Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nirvana - A Denial

So about two years ago, the online magazine Inflatable Ferret (which alas, folded... although they still blog) asked me to write something on the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. So I just basically vomited out about 4,000 words in a couple of hours and sent it to them. Unfortunately, they packed up shop right around that time and the essay never got published. Anyway, thinking about Nevermind, grunge, and that whole alterna-rock nineties thing seems kind of hokey these days. Like trying to say nice things about James Taylor or Ace of Base. Still, given that soon it's gonna be twenty years since Kurt Cobain killed himself, I thought I would pull it out and publish it on my blog. It's a bit of navel-gazing of course, but I think gets to the reason (especially near the end of the essay) why music means so much to us when we are in our twenties, and why we carry those feelings ahead into our thirties and forties.

Nevermind: A Denial

Nevermind changed everything! It sold 30 million copies and completely revolutionized the music industry by ushering in an era of heavy guitar-based music into the mainstream. It knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the number 1 spot in the Billboard charts in a move that was the symbolic death of the era of facile hair metal and R and B muzak. Angst became cool and nothing was the same ever; it was the “voice of a generation.”

This view is so deeply entrenched in popular thinking—and reproduced ad nauseum recently on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nevermind—that it no longer makes any difference whether it’s true or not. There is, however, one part of this story that is incontrovertibly true:

Nevermind did sell 30 million. According to Wikipedia, it is number 27 on the list of best-selling albums of all time. But it’s equally eye-opening to excavate some other numbers from the 1990s. Guess what? Nevermind, it turns out, wasn’t even the top-selling album of 1991. Here are the best-selling albums of the decade:

Top seller: Michael Jackson – Dangerous (32 million)

Top seller: Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard (44 million)
Next in line: Abba - Abba Gold (28 million), Billy Ray Cyrus – Some Gave All (20 million)

Top seller: Mariah Carey – Music Box (32 million)
Next in line: Ace of Base – Happy Nation/The Sign (23 million), Celine Dion – The Colour of My Love (20 million)

Top seller: Bon Jovi – Cross Road (20 million)

Top seller: Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (33 million)
Next in line: Mariah Carey – Daydream (25 million), Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (22 million), Michael Jackson –HIStory (20 million)

Top seller: Celine Dion – Falling Into You (32 million)
Next in line: Spice Girls – Spice (23 million)

Top seller: Shania Twain – Come On Over (40 million)
Next in line: Celine Dion – Let’s Talk About Love (31 million), James Horner – Titanic soundtrack (30 million), Backstreet Boys – Backstreet’s Back (28 million), Spice Girls – Spiceworld (20 million)

Top seller: Madonna – Ray of Light (20 million)

Top seller: Backstreet Boys – Millenium (40 million)
Next in line: Britney Spears – … Baby One More Time (26 million), Santana – Supernatural (27 million), Dido – No Angel (21 million), Cher – Believe (20 million)

So what did Nevermind change? Not much it seems. Nothing at all. Awful pop, which ruled the zeitgeist of the 1980s equally dominated the cultural currents of the 1990s. But numbers don’t really tell the whole story. Something did happen with Nevermind, something maybe not on the level of a Mariah Carey album or Celine Dion’s utter saturation of the airwaves, but something nevertheless. I concede already that identifying that “something” is difficult, maybe even impossible. Given all the baggage surrounding such an iconic album, writing about Nevermind is much like dancing about architecture (to invoke Elvis Costello’s much-quoted one-liner.) It can’t be done. And if you try hard enough, you’ll just come off looking silly. If it’s impossible to exactly unearth what happened with Nevermind, the other equally defeatist option is to try and rip the album out of its historical context and evaluate its music on its own terms. Another foolhardy exercise, that. This is not only because so much has been written about it, but also because at this point, twenty years after its release, Nevermind has become entrenched in the overarching narrative about the history of rock’n’roll (see above).

I haven’t listened to Nevermind much in the past decade or so, and honestly had no plans to do so. But in preparation to write this, I put it on a few times last week. I heard it on the subway, at home, sometimes as background music, sometimes paying attention. There’s a weird quality to it: not many albums make me feel nothing. Nevermind kinda makes me feel nothing. I’m not saying that it doesn’t evoke a lot, or that it doesn’t remind me of things, but it feels emotionally absent—more intellectually alluring than emotionally stirring, if that makes sense. At this point, the album feels neither good nor bad, it just is. It’s like the monolith on the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey—it seems awesome but you don’t really know why. This is all the more odd since Nevermind used to mean a lot to me. A lot.

I guess I should get this out of the way then. My first memory of Nevermind is this: listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on KTRU (the radio station at Rice University in Houston). To say that KTRU was eclectic is to understate the issue. Back then (circa fall 1991) the station might play an hour of straight Bulgarian folk followed by 90 minutes of the sound of a helicopter, followed by back-to-back plays of the Swans’ Filth and Cop, and then finally topped off with a full hour of the sound collage “band” Negativland whose biggest “hit” up to that point was “Christianity is Stupid.” You never really knew what you were getting with KTRU. So hearing a song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was kind of odd. I’d barely heard of Nirvana at that point (late 1991) and they sounded, well, almost tuneful. Why was KTRU playing a pop song? As the weeks turned into months, I watched in bemusement as Nirvana suddenly got to number 1. Number 1! From what I could tell, they came out of the “underground” scene, what most of my friends would generally call “punk rock.” At the time, punk rock was a sensibility that pretty much described everything that wasn’t (a) on the radio or (b) classic rock. I studiously avoided both radio music and classic rock so the fact that a “punk rock” band was at number 1 was totally weird. It just didn’t make any sense. These guys were on MTV!

Gradually in early 1992, by which time I moved to the cultural mecca of Houston, Texas, I started to listen to the album a lot. I had a cassette tape with Nevermind on one side and the Smashing PumpkinsGish on the other. I remember at a party talking to my friend Greg—a drummer in a band—and him declaiming in all seriousness that the Pumpkins were the “real thing” and Nirvana was a “sellout.” This was news to me, since I had only the dimmest idea of who Nirvana was. Either way, I was initially drawn to Gish and put off by the glossy production on Nevermind, but increasingly as 1991 turned to 1992, I kept forgetting to play Gish. Weird to think about it but at the time Smashing Pumpkins had a lot of cred among the indie rock kids (“alternative,” they used to call it). Gish sounded full of muscle; it was agro and masculine. Nevermind sounded muddled, poppy, and androgynous. But somehow, inexorably, I got sucked into the Nevermind world. I have a strange kodachrome memory of me looking for a parking spot at a grocery store one spring day, not being able to find one, and as I circled and circled … and circled, “Come As You Are” built up into this hypnotic crescendo. My unexpected first thought was, “Shit, this is awesome.”

But you haven’t labored this deep into a review to hear me say, “Shit, this is awesome.” Actually, within the confines of 1992, the album was undeniably awesome. First, the songs were perfectly composed, arranged, and played. These guys wrote twelve amazing pop songs that had killer melodies. And there was one peculiar thing: Kurt Cobain had an eerie mastery over how to sing a vocal melody. Most pop songs are just constructions of successive chords with a vocal melody that essentially matches the chord progression, maybe veering off a little bit here and there. Cobain’s trick (and let’s face it, this was part of his genius) was to sing at odds with the chord progression. Take the penultimate song, “On A Plain.” There’s a relatively simple pop chord progression. But you start following the chords and the vocals are always going off in opposite directions, swooping up and down in a way that is not intuitive at all—in fact, it’s entirely counter-intuitive if you’ve only heard the chords. What this does is to create a three dimensionality that’s kind of unique. It makes the song levitate, almost float by you. You want to take a deep breath and fly away with it. It’s striking.

At the time, I loved all the songs on the album—and I mean every song. Ripped out of its mega-star-cultural-moment context, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a big dumb rock song. It rocks harder than anything made by Black Sabbath but it sounds a bit like the Monkees. There’s something sinister about the introductory bars to the song, just before the vocals come in; those double-note ambulance-like notes ring out ominously over a driving bass. For months, I had no idea about the lyrics (they were first printed as an insert in the “Lithium” CD single) and in a way, I wish I still didn’t. The first couplet was apparently: “Load up on guns / and bring your friends.” In concert, Kurt often sang them as: “Load up on drugs / and kill your friends” which I liked a lot better. I liked the almost comical nihilism set up against this palatable pop sheen.

Much has been made of Nevermind following a loud-soft-loud dynamic perfected by the Pixies on Surfer Rosa, and sure, that’s part of the charm (or annoyance, depending your perspective) of the record, but the band work it to good effect. Undoubtedly, the loud-soft-loud dynamic made the album especially exciting to bonehead jocks who could go get a beer during the soft parts and then dump it over the heads of weakling nerdy kids during the loud parts. But behind the “cheap trick” of the loud-soft-loud dynamic was a real subversiveness to the album. If you were gonna introduce “punk rock” (again, used very expansively) to the malls of America, then you couldn’t find a better album with which to do so. If you look back on the pre-Nevermind year of 1990, other contenders were Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual, Sonic Youth’s Goo, the Pixies’ Bossanova, maybe Nine Inch NailsPretty Hate Machine, maybe even Gish. But really, all those albums were kind of conventional counter-cultural statements. Nevermind was completely unique. It was a pop rock album that had songs with singalong choruses about bipolar disorder (“Lithium”) packed in right next to manic punk rock (“Territorial Pissings) and the relentlessly racing punk flight of “Stay Away” which ended with the glorious exclamation of “God is gay.” (In the written lyrics, he added the equally sophomoric and funny “Burn the flag.”) How many unsuspecting middle-aged suburban moms knew that those lyrics were buried in the songs of Nevermind? And the coup de grace? Once the album finishes, after about ten minutes of silence, the by-now dozing listener is awakened from her stupor with the greatest abject noise-skronk freakout (“Endless Nameless”) this side of the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues.” Now that was a tour de force.

And for all the subversiveness, there was also an emotional wallop in the album. It didn’t feel distant, remote. It was warm. You could hear the ringing three-note variations at the beginning of “Come as You Are”  like a lover’s come-on; until, of course, Kurt starts singing “And I swear, I don’t have a gun,” and you knew, right then and there, that he did indeed have a gun. “Polly” and “Something In The Way” are the obligatory acoustic songs, the former a deeply uncomfortable-to-listen-to song about rape from the rapists’ perspective, and “Something in the Way” a grim reminder of some long lost memory. Even the filler tracks are packed with candy and bullets: “Lounge Act” rocks away like the greatest Cheap Trick song that never happened, while “Breed” rips out of the speakers like a rush of blood, as you imagine yourself crowd-surfing over a genius riff that has been embossed into your brain cells.

There’s a real dynamic quality to the album, both in terms of its sonic qualities, but also in its range of emotions. This is an album that over a period of 45 minutes makes you want to “fuck shit up” (as Juliana Hatfield so succinctly put it in her song “Nirvana” from her 1992 album Hey Babe), curl up in a ball, raise your fists like antennas to heaven, or smile with glee. And that’s the other part of its appeal. It’s like an album made by committee to appeal to every imaginable disaffected youth demographic: the jocks (the big dumb choruses of “Lithium”), the punks (who could mosh with “Territorial Pissings”), the girls (who could bounce up and down with “Come As You Are”), the sensitive poets (“Something In the Way,” duh), the feminists (“Polly”), the Sonic Youth fans (“Endless Nameless”), and of course, the mildly interested yuppie demographic (the whole album).

Not too many people talk about the musicianship on the album, but Kurt was a good guitar player; not just a competent one, but an actually good one. He had a keen melodic sense and his rhythm guitar playing is taut and to the point, not a note wasted. His lead runs are either sub-Sonic Youth atonal bursts, or note-for-note reproductions of the vocal melodies, which many people found strangely lacking in creativity. You could imagine that the same songs, in the hands of Motley Crue, would have full-scale wanker guitar solos, totally ruining the songs. Instead, the solos here are simple, tasteful, and repetitive … in a good way. Dave Grohl was a beast on drums; Butch Vig’s production makes his snare sound massive without being overpowering. I dare you to not move your body when he hammers down on the multiple snare hits at the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a bit like those hammer-of-the-gods stick-pounding that begins Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” but sped up and brought into ‘90s production mode.

So it was a good album, for sure. It was produced well, the songs had mass appeal. In a weird way, the music on it enabled a kind of popular imprinting. By that I mean, you could project anything you wanted on it. It’s a rare album that makes that possible. For the 13 to 28-year old demographic, this album was like an empty frame where you could paint in your aspirations, frustrations, yearnings, and expectations. There are few albums that succeed on that level alone. Some that come to mind: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., maybe. These albums, when they came out, were at the crest of a cultural consensus, albums which transcended the genre of music fans and beyond into broader popular culture. Your parents heard of these artists and albums. Your grandmothers too. But unlike these albums, the cultural consensus of Nevermind was principally a narrative of rebellion, youth rebellion.

The Clash once sang about the music industry and its habit of “turning rebellion into money.” It’s an old story of course, the commodification of dissent. Nevermind came out at a time when the entire machinery of mass media was perfectly poised and ready, cocked and loaded to sell packaged rebellion. There was a window of opportunity in 1990-1991 for guitar-based angst-ridden music to break through into the popular mainstream, a niche for “authenticity,” the kind of authenticity that could be approved of in a board meeting and sold through the appropriate channels. By the summer of 1991, the cultural project of “authenticity” was given a big boost by the first Lollapalooza shows which traveled all across the country with a diverse group of “alternative” bands. Again, a slightly different course of events and Lollapalooza headliners Jane’s Addiction might have ended up where Nirvana was. But Jane’s imploded pretty soon after and the band was a little too glamed up for “authenticity,” too arty if you will. Compared to the members of Jane’s, the guys in Nirvana were kind of middlebrow but clued in. “Alternative” music was beginning to be a cash cow for the major labels already before Nevermind—note the major label successes of Sonic Youth and the Pixies.

So who was doing the commodifying of rebellion? Well, mostly MTV. The music video channel had been around since the early 1980s and it had gained in massive influence by the late 1980s where the network could make or break bands. For marketing reasons, MTV began slowly shifting its programming to “alternative” music in 1991, from a small trickle that became a massive deluge by 1992. It’s hard to remember a time now when MTV mattered but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, shows like 120 Minutes were the only vehicle through which adolescent kids were exposed to music outside the mainstream. Before the internet, if you lived in suburbia, you had to be pretty industrious to be clued in. And for a 13-year old kid from Palos Verdes outside of LA to be clued in was to have her mom drive her to Sam Goody or the Wherehouse or—much easier—to watch MTV. A 13-year old is not going to know the difference between rebellion and commodified rebellion. In fact, it’s a distinction that is grossly unimportant. Add to that mix, the fact that 24-hour entertainment/news networks were finally becoming household names—think CNN and its crucial role in bringing the (first) Gulf War to American homes in 1991—and you have a potent mix: a great album with pop songs where every disaffected youth demographic could project their anxieties, a marketing machine that sold Nevermind as an “authentic” antidote to soulless hair metal and/or R&B, and the existence of a powerful 24-hour machinery of conspicuous communication. And let’s face it, it didn’t hurt that Kurt Cobain was a blue-eyed blonde-haired Adonis. You mix up all of that and you get a mass cultural phenomenon that exploded into the sensibilities of the white middle class.

So yeah, there were all these structural reasons, the political economy of Nevermind, if you will. But what did it really mean? What did it mean on an individual level? Each person brings something to a piece of music that is intensely personal. Why some albums resonate while others barely register have a lot to do with when one experienced that music. Popular music, especially since the 1950s, has been, by-and-large, a phenomenon of youth, and it strikes a person, it resonates deeply in the peculiar balancing point between adolescence and adulthood. The best and most resonant pop music is about being young, about the usually haphazard and contradictory awareness of meaning and escape in one’s life. There’s something about listening to a song when you’re 14 or 24—it could be Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”—that gives it a revelatory charge. It’s not that we can’t appreciate music when we’re 40 or 50 but that by that time there is an element of clinical and cognitive appreciation in it. When you’re young, there’s no rationalizations, only deep-rooted awareness. We invest our souls in those moments when music makes sense. The music becomes larger than life, assuming a kind of surrogacy, where your fucked up adolescent emotions are given life in songs. That’s powerful when you’re young. It may happen for over a span of years, it may happen with many bands. Serendipitously, I happened to be in that window of time, actually on the tail end of it, and this album began to mean something to me that was entirely larger than its practical import in my life.

To say that I loved Nevermind in 1992, 1993 would be an understatement. If my CDs and tapes of that album were edible, I would have eaten them, that’s how much I loved them. Sure, I loved the songs. They were, yes, awesome. And yes, I felt vindicated that my (my, my) own little world of “punk rock” was selling millions of copies. But honestly, there was little mystery as to why exactly my like for a band crossed over into some sort of vaguely pathological identification: it was the cheap and sophomoric distortions of youth telling me that I was just like the singer. I developed some ill-advised and idiotic identification with Kurt that had no basis in rationality. Some of it was certainly me swallowing the media’s perfectly presented image of a talented punk rock guy who was going against the grain even as he was co-opted by the very machinery which he was railing against. This is also not a new phenomenon: when late 1960s counterculture musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors were railing against the establishment (“the man”), I’m sure it was not lost upon them that they were on major corporate labels owned by “the man.” I was acutely aware of this fundamental contradiction in 1992 but I didn’t care. The corporate package was, in fact, perfectly suited to me. I liked the fact that Nirvana was both popular and yet constantly complained of being too popular. This condition mirrored the contradictions of my own life (well-read but constantly railing against intellectuals, etc.). And for sure, I loved wallowing in my navel-gazing angst. I was the perfect demographic. I too wanted to scream my fucking head off at the world and sing “Territorial Pissings.” I too wanted to tell Rolling Stone magazine that they were corporate shills. I even liked Flipper’s Sex Bomb Baby just like him!

I also bought into the dichotomies reinforced in packaged interviews: the forced Beatles vs. Stones rivalry that was now played out in Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam; my absolute and utter antipathy towards Guns n’ Roses who represented the evil “other” even though as Steven Hyden so insightfully identified in a recent series of articles on “alternative nation” on the A/V Club that Axel Rose and Kurt Cobain were in fact much more alike than not; and finally, my constant need to defend Nirvana against charges of “sellout” to my purist punk rock friends. All of these right vs. wrong dichotomies were neatly personified in this mega rock star who, let’s face it, was probably an asshole. This intense identification with Kurt Cobain, while somewhat foolish, was at its core, briefly very cathartic. It gave some sort of vague private space where I could exist outside of the very evident inertia of my “real” life. (Naturally, when Kurt killed himself in 1994, this deep and misguided identification caused all sorts of unexpected, um, disruptions.)

So the music of my youth bred this kind of extremely meaningful but highly contrived identification. But … at some point, for everyone, deeply personal investment in music ceases to happen. It stops. It may be because you get busy with other things or because you don’t have time or because you get into relationships, have babies, or just get old. But it stops. And at that point, something else happens: nostalgia, or more precisely false nostalgia, kicks in. Nirvana has been the focus (or victim, depending on your take) of so much nostalgia, that it’s hard to recover anything of value about it besides the actual act of remembering. People now even remember how they remembered Nevermind. And the narratives are firmly calcified. You know when John Stewart hosts a special Town Hall meeting on SiriusXM radio to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind with Dave Grohl, Kris Novoselic, and Butch Vig, that we are a culture that fetishizes remembering, nostalgia, the past, memories, tributes, anniversaries, etc. The new Nevermind 4 CD/1 DVD boxset edition is but one symptom of how pop culture is now constantly cannibalizing its past. Do we really need so much Nevermind? And the weird part is that when I saw ads for the box set, I was drawn to it, like an adult being shown a long lost toy from his youth, attracted by the alluring lost but yet treasured quality of it. But I held myself back. I tried to remind myself of that feeling I get when I see yet another Rolling Stone cover on Kurt Cobain at the airport, or every time I see Nevermind as the token 1990s album to make babyboomer lists of the top 100 albums of all time. It just makes me nauseous.
The album doesn’t exist outside its history anymore. The songs each have long footnotes that explain every historical detail about the band; looming large over all this is of course The Suicide™. It has become almost impossible to imagine Nevermind without that most famous of footnotes, which looms larger than the text itself.

Now, twenty years later, without the meaning, without the youthful attachments, without the superficial hero identifications, and without the footnotes, does the text hold up? I just listened to it. It’s damn good. It may not be the best album of the 1990s (hell, it’s not even the best album of 1991—that honor is reserved for My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless), but it is indeed a good-to-great album, full of fine songs, massive music, tender moments, subversive commentary, and unintelligible lyrics. Sure, it’s hard to find meaning in it anymore, but it’s hard to find meaning in anything that happened twenty years ago. Like the album, I am also twenty years older now and there are other things to devote attention to. But I know this for sure: it’s aged much better than me.


Dan Holbrook said...

The other morning at the gym, Smells Like Teen Spirit came on. My older daughter, in ninth grade at the time, tried that song as one in a long series to get me to object to the music she liked. That did not work. I liked the song then, I like it now, perhaps for shallow reasons – “here we are now, entertain us” is just one great lyric line, an admission that in part what the “grownups” think about the “kids” is right – but paid little attention to the rest of the album. In fact, I have never heard the whole thing. I might be old enough to do that now.
I’m going to disagree with part of your conclusion, that deep attachment to music stops at some point, replaced with “false nostalgia.” Maybe that’s true on some sort of general, media-driven level, but personally, I’ll object at least to the “false.” It’s true that I don’t have time or space to listen to music as much as I used to, and that age and busyness interrupts the ability to keep up with most new music, but music, certain songs and albums, still have the same effect on me they used to. “Don’t Worry About the Government,” every time, reinstills in me some small self-faith when I need that. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (either version) gets me up and moving and thinking about how even sorrow is danceable. And so forth. Is that nostalgia? Maybe, maybe not.
Minor note: I was about to write that it was Frank Zappa, not Elvis Costello, who wrote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But, not wanting to be wrong, I googled; here’s the scoop:

spaceman said...

Dan thanks for your comment. Funny story about your daughter playing Smells Like Teen Spirit as a way to get you to *not* like her music.

About our deep attachment to music stopping at some point, I do understand what you're saying, that music has the capability to deeply move us even now. I don't deny that. I think what I saying (perhaps not in the most eloquent way) was that music that resonates at the deepest emotional level was the music of our childhood and adolescence. I think part of it is that that music has had a lot of time to percolate and "settle in" in our lives. So maybe it's the law of numbers.

It's funny, the older I get and the more time I spend with my (seven year old) son, I am appreciating the joy of music from the Jackson Five (adolescence) or Led Zeppelin (early teenage years) or Talking Heads (late teenage years).

About Zappa vs. Costello, thanks for the correction. That link has some amazing amount of research behind it!

P.S. Really enjoyed your piece on Clean Rooms in H&T.