20 Years Of Nevermind

Nirvana’s Nevermind is an undeniably important album, not just for its impact on music history, but for me personally. You see, I’m a finicky music fan; prone to turning my back on bands as my tastes evolve with age and exposure to different sounds. Despite that, Nevermind has never left my collection since I first purchased it from BMG in 1991 at the age of 14. When I was into metal and hardcore punk during my teen years, I could appreciate Nevermind on that level. When I got into garage rock and psychedelic music in my early-twenties, I could listen to Nevermind on that level. When I stopped caring about genre or style, and started paying more attention to songwriting and performance, Nevermind still worked for me.

Twenty years later, the record’s success is still an anomaly in the industry. After all, it bears no resemblance to the calculated and callous corporate music that almost always dominates sales charts. This was a record with a song called “Territorial Pissings.” A record including the lyric “God is gay” (“Stay Away”). A record whose inner sleeve featured the singer giving the finger to the camera. A record whose front cover featured – gasp – a penis (something I’d like to see a popular artist try to get away with in 2011). There are theories on why the album did so well; usually something about it being the “antidote to hair metal bands”, or “Kurt Cobain connecting with the pain and angst suburban teenagers were feeling”. That’s not it though. All styles of music recede into the shadows after a few years in the spotlight, and hair metal would have done the same. As for the angst theory, if angst sold albums, Black Flag would be Warren Buffett. No, Nevermind was a success because it took all the great ideas that had been accumulating in underground music for the previous quarter century and presented them in a tuneful way. Oh, and it had major label backing. After all, promotion takes a lot of money, and no indie label out there could afford to give their records the kind of push that DGC gave Nevermind. The $65,000 recording budget alone was more than most alternative bands were given for recording, advertising, touring, and videos combined.

Listening to Nevermind in 2011 is quite a different experience than hearing it in the 1990s. Enough time has finally passed that I can hear it again on its own merits, and not as the omnipresent juggernaut it was. When I listen to it now I no longer think of “grunge”, Seattle, the romanticized image of Kurt Cobain, or any of the other annoying angles the media used to exploit the Nirvana phenomenon. All I hear now are the songs, which still sound pretty fresh and exciting. It also sounds very much at odds with the rest of the American “alternative explosion” that Nirvana was supposedly spearheading. I can’t speak for the band members, but Nevermind doesn’t sound like it was made by a group of guys that were listening to The Smashing Pumpkins, moshing to Rage Against The Machine, or wondering why Jeremy spoke in class today. The album’s blend of punk and classic rock songwriting sounds far more radical than anything their popular alt-contemporaries were doing; more like talented music geeks trying to make music that could sit next to their Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Melvins, Jesus Lizard…etc. records.

The only aspect of Nevermind that disappoints me now is that the pop culture moment it created didn’t last longer. It gave real artists an environment where they could finally have a shot at success, while still making music that was interesting, sometimes even challenging. Unfortunately Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 signaled the decline of underground rock in mainstream American culture. By 1997 many of the truly alternative bands signed in Nevermind’s wake were dropped by their labels, the once successful Lollapalooza festival came to an end (with a final lineup that included decidedly non-alternative acts like Korn and Snoop Dogg), and godawful morons like Smashmouth and Sugar Ray were as unavoidable as Nirvana had been back in 1991. In the end, conservative tastes won, as they always seems to do in modern America. As for me, pretty soon I’ll be trading in my old copy of Nevermind for the new two-disc reissue and fondly remembering one of the last times the best record was also the most popular one.