Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later
The success of ‘Teen Spirit’ created one surreal pop moment after another. As an underground rock band, Nirvana had been fantastic. But the pop phenomenon of Nevermind turned them into revolutionary bomb throwers, flies in the ointment, a genuinely subversive force. TV appearances saw the band wearing dresses, destroying their instruments, making fun of everything (including themselves), and passionately french-kissing each other. It should be noted that in 1991, after nearly 12 years of Reagan and Bush, of ‘Just Say No’, of Top Gun, of the recent, overwhelmingly popular, Gulf War (some El Cajon dickheads burned down the Arab-owned liquor store up the street from my apartment — they were never arrested), there was little context for this kind of behavior.
When I graduated high school the year before, there were no openly gay kids at Granite Hills High School. Two years later there was a gay club on campus (that’s ‘club’ as in organization, not as in disco). When I graduated, there was very little drug use beyond beer. Two years later, everyone was getting high. You know how, in pictures of the 80s, people have lots of gel in their hair? Nirvana ended that. Pastel colors and acid-washed jeans? Nirvana ended that too. Sunny-faced smiling optimism? You get the idea.
Looking back, it all makes perfect sense. Nevermind gave people, specifically teenagers, the ability to put into words feelings they could barely understand. It gave people permission not to take a shower, to say they felt stupid, to admit they were pissed off. And it did so in a way that made all that stuff sound like the coolest thing on earth. Kurt Cobain communicated what it felt like to be a teenager better than anyone before or since. The voice in Nevermind is cruel, funny, tender, frightened, filled with rage, brilliantly insightful, totally stupid, self-indulgent, yearning, and inscrutable. Or to put it more simply, it’s the voice of an adolescent.
No wonder everybody bought the god-damned thing, wrote the lyrics on their brand-new Converse sneakers, and wept their way through candlelight vigils when he died. If being a teenager is about feeling misunderstood, here was someone who not only understood them, but actually seemed to care.
The wise-ass slouch, the sarcasm, the self-destruction, what else was he but a Holden Caulfield denouncing all the phonies? Kurt even wrote in his journal that he wanted to be the king of the outcast teens. Thing is, he forgot that every teen feels like an outcast. Even the jock and the cheerleader are afraid of the future, unsure what to do with their bodies, where to put their hands.
And oh yeah, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ isn’t about slackers, or apathy, or the psychology of a generation, or any of that other bullshit people keep writing in supermarket magazines. It’s about sex. Period. Guys goes to a party, sees a cool girl (she’s overbored and self-assured) and says hello to her (and wonders how low she’ll go).
Or consider this couplet:
A mulatto, an albino
A mosquito, my libido
The comparison of opposites is a genius way, on the level of Shakespeare, like something out of King Lear, of saying the author is horny. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous indeed. ‘Teen Spirit’ is the REAL teenage sex, fumbling and vulnerable, excited yet lacking in confidence, feeling stupid and (in the shadow of AIDS) contagious. And at the end, a denial. Sure sounded like my typical Saturday night.
It made perfect sense to me and my friends.
Going back and listening to it now, I had forgotten how funny the album is. “Love myself better than you. I know it’s wrong, but what can I do.” Or “Sell the kids for food. Weather changes moods.” Or “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me”. The voice in Nevermind is the voice of the coolest teenager ever committed to vinyl. It was fucking brilliant. The fact that it came along at a time when Guns ‘N’ Roses was the most rebellious thing most people had ever heard only made it moreso.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Nevermind completely changed music as well. ‘Teen Spirit’ had the power, in the context of radio/MTV, to make any song after it sound compromised and fake. So from 1992-1996, every rock band, for better or worse, tried to sound like/look like/act like Nirvana. Even dolts like Stone Temple Pilots wore dresses and tried to pose as feminists. Because the band championed underground acts, artists like Daniel Johnston, Shonen Knife, Melvins, The Raincoats all got signed to major labels.
As the 20th anniversary of Nevermind approaches, you can hear all kinds of naysayers. Husker Du did it first and did it better. The production is horrible. There were all kinds of bands around at that time who were just as good. Etcetera. Etcetera.
And these people aren’t wrong. At the very least, everything they say has a kernel of truth. But the third verse of this song. When the scream comes in. My god.