Nirvana Revisited: An Alternative View

Rock-format radio stations and news outlets all over the US are droning on endlessly about the 20-year reissue of the supposedly seminal Nirvana debut album Nevermind. This was the ascension of the “Grunge movement,” a previously underground Seattle sensation distinguished mostly by its absolute disdain for the structured, often over-produced music of the previous decade.

On paper, it was an idea whose time had come. The Eighties started off well with the New Wave, Punk, and even Minneapolis Sound Movements, but had descended into self-parody by the decade’s conclusion. Hair metal, artificially rendered dance music, newly emerging teen pop acts, all of these and more served to turn what once had promise into a steaming pile of ridiculousness.

By the early Nineties, the Reagan Era fantasy was officially over and a general malaise settled over the children of suburbia. Gone was the mentality of living for material gain. These kids and young people came to the painful realization that they’d lived a lie for ten-plus years, one that thrived on separation and self-absorption. Grunge reflected that reality two-fold.

First, it addressed those lies by pointing them out with blunt, unapologetic lyrics accompanied by discordant, three-chord warbling straight out of the anarchistic nightmares of punk rockers of the past. That should have made it something truly worthwhile, a genuine movement destined to overthrow the pervasive conformity in the music industry, remind everyone what music could do and, most importantly, freak out the squares. So why was it such an utter failure?

That would be due to the second thing Grunge accomplished during its mercifully brief reign. It took the self-absorption of the materialistic Eighties and mutated it into self-righteous “everything sucks” self-absorption for the disaffected Nineties. It turned its fans into mirror images of the very drones it set out to criticize, and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain knew it!

That was one of the reasons he descended into the kind of self-loathing that should come with a mandatory one week stay in the mental institution of one’s choice. But it was cool to be depressed in the Nineties, so nobody noticed.

They noticed when he died, though. To this day, many of his fans and even some casual observers insist he didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by his wife, Courtney Love, whose attempts at fame went nowhere until he was dead and gone. Love has been turned into some demented Yoko Ono, another rock star wife whose malevolence has been greatly exaggerated.

Sadly, Cobain’s non-stop ennui gave birth to the abomination known as “over-saturation,” causing other relevant forms of music to vanish without a trace. The third British Invasion everyone had been predicting for years that was poised to launch such bands as the Stone Roses, Primal Scream and the Farm fell by the wayside in light of what would become the first official suburban American music style. American bands fared no better under the relentless onslaught of uncombed hair, flannel shirts and patchouli scented zombies. Entire radio stations tried to go “alternative,” a term that once referred to non-top Forty music and was now the name of one of the most popular kinds of music in the nation. Even more confusing, the alternative umbrella stretched out wide enough to include non-Grunge bands like Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins. In a decade pointlessly searching for its own identity, these kinds of glaring contradictions were irrelevant.

Kurt understood us, man.

Maybe he did, but his fans didn’t. They were too busy staring down at the floor, mumbling and telling everyone how much life sucks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The real issue was the marketing of Grunge and its eventual self-destruction.

With the passing of their Messiah, Grunge fans turned to Pearl Jam for salvation at a time when Eddie Vedder and the boys were branching out into a more complete sound. Who else was there to take over the mantle? Nobody. That’s why Grunge was officially pronounced dead in 1996, although it lingered for about another year.

Many of us were glad to see it go. Now the more talented “alternative” bands that had existed in its shadow could gain some prominence, and indeed they did. The final three years of the Nineties often showed the promise of the first couple years with non-Grunge bands recording and releasing some of the decade’s better music.

The reissue of Nevermind serves as a reminder to those of us who were unimpressed with Cobain’s antics of a time when a noble idea degenerated into an even more obnoxious period in history than the time it sought to escape.

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