A look at Nirvana's breakthrough album, 20 years later
January 19, 2011

A look at Nirvana's breakthrough album 20 years later

Let us take a trip back to 1990. More specifically, let us take a trip back to the musical landscape of 1990.

Vanilla Ice, Wilson, New Kids on the Block, Winger, R.E.M., Extreme, Mr. Big, Guns N Roses, Tone-Loc, MC Hammer, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins. . .these were the top-selling (and therefore, most frequently played artists) on mainstream radio and music television. Granted, some of these artists still have massive followings today, but I think it goes without saying that, at the juncture, what these bands and musicians were doing was not really anything new within their respective genres.

There were some fairly progressive acts at the timeframe, and a lot of the early heroes of alternative rock (Faith No More, The Pixies, Husker Du, and countless others) had already solidified themselves as established acts, and they all received at least a modicum of national exposure.

Although bands like The Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth and Ministry were indeed getting some time in the limelight, they really had not struck a major chord with the mainstream music-consumer base. It was apparent that all of these bands - many of whom had been around for decades - were all a part of some massive movement against the musical status quo, but up to that point, there had not been a major, super-break out performance that effectively made alternative rock THE defining music of the 1990s.

And then, it happened.

When Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the AOR airwaves, it acted like a neutron bomb on the rock and roll scene. Everything that had been topping the charts just a year earlier - C and C Music Factory, Warrant, Sinead O'Connor - was now beyond irrelevant and outdated. That music was the past, and Nirvana - whatever genre they were supposed to be - was going to be the future of music.

Over the years, one of the most contentious arguments in all of music is whether or not, in hindsight, that Nirvana received TOO much credit for changing the musical landscape and bringing alternative rock to the national forefront. I think it kind of goes without saying that Nirvana did not really invent anything with Nevermind, outside of being the band that had the right release, at the right time, with the right marketing package.

Nirvana was FAR from being the first established grunge act. Hell, Alice in Chains ad Soundgarden were already MTV superstars BEFORE Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the airwaves, but for whatever reason, Facelift and Badmotorfinger just did not resonate with the listeners of America the way Nevermind did.

Really, there were scores of bands that made Nirvana-sounding music before Fecal Matter (the first band fronted by Kurt Cobain) was formed. Cobain himself said that Smells Like Teen Spirit was a rip-off of the Pixies song Debaser, with a little sarcastic homage to More Than A Feeling and Louie, Louie thrown in for good measure.

Before we can evaluate the influence of the second Nirvana album, I think we have to analyze their first release. Bleach, released in 1989, was certainly a less polished album than Nevermind, but a lot of the earmarks of what would become the so-called Nevermind sound could already be heard in their debut album.

Cobain has always said that his two greatest influences as a musician were The Pixies album Surfer Rosa and The Stooges album Raw Power. Clearly, you can hear the influence of both of those recordings on tracks like Blew and Swap Meet, as well as a couple of songs that pay tribute to Cobain s more eclectic influences, like The Beatles (in About A Girl), The Wipers and The Vaselines (in Love Buzz) and even a little Ministry and MDC in the tracks School and Negative Creep.

Clearly, the lyrics in Bleach were a bit more political and social than they were in the subsequent releases by Nirvana. Whereas the lyrics were often frustratingly difficult to interpret in Nevermind, the songs on Bleach were pretty cut and dry as far as meanings were concerned - School was about, well, school and conformity, Love Buzz was about misogyny and domestic abuse, and Floyd the Barber was about being gang raped by the cast of The Andy Griffith Show. . .no, really.

You can say that the musicianship on Bleach was, to put it bluntly, a little unsatisfactory. Of course, that was the bands intent, to get away from the over blown, over produced sound of all of the late era hair bands of the timeframe. Nirvana proudly boasted of only spending $600 on producing the album, and after listening to it for the last twenty years, I'm kind of beginning to wonder where the other $500 went.

Bleach was a tremendous album, but it really did not generate a lot of mainstream attention. At the time, Nirvana was just another Seattle band, a Pacific Northwest outfit that, by their own admission, were far less talented than bands like Soundgarden, Green River, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and The Melvins (whom Cobain absolutely idolized, by the way).

In 1990, something certainly happened to mainstream music. Perhaps it was the realization that it was a new decade, or perhaps it was a number of social events, but people wanted something different from what they had been listening to for the last five years. ZZ Top, AC/DC and Devo just were not defining the times, and suddenly, all of that gloomy, raw, and under-produced Seattle music became a prized market for record execs.

Soundgarden got a record deal. So did Alice in Chains. And then, Mother Love Bone, whom were expected to be THE breakout band from the era, until their front man, Andy Wood, died of a heroin overdose.

When Nirvana signed with Geffen Records, nobody really expected their sophomore album to be something that changed the musical landscape forever. Even as Smells Like Teen Spirit was prepped for mainstream exposure, very few people in the rock world expected this kooky little three piece to be the band that kicked off the single biggest paradigm shift in music since the advent of punk, but as fate would soon have it. . .

Nevermind, obviously, was a more well produced album than Bleach, which instantaneously kicked off rumors that the band had sold out. The structures of the songs were mildly more pop-tinged than the King Buzzo influenced riffraff that made up most of Bleach, although there was definitely prolonged use of the distortion pedals throughout.

To be fair, a lot of the songs were somewhat derivative of established works. Cobain said that Teen Spirit was basically an amalgamation of The Pixies, Boston and The Kingsmen, and Come As You Are practically steals the melody of a Killing Joke song called Eighties. One can definitely hear the influence of Cheap Trick on Drain You, some CCR with On A Plain, and of course, a pervasive Beatles and Iggy Pop tinge on just about every track on the release. For what it was worth, Nevermind really did not create anything out of thin air, but what it did do was present a mishmash of sounds in a beautifully chaotic manner that was practically alien to the aggregate MTV viewer.
I think it is safe to say that without the music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, it is highly unlikely that the album what have taken off the way it did. Pretty much all of the videos from Nevermind - In Bloom, Come As You Are, Lithium - became iconic images of the 1990s, and played a pivotal role in selling the audio experience through visual entertainment.

The video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was directed by famed short-film director Samuel Bayer (who later went on to direct the much maligned Elm Street remake), looked sort of like something out of a Freddy Krueger movie. Everything was dark, and dirty, and filtered through this grimy grey and orange color that appeared equal parts a broom closet and the fifth level of hell. Cheerleaders in Anarchy branded uniforms marched while teenager with greasy hair tapped their shoes and banged their heads in the stands, all while these three grungy dudes from Seattle provided them with the theme song to the pep rally from Hades.

Teen Spirit, although named after a brand of deodorant, is certainly about disaffected youth, but even twenty years later, it is somewhat trying to determine what the songs lyrics are REALLY referencing. Is Cobain singing about how marketing leads youngsters into depression, or is he talking about the sheer boredom of living in the land of plenty? An albino, a mosquito, my libido. . .it means something, even if that something is next to impossible to figure out.

The two greatest faults people had. . .and still port to this day. . .about Nirvana is that the lyrics are unintelligible on TWO fronts. Not only are the lyrics choppy to the point of being a Kerouac poem, Kurt's yells and often sarcastic delivery makes most of the lyrics on Nevermind almost impossible to aurally decipher. Perhaps Weird Al Yankovich hit the nail on the head when he suggested that Cobain sang the song with marbles in his mouth in the parody track Smells Like Nirvana, off 1991 s Off The Deep End, which likewise parodied the iconic cover of the album.

The album itself was fairly controversial when it was first released. In case you have been living in a cave for the last twenty years, you would note that the album features a baby on the cover artwork. And yes, it is a naked one. Many retailers, specifically Wal-Mart, made Geffen cover up the baby with a sticker that listed a couple of songs from the album, so as to not alienate any would-be consumers that enjoy hearing songs about suicide, depression, and environmental devastation BUT CANNOT fathom the prospect of witnessing the human anatomy.

To this day, the lyrics of Nevermind inspire debate as to what Kurt Cobain actually wanted to convey in his songs. Although we know that the songs are about certain themes - alienation, dissatisfaction with our parents generation, male and female relations, etc. - some of the songs are just so oblique as to be virtually indecipherable.

Is In Bloom about posers, or unfit parents? Is Lithium really about depression, or is it about the negative influence of religion on society? Outside of the narratives of Something In The Way and Polly - a song about living under a bridge and child abuse, respectively - you can pretty much make whatever you wish out of the track listing of Nevermind. When Cobain screams we can build a tree, we can plant a house on Breed, is he making a comment about deforestation, suburbanization, or what? Really, it is up to the listener to decide, an aspect which makes Nirvana revered and reviled in equal proportions today.

Literally EVERY song on the album has become iconic, in some way or form. Even the obscurest songs on the album - Lounge Act, On A Plain, and Territorial Pissings - have all received major airplay on alt rock stations throughout the U.S., and Drain You even made its way into a number of video games. I have even heard a few covers of the SECRET track that was available on the original pressing of the CD. How many other albums can say that they've had even THEIR intentionally hidden songs covered?

The impact was immediate. Soon, Nevermind became a chart-topping album, and all of the relics of the 1980s seemed to fade away overnight. Grunge was the new in-thing in music, and before long, scores of sound-a-like bands were signed to multi-million record deals.

Kurt Cobain, of course, was not a person that took to his fame. Considered by many as the reluctant spokesman for a generation, Cobain s works became darker and darker, as he slid into further narcotics abuse. Nirvana ended up releasing just one true follow-up album to Nevermind, In Utero, which contained songs about the bleakness of disease, reluctant fame, deep sorrow, and a pervasive sense of guilt and shame.

By 1994, grunge was no longer a musical movement, but a co-opted marketing ploy. Dozens of bands, many of which were dressed up in grunge regalia despite being from the northeast, and in some cases, other continents, flooded the airwaves. What began with Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had turned into a mass pop movement, as bands like Green Jelly, Silverchair, and the Gin Blossoms became the end dividend of all of that regionalized angst and mainstream disappointment.

Grunge, which was an anti-fashion cause, ultimately turned into a cosmetic mission. By the mid 90s, the movement about nothing had literally turned into a nothing movement, and the end of the era came one April morning when Cobain, under circumstances that remain controversial today, was found dead in his King County home.

Looking back on it, it is easy to see why Nevermind had the impact that it did. In a musical landscape that was content on providing listeners with a superficial image, that album brought out a dirt-stained looking class for the depressed, disaffected youth of the nation to take a nice, long gander into. Despite being a movement that LOATHED materialism and mainstream culture, the Grunge movement became PRECISELY that, as it soon became fashionable for sixteen year old suburban princesses to dress like starving loggers and sing happily along to music about social stratification and cultural disillusion. The irony of the most ironic musical movement in history is that most listeners never found their liking of Nirvana s music to be even the least bit ironic.

Nevermind created the sensation that it did because it dropped the posturing that most early 90s bands had been living on for years. There was no image to upkeep for the members of Nirvana, outside of attempting to provide the least marketable image as possible to consumer America. Nirvana made music that, despite such wide scale prevalence at the time, was new and unheard of: it was music that actually REFLECTED the thoughts of the listeners, and accepted their concerns, woes and worries instead of jamming pre-packaged nonsense down their gullets.

Nevermind was a highly polished piece of dirty and scummy rock, but it was still the dirtiest and scummiest rock music most people had heard up until that point. This was music that not only STATED that the economy sucked and times were horrible, it was music that firmly embraced that horribleness at a time in which mainstream music was wholeheartedly committed to up keeping the illusion of prosperous times.

Nevermind, 20 years later, is still a great album. It holds up incredibly well, and it has a sort of power that resonates all these years later. Even today, when the landscape is EERILY similar to the landscape that existed when Nevermind was originally released, the music hits you, and makes you think about the waywardness of the world, even though the music does not really come forward and beat you over the head with direct examples.

Twenty years ago, Nevermind was a fantastic album, because it was true, honest and not afraid to admit that things blew at a time when pretending there was not a problem was the cool thing to do. While Michael Jackson and Guns N Roses spent millions of dollars filming epic music videos, Cobain, Grohl and Novaselic simply made grimy, distorted rock songs that reminded people that life, no matter how much we try to avoid it, sucks now and forever.

Now, perhaps even more than it did 20 years ago, that central message of Nevermind resounds loud and clear for all to hear.

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James Swift is a freelance writer currently living in the metro Atlanta area. He has published two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.
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