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the Complete Review
the complete review - pop culture

The Nineties
(When Surface was Depth)

Michael Bracewell

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To purchase When Surface was Depth

Title: The Nineties
Author: Michael Bracewell
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 354 pages
Availability: When Surface was Depth - US
The Nineties - UK
When Surface was Depth - Canada
  • UK title: The Nineties
  • UK subtitle: When Surface was Depth
  • US title: When Surface was Depth
  • US subtitle: Death by Cappuccino and other Reflections on Music and Culture in the 1990's

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Our Assessment:

C : a few decent observations, but an ill-conceived book

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 27/7/2002 Ian Sansom
The Independent . 18/7/2002 David Lister
New Statesman . 15/7/2002 Will Self

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Nineties is made up of odd interviews, think-pieces, and other off-cuts gathered from Bracewell's occasionally brilliant writings for newspapers and magazines, all mixed up together, poured into a mould, and given a book-kind of shape -- the literary equivalent of luncheon meat, or a sausage roll. It is a book of rendered parts wrapped up in a flaky pastry - enormously tasty, and curiously insubstantial. (...) The book is an infuriating read, and a pleasure." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Bracewell gives an acute and often very funny chronicle of how irony (...) gave way to authenticity (...) Though thoroughly entertaining and informative, The Nineties does not always seem to be the book Bracewell wanted to write." - David Lister, The Independent

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Michael Bracewell's The Nineties (or When Surface was Depth, for the American crowd) is an odd, long book. The American subtitle Death by Cappuccino and other Reflections on Music and Culture in the 1990's, and the various titles suggest what it might be about. Certainly, one might expect the book to focus on the era that was the 1990s (even if it may be a bit premature to have much of a grip on that). But Bracewell seems merely to have cobbled together his journalistic output from that decade and pretended that makes it a book about the 90s.
       Over one stretch -- admittedly in the section titled "Retro" -- there are longer pieces on Michael Caine, Malcolm McDowell, and Roxy Music. We're reluctant to use the term "has been" (though in the case of Roxy Music, "officially disbanded in 1982", it seems fair enough), but these people have nothing to do with the 90s. (Yes, the Roxy Music influence lives on, especially in the form of master Brian Eno, but the group itself meant practically nothing.) Indeed, we would argue that Bracewell himself, as novelist and journalist, was more of a presence -- at least in Britain -- than McDowell or Caine.
       Among the other artistes written much about are: the Hansons (remember the three-boy band ?), the Carpenters (really), Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, the constantly reappearing Gilbert & George, Duran Duran, Quentin Crisp, and Morrissey. Often the book sounds more like a 70s revival as so many relics from yesteryear are dredged up. Many are still semi-active, some even influential -- but what an odd way to approach the decade that was the 90s.
       Admittedly he takes a stab at a few true 90s figures -- there are fun portraits of Ulrika Jonsson and Tracey Emin, for example -- but that and his little bit of theorizing do not a cohesive book make. Occasionally he does point to some support of his idea that it was a time when surface passed for depth, but without bothering to wonder too much if and when this was ever not the case. (Indeed, well into the next decade, surface still seems to pass as much -- or more -- for depth.)
       Another problem is that Bracewell seems to embrace much of the surface-for-depth world -- as is very evident in his Morrissey-gushings:

(H)e is one of the very few pop lyricists whose writing is judged by the highest standards of contemporary literature -- a feat unrivalled since Dylan and the Beatles
       We would suggest he consider Leonard Cohen -- and that he get a grip. The "highest standards of contemporary literature" ? Well, maybe the lyrics are judged by those standards, but then surely they would be found wanting. Don't get us wrong, we love Morrissey and the Smiths too and the songs are great. But the lyrics as anything resembling "literature" ? No, no, no.
       Bracewell notes that surface passes for depth -- but he doesn't seem to find that very problematic. He likes surface. He revels in surface. And he seems utterly oblivious to most depth.
       There's much that is analytical, on some level, but it doesn't go anywhere, as yet another portrait pops up that sounds like it were written for a Sunday section.
       Punk is the defining moment for Bracewell (as for so many others), and that's really what he wants to focus on. The 90s -- where he has to interview the Hanson kids, for god's sake ! -- isn't nearly as exciting. Yoko, Patti Smith -- those are the chicks he wants to hang out with (and who can blame him -- better than Britney, for sure).
       There is some fun and interesting stuff here -- though surprisingly little. His visits with Yoko or the Hansons or Quentin Crisp are actually really boring. Some of what it leads to -- an exploration of the youth-star phenomenon, for example (highlighting Bracewell's ongoing fascination with all things Osmond) -- has its moments, but it's not tightly enough organized or focussed or presented.
       Occasionally there are jarring, brilliant moments, such as when Bracewell reveals both Tracey Emin and Ulrika Jonsson's plans to write books (which should send a shiver up every reader's back). The Britpop riffs, as he lists every fad and every one-day wonder to pass his way, are occasionally entertaining (though they will leave most American readers utterly befuddled). But overall there's surprisingly little fun, entertainment, or insight to be found here. Bracewell is relentless in his writing and heaping of cultural icons (and everyone and thing is a cultural icon, apparently), making for a tough slog.

       Definitely not the definitive account of an era. Of possible interest to diehard Britpop fans, but otherwise: don't bother.

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When Surface was Depth: Reviews: Michael Bracewell: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Bracewell was born in 1958. He has written several novels and works as a journalist.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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