Let us all bow our heads in fond remembrance of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that changed the world.
It was 10 years ago, as the guardians of the rock & roll citadel love to remind us, that Kurt Cobain and his bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, came swooping down like avenging angels upon the parched, putrid plains of the Billboard charts. With the 10-times-platinum Nevermind, Cobain’s punk fury would banish and smite all that was not worthy of our praise. Begone, Paula Abdul and ye choreographed disco harlots! Flee for the hills, Ratt, Poison, Skid Row, and all the rest of you phony-dangerous riff merchants! Put your shirt back on, Marky Mark—we have no further use for you or your funky bunch! Scurry back to the county fair, Color Me Badd, for your puppy-lovin’ harmonies and stupid haircuts shall never again bask in the cathode-ray glow of MTV!
Ummm… There’s just one problem with that hallowed myth, a myth you’re probably trying to dislodge from your esophagus after having the high priests of the rock press cram it down your gullet for the past few years. If Nevermind really did change the world, how come the world changed back so fast? If ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” eradicated the pox of bad pop from our biosphere, will someone pass the news along to Carson Daly? Because frankly, 2001 sort of feels like a lame, Planet of the Apes-style ”reimagining” of 1991. Who is Jessica Simpson but a Chuck E. Cheese version of Paula Abdul? What is Limp Bizkit but Mötley Crüe with a sprinkle of rap flava and shrewder corporate instincts? Can you honestly tell the difference between Color Me Badd and ‘N Sync—we’re a decade on, and these hormones-and-harmony hustlers are still making the same grammatical and tonsorial gaffes. In truth, the ’90s morphed into a decade of dilution: Madonna’s tough provocations led only to the dippy ”Girl Power” of the Spice Girls; N.W.A’s in-your-face wrath somehow turned into the flashy greed-rap of P. Diddy. By now, even Marky Mark has willed himself into matinee idoldom as Mark Wahlberg. Reimagine!
Here’s Jonathan Poneman, the cofounder of Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label that released Nirvana’s first recordings, pondering the landscape: ”It’s like, how much dross, how much completely meaningless, superficial, corporate fodder can be foisted on the public before they rebel and demand something that’s real and meaningful?” Which is exactly what a lot of smart people—including people at Sub Pop—were wondering back in ’91.
Nevermind, it turns out, wasn’t a clarion call to revolution; it was a revolution’s last gasp.
One hell of a gasp, true. To listen to Nevermind now is to marvel at both its pulverizing atomic firepower and its glorious bacterial weirdness, its grime and its silk and its thunder. ”I remember hearing it in a record store when it came out. It kind of kicked my ass,” says Robert Pollard, leader of the still-thriving indie stalwarts Guided By Voices. ”Every song was really powerful—bam, bam, bam! I thought, This is going to be huge.” Huge it was, and on its own terms. In light of the moon-June-spoon mediocrity that currently engulfs the music industry, you can only be astonished that once upon a time, a chart-topping rock album teemed with lyrics as thrillingly cracked as ”God is gay, burn the flag,” and ”Chew your meat for you/Pass it back and forth in a passionate kiss,” and ”A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido.”