For those of us who grew up in the fearful 1980s — with its industrial disputes, IRA bombs, football hooliganism, and threat of nuclear war — the 1990s felt like blessed relief. It might not quite have been the End of History, but there was a tangible mood of liberation; a world free from communism and terrorism. The careless abandon of Britpop — whether it be the cheery, matey Blur variety, or the libertine “whatever” Oasis incarnation — epitomised a sensation of release. And this was just in Britain.
The tumultuous events that ensued in the following decades — 9/11, the global downturn of 2008, Islamist terrorism, the Brexit wars, the culture wars, Covid-19, and right now the prospect of a Cold War rerun — have amplified a rose-tinted view of the 1990s. Not only were those just good times: they were a blissful aberration, when the permanent grimness of reality was put on hold.
Chuck Klosterman, author of The Nineties, is a couple of years older than me and a fellow member of Generation X. He is well aware that writing history is subjective when the author has lived through the era in question. But then again, having listened to all the best music of the 1990s (Pixies, Nirvana), watched all the best television shows of that decade (Frasier, Friends, The Simpsons), and followed the contours, shifts and episodes of society and culture (Blair, Clinton, the internet), he’s in a good position to remember and to judge.
“It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive. There were still nuclear weapons, but there was not going to be a nuclear war. The internet was coming, but reluctantly, and there was no reason to believe it would be anything but awesome”. And, on the simultaneously popular and disgraced US President: “Clinton instinctually reflected the ambivalence of the era in an optimistic way. Relative to the rest of the twentieth century, the nineties were a good time to be a president, and he was a good president for good times.”
But, whilst these were notionally good times, but also ones typified by angst. This uneasy duality was captured in one word: “whatever”. If Oasis’s 1994 “Whatever” was a declaration of hedonism, for Nirvana it was resigned nihilism. In their anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain intoned “Oh well, whatever, never mind”. This, writes Klosterman, was “a Gen X aphorism so-on-the-nose it would have been ridiculed it would have been ridiculed if the Gen X proboscis were not still in utero. There was a sense he was almost inventing intellectual apathy”.
The Janus-faced consensus of the 1990s blended apathetic nonchalance with satisfied cheeriness. Cold War over, history ended, the left-right dicohomoty subsumed by anti-ideological pragmatism: there was little worth caring about anymore. To paraphrase Metallica, nothing else mattered.
No wonder postmodernism as a counter-ideology captured minds in the 1990s. It placed itself above and beyond politics by emphasising cynicism and transitoriness, and doubting everything from the foundations of knowledge to words themselves. It saw only salvation and escape in play: dichotomies broke down, and the divide between reality and fiction collapsed.
Yet for all its immense erudition and insight, The Nineties is episodic
A part of this post-modernist thrill was seen in the trial and tribulations of OJ Simpson — the lives of ordinary people became entertainment. The films of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino weren’t old morality tales, but films about films. The protagonists didn’t speak like real people — as one expects in the cinema — but knowingly and conspicuously like characters speaking rehearsed lines. Introspective irony triumphed.
This trope of irony appears throughout the book. Klosterman’s take on the self-referential hyperreality of Seinfeld is brilliant and hilarious. He also probes postmodernism’s dark side with a thoughtful passage on The Matrix, the film that collapsed the frail division between reality and the unknown world beyond.
Yet for all its immense erudition and insight, The Nineties is episodic. It doesn’t have a convincing or unifying theme. His 1990s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ended on September 11, 2001: in between is a void.
Klosterman doesn’t take postmodernism seriously enough: he treats it as a fad, which it was. But it was also the godfather of many of our discontents — of our culture’s sanctification of subjectivity over reason. The crude application of Michel Foucault’s philosophy, which deemed knowledge the mere product of power, had started to trickle down in the 1990s. Environmentalism also began to fill the political vacuum of the time, with its allied appeal to an anti-human and anti-modern postmodern mood. But it hardly features here at all.
To sum up the spirit of the 1990s, one might venture to call it “caring”. The description was touted at the time by those who hoped that the decade would be the antithesis to the selfish, brash, ambitious, utterly unironic 1980s. To be emotional, subjective and compassionate was to be above and beyond capitalism and communism — both so rooted in a cold, callous rational world. We were soft and lazy back then.
What else could better symbolise the triumph of compassion than the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997? The mandatory grieving and hysteria that followed her death pointed to a more invidious aspect of the compassion cultivated in the decade: political correctness. It was the idea that we should aspire to a kinder outlook by using inclusive and inoffensive language. But political correctness has since evolved into a more sinister woke morality of aggressive empathy, the enforcement of niceness, with the ultimate taboo of “being offensive”.
The 1990s might have started in 1989 and ended in 2001, but back then, today’s arbiters of a new moral code had only just been born. Ah well, nevermind.
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