Nirvana

 

In this piece, I offer my recent experience listening to Nevermind for the first time in several years and share my frustration with the media’s standard narrative concerning the career arc of Nirvana.

The tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide coupled with Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has put the media in a celebratory mood that is difficult to escape. The hagiographic reverence with which Cobain and Nirvana are treated—specifically the circumstances leading to Cobain’s death—makes me cringe. It is not that I dislike Nirvana. Rather, my main issues with Cobain, Nirvana, and the grunge movement are with the narratives that are constructed around them.

I listened to Nevermind a few days ago. I was not impressed. I decided that there were only two songs that I liked on the album (“Come As You Are” and “Drain You”). I have no interest in queuing up the others anytime soon. The much-maligned (in certain circles) production is a big part of my disenchantment with it. It sounds too neat and restrained, castrated even. The guitar solos do not help things. I can see now why Nirvana slots so snugly into lineups on classic rock radio. Cobain’s voice still thrills on some level, but every time I hear him wail about it reminds me of all the virtually indistinguishable post-grunge bros who sound just like Kurt. “It is not Nirvana’s fault that the group is so influential,” one objects. “Aye, but nothing exists in a vacuum. As such, I cannot shake these associations from my mind when hearing Kurt scream and shout,” another replies.

Speaking of band associations, the one that popped up most often for me was not some forgettable post-grunge outfit, but Oasis. Both had aspirations to be the next Beatles—clearly the Gallagher brothers were more obvious about it—but I recall Cobain stating his desire to be like the Beatles in interviews. Both endeavored to create big, dumb, guitar-rock anthems and both were successful in this.[1] What sealed this comparison for me was hearing Nirvana’s choruses and realizing that I could sing along with lyrics that were almost always terrible. If one has never read the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Live Forever” sans music, I strongly advise against it. The difference is that while Oasis had to follow up its two big studio albums with Be Here Now, Cobain offed himself before Nirvana got the chance. It is a cliché, but people prefer their heroes dead so that their heroes have no chance of disappointing them in the future (even if Cobain’s personal life should give those who idolize him pause). To sum up, I think Nevermind is an okayish album, but not one that I would express any particular fondness for. It is consistent—even though I only like two songs, I do not think any of them are bad per se—but Kurt’s guitar heroics and the production (especially the drum sound) ruin most of the album for me.

Actually, I always preferred In Utero to Nevermind anyway. Even when I was a fan of grunge and hard rock, I thought Nevermind was overrated. I can remember being incensed when I would see it near the top of best albums lists while In Utero was lucky to make an appearance at all. Of course I feel silly for taking such things as lists so personally; as if the consensus of others’ opinions—and the failure of my own opinions to coincide with that consensus—were tantamount to attacks on me and my tastes.  I was young and insecure. I looked to opinions of others for validation of my own thoughts. It was implicit during this time that I believed that there was such a thing as objectively better albums. When the consensus did not reflect my opinions, it meant that either my opinions or the consensus was wrong. This realization—there can only be one ‘right’ opinion—shook my self-efficacy to its core, again owing to my insecurities that someone knows more about music than me. I was not comfortable admitting this at the time (too ignorant as well, I suppose); I was as petulant as those kids you see freaking out in comment sections at the thought that someone else does not agree with them. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit, but middle school is embarrassing for everyone anyway.  I reckon that like said commentators, I was also more than a bit racist / homophobic / misogynistic as well. You grow up and you grow out.

I realize that I just equated my love of Nirvana with bigotry. This seems unfair, as Cobain—despite frequently using “gay” as a pejorative term—was not a bigot. However, the manner in which Nirvana’s rise on the pop charts is traditionally framed by the media is problematic. This narrative hinges on Nevermind replacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on the Billboard album chart in January of 1992. I remember a talking head on a VH1 documentary stating unequivocally that the reason for this was that all of the suburban kids who received Dangerous for Christmas took it back to the record store and exchanged it for a copy of Nevermind. Meanwhile, rock and roll was in a bad way and in dire need of a savior. There were still rock groups on the charts, but they were primarily survivors of the hair metal scene or sensitive types like Extreme’s “More than Words,” and thus not of any lasting consequence. These groups were not saviors, merely more of the same. Nirvana, on the other hand, was a hard rock group (influenced by punk and heavy metal) with ties to the burgeoning ‘alternative’ culture.[2] Sounds like a savior to me.

Thus, we have a hard rock group—this allowed Nirvana to be perceived as masculine / heteronormative which in turn allowed them to become popular in the suburbs and rural areas of the country while still maintaining their alternative / counter-culture edge—of white musicians replacing an effeminate, black pop star (and not just a pop star, but the pop star) atop a barometer of popular acceptance. Again, this is neither a criticism of Nirvana selling more albums than Michael Jackson nor the people of the United States purchasing more copies of Nevermind than Dangerous, but rather of the uncritical nature of the media’s go-to narrative for Nirvana’s pop ascendancy. This is nothing but rockism in its purest form. Even though a reaction to rockist modes of narrative construction has evolved into a potent and omnipresent trend among pop music critics, when it comes to discussions about the rise of Nirvana, this anti-rockism disappears and with it any chance of writing of critical value about Nirvana’s rise.[3]

Instead, one gets the tired VH1-approved story. To wit: Nirvana emerges from nowhere to become darlings of the Seattle music scene. Then, the band takes over the world with the smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (#6 in the US, #7 in the UK, #5 in Australia). Next, we hear stories of Cobain suffering. He is in pain, you see, so he turns to heroin to ease his troubled soul. He becomes suicidal. He never asked for fame (even though he totally did), he is just a normal guy like you and me. And then, like Christ before him (do not laugh, I have read published writing that sincerely compares Kurt Cobain with the lynchpin of a major world religion) Nirvana’s leader leaves us. Cut to clip of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” performance on MTV Unplugged.

I still like Nirvana. Even if I rarely listen to them these days, I think that In Utero and Unplugged are great albums. The issue I have is the willingness of music writers to accept grand narratives like the one associated with Nirvana’s rise. I understand that most music writers probably majored in journalism and thus were unlikely to have had much exposure to twentieth century theorists and philosophers that complicate widely held cultural assumptions like meta-narratives. This is a shame because if they were familiar with such ideas we would be treated to more critical music writing. I had at least assumed that critics had learned something about the problems with proclaiming bands as saviors of an entire genre with the Strokes in 2001 (and oh how insufferable it was to read all of the Nirvana comparisons to that group).[4] However, apparently music writers have no qualms with past instances of this sort of thing, blindly accepting them because that is what they are supposed to think. I would love to read pieces about the way that Cobain’s body has been fetishized after his suicide, or about Cobain’s dilettante interest in feminism, or using queer theory to analyze the life of Cobain. Instead, I have to make do with the same story repeated ad nauseam across the music press.

 

Notes:

[1] It is dodgy to assign intelligence to something that lacks consciousness. However, like when post-punk guitar riffs are described as being ‘angular’ (essentially a term borrowed from math and architecture), I am assuming a certain colloquial understanding here.

[2] I assume that this is why—lack of alt credentials—Guns N’ Roses is excluded in these narratives, despite being one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. Could rock and roll really need saving if GNR were one of the biggest bands in the world (also, the Black Crowes were popular)?

[3] One could also point to the ex post facto demonization of Courtney Love as it smacks of the same kind of misogyny that dominates discussions of Yoko Ono and the Beatles, but I have a hard time fitting it into this post without giving it at least a paragraph or two. Additionally, the media, to its credit, rarely pursues this line of reasoning, leaving it instead to the more rabid members of Nirvana’s fan base and absurd documentarians (i.e., the film Kurt & Courtney, which makes no sense whatsoever but has a certain oddball charm to it).

[4] I am a big fan of the Strokes, by the way. However, the Strokes have very little in common with Nirvana, thus making these comparisons questionable at best.

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2 thoughts on “Nirvana”

  1. very cool blog man. Kurt definitely wasnt a bigot and he had problems coping with his media portrayal. If you have the time, you should check out the book, Heavier Than Heaven. It is the quintessential Cobain story, and it stays true to who he was

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