Every couple of years, I go through a Nirvana phase, where that’s all I want to listen to. It’s like clockwork. Since I was ten, I have loved their music, and put them in much higher regards than most musicians (especially other “mainstream” rockers). When these phases come over me, I watch Nirvana documentaries, read Kurt Cobain biographies, watch old concert footage, interviews and music videos, for weeks on end. I was sliding into one of these Nirvana obsessions again when I found out they had just been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This means the whole world was rediscovering Nirvana with me, and I don’t just look like that lame guy in his late 20s who still pines for an era when people looked up to rock bands more than DJ’s, and rock star actually seemed like a viable career choice (if not as a millionaire, there was still a vibrant, supportive underground to play to.) Nirvana is currently being played all over the radio, remembered in the news, and discussed by people in restaurants. And here are five reasons why they deserve the acclaim:
1. They brought the gospel of punk rock into the mainstream. This is one of the things Nirvana does already get a lot of credit for, and deservedly so. They made millions of people aware of an underground music scene that offered its own style and sound to the national scene, but was also rooted in radical politics and a tendency to question, or even be openly hostile towards the status quo. The rise of punk rock in the 90s helped grow the anti-neoliberal globalization protest movements (like the G8 riots in Seattle a decade later), which helped lead to Occupy. Millions of teenagers were suddenly made aware of radical sounding music that wore its politically radical influences on its sleeve. Yeah, they pushed Michael Jackson off the charts, and, more unfortunately, indirectly led to things like Blink 182’s and Staind’s success, but Nirvana left a stamp on the American psyche, like a punk gateway drug, in a deeper way than a “rebel teenager” marketing scheme alone could have done. The classic video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” replete with cheerleaders wearing circle A’s for anarchy is often seen as the first strike of the punk/grunge/alternative blitzkrieg that was about to sweep popular music.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTWKbfoikeg
2. The lyrics were a lot deeper than simple self-pity; Kurt Cobain had awesome politics years ahead of his time. The same way that Martin Luther King Jr’s or Woodie Guthrie’s radicalism is sanitized in the historical memory, to make them appear in support of power structure, despite living their entire lives challenging it. (I am most certainly not comparing Nirvana to MLK Jr., just that the case of historical amnesia is similar here.) The Kurt Cobain story is usually only partially told, focusing on his drug addiction and depression, ignoring the other parts of his character that, arguably, actually did more to define the person he really was. Cobain was a radical. He used to hang out with the Riot Grrrl scene in Olympia, Washington, and enthusiastically supported their radical brand of feminism. He openly, unquestioningly supported gay rights a decade before that movement really took off. He did everything he could to distance himself from the corporate culture his record deal made him a part of, naming songs things like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” (an industry term for cheesy, disposable pop music that is quickly consumed.) Lyrics like “we can have some more/nature is a whore,” (from “In Bloom”) expresses environmental concerns, and the chorus, “He’s the one/who likes all our pretty songs/and he likes to sing along/and he likes to shoot his gun/but he don’t know what it means,” predicts the legions of rock fans that were to spring up after the advent of Nirvana, who like loud music, but ignore the meaningful message that the music contains. The entire song “Lithium” questions (or satirizes) organized religion and religious faith, “Polly” is a song expressing Cobain’s frustration at the continuing problem of violence against women in society, and when it was misinterpreted, he wrote “Rape Me” as a more obvious reproach of such violence. (Some people also interpret “Rape Me” as a response to the success “Teen Spirit,” by parodying the chord progression and using the rape metaphor to represent how the music industry “rapes” artists. Either way, pretty punk rock.) “Been a Son” and “Sappy” question society’s placing higher status on men than women. “Territorial Pissings” gives us great lines like, “Just because you’re paranoid/don’t mean they’re not after you” (and this was pre-NSA spying). Cobain relentlessly parodied the jaded selfishness that was predominant in American culture in the early 90s, with lines like, “If you ever need anything/please don’t hesitate to ask someone else first/I’m too busy acting like I’m not naïve/I’ve seen it all, I was there first,” in “Very Ape,” or, “Love myself better than you/I know it’s wrong/so what should I do?” from “On a Plane.”
Kurt talks Gay rights http://simple.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kurt_Cobain
Kathleen Hannah, from Bikini Kill, on Kurt Cobain http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zKsY1taAYc
3. The songs were simple in a complex way. Nirvana may have written a lot of 3 and 4 chord songs, but they didn’t write the “4 Chords Song” over and over, like most popular artists. In fact, Kurt Cobain used some very strange chord progressions in some of the biggest Nirvana songs, like “In Bloom,” and “Lithium.” The chromatic changes in these songs are unheard of in almost all music on the radio, before or since Nirvana. Yet, despite these weird, weird power chord patterns, those songs were huge radio hits, because they are anchored by very strong melodies. They may sound like off-kilter pop punk songs, but at the very heart of them, the fundamental building blocks display a subtle complexity that points towards genius. Not only did they get a loud, punk rock sound into the mainstream, they eschewed pop conventions in a way that OG punks like the Misfits or the Clash (or thousands of others) never even attempted.
Axis of Awesome “4 Chords Song” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAVIqoLsfWU
“In Bloom” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbgKEjNBHqM
4. Dave Grohl and Krist Noveselic (and Pat Smear). Dave Grohl is one of the best rock drummers who ever lived. He is a decent guitar player, and great singer, but he can hit the drums like no one else. You can listen to the same Nirvana songs recorded with him, and compare them to the ones recorded with former drummer Chad Channing, and the difference is like night and day. Grohl hits hard, consistent, and steady. His fills kill, he never loses tempo. Once he joined, Nirvana probably became the best mainstream rock band in the world. My biggest issue with the Foo Fighters is that the best drummer in the band is playing guitar. Taylor Hawkins is great, but no one ROCKS like Dave Grohl. (That’s why the first two Foo Fighters albums are still the best, because Grohl recorded most of the drum parts himself.) His backing vocals also paired with Cobain’s voice immaculately, as is evidenced by numerous recordings, or the MTV Unplugged performance.
MTV Unplugged entire performance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TykpudHg69k
We can’t forget Krist Noveselic, childhood friend of Kurt’s, who played with him for years as Nirvana was taking shape. Do yourself a favor, crank up Nevermind and listen closely to the bass parts. He is all over the place, playing riff after riff of perfect accompaniment underneath Cobain’s power chords, and on top of Grohl’s pounding drums. Most punk and grunge bass players just follow the bass notes of the chords the rhythm guitarist is playing, but Noveselic created unique bass lines that add levels of melody and harmony to the songs in ways that helped Nirvana become the legends they are.
And Pat Smear! The Germs! If you don’t know, then…educate yourself. The punk gospel doesn’t spread itself.
Reading Festival entire performance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJGl0FQK9Ew
5. Their style continually evolved with each album. Bleach is a slow, grungy, poorly recorded collection of mostly one-chord songs. It is awesome, but only hints at the greatness Nirvana would become. (In my opinion, not for the fault of the songs themselves, but because Chad Channing just never hit the skins like Dave Grohl. Not to trash talk any other musician, just to say that the band really felt right once Grohl joined, and the live versions of songs off Bleach, with Grohl on the kit, testify to this truth.)
Nevermind, the breakthrough album, sounds completely different from Bleach. The only track on the first record that really even sounds like anything on Nevermind is “About a Girl.” Nevermind found the perfect blend of pop, punk, and heavy rock to make an album chock full of classic tunes. It was instantly legendary, influential and successful and changed the music tastes of an entire generation.
Following that with In Utero, Cobain and his band used their new found stardom to try and challenge the audience that Nevermind had earned them. Delving more into experimental post-punk songwriting and guitar playing on songs like “Very Ape” and “Milk It,” and developing more involved melodic guitar parts for hits like “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies,” In Utero shows a band constantly pushing the envelope, never content to just tour around playing the “hits”. The saddest part about that last album is how much potential Nirvana still had to make thoughtful, challenging music—potential which was tragically cut short when Cobain decided he could no longer endure the extreme physical and emotional duress he was under.