The music press has been full of features, comment and news about Nirvana’s musical legacy 20 years on from the death of Kurt Cobain. So much so, there’s probably very little original to be said on the matter.
Having said that, when the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ album rolled around over a year ago, I scribbled down the below thoughts about how the album still sounded to me, and whether people coming to it afresh 20 years on would perceive it in the same way.
Listening to music that sounds very much of it’s time can often colour our perception of it. Styles that are obviously of another era often make it more difficult for us to appreciate their value as they can seem out-dated and less relevant to our current experience.
Until now, however, I’ve never thought of music that I loved, and listened to when it was shiny and new, in those terms. The advent of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s album ‘Nevermind’ has changed all that.
To these ears the album still sounds fresh, raw and passionate. It still marks that all important change in the musical landscape of the early 1990′s when alternative rock and grunge broke through into the mainstream and swept all before it. But what does it mean, if anything, in today’s world?
When musical borders and boundaries are less defined, and their associated tribes not so easily identified; In this new musical hegemony where contemporary R&B and dubstep rule the pop roost, do Nirvana sound to younger ears like a dinosaur from a long forgotten age?
I suppose that I will never truly know but for someone else describing their experience from their contemporary perspective. But by my thinking it reinforces my opinion that with music, as with many other social and cultural phenomena, context is everything. Take the time to appreciate the context, and you might just appreciate the music itself a little more.
So next time you feel that something that has crossed your musical path sounds archaic and unworthy of your attention, try and put yourself in that music’s own shoes. You never know, you might just find a love for something that at one time seemed unlovable, and broaden your horizons in the process.
And, in case you’re looking for some of that context yourself, here’s the full speech that R.E.M’s Michael Stipe gave when Nirvana were inducted in to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame this year. It doesn’t do a bad job at all of capturing something of what Nirvana were about, and what their music meant to many people around the world.
“Good evening. I’m Michael Stipe and I’m here to induct Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When an artist offers an idea, a perspective, it helps us all to see who we are. And it wakes up, and it pushes us forward towards our collective and individual potential. It makes us —each of us— able to see who we are more clearly. It’s progression and progressive movement. It’s the future staring us down in the present and saying, “C’mon, let’s get on with it. Here we are. Now.”
I embrace the use of the word “artist” rather than “musician” because the band Nirvana were artists in every sense of the word. It is the highest calling for an artist, as well as the greatest possible privilege to capture a moment, to find the zeitgeist, to expose our struggles, our aspirations, our desires. To embrace and define a period of time. That is my definition of an artist.
Nirvana captured lightning in a bottle. And now, per the dictionary —off the Internet— in defining “lightning in a bottle” as, “Capturing something powerful and elusive, and then being able to hold it and show it to the world.”
Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl were Nirvana. The legacy and the power of their defining moment has become, for us, indelible. Like my band, R.E.M., Nirvana came from a most unlikely place. Not a cultural city-center like London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or even New York —or Brooklyn— but from Aberdeen, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, a largely blue-collar town just outside of Seattle.
Krist Novoselic said Nirvana came out of the American hardcore scene of the 1980’s — this was a true underground. It was punk rock, where the many bands or musical styles were eclectic. We were a product of a community of youth looking for a connection away from the mainstream. The community built structures outside of the corporate, governmental sphere, independent, and decentralized. Media connected through the copy machine, a decade before the Internet, as we know it, came to be. This was social networking in the face.
Dave Grohl said, “We were drop-outs, making minimum wage, listening to vinyl, emulating our heroes —Ian MacKaye, Little Richard— getting high, sleeping in vans, never expecting the world to notice.”
Solo artists almost have it easier than bands —bands are not easy. You find yourself in a group of people who rub each other the wrong way, and exactly the right way. And you have chemistry, zeitgeist, lightning in a bottle and a collective voice to help pinpoint a moment, to help understand what it is that we’re going through. You see this is about community and pushing ourselves. Nirvana tapped into a voice that was yearning to be heard.
Keep in mind the times: this was the late 80’s, early 90’s. America, the idea of a hopeful, democratic country, had been practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations.
But with their music, their attitude, their voice, by acknowledging the political machinations of petty, but broad-reaching, political arguments, movements and positions that had held us culturally back, Nirvana blasted through all that with crystalline, nuclear rage and fury. Nirvana were kicking against the system, bringing complete disdain for the music industry, and their definition of corporate, mainstream America, to show a sweet and beautiful —but fed-up— fury, coupled with howling vulnerability.
Lyrically exposing our frailty, our frustrations, our shortcomings. Singing of retreat and acceptance over triumphs of an outsider community with such immense possibility, stymied or ignored, but not held down or held back by the stupidity and political pettiness of the times. They spoke truth, and a lot of people listened.
They picked up the mantle in that particular battle, but they were singular, and loud, and melodic, and deeply original. And that voice. That voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you.
Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders: for the fags; for the fat girls; for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied. We were a community, a generation —in Nirvana’s case, several generations— in the echo chamber of that collective howl, and Allen Ginsberg would have been very proud, here.
That moment and that voice reverberated into music and film, politics; a worldview; poetry; fashion; art; spiritualism; the beginning of the Internet; and so many fields in so many ways in our lives. This is not just pop music—this is something much greater than that.
These are a few artists who rub each other the wrong way, and exactly the right way, at the right time: Nirvana.”