I don’t think I’ve ever done a traditional “review” of a book before here. I’ve done video games, movies, even albums, like years ago. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that I was doing reviews of pieces of media all the time. “Piece of media” doesn’t feel right to say, too general, but I’m not going to say “works of art” when I used to review, like, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer. It hits me the last time that the last time I reviewed a video game or a movie or an album was No Thing for the Switch back in mid-2018. That was nearly four years ago. It doesn’t feel like four years ago, it doesn’t feel that long ago at all, but it was that long ago. Is that just how four years feels? Is it just that a lot of the past two years specifically haven’t felt like they moved at a normal pace? Or do we experience time differently than we used to?
That is, more or less, one of the themes made by Chuck Klosterman in his book The Nineties, published in early 2022 by Penguin Press, a book that I got through in record pace, like maybe a week. The judgment of this book’s quality in this ‘review’ should be summed up by that fact. Because I’ve made a point in recent posts to be more open about stating personal opinions that may lead to ridicule on social media (I genuinely don’t know if this would or not) I should point out that Chuck is probably my favorite living writer, one of the only people for whom I will purchase a new book immediately upon publication without needing to know the premise. I generally don’t buy that many brand new books in a given year anyway. As someone who has read Klosterman’s entire catalogue, this is my second favorite book of his next to But What if We’re Wrong from 2016, or at least, that’s how I feel after having finished this last weekend.
I suppose this post is more or less a response, a post in which I use The Nineties as a jumping off point for some thoughts of my own. I think that’s what you do in book reviews.
Klosterman really covers a lot of ground in this work. Many of the most significant events – the 1993 WTC Bombing, the development and widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, Columbine – characters – Tupac, Bill Clinton, Ted Kaczinsky – and works – Smells Like Teen Spirit, The Matrix, Friends – are analyzed, save for the absence of video games, mostly, which I assume Klosterman has little experience with. My favorite bits, though, are when the seemingly smaller events and works are treated with significance. There’s a chapter devoted to comparing My Cousin, My Gastrointerologist and Prozac Nation, he discusses the cultural relevance of Dolly the Sheep and the Biosphere 2 saga. Perhaps most significant to me at the moment, partially because it’s just surprising sometimes to see events in sports treated as widely significant by a cultural commentator, and partially because these two events have their analogues in the current moment, were sections about the 1994 MLBPA Strike and the 1998 adoption of the BCS system by NCAA Division I football.
His thesis about the 1994 baseball strike was that it both elevated and damaged baseball’s place in American culture (the NFL and NHL had both gone through strikes in the 1980s and 1990s and neither of them were treated as so existentially damaging in the long-term as the 1994 MLB strike was, because baseball was treated with such importance as the American sport the damage it caused felt more significant). Obviously this brought into question what sort of damage this current MLB Lockout will have on the long-term prospects of Major League Baseball and baseball as a whole in the American sports landscape. The response to the current MLB lockout has been fascinating when taking the response to the 1994 strike into consideration, as it really seems like the response has been flipped, fans (and media) more frustrated with the owners than the players here. I’ve seen basically no criticism of the players from the media and the only criticism of the players’ negotiations that I have seen has been received blanket dismissal (I personally am more sympathetic to the players in this situation). What’s more fascinating, though, is the response to the lockout as a whole.
I watched Scott Van Pelt more or less tell Jeff Passan that he wasn’t that broken up about it on ESPN the night before the first deadline was missed, and I felt at least somewhat similarly. It didn’t feel existential, it’s certainly not going to tear apart the fabric of the culture of the United States. It sucks, but it’s neither life nor death (and it’s cast against a backdrop of disease over the past two years and now conflict in Eastern Europe to further hammer home how relatively auxiliary this conflict is to the fabric of society and culture). Baseball is not where it was prior to 1994, I think we might as a culture be too cynical to accept the first premise, that baseball has this seminally American cultural placement in order to even consider the second premise that this lockout would be something fundamentally heinous instead of just frustratingly capitalistic. We’ve had lockout and now disease-shortened seasons, the NBA in 1999, the NHL in 2004, the NFL very nearly in 2011, the NBA again in 2012, and then everybody in 2020, and the sports survived.
The other interesting thing (and Klosterman does mention something like this briefly), is in retrospect how cleanly the narrative of the 1994 baseball strike is written. This is despite not having a single specific work to discuss it. There’s no 30 for 30 about it, there’s no definitive book about it, hell, there are hardly any books about it, I only learned about it through reading a more or less academic interpretation of it published in 2016 with seven Amazon reviews at the moment. But we accept these simple facts about it:
- The 1994 Strike was widely blamed on the players as much as it was the owners
- Ken Griffey Jr. and Tony Gwynn had chances at records which were lost
- The 1994 Strike struck a blow which slowly killed the Montreal Expos over the next decade, as they were at the time of the season’s suspension the best team in the National League
- Players tend not to go on strike anymore as a result of the media and fan response
- Fans tended to be antipathetic towards both the players and the owners
- The strike broadly speaking neither failed nor succeeded
- Interest in baseball waned in 1995 and 1996 before being saved by Cal Ripken Jr. setting the consecutive games played record and the 1998 home run record race.
- The acceptance of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to bring about the home run records also damaged the sport’s integrity in the long-term
- Baseball’s place in American sporting culture is now beneath where it was in the early 1990s, and far beneath where it was at its peak in the mid-20th century
I can only look at this in retrospect. I was born on the first day that regular season MLB games were played after the strike, so I experienced absolutely none of this. The MLB strike was the last cultural event that I wasn’t at least alive for. I say this to clarify that I don’t know what the more specific details which have been sanded down by time were.
The Expos weren’t the only good team that had a good year cut short. The Yankees were looking at their first division title in thirteen seasons. The Royals were still in contention for a postseason appearance, one of the only years in which they did during the entirety of the 1990s. Maybe I just didn’t notice this in any of the retrospective work I’ve looked at, but Matt Williams of the Padres had more home runs when the season was cut short than Griffey did, and yet I feel like all I hear about is that Griffey had an outside shot at Maris’ home run record.
Then with the manner of the sport’s falling from its role atop the sporting hegemony in the US, was it really just the strike? Wasn’t it just the year before that Michael Jordan stole the media spotlight from the ALCS by announcing he was retiring from basketball while in attendance at the game? There was a World Cup that year in the United States, did that play some role in baseball’s fall from its perch? Did the relative awkwardness of The Baseball Network broadcasts play some role in annoying fans? The world wide web more or less came to the masses in this timeframe as well.
Was it already on the way down? I think it’s generally considered that the popularity gap between Major League Baseball and the NFL closed in the 1960s and the NFL took over as the number one most popular sports league at some point in the seventies, but I don’t know that for sure. It sure feels like the mid-nineties was when the NBA’s growth in popularity finally put it over Major League Baseball, but the one Gallup poll I found saw baseball and basketball trading places in second place throughout the nineties and 2000s. I don’t know. The cultural shift couldn’t have been as clean as the narrative we’ve drawn from it has made it out to be, though.
I ask all of these questions because I have no idea how this current lockout is going to look in retrospect. It certainly wasn’t something heinous or unacceptable by fans, though. I didn’t see outrage, I mean. I saw some broad-scale questions about the long-term health of the game, but nobody outside of reddit was seriously talking about the league’s dissolution or the game’s failure as a whole.
We don’t know which details will fall by the wayside, but I am sure that some of the specifics of how people feel surrounding the 2022 MLB Lockout will be lost in the past, sanded away to make clean, easy-to-understand interpretations of what exactly happened. And for the sake of anyone reading this in several years – this was met with more or less of a collective shrug from the media, and personally, something like this shouldn’t have been met with such a collective shrug. Or, rather, if baseball is still of the utmost importance to the fibers that bind American culture, still more than a sport, then this shouldn’t be met with as much of a collective shrug as it was. It’s not heinous, not un-American not to have baseball in early April. It feels just like it did last year when MLS wasn’t playing until late April, it felt like just another sport on hiatus for labor issues. It wasn’t like this in 1994, from what I can understand.
Time will tell, I suppose. When somebody writes a book about the twenty-twenties, that’s something that could come up.
I think people of the future will be able to honestly write a book about the twenty-twenties as a cohesive decade. Another one of Klosterman’s overarching theses in this book is stating that the 1990s were the last cohesive decade of history, which I just don’t agree with. It is the middle of 2022 and living right now feels much different than living in 2019 did. It definitely feels like the 2010s ended. Maybe just the change in the ‘aughts was so significant and the difference between 2009 and 2011 didn’t feel as significant as the change between 1999 and 2001 (plus nobody can agree on what we call the decade between 2000 and 2010, and I remember people wouldn’t even agree upon when the decade itself ended? Whether its end was in 2009 and 2010.)
I saw it on Facebook, I swear. I saw people citing the bible, like even secular, non-Christian people did this, to prove a point, as the era Anno Domini started in year 1 and not year zero, so every decade is actually 1-0 rather than 0-9, which is stupid, first of all this is a socially agreed-upon construct anyway, second of all the majority of people didn’t know that year 1 AD was year 1 AD even at the time and the christian calendar wasn’t accepted until,third of all do you think bookkeeping back then was that good back then? I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to believe we lost a year in there. Who wrote that down? Who wrote that down that there wasn’t a buffer year, I’m sure somebody did but I don’t know who they were and I guarantee neither did you. Jesus wasn’t born on January 1st in the year 1 AD, either, regardless, it was like March, it’s possible there was a buffer year zero in there, like how you don’t say a baby is one year old until it’s been alive for a year, and still like all the people who didn’t live there didn’t know the calendar changed, like they weren’t counting the years down and then counting up.
Sorry. That’s the most annoying thing in the world to me. I mean that genuinely. I can talk about this for hours. What a stupid thing to care about, to think. Stupid pedantry like that about whether the last year of the eighties was the last year that had the word “eighty” in it or not. Fuck off. This is a tool we use to organize history in retrospect that most people accept is more of a socio-cultural feeling than anything else. I even think that there is a difference between cultural shifts at the end of a decade being more significant than the date on the calendar but basing the numeral depiction of the decade on a discrepancy regarding the year of the birth of a baby from two-thousand years ago that not everyone in the world even agrees to have existed is such Reddit User bullshit. Sorry, anyway.
Obviously it feels huge, the difference between the end of the 2010s and the beginning of the 2020s. And everybody knows why. Everybody knows roughly the week when it changed. It is unique, obviously, that there was this huge, monumental-feeling cultural year right on the turn of the decade, but the cultural change in timeframes happens whether the calendar specifically changes along with it or not. (For instance, Klosterman’s book ends using September 11th, 2001 as the definitive cultural death of the 1990s, though he makes a case for the Supreme Court ruling on the 2000 US Presidential Election being another sort of end to the 1990s) While reading this book, I started to come to a conclusion that the 2010s were a cohesive decade in and of themselves (of course this is all coming from a Western and more specifically American cultural context, keep that in mind).
I ideal way that I can describe how I define the 2010s is by picking the event that I believe started the cultural 2010s and ended the cultural 2000s. There are a lot of them, and none of them are as definitive as 9/11 or COVID-19. I’ve seen the 2008 presidential election used as an example, I’ve seen the 2009 MTV VMA incident between Kanye West and Taylor Swift. There are any number of them. I would personally put it on the death of Osama Bin Laden.
I remember watching it on TV with my mom in her room on a Sunday night. The news interrupted whatever was on TV and it cut to a fence outside of the White House where a crowd of people had gathered and were celebrating that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden. I only remember that it was a Sunday night because my lasting memory of it was that it happened when the Mega64 podcast was streaming and they comically overreacted to it. I didn’t watch the streams during those days, only downloaded it on my Zune HD and listened to it walking through the halls of my high school, which I recognize is a very 2011 sentence.
The cultural artifact that I find interesting from that event was actually the 2012 episode of The Newsroom that depicts the reporting of Bin Laden’s death. It’s the seventh episode of the series, and the name of the episode is the date of Bin Laden’s death. That date, and that episode name, is “5/1”. I had to look that up. Before I looked it up, I thought it was in early February. It wasn’t.
Isn’t that brazen? I think the showrunners of the Newsroom really wanted to convince viewers that this was going to be considered an incredibly important date in American history, one you could pull up off the top of your head like you can with 9/11. It was not like that. And so little in the 2010s was. It was a decade defined by an incessant need to convince ourselves that what was happening was of utmost importance, a constant effort at mythos creation, only for much of it to roll right off of our sense of history. It was a decade of being aware of so much, feeling that so much of it was important, but feeling its impact in ways that didn’t fit what we attributed to it in the moment.
Wasn’t everything met with “Why isn’t everyone talking about this?” and “Louder for everyone in the back!”, sometimes direct statements of “This Is Important”. There was so much effort put on becoming relevant against a backdrop of constant new information, on new sites and apps that were entirely based on determining what was and wasn’t relevant, sites and apps that were available to everyone all of the time if they wanted it. So much of the 2010s can be understood with the mindset that recognizing relevance and importance as an end in and of itself – Kony 2012, the time that Neo-Nazi guy got punched in the face at the 2017 inauguration, every attempt at getting something to ‘go viral’. Constant brand-building, constantly trying to persuade everyone, ourselves included, that what was going on was important, so little able to speak for itself.
I could write about that. I want to write about that. I have been incessantly writing about that in the past few days. I don’t know if I’ll put it out here on this site, in all likelihood I’ll put it on the Substack by itself or AO3 or something because I don’t think it’ll fit with the rest of the site. But that’s interesting.
I recognize that this was less of a review and more of a rambling mess. But please recognize that the prior ~2500 words were thoughts provoked by this book, which I were inspired to write out here. So if I can recommend this book at all in a few words, those words would be ‘Thought Provoking’ and also ‘Inspiring’.
Also I wrote like an entire second post about the BCS shift. I stupidly wrote it longhand also so I will have to transcribe it, which will take time because I hate doing that. I might put that in the Substack post or I might put that out at a different point but this post is already way too long.