979. They canoodle in cars while listening to a live album from 1976. They spend their free time quizzing each other about a TV sitcom that debuted in 1974. Hawke[*] is the Byronic slacker apotheosis—he fronts an unmotivated rock band called Hey That’s My Bike, he expertly defines the word irony while recognizing the irony in doing so, and he says things like “I am not under any orders to make the world a better place.” He’s the film’s spirit animal, thriving in an era when no one would have considered a term like “spirit animal” remotely offensive. The most generationally instructive element to Reality Bites is how the love triangle resolves: Ryder chooses Hawke (who mostly treats her poorly) instead of Stiller (who mostly treats her well). The more mature Stiller buoys her financially, admires her abilities, and only wants to make her happy . . . but he’s a nineties sellout, which means he sold out on purpose. “I know why the caged bird sings,” Stiller claims, and maybe he does. That’s the problem. Meanwhile, Hawke criticizes Ryder in private and humiliates her in public. He’s a terrible boyfriend. But in the film’s final scene, they move in together, because Hawke’s version of love is authentic and Stiller’s affections are compromised (and not because of what he does, but because of who he chooses to be).

The initial reaction to Reality Bites, particularly among those outside its target market, was that Ryder picked the wrong guy. Writing as a fifty-one-year-old, Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert noted the film’s “deep-seated prejudices” toward maturity and wondered, “What unwritten law prevented the makers of Reality Bites from observing that their heroine can’t shoot video worth a damn, that their hero is a jerk, and that their villain is the most interesting person in the movie?” The consensus in ’94 was that this kind of reaction delineated the difference between those who were young and those who were old — twentysomethings viewed the Ryder-Hawke romance as idealistic and intense, while more wizened adults only saw the impractical melodrama of a doomed relationship. It was assumed that such dissonance was eternal. It wasn’t. As years have passed, each new crop of young people introduced to Reality Bites tends to see the relationship the same way Ebert did. On this one esoteric point, Boomers and Millennials are in lockstep. The language has changed (Hawke is now an example of “toxic masculinity,” Stiller a more desirable “beta male”), but the choice seems no less obvious. As it turns out, the mid-nineties were the only time when the validity of this romantic conclusion was the prevailing youth perspective. It’s an isolated, freestanding period where a person’s unwillingness to view his existence as a commodity was prioritized over another person’s actual personality. An authentic jerk was preferable to a likeable sellout.

It was a confusing time to care about things.

Any this very accurate sentence shows how much the arts (and especially music) have changed in the decades since the 1990s:

The line between what was mainstream and what was underground was extraordinarily clear, as was the line between high and low culture.

(A more interesting book would have explored this specific point in significantly greater detail.)

Despite its numerous flaws, people who lived through the decade will likely find The Nineties a fun and breezy trip.