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Dec 01

STUPID AND CONTAGIOUS – Nirvana, Then, Now

FT3 comments • 5,227 views

Nirvana didn’t have much direct influence on that, though. As I hinted at earlier, Nirvana had little in common with these grunge folks. There were shared influences, of course (Black Sabbath, Stooges, etc.) – take heavy, distorted guitar riffs, play them faster (or harder), and you have “grunge”. However, Kurt’s love of punk rock, of the music and the ideology, separated him (for better and for worse) from the rest of his successful Northwestern peers. This isn’t to say that Nirvana even best epitomized punk rock for his region of Washington state – bands like the Melvins and Mudhoney were well-established underground denizens, earning a fair share of acclaim and notice before Nirvana ever knew of Sub Pop. However, Nirvana’s sales figures keep them from fitting in comfortably with that particular posse. Therein lies the dichotomy that made Nirvana so interesting to musical pundits. Kurt’s first concert wasn’t Sammy Hagar & Quarterflash – well, actually, it was; Charles Cross notes as much. But Kurt be damned if he actually admitted that; his first concert was Black Flag (or so he told a good number of people). It was punk rock – fierce, primal, strong, scathing. It changed his life. Of course, when something affects you that deeply, you’re going to tell as many people as you can about it. So that’s what Kurt did, even when he began receiving framed silver records from David Geffen. He told folks about his love of the Raincoats and Husker Du and the Pixies, and he covered songs by the Meat Puppets and the Vaselines, and he praised Sonic Youth and Steve Albini (and REM) for their integrity, and he did all this while selling millions of records. This is what everyone notes when touting the importance of Nirvana – their success brought the ideological world of punk rock and the commerce-driven world of corporate music together in a cataclysmic explosion. Unfortunately, this collision left one side worse off than the other.

The most immediate result of this collision, the “alt rock” movement, didn’t have much of a long-term affect. Bands usually saddled with the damning tag of “college radio darlings” finally received some play in the mainstream. However, for every song played by Throwing Muses, there’d be a song from Better Than Ezra nipping at its heels. For every long-suffering musician receiving long overdue accolades for their accomplishments and innovations (Bob Mould, for instance), there would be countless unworthy rookies lucking into success because of their “alternative” vibe.

This is where the issue of credibility comes into play, and this is where the impact of Nirvana’s success truly is felt. Throughout the years, the idea of “punk rock” became both idealized and bastardized. At its purest, the “do it yourself” movement inspired people to form bands, host concerts, release records, and (most importantly) work together. At its basest, punk rock established a system of beliefs that was both rigid and unrealistic – “selling out” was a crime worse than murder; being hip meant as much as, if not more than, being talented; originality and individuality that didn’t jive with the greater consensus was met with violent scorn; your list of favorite bands displayed your value as a person. And, of course, the same greed and deceit that poisons large corporations, the very same greed and deceit that punk rock supposedly shunned, still found a way into the business dealings of folks within this community. Combined, all these mismatched pieces created a world of commerce and art that somehow managed to survive in spite of its crippling weaknesses.

And then, Nirvana. They hit it big, introduced the world at large to all this fantastic music, to this amazing ideology that birthed all this fantastic music. Kids get excited, start to pick up on all these interesting sounds, both new and old. Kids also, inadvertently, pick up on the cliquish hipster dogma that seethes throughout the underground. And now the concepts of “indie cred” and “selling out” become ensconced in the social fabric. Meanwhile, major labels see a potential gold mine – if Nirvana came from down here, and there are plenty of bands down here, there’s a good chance that there’s another Nirvana waiting to make us tons of money. Major labels break each other’s legs trying to rush and sign these bands – some groups, like Helmet, are given ridiculous signing bonuses; other groups, like Veruca Salt, are snatched from the clutches of an indie label and thrust into heavy rotation on the local alt.rock stations. Of course, Veruca Salt might also be the product of another major label tactic formulated to cash in on this phenomenon – use the underground to create a buzz about a group that propels them into the mainstream. Some labels formed subsidiaries of themselves (DGC, TAG) to handle this hot market; others, like Virgin Records made alliances with independent labels, using the “indie” aura of, say, the Caroline label, to aid the career of a band, like the Smashing Pumpkins. Other folks even went so far as to have a band release a single on an independent label, just so future press releases can tout the group’s underground “stature”. Of course, this failed miserably. Only a few groups managed to escape this mess with a career, and, in some cases (again, the Pumpkins, and the Chili Peppers), this success was achieved by going against their own grain (that is, imagine where these hard rockin’ groups would be without the gentle sways of “Disarm” or “Under the Bridge”). Those that didn’t succeed were left to rot. Both labels and artists (those that were formerly independent) were left in shambles. Many never recovered. Ideally, major labels might have realized the sense in letting a band develop, instead of trying to thrust them straight into the world of multi-platinum excess – instead, when the scene started to peter out & prove unlucrative, they just cut bait and scampered off, looking for another trend. The corporations that existed at the beginning of this story are still there; the little guys that didn’t lose their pants regrouped and soldier on; a lot of other people got caught in the wake of the crash, and were decimated. Everyone unable to fall back on excess amounts of capital and diversified interests continue on their way a little more wary, a little less trusting, and much more aware of their own mortality.

And, of course, for all this vaunted talk of “punk rock” breaking into the charts, the only punk-like groups in the past 10 years to have seen the bright side of this equation are those that fit the most stereotypical ideas of what constitutes punk rock. It begins with Green Day and the Offspring; it continues today with Blink 182 and Sum 41. With the former two groups, success came with luck and a handful of hummable tunes that, prior to Nirvana, would have left them as star-crossed and luckless as the Ramones. (And don’t let it go unnoticed that the Offspring, owners of the largest-selling independent release of all time – Smash, upwards of 8 million sold – were blessed with Epitath’s willingness to spend obscene amounts of money to get that record heard.) With Blink and Sum, success comes as the result of meticulous planning and savvy marketing, presenting an image that’s comfortably counter-culture, just transgressive enough to appeal to kids without truly offending anyone of a more sensitive sensibility. It’s as meticulous an image as any offered up by your favorite teen pop idol. It’s as meticulous as the image Kurt Cobain strove to cultivate for Nirvana prior to their major label debut.

The Nirvana that achieved worldwide fame and super-stardom is not the Nirvana that people eulogize. Folks talk about a group of 3 guys from Seattle getting together and making some kick ass punk rock music that blew the doors off of every raised ranch and school gymnasium in Everytown, USA. Folks want to embrace a group that stood against everything that was shitty and impure about the music business, if not the corporate world in general, if not life in general. Instead, what they should be praising is a miraculous group of musicians able to sell a slew of records based solely on a pretty face made to look decidedly unpretty and a batch of abrasive, less-than-accommodating songs. Kurt Cobain’s lasting impact on popular music culture cannot be truly measured in terms of artistic success, as great as his songs might have been, as meaningful as his cryptic phrases seemed, as many stories as there are of kids (like myself) who would’ve been lost to the world were it not for the doors Nirvana kicked in. His gift to popular music culture can be measured best in terms of POP success – Nirvana was a pop band, pure and simple. Pop music is a fickle bastard; its strength is its ability to adapt and change with the needs and desires of the audience being served. Nirvana filled that need for a short while; they served their purpose; they had their moment. And now it’s gone. Dreams of another revolution are fruitless – the revolution never happened.

Comments

  1. 1
    Destin on 26 Jun 2010 #

    NIRVANA BEST BAND ALIVE AND I WAS NOT EVEN ALIVE YET TO HEAR THEIR BUT EVEN TODAY THEIR MUSIC IS STILL BEAST

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 29 Jun 2010 #

    But they aren’t all alive.

  3. 3
    Asim Niroula on 7 Mar 2012 #

    I was just burn during kurt’s death but it is my favoutite band and smells like teen spirit is my favourite song.can’t say what but there is something great in them

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