I was twelve years old when Nirvana’s landmark record Nevermind came out in September of 1991 and supposedly changed the American cultural landscape forever. I was the perfect age to be radically influenced by the onset of the whole grunge thing. Before I got a hold of Nevermind, my favorite records were R.E.M’s Out of Time and De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, both of which had come out a few months earlier that year. I also really, really loved Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits (you know…the red album), and U2’s The Joshua Tree. These were some of the earliest CDs I ever owned, and reflecting on this now, it seems odd that my favorite albums could also be brand new, contemporary.
I mention a few of the CDs I owned because I think I’m a relatively typical audiophile of the age group I’m discussing here (roughly, persons born between 1975-1981, although these dates, as I write them, seem awfully silly and arbitrary). I had already outgrown dumb hair metal and had begun to realize that most of the hip-hop I was listening to was not nearly as offensive as I thought it should be. I wanted something new and different and weird, and by the beginning of the seventh grade I’d already begun to scour Rolling Stone, which still had a modicum of cultural relevance in the early nineties. I was also cherry-picking from cool movie soundtracks, and to this day I know that the soundtrack to the oh-so-forgettable 1990 film Pump Up the Volume (Christian Slater as pirate DJ leads a minor youth rebellion) had as much to do with the forging of my musical taste as any other source: this is where I was exposed to two of the bands that would help forge my musical taste for the next decade, Pixies and The Sonic Youth. So, like many other young audiophiles, by the end of 1991–around the time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was blowing up–I was already moving away from “mainstream” music as quickly as I knew how. Only Nirvana became the new mainstream, grunge became a fashion status, and, feeling like a cultural movement that I was barely even tangentially a part of had been commodified and commercialized, I had rejected the whole thing by the time I had gotten to high school in 1993. This meant rejecting wholesale a number of albums I had loved throughout middle school.
The same month Nevermind came out, so did the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, spawning the massive hit “Under the Bridge.” Pearl Jam’s debut Ten came out a month before Nevermind, but really didn’t pick up steam until mid ’92–grunge was in full effect by then; it too produced a mega-hit with “Jeremy.” U2’s Achtung Baby dropped in November–at this point they seemed like the elder statesmen of what was now so brashly defined as “alternative” music (“Alternative to what?” we wondered). “One” was a smash hit. The aforementioned R.E.M. album Out of Time became the year’s critical favorite, with “Losing My Religion” as one of the most unexpected number-ones of 1991. By the end of 1992, U2 and R.E.M. were “the most important bands in the world,” according to every music and entertainment magazine, and Nirvana was getting major credit for initiating a cultural revolution. I loved all of these albums dearly, and, as I mentioned above, denied all of them just a few short years later in favor of a new wave of independent label music–bands like Pavement, Superchunk, and the Archers of Loaf–bands that probably would never have achieved such successful careers without the aforementioned mega-hits that prompted the shift in cultural zeitgeist.
I present all of this evidence merely to point out that the success of these bands–contrasted with the other crap that was happening at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, like White Snake and The New Kids on the Block and Warrant and Nelson and C + C Music Factory–points to something larger than the force of Nevermind alone. (It’s worth pointing out here that Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I & II a week before Nevermind; these albums had a number of hits including the monster-success of “November Rain,” and, in retrospect, I believe, for all their cock-rockery, are more akin to the albums indicative of paradigm shift I described above than to the hair metal schlock they’re often identified with). Nevermind is often credited with spearheading a musical/cultural “revolution”; this “revolution” in music was already well underway though.
To be sure, Nevermind is a great album, but its cultural cache has more to do with the figure of Kurt Cobain than its relevance and popularity at the time (to see how the myth of Nevermind has grown, simply look at Rolling Stone‘s successive reviews of the album, from 1991, 1992, and 2004, respectively: the magazine gives the album three out of five stars, then four, before finally awarding it five stars thirteen years after the fact). Millions of kids saw Cobain wear Daniel Johnston t-shirts, reference the Melvins, and admit that his songs were really just crude Pixies ripoffs. Cobain, in short, exposed millions of regular kids to an angrier, rougher youth culture, a truly underground music that could react to the failed youth culture of the (now old) boomer generation of the 1960s, which had been forcing an illusory idealization of that decade down our throats forever. Ironically, it was this same boomer generation that greedily milked grunge for all it was worth, commodifying youth culture again into a twisted joke, a stupid lunch box, an action figure, a t-shirt at the mall. No wonder Cobain offed himself.
So why write about this now? It’s been 20 years, and there hasn’t been a record like Nevermind or mega-hits as salient, and dare I suggest meaningful, as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Losing My Religion,” “Under the Bridge,” “One,” or “Jeremy” for quite sometime. The success in the mid-nineties of bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden–bands that I didn’t hate but made fun of–seems strange now. Even the music of those elegant bachelors, the Stone Temple Pilots–grunge 2.0–seems oddly strong when held up against the watered-down drivel that passes for contemporary hard rock. Youth music today is archly, ironically aware of its own cultural position and its own performativity in a marketplace. I’m sickened by even thinking of the toothless fourth generation emo-or-whatever-you-wanna-call-it derived from Green Day (another band I didn’t hate but but made fun of) that passes for “pop-punk.” In all its silly winking at the audience, its safe-as-milk non-personality, much of this music represents the ultimate commodifiaction and commercialization of “punk”–the aesthetic that Nevermind helped to re-ignite. (In another genre, hip-hop, after 30 years of existence, has claimed its right–with a sharp vengeance–to be as stupid as any other form of music. Don’t get me started). The irony Cobain and others explored was never a smart-assed irony that coyly winked at the audience, inviting them to laugh along with whatever cultural references were being rehashed; Cobain’s irony was mean and angry–it was a critique of American hegemonic mall culture. Current youth music, rock, emo, whatever it is, is simply a celebration of greedy materialism hiding under the thinnest ironic sheen.
And here’s what I think is the saddest part: I don’t think there can be another Nevermind. To be sure, there will always be fantastic, landmark, music-changing records–I have no doubt about that (see: 1997’s OK Computer f’r’instance). But a record that channels a truly punk aesthetic into mainstream American consciousness is simply not going to happen again. For over fifteen years, critics (and executives) have been looking to award “next big thing” status to just about anyone (do you remember when the Chemical Brothers were supposed to be the “next big thing”? You don’t?). The internet has changed the old model. In the past, records like Nevermind propagated a “trickle-down” effect, if you will–kids in the heartland see Cobain give the Raincoats props, buy Raincoats’ records, get into X-Ray Spex, get into Black Flag, get into Pavement, whatever. In contrast, the internet provides a diffusion model of immediately accessible cultural immersion. Anyone with a DSL connection and a few hours to kill on Allmusic can access indie culture. And that’s a good thing. But still: I’ll get nostalgic here: in the old days, we used to write to the labels and get catalogs and order music via snail mail. We used to buy albums on pure faith that they were good. You couldn’t just click on an mp3 (or steal entire albums on p2p networks or over torrents). But I’m not railing against the internet. I think it’s great that a kid in Montana can become thoroughly exposed to Drag City records or the works of Big Black in just a week. But that will never translate into a wide-scale youth culture shift. Instead, we’ll continue to have what we have now: lots of really, really shitty music on radio and TV. And this is our culture.
There won’t be another Beatles or another Sex Pistols–there won’t be another group that challenges our collective cultural sensibility to make a large jump. There won’t even be an Elvis or a Madonna, a performer that challenges our ethics and morality. Instead, we will continue to have watered-down crap on mainstream media, as well as plenty of choices for those who take the time to look. But those choices will be marginalized, kept on the sidelines out of mainstream American-consciousness, and what we’ll lose is an opportunity to progress and enrich the entirety of our culture. Who knows though–I could be wrong; perhaps I’m just old and out of touch. Perhaps a wholly new and dynamic artist or group will come out that will capture the anti-establishment roots of rock and roll and inspirit a new and dramatically different course in contemporary youth culture. But I don’t see it happening again. I hope I’m wrong.
[Editorial note: We ran a slightly different (but pretty much the same) version of this post in April of 2008]
The AV Club interviews Werner Herzog. Sample—
AVC: In 20,000 years, could it be our culture that’s discovered in a cave somewhere?
WH: In 20,000 years, there will be significant things in the environment that will be preserved, like certain dams. Like Vajont Dam near Longarone [Italy], where there was this catastrophic event almost 50 years ago now. An incredibly massive landslide came down into the lake. The entire lake, over 50 billion cubic meters, shot up into the air in a tsunami of 700 feet that came down in this gorge and wiped out the town of Longarone. I have studied the place over and over. I do my pilgrimages to the place. At its base, [the dam] is something like a hundred feet thick. The steel-reinforced concrete. The whole thing is about 180 meters at its highest, and it withstood the landslide coming into it. It’s still intact, and most of it will be intact hundreds of thousands of years from now. So in the future, when people are looking for the Neanderthals of the 21st century, they will see our traces standing in open air. They will see the sarcophagus of Chernobyl, which is going to be built over it now. It will be there in 20,000 years. They won’t have to search in a cave.
If you don’t have time to read Nathan Rabin’s epic interview with Violent J of Insane Clown Posse, we offer some highlights–
On the inspiration and rationale behind their revisionist Western, Big Money Rustlas: “You know, just for the fuck of it all.”
On keeping one’s cards close to one’s breast: “I don’t want to give our secrets away, but they might be obvious”
On opinions: “In our opinion, it’s not cool to actually see us doing the murders, as cool as it is to imagine it when you’re hearing the song. That’s our opinion.”
On making quality comedies: “I think the crew that was working the movie, they didn’t respect us. They didn’t respect our humor. I think a lot of them felt like it was a bum job. The attitude on the set every day was shitty. We got into arguments and battles with the crew. We’d be the only ones laughing. To do a comedy, it seems like you would need the whole crew laughing and having fun, to keep that morale up on the set, but the only ones that were having fun were us. The rest of the crew just seemed like, ‘Ah, this shit’s not funny. We’re only doing this because we have to.’ “
On making career decisions: “We knew it was gonna be basically garbage, but we thought about it and decided to do it.”
On capitalism: “If people knew how little money we actually make, I think it makes us more impressive.”
On logical fallacies in Martin Bashir’s Nightline profile of ICP: “They talked about crime happening and about how some Juggalos have committed these crimes. We made the point that millions of people bought our albums, and out of millions of people, there is going to be some bad apples. I’m sure Barbra Streisand fans have committed crimes as well….”
On what killed Michael Jackson: “It was Martin Bashir’s documentary that eventually killed Michael Jackson.”
On having quotes taken out of context: ” . . . they took my response to one question and edited it so I looked like I was responding to another question. And what’s scary to me is that this is Nightline. This is a respected piece of American journalism, and they were full of shit.”
On pulling shenanigans: “It’s scary to me to see somebody that’s that trusted pulling shenanigans like that. It’s just fucking crazy to me.”
On being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly: “Looking at that also makes me sick, because I know we could have schooled his ass a lot better than we did. We were kind of weak with it on his show.”
On your loss: “But anybody that can stand there, looking at a rainforest or something and not think that’s a miracle—I mean, that’s their loss. Anybody that can sit there and look at shooting stars or a fucking full moon when it’s red and hanging over the city and not sit there and think, “That looks awesome, and that’s a miracle that we get to see that and have that on this earth and all this shit,” you know, that’s their loss.”
On what it takes to find out if Slick Rick might or might not be interested in performing at The Gathering of the Juggalos: “Just finding out if Slick Rick is interested can be a monthlong process. It’s very fucking drawn out.”
On why ICP declined to play Ozzfest: “It was probably something along the lines of you can’t throw Faygo or something.”
On The Wrestler: “Like, nothing they showed in that movie we didn’t already know. I’m that tuned in to the wrestling world.”
On forgetting that he’s being interviewed: “Do you have an ink pen with you? Or something to mark this down?”
On the internet and clothing: “You can’t download a T-shirt.”
On Nickelodeon and Beyoncé: “I don’t even mind Nickelodeon, or Kids’ Choice Awards, or any of that. I’m not against all that. I’m not against Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. I’m not against pop music.”
On what people have to realize about “Miracles”: “See, what people have to realize about the “Miracles” video is that that went out into the world, but that wasn’t for the world. That was for Juggalos.”
Thank you for the pure motherfucking magic.