Check flannel shirts

The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman, Penguin

Chuck Klosterman tends to view history through the lens of American popular culture, so it’s probably natural that he doesn’t accept the conventional view that the nineties began early – in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Actually, others might agree with him, since in Russia, for example, they didn’t think the fall of the Wall was a particularly big thing, considering what was going on at the centre of the USSR at the time. It was not the catalyst some in the West think it was.) Seeing as American culture is bigger than America, he probably has a point. Through his particular lens, he sees Nirvana’s success with Nevermind as the beginning of the nineties. This is, of course, laughably subjective, but any demarcation not based on strict chronology is going to be somewhat arbitrary. And it’s hard to disagree with him, as something shifted in popular culture at the time, even if Nirvana was symbolic of it, rather than driving it, and even if the shift probably feels more significant now than it did then. This distinction is important because Klosterman argues that the book, rather than being a work of nostalgia, tries, as difficult as this might be, to capture the spirit of the times rather than what have come to remember as the spirit of the times. Then again, he also says that thinking about something is just as important as the original experience, so, you know… This shift in perspective, in a way, is what he argues for in the book But What if We’re Wrong? But in that book, he asks how we might view the present as if it’s the past, getting past our contemporary biases. This is, obviously, not so easy. So, while he’s trying to capture what it felt like in the nineties, he also, elsewhere, suggests, we can’t really understand what it was like until we are past it. 

After the eighties, Nirvana seemed symbolic of the downsizing in ambition. And after the eighties, really, where else was there to go but down? Cultural phenomena that persisted in an eighties way into the nineties, such as the TV show Dallas or Guns N’ Roses’ double album Use Your Illusion did begin to seem bloated. Klosterman’s key claim about the nineties is related to slacker culture: that it wasn’t cool to be successful. Authenticity was more important. It’s debatable how widespread this attitude was, or became, in the Gen X mindset. But even if that mindset was a ‘sliver’ of wider society (is ‘sliver’ a sly movie reference?), Gen X is important because much of nineties culture was defined by Gen X, who were coming (reluctantly, it seemed) into adulthood. Gen X were more isolated and disaffected (studies show!). Klosterman sees this manifested in the plot of the film Reality Bites, where Winona Ryder’s character, stuck in a love triangle, opts for the authentic jerk rather than the nice sell-out (as Klosterman would put it).

There was a weird dynamic between alternative and mainstream, in that, suddenly, what was alternative and fringe, because it was too edgy to be popular, became popular, and then, by pure definition, shouldn’t have been alternative, but tried to remain so. (This didn’t go for all musical styles – proponents of alt-country and various dance music iterations were happy to be more mainstream.) Kurt Cobain personified the tortured dilemma this created in the artist. If you were true to your own vision, artistically speaking, and you were successful because of that, you could be accused of selling out even if you never strayed from your vision. This might explain a disproportionate gloominess of much of the music of the period.

The success of Nirvana, in hindsight, boils down to the success of the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, no matter how well-rounded, at the time, it was decided the album that harboured it was. And even then, it’s, again, in hindsight, more the sound and the break it seemed to make, that has lingered. It’s not like the song is on high rotation on radio now. But it’s a good example of a cultural icon that now seems bigger in retrospect. At the time, Nirvana were outsold by other grunge acts. Guns N’ Roses were arguably as big at the time. (The Use Your Illusion albums also came out in late 1991.) And Van Halen won the MTV award for best video in 1992, well after Nevermind was released.

The song consisted of a string of not entirely coherent sentiments – the idea was a kind of ‘whatever’ anthem. It was primal and desperate. The ‘whatever, never mind’ lyric was both ironically dismissive but also sad. The difference with what had come before was the punk ‘I don’t care’ attitude, although this was ironic again because Cobain cared a lot about what people thought; it’s just that he moved away from the hubris of pop metal which was, superficially at least, similar to his own music. This lack of hubris, dragged kicking and screaming into the mainstream, was what made metal suddenly look ridiculous, and dealt a fatal blow to metal. (Until it revived.) And other eighties acts, such as the likes of INXS, who were more rock than pop, were not sure where they stood, as the ground had shifted.

Yet it’s not like a rawer spirit hadn’t already been affecting rock anyway. Although U2’s Achtung Baby was released a couple of months after Nevermind, U2 had been recording it for a year. Intent on reinventing their sound, they borrowed from the industrial and indie rock that had already been around for years, as well as from dance music. The record was polished and conventional enough, but it retained some of that rhythmically industrial sound. Considering where they are now, it’s easy to forget the risks they were taking. And it shows that shifts were underway already, as they always are. In the flow of history there are both currents and waterfalls.  

Now it seems Nirvana spearheaded a seismic shift. Did it feel like it at the time? Yes and no. I remember hearing Nevermind for the first time and it felt thrillingly raw and dangerous. If you were previously a pop metal fan, as Klosterman was, it was different. But Cobain himself didn’t think so, and no doubt most in the baby boomer generation wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana – the music of both probably seemed like harsh rock with vocals more screaming than singing. Besides, both Axl Rose and Cobain wore check flannel shirts. (The fact I am writing about shirts indicates music is about more than music.) But where Axl Rose seemed ambitious, Cobain had a sort of existential crisis over the perceived inversely proportional relationship of commercial success and authenticity. By this stage, pop metal bands seemed like poseurs. Grunge seemed more authentic. Yet Klosterman notes, ironically, both that metal bands quickly dressed down to look grunge, and record deals were handed out indiscriminately to anyone with a flannel shirt in Seattle.

Of course, the changes in that decade involved more than music, even if music can often tell us something about the wider culture. The twenty-first century was always envisaged to bring major technological change, but it wasn’t with jetpacks. The nineties saw the beginnings of widespread internet and mobile phone use, even if both were not all-pervasive like they are today. Klosterman suggests that the nineties were the last decade that felt self-contained. (And he goes on to doubt that the 2000s will feel alien to us in ten years’ time.) The internet probably has a lot to do with this. Klosterman argues, building on the theories of others, that the internet has modified our sense of space and time – we live in a perpetual present, with any time in the recent past instantly accessible, and distance broken down, in regards to access to information and communication. Where we used to go out to the library for information, the internet allowed us to stay home. Where we used to wait at home by the phone for important calls, the mobile phone allowed us to go out. This all began in the nineties, but the restructuring of our lives happened after, particularly with social media, which was non-existent in the nineties.

The new technologies also changed the value of pop culture. Klosterman writes about how TV used to be both more and less important – you had to schedule your life around a favourite TV show. But missing particular episodes was just a part of life that people dismissed with a shrug – what could you do? People recorded things on video, sure, but not all the time. Now, TV series in particular are more like longer versions of movies, and this is only possible because we can easily watch all of a series, and that is because we can watch whenever we want, because of the internet.

Klosterman repeatedly (online) tells the anecdote of how, when he was a child in the eighties, he owned five cassettes (that’s all he could afford), which he knew intimately. In the eighties, and continuing into the nineties, we had a deep relationship to record collections, whereas today listeners have a broad relationship with music. Everything is theoretically accessible, but that means a loss of depth. Klosterman argues this is a ‘neutral’ – it’s just a change in accessibility, but one also suspects he is nostalgic for the old days. He indicates there is a tension here between the passion for the music and its availability. The spread of MP3s in the late nineties, and the possibility of wide file-sharing, altered things. Songs became detached from the flow of albums and detached from the physical object. After the nineties, the experience of listening to popular music was significantly different. Again, it didn’t feel that significant at the time of transition, but eventually it was an avalanche.

Klosterman’s own interests are the popular triumvirate of sports, music and TV. Well, movies too. Maybe it’s four, but you can lump movies and TV together possibly. Anyway, he has chapters on Clinton, and Bush and Gore, but they are still viewed through the lens of popular culture. He’s not as interested in policy as he is in the popular perception of the president. Global politics don’t come into it much. And his view of culture is, as I said, very American-centric. In the UK, Blair and Oasis, and Britpop generally were huge, beyond the borders of the UK too. You wouldn’t know it from this book. Geopolitically, there was not just the fall of the USSR (which actually occurred into the 90s, not in Berlin), but the dominance of kleptocrats in Russia, which eventually led to Putin, Ukraine, etc. Though perhaps Klosterman is right in noting that in the West things felt insular. When times are good, one looks inwards. September 11 blew that apart, not because of the event itself – terrorism was around, and the World Trade Centre had been targeted before – but because of what followed, including a realisation in the US that global culture wasn’t just headed in the same Westerly direction.

You can disagree with Klosterman on what was significant, and what was significant for him is extrapolated out to what was important in the nineties, and you can just assume he means ‘in the United States and possibly a little bit beyond that but not much’. But that’s half the fun. This book is the equivalent of the sometimes-interminable discussions about culture at the pub or wherever that engage people. As Klosterman says, he’s not foisting his opinions on people, it’s just fun to debate these things.

Still, and in that spirit, you could argue that, for one, Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites is not unique in choosing the authentic jerk. The rebel character staying true to oneself while annoying the rest of society and not taking responsibility is a staple, from Houlden Caulfield to Jim Stark. The rebel gets the girl. There would have been plenty of people in the nineties who would’ve been surprised to hear that it was uncool to make money or be successful, Michael Jordan, for one. Nirvana didn’t kill ambitious rock – see Oasis. Television changed, but one of the biggest shows of the nineties was The X-Files, which was just a combination of The Twilight Zone and all those eighties detective shows, the best of which was probably Moonlighting. E.R was one of those ensemble dramas that just focussed on a hospital instead of a police station. Seinfeld was not that different to Frasier. There is competition between breaks and continuity – which prevailed? (Klosterman himself is savvy enough to recognise that in a hundred years the nineties might not seem as distinctive as they do now, so this is not a criticism of Klosterman per se.)

Oh, and I’m pretty sure that phone on the front cover of the book is from the eighties.


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