Twenty years ago today, the godfather of Grunge, Kurt Cobain, alongside his band, Nirvana, released what has been recognized as one of, if not, the most important rock albums of the nineties, Nevermind. Crackling with anger and a nice dose of rebellion, Nirvana created a record that defined the lives of dissatisfied youths, regardless of race, gender, or even social scene. Although it was not long before pre-packaged and studio approved bubble gum pop took over mainstream music, for a brief, shining moment, grunge, Kurt, and Nevermind were on top of the world, and brought dangerous rock and roll into the public eye.
All of this being said, I'm not writing this piece to reminisce over the misty, water-colored memories of Nevermind, but rather, to analyze some of the responses to the album, including my own. Don't expect any tearjerking speeches here.
Last month, Spin Magazine released an issue dedicated to Nevermind, which collected a hodge podge of responses from famous figures, everyone from Carrie Brownstein (MAJOR love) to Patton Oswalt, to the guy who plays on the Macbook in Girl Talk. Because it's a retrospective, the majority of the responses were positive, describing moments, years, that the songs off of Nevermind (especially that one about teens) changed their lives. For a concept that could have gotten touchy feely and self-important, the editors at Spin published a nice issue about nostalgia and chose people who each had something new to say about the album.
Yet, while reading the issue, what struck me as more interesting and meaningful than the sentimental responses were the pieces that were critical, even cynical, towards this towering achievement of Grunge Rock. This isn't to say I wanted people to rain on Nirvana's parade, but the mini-articles that contrasted the love letters to the band and the album spoke much louder to someone like me, and my opinion of the album and the band. One piece, written by one of the chairs at Matador Records, argued that, compared to other, less popular albums in music history, Nevermind isn't all that special. His point being, I'm not going to bitch and moan about the album, but there were even better and more important records released before, and after Nevermind that are not going to get nearly as much fan fair as this album.
As difficult as it may sound, I have to say I agree.
At the age of 12, I remember playing tracks off of Nevermind over and over again. Never the entire album, mostly 'Teen Spirit', because everyone loved 'Teen Spirit', and 'Terratorial Pissings', because it had a bad word in the title. Because people, regardless of age, are mercurial in their music tastes, it was not long before Nevermind was replaced by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, who would, in turn, get the boot by bands like Fiona Apple, Modest Mouse, and the band that changed everything for me, Sleater-Kinney. Listening to the tracks off Nevermind, there is definitely a charge running through my body. I like the songs, love how the album spoke so deeply for so many people so many years ago. I appreciate that something was born, within my generation, that has stood for rock and roll, for independence, and for angst. But to be honest, it's not my thing.
To illustrate a little further, I'm going to draw a loose comparison between Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. Granted, they were both different men, but for the sake of arguing, I'm going to group them together. Both men were prominent artists during the early nineties, both had a rough around the edges sound that was pretty as well as grimy. Both were severely fucked up, used drugs, and eventually took their own lives. In the case of Elliott, he lacks the massive popularity/ubiquity that Kurt and Nirvana received during their hey days, despite having all of the similarities that I mentioned. And yet, listening to Smith, I get the same deep, passionate feelings that many other people get when turning on a Nirvana song.
Does it bother me that the media has less of a focus on Elliott Smith? Yes, and no. While Smith definitely captivated the public eye for a short time, mainly because of his song 'Miss Misery' in Good Will Hunting and his performance at the Oscars, where he donned a white tuxedo, he's no Kurt. Though I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed, I doubt we will see Smith's face plastered all over magazines on the 10th anniversary of his death. On one hand, it's aggravating that the music industry is like this, that one tortured genius gets all of the love and respect while another doesn't rise much beyond his devoted group of followers. But to be honest, I like it this way. Had Smith become as big as Kurt, his self destruction would have been at rapid speed, and it was clear during his career that he felt uncomfortable under the spotlight. In this regard, a medium sized fan base as passionate as the one he has today would have been all that he wanted. Within this group, Smith is more than just a voice, he's our voice. Though the fan count is fewer, to those who have fallen in love with Elliott Smith, the size does not matter. The heart is still there.
So, to sum everything up, and hopefully, to achieve closure, I am going to say that I am glad that Nirvana existed. To the millions who discovered them, between those twenty years, their music still feels genuine, powerful, and as meaningful as it did back in 1991. You don't discover someone like Kurt Cobain every day, a man who hated misogyny, discrimination, and conforming to any mold. To this, I salute him. And yeah, I'm not as big a fan as many others. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.