Extra-metatextuality: A Review of Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties: A Book
Chuck Klosterman’s tenure as pop culture’s critic par excellence began just as the 1990s came to a close; in fact, according to his newest book, The Nineties (Penguin Random House, 2022), it started four months before the decade officially concluded.
Klosterman’s debut, Fargo Rock City, a memoir of life as a heavy metal enthusiast in North Dakota, was released on May 22, 2001. By September 11, the ethos of the previous decade had come crashing down along with the Twin Towers. Nevertheless, Klosterman’s breakthrough book, the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, was wholly mired in the 90s in both subject and approach. Topics included the television show Saved by the Bell, sex icon Pamela Anderson, the Left Behind novels, MTV’s The Real World, and other fin de siècle ephemera. With his second book, Klosterman encapsulated how 90s pop culture was interpreted while also expanding the list of once undeserving subjects now considered worthy of attention and scrutiny. Most significantly, though, was that Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs simultaneously heralded the critical approach of what followed: Klosterman’s brand of armchair pop philosophy prefigured the voices of the internet.
An essay scholastically scrutinizing Saved by the Bell seemed novel in 2003, although this is precisely what much of the culture of the 90s was up to. Talky films by Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Richard Linklater, as well as shows like Seinfeld and books like David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again– were all engaged in playful critiques of popular culture. Consider the detailed examination of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs, or the elaborate debate about what makes up a food court in Mallrats, or any episode of Seinfeld. Of course, this style of writing wasn’t invented in the 90s. It owes a debt to New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Joan Didion, as well as critics like Susan Sontag and Lester Bangs. What made Klosterman different was his autodidacticism. He didn’t need a platform like a feature film or magazine reportage (of the 18 essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, only two had been previously published); all he needed was persepctive paired with experience. And instead of employing obscure books or esoteric subcultures, Klosterman dealt with phenomena that many of us are familiar with. The ubiquity of his subjects was part of their appeal. To make such essays on the mundane successful, one requires intelligence and imagination. Still, on the surface, Klosterman’s work seems infectiously permissive. One could read him and think: Hey, I could do that.
And a lot of us did. Do. Look around. Nearly every hot take on a recent hit TV show, every contrarian revision to some accepted pop culture interpretation, every reclamation of “low culture,” “guilty pleasures,” and “garbage entertainment” belongs to the same tradition as Klosterman. Most of us failed to match Klosterman’s uncanny abilities, but that didn’t stop us from papering the corridors of social media with our earnest facsimiles. Very few have risen to Klosterman’s level, but his influence has also worked against him.
In the years following Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman remained consistently productive, producing seven additional works of nonfiction and three works of fiction. He continued to write about music, sports and culture for various high-profile publications, even serving as the Ethicist for The New York Times Magazine for three years. With Bill Simmons, he co-founded the short-lived but well-respected website Grantland. He has appeared in documentaries and is a regular guest on podcasts. He even released a series of—for lack of a better term—card games called HYPERtheticals and SUPERtheticals, which are best described as a collection of 50 bizarre conversation starters.
All of which is to say that Klosterman has remained influential and relevant throughout the last two decades. He’s apprised of trends—is, in fact, part of the media generating such trends—and has a vested interest in staying updated on the latest culture. Yet his passions are primarily rooted in the eras during which he came of age. For Klosterman, who was born in 1972, this means the 80s and 90s. He returns to elements of these decades again and again (oftentimes, the exact same subjects). In Eating the Dinosaur, he writes about Nirvana and David Koresh and Friends and the Unabomber. I Wear the Black Hat features meditations on N.W.A., Andrew Dice Clay, O.J. Simpson, and Monica Lewinsky. His novel Downtown Owl is set in 1983, and his memoir Fargo Rock City moves from the 80s to the early 90s. In his journalistic memoir Killing Yourself to Live, he travels to places where famous rock musicians died (including Kurt Cobain, Great White, and Randy Rhodes). The contemporary profiles collected in Chuck Klosterman IV and Chuck Klosterman X often focus on artists whose careers began or peaked in the previous decades: Britney Spears, Bono, Metallica, Radiohead, Eddie Van Halen, Noel Gallagher, Guns N’ Roses, Kobe Bryant, Beck’s “Loser,” KISS, et al.
That Klosterman has written a book entitled The Nineties is no surprise at all; rather, it seems an inevitability. What’s surprising is how a book about all things 90s by a very 90s figure inadvertently captures what was so problematic about this period.
Early in The Nineties, Klosterman succinctly spells out the predicament of his enterprise: “It’s hard to explain the soft differences between life in the 2020s and life in the 1990s to any person who did not experience both as an adult.” For whom, then, is this book written? If communicating the nuances of 90s existence is so difficult (and it is), then should Klosterman bog his book down with lengthy contextualization? Or should he forgo such explanations and risk losing not only the younger generations but all subsequent ones? If he fails to adequately introduce—in terms of posterity—the rap group 2 Live Crew, will readers born during and after the 90s not quite grasp their significance? On the other hand, when Klosterman does provide contextual details (as when he informs us that “The Matrix was a sci-fi action film about a computer-simulated world constructed during a war between humans and self-aware computers”), the explanation feels unnecessary.
This is a common problem in nonfiction in general: are you writing for experts or neophytes? But when temporality enters the equation, the situation becomes even more complicated. Klosterman jokes in Chuck Klosterman X about this very thing:
The opening line of the subsequent feature is, “I probably don’t need to tell you who Royce White is.” I then spend the next two hundred words pedantically explaining who, in fact, Royce White is (because that’s how journalism works). But it’s a good thing I did, because he’s pretty much evaporated from the popular culture. The average basketball fan has already deleted him from memory.
I became a relatively devoted NBA fan in 2015, and I had never heard of White, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets in the first round in 2012. He caused a stir at the time for demanding a contract that addressed mental illness in the league. He ended up playing in only three games for a total of three minutes and recorded no points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks. He played his final game in March, 2014, and yet I, who started watching the NBA less than a year later, first heard about him when I read Klosterman’s piece in 2017 (when X was published) and haven’t heard a single mention of him since.
Nonfiction often involves guesswork as to one’s readers: explain too little, you risk alienation; explain too much, you risk condescension. Add time to the mix and shit gets twisted. If Klosterman—and culture in general—couldn’t predict that in less than a year a contentious young draft prospect would vanish from the zeitgeist, how can we possibly estimate what information will be common knowledge in five years? Ten years? A hundred? For Klosterman, this isn’t a passing predicament: he wrote an entire book about this phenomenon. But What If We’re Wrong wonders which present-day and seemingly uncontroversial assumptions will be proven wildly incorrect in the future. He is keenly aware of the issue. Moreover, he’s aware of the capricious nature of cultural paradigms, as he writes near the end of The Nineties: “The process of revisionism is constant. It happens so regularly that it often seems like the only reason to appraise any present-tense cultural artifact is to help future critics explain why the original appraisers were wrong.”
Reading The Nineties, then, is an endeavor mired in extra-metatextuality, as one of the “original appraisers” of that era was Klosterman himself. The 90s was a time in which the ennui of the privileged, particularly that of affluent white men, dominated the cultural landscape. Films like Kicking and Screaming, Falling Down, American Beauty, Office Space, and Fight Club extended sympathy to men who felt bored, emasculated, or fed up. The adjective “overeducated” was used as a quasi-slur as if it weren’t a fuck-you to those for whom education was placed out of reach. Monica Lewinsky received much more vitriol for her role in Bill Clinton’s affair than the President did (in fact, his approval ratings rose). But for these too-smart-for-their-own-good, financially secure white men, the most important problems were abstract, ponderous, and philosophically lofty. They felt that their concerns mattered more than those of anyone on the pavement, people whose political and social struggles were viewed as less interesting.
These men lived a life of amiable devil’s advocacy.
Consider Klosterman’s essay “Ten Seconds to Love.” Published in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, it argues that Pamela Anderson was her generation’s Marilyn Monroe, as both represent the “sexual archetype” of their respective periods. Throughout the piece, Klosterman uses words like “bimbo,” “whore,” and “slut.” He uses the phrase “107-pound public orgasmatron.” The piece opens with Klosterman watching the notorious Pamela-Tommy Lee sex tape, as he did “every holiday season,” as if the video were his “version of It’s a Wonderful Life,” but never once does he mention the nonconsensual nature of the tape’s release. To him, Anderson has “never been a person.” Instead, she exists as a symbol and so the damage done to her life is beside the point. Coincidentally (and predictably), this February, Hulu premiered a much-anticipated limited series about the sex tape scandal, a show they made without Anderson’s participation.
Her consent still doesn’t matter.
The point isn’t to scorn an essay Klosterman wrote two decades ago but to demonstrate how at the time he could publish such work and receive not only no significant criticism but overt praise. It’s unlikely that Klosterman would write something like that today but back then, such was the landscape. Klosterman is, again, aware of this shift. In The Nineties, he writes about American Beauty in exactly this way: “Almost every key point in American Beauty—dissatisfaction with a traditional livelihood, the invisible loneliness of a sexless marriage, the shame of homosexuality, the longing for one’s past, even the difficulty of buying pot—have come to represent pathetic dilemmas younger audiences consider opulent micro-concerns.” Neither does Klosterman lament these changes. He doesn’t defend American Beauty or claim that today’s audiences are too sensitive. Instead, he attempts to communicate why, for instance, a film about an unsympathetic lech could not only earn $350 million at the box office but also win Best Picture at the Oscars. Instead of examining why the culture has changed, he remains interested in how the culture once was. At times, he relies on explanations of the “That’s just how things were” variety, but the culture was the way it was, in part, because people like Klosterman dominated it. A world run by white, heteronormative, and affluent men would, of course, consider a film like American Beauty to be profoundly insightful. This same group vilified Lewinsky while lionizing Clinton. They objected to songs like Body Count’s “Cop Killer ” while acquitting cops who kill.
As Klosterman isn’t in the business of diagnosing society’s structural ills (past or present), the absence of such political diagnoses makes sense. What interests Klosterman is using cultural flotsam to interpret life. In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he mentions that he’s never seen an episode of The X-Files because he “isn’t interested in trying to understand culture by understanding that particular show.” Many of us interpret a piece of art in and of itself; Klosterman views any piece of art as a tool with which to dissect life, a lens through which to see the world. In linguistics, there is the denotative meaning of a word (its literal definition) and the connotative meaning (what such a word suggests by association). As a critic, Klosterman focuses entirely on the latter.
You can see this approach in the sentences themselves. He repeatedly tells us what the typical interpretation might be, only to then explain why it’s actually something else altogether. Here are some examples of the quintessential Klostermanian analytical construction:
The reason these authors [Mark Leyner and Elizabeth Wurtzel] remain so evocative of the nineties is not that they were popular (though both of them were), not that they were polarizing (which they still are), and not that they were shackled with the “voice of a generation” designation (which is something that happens to young writers so regularly that the title is worthless). It has more to do with how their literary personas—perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps on purpose—caricatured the kind of audacious charisma most vehemently criticized by those who longed to possess it.
What’s compelling about this assertion is not what it suggests, or the fact that Negroponte was (mostly) correct. What’s compelling is the vigor of his conviction.
The nineties’ ambivalence regarding steroids was not a case of the public rejecting what perceptibly impossible. It was the public accepting the implausible, based on the best evidence available.
Mass popularity is a zero-sum game that will always confirm whatever is offered as the explanation, so any espoused theory behind why certain things got huge is not that illuminating. But what’s revelatory are the values that hugeness expressed, on purpose of by chance.
Klosterman has been writing such grammatically structured points his entire career. It’s how he positions himself as a critic: I am not interested in what’s conventionally understood or easily graspable; I’m interested, instead, in the layers that either exist deep underneath those ideas or hover loftily above them. It’s what makes his essays and books so fun—it allows us to reconsider accepted wisdom. He doesn’t make art to understand the world; he uses art as materials to do so, even if the initial intention behind the art was different (even precisely oppositional) to how he employs it. It’s what makes Klosterman Klosterman. But it’s also, as he puts it, “a very nineties way to think about a problem.”
The 90s were a heyday for the armchair philosopher, and The Nineties hauls this figure back out. Zima and Crystal Clear Pepsi exemplify how we used to “pretend dumbness was smart.” The college football postseason (which often had two champions, decided by vote, meaning no one was certain who was the real champ) represents one of the last bastions of “the age of not knowing things.” The anti-commercialist attitudes of the time are productively contrasted with the anti-capitalism of today. The advent of the video store becomes the breeding ground for the era’s pedantic auteurs. Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid “embodies the low-level dissonance built into any culture of change.” And there are loads of keen insights into 90s staples like the landline:
Modern people worry about smartphone addiction, despite the fact that landlines exercised much more control over the owner. If you needed to take an important call, you just had to sit in the living room and wait for it. There was no other option. If you didn’t know where someone was, you had to wait until that person wanted to be found. You had to trust people, and they had to trust you.
All of these arguments and insights are engrossing to read. Klosterman’s writing has always been the kind you move through quickly and joyfully, and The Nineties is no exception. It may be, in fact, Klosterman’s most impressive achievement.
What kept occurring to me as I read the book, though, was a sense that, although Klosterman achieves what he set out to accomplish, there was some extra-textual awareness intruding on my experience. He notes in the book’s opening pages that the 90s were “a remarkably easy time to be alive” before amending that statement a paragraph later in a parenthetical: “when I write, ‘it was a remarkably easy time to be alive,’ I only refer to those for whom it was, and for whom it usually is.” Klosterman writes about these people, which is natural since he’s covering pop culture and politics and sports—celebrities, in other words. This is what he’s always covered. But as I moved through The Nineties, I began to wonder about the people on the periphery, those for whom it wasn’t an easy time to live. Prominent figures and influential artists are important to parse, but so are those whom the dominant culture ignored. Klosterman has written an excellent book on an important era; someday someone else will write a very different one from a very different vantage point. I’m not criticizing Klosterman’s book but rather using it to illustrate a larger issue, which is, after all, how reading Chuck Klosterman for twenty years has taught me to think.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.