One of the biggest music announcements of the year was the fact that The Beatles were finally being offered on iTunes after an all too lengthy and foresight-less protest against digital distribution, I found myself re-celebrating their entire catalog. But with this, I realized as a 31 year old who spent his “teenage angst has paid off well” years largely in the ’90s that Nirvana was my Beatles. Not everyone gets to have their Beatles. If you ask me, there really is not much room left to “revolutionize” music anymore. Sure there will be countless great songs written in the future — they might even make some money — but the way the music industry has changed since Nirvana, it is much harder for the “good” music to shine through. Believe me, I hope I am wrong about this. Consider what Kurt Cobain was trying to do when introducing the Meat Puppets to the mainstream. He was trying to show millions of his fans what inspired him and that you could not hear it on mainstream radio. And is that not always the case? Sure, things have changed with the internet. It exploded just a short time after Cobain ended his life. But we still see issues with some of the best rising to the top. I suppose Kanye West sampling and befriending Bon Iver for his latest album is today’s parallel of that in some weird way?
Regardless, if you look at the state of music today, what do you see? I’ll tell you what I see. Overproduced mass marketed cookie cutter music where even the “new” stuff sounds like it was concocted and packed up in some Linda Perry pop factory just waiting for a new voice to sing it (Ke$ha or Katy Perry?). I cannot deny that these songs are not catchy and hooky as hell, but there’s no revolution in them. It’s all a tired formula that we have grown quite tired of and used to whether we know it or not and it’s been in place since the height of boy and girl bandism, if you ask me.
There is a lack of originality, I tell you. This originality only seems to be present in bands and artists who are able to do their own thing (Band of Horses, Coheed and Cambria) and also seem to be the ones who have to tour their asses off to be successful because people are too busy buying the mass produced glitter.
Flashback to 1991: compact discs were just becoming popular. They still came in longboxes (which wasn’t a bad thing). I remember walking through my local Caldor department store and drifting to the new compact disc section. I came across three CDs that caught my eye. Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous,” Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls,” and a box that was all blue with a naked baby swimming for a dollar bill on it. At that moment, I opted for the one that had the weirdest artwork. I went with Nirvana. I will note, as a music lover, I eventually ended up with the other two CDs as well as both were very good albums. If you put them into today’s pop mix, they would be considered instant classics and not mass produced cookie cutter albums although done by huge artists. They still had some originality and honesty. Maybe it was because technology was not as advanced as it is now? No overly done autotune, that’s for sure.
But back to Nirvana. I will NEVER forget the first time I listened to that CD all the way through. It was a cold rainy late fall afternoon. I popped the disc into my Goldstar all-in-one stereo. Thinking back, what a good sounding little stereo system that was. It even had a record player on top. I remember hearing those songs for the first time and just being blown away. I had not heard anything like that in my life. And apparently, as history goes, I was not alone. Not by a longshot.
The funniest thing to happen was that as “Something In The Way” was finishing I was almost asleep, as if Nirvana took me through their new idea of what music should sound like and offered up a different kind of lullaby to me. No, it was not very much like “Good Night” from The White Album, but more of a somewhat sad inward looking tale, perfect for a rainy day. And it managed to put me to sleep. Some time later, I was harshly awoken to the most creepy guitar sound I had ever heard, but at the time I did not know what it was. I thought my stereo was possessed. I thought the devil himself had taken over my Goldstar and was trying to possess me. I literally ran out of the room scared. Then, I realized, it was a song. I ran back into my room and it was still on track 12. How could this be? My Goldstar was a little low grade and didn’t have a spot for the track time, just track number. I could not for the life of me figure out what exactly happened, but somehow there was a “secret track” on this damned CD. Needless to say, the track was “Endless Nameless” and it scared the hell out of me the first time around. Other than that I LOVED the song. This was the birth of “secret tracks” on compact discs. Just one small part of the game changing that was Nirvana. Since there really was no Internet to speak of in that day, it was interesting to note that I had told my mother about what had happened to me. She found an article in the newspaper not too long after about this secret track and it was explained for the masses.
Nirvana was my Beatles. Sure, you cannot top The Beatles. They were first. They made the music that is the foundation for everything that followed, including Nirvana. But, at that time in the nineties, there was a staleness in pop music. Another way to put it, there was actually room for a new genre in pop music. How many times can you say that? Sure there are other genres that are out there, like ska or funk, but how often can a genre actually be created and added to the mainstream all at the same time? It happened with Nirvana and the genre was called “alternative,” a now stapled offshoot of “rock” and “pop.”
Nirvana, Nevermind, and a slew of other alternative acts began to take this nation and the world by storm. Record labels began signing acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains to contracts because they were from Seattle and they had that alternative or “grunge” sound one way or the other. Instantaneously, radio, fashion, and music was changed forever. You would start to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on pop stations that generally only played stuff like Michael Jackson or Prince. WKCI in Hamden, CT played it, which was weird to me to tell you the truth. It was everywhere. It was a phenomenon. It really was.
It could not have come at a more perfect time in my life personally. I was 12 years old on the verge of adulthood and had a lot of that confusion and anger many youngsters at that age deal with. I was looking for an identity. I sure found it with Nirvana. Raggy jeans, weird sweaters, and flannel shirts became all the rage. I supplied myself with enough Nirvana posters and t-shirts to last a lifetime. It wasn’t all roses, either. I was ridiculed and made fun of because I liked this weird new music. Looking back, it’s fun to know that even the most popular of stereotypical high school kids ended up liking Nirvana. Every last one of ’em would probably tell you that they liked them all along, but we know better, and that’s enough for me.
While this new music did not initially catch on with the mainstream, it became a movement. It was a movement that had been compared to only three major movements in music: Elvis. The Beatles. Michael Jackson. And now Nirvana. And quite honestly, nothing since.
I started growing my hair long like Kurt. I was misunderstood like Kurt. I was an artist like Kurt. I was a lefty on guitar like Kurt. The fantastic by-product of a movement like this is that it contributes to your own personal talents if you have any to speak of. I was already fairly into playing music and drawing and painting, but Nirvana helped me get more out of myself at the time which was an important time in my development. I feel that I was able to become more introspective and creative. I started playing guitar. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but eventually, I did. And I ended playing in a few bands and ended up writing songs and performing in local venues. Later on when I was older, one of my bands, Tranzgression, covered “School” by Nirvana and really rocked the house with it at most of our shows. The music and how it was different inspired people. It inspired me. You really got the feeling that there was someone else out there that understood you or could express things you wanted to with music.
I relate this to watching old Beatles performances. All those teenagers thought The Beatles were singing to them. I thought Nirvana was singing to me, trying to help me out, even though history tells us that Cobain was really just helping himself but that’s okay. That’s just part of the magic. Another great by-product of this movement was all of the goddamn great music that came as a result. We can list hundreds upon hundreds of artists that would never have existed had this movement never happened. Just take any of the projects that Dave Grohl was a part of. A lot of that is good music. Think about Beck, Bush, Loud Lucy (Yeah I’m serious), and Weezer. Anything that had a heavy guitar in it that was not heavy metal made it to the forefront because of this movement. Think about Korn, Deftones, and anyone that you heard on the radio since 1991 that screamed or growled. Thank this movement.
I personally was introduced to new people because of Nirvana. I met people who were the “castouts” of their school or just castouts in general. I met people and was introduced to role playing D&D type games and I was already a fool for comics and video games. These were common interests among “my people.” My people were very interesting, too. I remember one day one of my friends who also liked Nirvana came over with a couple of his buddies I had never met. When they walked in they were like “You got that new Nirvana record? Incesticide?” Yes, I did. And I popped it in my Goldstar as we shot the shit.
I swear, every last song or CD maxi single became like the most sought after pieces of music articles in the world. Now, you just download it all. There was the Sliver single CD that I somehow acquired and there was that split with Jesus Lizard with “Oh The Guilt” on it that I never seemed to get my hands on. Never in my life, before or since, have I clamored — literally scavenged — for music. My weekends were spent at the mall or record stores seeing if they had the CD single of “All Apologies” with “Moist Vagina” on it. It was the first time I began buying import CDs which were overly expensive. I remember buying a double disc set that included Nirvana’s Unplugged set before the actual record label version hit stores. It was $40 well spent.
And I don’t want to forget to mention the music. Not just speaking as a fan, but I don’t think there was ever a bad Nirvana song, never filler. Even on “Bleach,” which came out before they blew up. And of course the music and the movement will be looked back on in a more fond way now than it probably was at the time, but in all honesty, there is a lot of filler out there today. Here’s to hoping that history will repeat itself soon. Pop is beginning to get mighty stale. In an interview Cobain once said “there are a lot of old school dinosaurs in the record industry who need to be weeded out.” It was going so well until he shot himself. The dinosaurs got a second wind. The music industry as a whole can use a revolution in many different departments including sound, distribution, and development.
I say I want a revolution. Well. Ya know. We all want to change the world. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.