How are Nirvana, Crystal Pepsi and Columbine related? Chuck Klosterman deconstructs 'The Nineties'

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Serving up the moments and meanings of a modern decade in a few hundred pages is no easy task, but Chuck Klosterman has managed to boil a hearty stew of insight with his new book “The Nineties” (Penguin Press, 384 pp., ★★★½ out of four, out now). Those who remember the decade as a Clinton-era wash of roaring economy punctuated by the laughs and tears of “Seinfeld,” “Titanic” and the slacker grunge-rock of Nirvana will be reminded by Klosterman in mordant style that the 1990s were our bridge to the big now of the 21st century.

Not a particularly inspiring bridge, though. “There were still nuclear weapons, but there was not going to be a nuclear war,” writes Klosterman. “The internet was coming, but slowly, and there was no reason to believe it would be anything but awesome… Concerns and anxieties were omnipresent, but the stakes were vague: Teenagers were allegedly obsessed with angst, and the explanation as to why was pondered constantly without any sufficient answer… or at least not until twelve kids were massacred by their classmates at a Colorado high school in 1999.”

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How are Nirvana, Crystal Pepsi and Columbine related? Chuck Klosterman deconstructs 'The Nineties'

Klosterman, whose essays and fiction have plumbed pop sociology on the big media platforms that were print-based in the ’90s, is a master of smooth setups and downbeat finishes. “The Nineties” thrives on a lean, steady rhythm of long chapters that lean into the big themes, followed by short ones that underscore the irony with a swift gloss on the famous and forgotten who gave the decade its texture.

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If anything, the book’s near-exclusive emphasis on the U.S. makes it too easy to forget that the rest of the world was experiencing things a bit differently. Klosterman emphasizes the biggest American hits and celebrities of the decade, which leaves out a lot, and gives Billy Ray Cyrus about as much ink as Tupac Shakur, though Tupac is thoughtfully if briefly posed as the hip-hop counterweight to the reluctant rock juggernaut of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.

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Focusing on Nirvana and its breakthrough album “Nevermind” as the quintessence of Generation X irony, Klosterman writes with authority, asserting that “the possibility that the idiom of rock could have some transformative power… was off the table.” He nails the slacker/grunge sensibility that looked down on any effort at commercial success as trying too hard – all while Cobain’s doomed celebrity brought him the riches and fame he professed not to want.

But the ‘90s were just as much about selling us what we didn’t know we didn’t want, thus the book deconstructs the rise and fall of transparent beverages – remember Zima? Crystal Pepsi? – as Klosterman traces the marketing savvy and stupidity that colorlessly fizzed and fizzled.

How are Nirvana, Crystal Pepsi and Columbine related? Chuck Klosterman deconstructs 'The Nineties'

At the heart of it all, to Klosterman, is that pop and political reality hadn’t yet fragmented as they have by now, given that everything was still filtered mainly through network TV. He notes that the decade’s dismissive hipster view of television “had no relationship to its popularity – statistically speaking, television was more popular than everything. But here again: in the nineties, that was its own kind of problem. If everyone enjoyed something, how good could it possibly be?”

And so Klosterman shows how this monocultural view of everything – from the film “Titanic” to President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Unabomber, the Y2K computer non-disaster and Garth Brooks (“by a broad margin, the biggest musical act of the decade”) – festered through the ’90s like a swollen eyeball about to burst while we lived, analogously, inside “The Matrix.”

When reality really bites – as in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Columbine High School shootings of 1999, and the looming game-change of 9/11 – Klosterman’s nineties stand revealed as now’s ground zero.

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