How Nirvana changed the pop landscape
With Kurt Cobain’s mug peering from the cover of just about every rock periodical on the newsstands (Spin, Rolling Stone, Guitar World), you’d almost think that the early ’90s — the golden era of anti-corporate alt-rock — were back again. Of course, one look at the current pop charts, clogged as they are with teen pop, thug-metal, and computer-driven R&B, is enough to snap you back to reality. In fact, it’s enough to make you wonder just what the heck Nirvana really accomplished.
While welcome, the recent barrage of coverage commemorating the 10th anniversary of ”Nevermind”’s release is both bemusing and ironic. Times, to be sure, have changed — hoo boy, they’ve changed. These days, grunge has about as much pop-cultural currency as doo-wop — just another genre whose time has passed. But any rock fan whose life was impacted by Nirvana’s rise will remember the heady buzz of 1991?92, the feeling that Kurt & Co. were ushering in a new age. The Seattle trio had, it seemed, almost singlehandedly slain the dragon of disposable pop, making the world safe for loud guitars, bad attitudes, and free-ranging angst. Music critic Gina Arnold (and author of the ”Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana”), no doubt carried away by the rampant hubris, famously summed up the meaning of Nirvana’s success by declaring, ”We won.”
Ten years later, that putative victory feels hollow indeed. As great as ”Nevermind” was, it nonetheless opened the floodgates for a deluge of mediocre albums by so-called Nirvana-bes looking to cash in on the grunge explosion. Worthy bands — the Pixies, Mudhoney — got lost in the sauce, while clever copyists like Bush and Candlebox reaped the commercial rewards. It hardly mattered; by the time Cobain committed suicide in 1994, the alt-rock revolution was already winding down. By ’96, it had sputtered to a halt, and since then it’s largely returned underground, from whence it came, clearing the field for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and other jokes of a musical nature.
Indeed, the almost complete disappearance of Gen X music and culture in the years since Cobain’s death is a phenomenon that has till now generated surprisingly little media conjecture. It’s as if an entire movement buried its collective head in the sand after Cobain’s fateful shotgun blast. Sure, Pearl Jam (a band Cobain disdained) still sell plenty of albums, but they’re the exception; nearly all of Nirvana’s other peers are either defunct (Soundgarden) or totally marginalized (the Melvins). That the rock press is wistfully looking back at the ”Nirvana years” a decade later only serves to point up the degree to which Kurt Cobain has become as much a classic rock archetype as an alternative-rock hero. He’s now a certified member of, in his mother’s phrase, that ”stupid club” of doomed rock stars that includes Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Just like Jim Morrison, he’s hot, sexy, and dead — a tragedy-shrouded symbol of a bygone time.
Having recently read Charles R. Cross’ excellent and illuminating Cobain bio ”Heavier Than Heaven,” I’ve been thinking a lot about Saint Kurt lately. I’ve revisited Nirvana’s albums and found that they still stand — particularly the mournful, stripped-down ”MTV Unplugged: Live in New York.” I’m pissed that he succumbed to his demons, robbing us of the chance to monitor his artistic growth. And I really wish he could have found it within himself to keep on keeping on, because we could use his spirit right about now. Of course, that renegade spirit may be just what frightened the industry back into its current state of mediocrity. Just imagine the thinking in the A&R ranks: If suicide is the end result of such an uncompromising artistic vision, maybe we should forget about art. The result? A return of the sort of toothless music Cobain would have hated, being sold at a record emporium near you, under the guise of teen spirit.