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.
Yesterday, a picture of my girlfriend, Arlyn, and me got picked up off of the Tumblr she runs for our band, Cilantro, (http://cilantromusic.tumblr.com/) and blogged around, thanks in large part to another Tumblr focused on interracial couples dating. Often, when people see us on the street, that is the assumption they make, especially when she’s rocking her ‘fro. This got me thinking about how complicated race is, especially in the 21st Century, how seemingly strict categories are actually very fungible, and how the history of racial mixing in this country is still largely misunderstood.
When I got home from work last night, Arlyn told me about our photos being picked up, and the name of the Tumblr (http://blackgirlswhiteboys.tumblr.com/), and we had a good laugh about it. Looking at photos, it may not be as obvious, but my girlfriend and I actually have a very similar racial make-up. The fact that it is as close as it is, is a bit astonishing to us, considering we grew up in different parts of the world.
Dominican-born, and raised between Puerto Rico and the DR, Arlyn straddles an identity somewhere between Latina and “light-skinned” African American. Her mom looks “white”, while her dad looks “black.” The family speaks Spanish, cooks Caribbean food, and listens to salsa and bachata music. Not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks “African American,” is it? Most of Latin America has a similar history of using kidnapped Africans for slavery, they just didn’t need to fight a civil war to end it. Despite this, when we are out together, folks never expect my girlfriend to have a Latin-sounding accent, and when we are in Mexican parts of town, people often actually speak Spanish to me, first, assuming I might be Latino (not so much), and assuming she doesn’t speak any Spanish, even though it’s actually her first language. Since moving to California, she has gravitated more toward “black” culture, and spends little time with other native Spanish speakers, because she feels like she doesn’t belong with Mexicans and Salvadorans, since that isn’t her culture. (African American isn’t a very accurate category either, however, but other Latino/as do not treat her as openly as other African Americans often do.)
And then there’s me. According to the Instagram page, I am the “white” guy dating the “black” girl, which they see as something to celebrate. Here, I am in total agreement, as I love to call our generation the “Miscegenation Generation,” because we are the most colorful, mixed-race generation in American History. The “browning” of America is well underway, and the fact that there are blogs or Tumblrs devoted to promoting mixed race coupling is a great sign. (Like Warren Beatty’s character suggests in the severely under-remembered Bulworth: the best way to get rid of racism is making love with each other until everyone is a lovely light shade of brown and we can no longer tell who belongs to which race.) Besides, mixed race kids tend to be really good looking.
I am a product of mixed race union. My dad appears “black” and my mom appears “white,” and that is how the world treats them (the reason, my brother and I were told, that we have never been to Disney World in Florida, only Disneyland in California). In reality, of course, things are more complicated than that. My mother has blonde hair and green eyes. She traces most of her history back to Western Europe (Britain, England, Ireland, with maybe a little German or Scottish in there, for good measure). She is an 8th Choctaw Indian, however, a secret that had been hidden from the generation before hers, due to the shame mixed race couplings once bore. My dad is mixed race, but according to American society, he has always been “black.” His mother was half Afro-Caribbean, and half Czechoslovakian. Her brothers spoke fluent Spanish and she grew up learning about Cuba, Eastern Europe and even Jewish culture (despite not being at all Jewish).
So, what does that make me? Am I white because people in California assume I’m white? When I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, people always told me I looked “Mexican” (because that’s literally how white Portland is—the little bit of melanin in my skin is enough to set me apart. In Cali they seem to just assume I’m a white guy with a perennial LA tan.) There is Caribbean blood in me, and I also speak fluent Spanish. Does that make me a Latino? Mixed race is yet to be considered a viable identity, and I generally have to mark “other” on school and work forms, or try to check two or three boxes. (This used to drive my mom to write notes on school forms, like “Which set of grandparents would you prefer I offend?”)
In high school, my college counselor decided to settle the debate, and had me start marking “black” on all my standardized testing forms and college applications. So, am I black? The world doesn’t look at me and see a black man, so I am safe from some of the stereotypes and profiling black men in America face on a regular basis. Because of how I look, though, I also have the joy of biting my tongue (or, more often than not, letting loose on some ignorant fool) when people assume I’m white, so that must mean I’m “Ok” to make racist comments and tell racist jokes in front of, because, you know, the only problem with racism is that sometimes colored people get offended, right? So it’s totally fine to perpetuate, as long as colored people aren’t around to complain, right? One of the problems with this brand of logic, besides just being ludicrous and ignoring history and lasting forms of oppression, is that there are a lot of people like me, who do consider “person of color” an important part of our identity. I tend to just let people react to me without knowing anything about my parents, and then watch, curiously. how markedly their demeanor or commentary often change they know my background.
This story is becoming more and more common in America these days, but many people don’t realize that racial mixture is actually a part of our history going back to the founding of the nation. We’ve all heard of Thomas Jefferson’s supposed illegitimate slave children, and he was not the only early American getting down with miscegenation. The simple variety of shades of “black” Americans is a testament to this fact. When our photos were picked up, I was immediately reminded of these photos:
(Before I tell you, ask yourself why I chose to show these photos. What do you think is significant about them? Does it help you to know they were both taken around the end of the Civil War?)
What did you conclude? Is this an example of black and white kids getting along back in the day? Maybe telling us that Jim Crow didn’t keep everyone separate after all? Are these pictures of people working together to build a “post-racial” future, more than a hundred years before Obama?
Actually, all the people pictured in these photos were recently emancipated slaves. Frederick Douglas used to utilize them when teaching about the complications of race in America. That is how fungible a category like race, which is purely a social construct, has been throughout this nation’s history. How do you think these white looking former slaves identified? White? Black? Mixed? How do you think society saw them?
Race is not a straightforward, black and white issue, and it never will be. It was invented and promoted as an idea in order to excuse robbery, kidnapping, torture and murder by defining some people as more “human” than others. As we continue moving into the second decade of this already turbulent century, the future looks bright for mixed race people like my girlfriend and me. Interracial couples are becoming much more normal, and no one pulls out the Bible to try and condemn them any more (except maybe in Mississippi, but no one with Federal power). America is becoming more and more diverse and people are more open-minded about race than ever before. I mean, we do have our first mixed race president. And while that is just the beginning of a serious conversation on race, not the end of it, this is certainly going to be a century to watch. I suppose, if there’s a take-away from this post, the lesson is this: mixed race kids are the best-looking, and that’s why the photos got picked up.
The infamous photo set http://cilantromusic.tumblr.com/post/67318037784