Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind (Kurt Cobain Reconsidered)

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 truly favorite albums could also be brand new.

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 my favorite all-time bands, 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 it’s 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 almost 17 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). 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.

3 thoughts on “Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind (Kurt Cobain Reconsidered)”

  1. let me first say that i never liked nirvana and feel they’re in the top 5 most overrated bands of all time. if i never heard another nirvana song, it’d be too soon. secondly, i’d like to present a counterpoint to your final paragraph: i believe that the times in which those bands existed were times in which civilization and humanity were making collective changes, and these bands just happened to be caught up in that change and assisting in it’s proliferation. sometimes (all the time) i think we, especially those who’ve devoted so much of their lives to music, attach far too much importance to it. i don’t believe music can change the world. i believe it can highly effect the way individuals percieve the world, but on a cultural level it takes much much more than just music. it takes all the cultural arts, it takes media, it takes a permeable citizenry ready for change, and as in all the times you mentioned (beatles, sex pistols, nirvana) it takes a groundswell of resistance to the current state of affairs. i think the major difference in this internet age is the wide variety of musical styles that are thriving. just saying you listen to “indie rock” doesn’t tell anyone anything about your tastes anymore. if there’s a singular positive of this age it’s that those that never would’ve had a voice in the past now are able to flourish. i mean, imagine Animal Collective trying to get a record deal in any other period in music history??? the lack of cultural resonance of today’s music i think can be attributed to the a) by far widest array of musical styles proliferating in popular music history and b) the commercial “dumbing down” of mainstream music, making it as prepackaged as possible for the average joes. i guess what i’m trying to say is that i fully agree in that we’ve lost the opportunities to enrich our culture as a whole, but in place of that i think we’ve gained immensely in the opportunities to enrich ourselves on an individual level. and this same discussion could be had regarding all the arts: film, literature and visual arts have all suffered the same, if not worse, from the “information age”…interesting discussion.

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  2. 1. Mike, I’ll skip addressing your Nirvana-hatin’ for right now because–
    2. –you make a very salient point in you response. You argue that music can’t change the world, and that music reflects musical change, rather than causes it. I thought about that before I wrote, actually, and I agree, to an extent. Music certainly can’t change the world, and I am, as a music nerd, obviously prejudiced here. You also posit the idea that all arts have suffered in the “information age,” as far as their infusion into mainstream culture.
    3. Here’s my response: I think that, of all the arts–and a number of critics and poets and writers have put this better than me–music is by far the most transcendental and sublime. Music, when it “works,” works at all levels–a two minute song can hit us emotionally, cerebrally, physically in a way that only the greatest pieces of art, films, books, poems can. It can do this with less support of context, too, than other mediums require. It is immediate; it is visceral.
    Because of this, I think that music acts as a kind of generational cultural signal; it imparts ideology, in a sense.
    And while Johnny Rotten’s sneering anger, Madonna’s me-me-me materialism, and Eddie Vedder’s primal yelps are all effects of the ideology, the historical context that they are reacting to/with/against, they also, in turn, produce ideological effects when replicated en masse. Although the Beatles are reflecting their own generational values/conflicts/themes/whatever, these themes trickle down into the consciousness of a younger group of people. In this sense, music can change the world, simply because, postWWII, it becomes an indelible facet of youth culture: it “changes the world” in the simple sense that it effects the way that young people relate/produce “culture.” This “change” doesn’t have to be political, positive, negative, whatever…it just exists. Music has power by virtue of its performative repetition. And the power that mainstreamed, widely replicated, widely “performed,” music has right now, is sheer dumbness. Plain stupidity…and you’re right–it’s not causative of all the dumb shit our country is involved in now/doing now–it’s reflective of it. It signifies sedentary inertia, an unwillingness to change. Those ironic cheerleaders in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are now re-represented as cheerleaders for the status quo. I’m concerned about what happens next though.

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  3. excellent piece, ed. you should write a full-length book on the subject (and i say that only partially due to the autumnal nostalgia it provokes in me).

    “alternative” was kind of a joke as a genre description (the lines between genres being fuzzy to non-existent anyway), but the word suggested something truly radical: all these different bands, with their different sounds and images, united by a rejection of the mainstream — not just mainstream pop music, but the whole mainstream mono-culture. creating something more vital, more experimental, more authentic, and more interesting. i remember listening to the earnest folk-rock of REM followed by the uncompromising aural experiments of the Residents and then the anarcho-punk of CRASS, and being struck by how different they were, but they were united in being good, and being called “alternative.” it seemed positively revolutionary to me at the time. our own counterculture!

    after being baptized into the glories of angry guitar music with Nirvana’s Nevermind, i spent my teenage years married to punk rock and, yeah, predictably enough, it ended up breaking my heart as bad as it’s ever been broken. it was an awfully kool dream, though.

    maybe a lot of it was just the emergence of a new demographic — young people who felt “stupid and contagious”, and wouldn’t accept music that didn’t reflect the intensities of our poetic adolescence. i must admit that i remain kinda shocked that it didn’t last, that those cultural currents either went back waay underground (micro-labels, house shows, xerox’d zines), or went mega-$-mainstream (the same old rockstar bullshit).

    i don’t know what the future will bring, but i hope today’s kids are smart, desperate, and cynical enough to reject the corporate crap and create their own culture, discover their own values, wage war on the status quo, and MUTATE — before it’s too late!

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