Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nirvana is Overrated ... Kind Of

You have to hand it to She Hate Me. This guys thinks A LOT. See below for his latest, and I think, greatest. 

A recent press release / blog entry by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor announcing that Jane’s Addiction will be backing him on his 2009 farewell tour got me thinking about something that seems to come up over and over again:  Nirvana’s status as the Godfathers of modern rock n roll. 

 Per Reznor:

“Towards the beginning of my career in Nine Inch Nails, our biggest break came in the form of an invitation to perform a series of shows with Jane's Addiction. These performances essentially created and defined the term "alternative" rock in the US , created an ongoing festival franchise that is still thriving (Lollapalooza), set the stage for Nirvana to shift popular taste a few months later…”

 This notion of Nirvana as rock’s modern paradigm shifters has generally been accepted as fact because, since 1991, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME and MTV (The Industry, if you will) have needed an easy crutch to explain a phenomenon that was already upon us – the triumph of “alternative” rock over hair metal bands – and, of course, a superstar to make money off of.  And so they used Nirvana as a way to market a new commodity – the commodity of “cool” -- to a new generation.  The Industry created a brand and sold their wares to unsuspecting humps like myself.  And they hit the jackpot when Cobain killed himself, which allowed them to place Kurt beside Jimi, Jim, and Janice in the pantheon of era-defining rock martyrs.  But with Reznor apparently riding off into the sunset on the back of this legend, it’s time to examine the relatively unimportant question of just how culturally important Nirvana really is. 

It should be noted from the outset that, like everyone else who watched MTV in September of 1991, I was somewhat swept away by Nevermind when it first came out.  I remember playing it non-stop for a month, but I also remember getting sick of it quickly thereafter.  Maybe that’s because, for many of us, this was not a cultural or musical revelation at all.  The songs were great (and still are) and catchy and powerful, but if you listened to The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction and NiN and all that late 80s college rock / early 90s “alternative” rock, you likely regarded Nirvana as a cool Sub Pop band that broke through.  In fact, if it did anything, Nirvana’s popular success probably pushed some of us away from the band. I remember thinking, “What’s the big deal about these guys, anyway?”  And I remember scoffing at the “grunge” marketing tag that the record companies attached to the Seattle scene. 

While much of Nevermind doesn’t really resonate with me these days, there’s no denying that it is an excellent album, and that its commercial success helped pave the way for a generation of rock fans to explore music outside of the standard commercial rock that radio and MTV shoved down their throats.  After Nevermind’s success, mainstream exposure came to bands that previously could only be found on the left of the dial – The Lemonheads, Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr. et al.  But, is that where its influence and importance ends?  And was it really Nirvana that ushered in this new era, as Reznor suggests?  Wasn’t it “Been Caught Stealing” and “Head Like a Hole” that really brought alternative rock to the mainstream?  The idea that Nirvana saved rock n roll, created a whole new genre of music, spawned hundreds of relevant rock bands in the 90s and on forward and generally made it OK to get a tattoo and multiple piercings doesn’t mesh with history.  What bands did Nirvana spawn?  The VinesCollective SoulSilverchair?  What genre of music did it invent?  Grunge?  That label was always a gimmick.  What era did it usher in that was not being ushered in already?

Which brings us to crux of our thesis here – whether Nirvana should actually be considered a seminal band at all.  In my mind, a seminal act has a lot more to with heralding a new style and changing the way people listen to music than with simply writing some great songs that meant something to their generation.  (It’s debatable whether Nirvana’s songs even mean anything of substance to the 90s generation, but whether that is a statement about Nirvana or the decade of the 90s is a debate for another day.)  A seminal act should re-define a new expression of music.  James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, a clear influence on almost every act in modern music, from Sly and The Family Stone to The Jackson Five to Notorious B.I.G.  Dylan electrified folk music and elevated lyricism beyond traditional themes and images.  His influence is felt in almost every rock song you hear today.  Ditto for The Beatles.  Bob Marley was the third world’s first pop star, a man that brought the music of a small Caribbean island to everyone from Eric Clapton and The Police to Wyclef Jean and M.I.A.  The Clash – “the only band that matters” – used punk rock to give music a conscience.  This DIY sentiment, both in terms of recording and spirit, clearly laid the ground work for indie rock’s proliferation from 1990 to today.

The seminal pioneers didn’t end with the seventies.  The Pogues’ mixture of traditional Celtic and punk rock, for example, spawned countless imitators, some of them very bad (see Black 47) but some of them good (see Dropkick Murphy’s).  Jane’s Addiction married a variety of different rock styles that we have never seen before or since – a powerful mix of metal, funk, glam, folk, punk, and Velvet Underground-inspired psychedelic art rock.  And as Reznor notes, they took this music on the road, packaged it with a traveling carnival and tons of disparate bands with eclectic styles and made the Lollapalooza festival accessible to the young masses.  In this way, Jane’s Addiction had a much greater cultural impact than Nevermind, as evidenced by the mainstream’s acceptance of tattoos and piercings, something that was previously seen as an act of rebellion, rather than a fashion statement. 

Likewise, the musical impact often credited to Nirvana more rightfully belongs to the Pixies, something Cobain himself acknowledged when he was famously quoted as saying that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just a simple rip-off of “quiet/loud/quiet” template The Pixies created in the late 80s.  Although Nevermind actually was released one month earlier than The Pixies swan song “Trompe Le Monde”, the similarities between The Pixies’ “UMass” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are interesting.  Go to the 1:11 mark (the “chorus” part where Mr. Black Francis tells you that “it’s educational!”), and compare that to the now-classic opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  Whether this was an actual rip-off (ala The Strokes “Last Night” / Petty’s “American Girl”) or just borrowing the template, as it were, is not the point.  The point is that Nirvana was channeling something that had been done (and done well) before. 

Nirvana seems only to have been an excellent band that existed at the time of cultural transition in this country.  It’s easy to forget now, but Nevermind came out at a crossroads in modern history. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, the Cold War was ending, and the 60s anti-war protestors were now running the show; Bill Clinton was playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall for chrissakes.  At least in the post-War era, fifteen year old kids have always wanted their own rebellion, their own heroes, their own soundtracks.  But by 1991, with the world spinning off its axis, mainstream commercial entertainment felt hopelessly stodgy and stale.  

Enter Lollapalooza and The Real World. All of the sudden kids were being exposed to music that two years prior could only be found on college radio.  MTV, now blossoming as America ’s chief taste maker when it comes to pop culture, was realizing that the viewing public was more interested in the “real world” lives of 8 people living together in San Francisco than Sam Malone’s ability to win back Diane Chambers. 

Nevermind-era Nirvana was the right band in the right place in the right time.  Seattle circa 1991 gave kids their own 1967 San Francisco – a place where it was going down, man, and it all revolved around the music.  Except, just as most of the popular San Francisco sounds had come out of the Los Angeles area, the idea of a Seattle grunge scene, at least with Nirvana at the center of it, is a myth.  Cobain’s admission that Nirvana was just ripping off the Pixies was his way of trying to separate his band from the other bands in the Seattle scene.  He thought of Pearl Jam as the latest classic rock retread – something Nirvana’s sound seemed to be trying to destroy.  He thought of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains as simple continuations of the Guns n Roses / Motley Crue / commercial hard rock shite that he so despised.  It’s been written before, but 20 years later, it has become increasingly evident that Nirvana really did not have that much in common – at least musically -- with their Seattle brethren after all.  They just happened to be a punk-influenced band that sounded (kind of) like their contemporaries from the same geographical region.

Who knows where Nirvana and Cobain would have headed had he not killed himself.  He was quoted as saying that he just wanted to be R.E.M., which leads me to think that the classic Unplugged performance was not just MTV catching lightning in a bottle, but a preview of Cobain’s musical shift from loud commercial “alternative” rock to something more like, say, Automatic For The People.  Chuck Klosterman wrote a whole book that centered around the idea that dead rock stars become uber-popular mainly because of their death.  While overdoses and plane crashes are indeed the things that make legends, I am not so sure this is true in every case.  

Cobain, I think, would have gone on to really change his approach to music and likely would have been heralded as a Radiohead-style genius because of it.  In other words, he would not only have been “the guy that brought alternative rock to the mainstream” but also the “guy that shunned fame and fortune and went on to release five more classic albums that sound nothing like Nevermind”.  He is not necessarily famous simply because of his death, but maybe his death is what has warped our perspective on his cultural, rather than musical, importance.  Cobain – like Dylan – was interested in music, not in being the leader of a cultural movement.  Death robbed us of Cobain’s future musical experiments and left us with the myth of Cobain as the savior of rock n roll culture.

I’m not dismissing Nirvana as simply as a more accessible version of The Pixies, The Melvins and The Buzzcocks.  Just because several bands before The Beatles experimented with psychedelic music doesn’t discount the importance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It’s that marriage of pop and psychedelia and the accessibility of the songs that make The Beatles so brilliant.  Nirvana were clearly responsible for a change in people’s taste in music, but the cultural shift they supposedly ushered in was already occurring.  Their breakthrough record captured its teen spirit, but let’s leave the title of Il Padrino to Dylan and Marley, The Beatles and The Clash.


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