In 8th grade I met this girl, a recent immigrant from Cali, Columbia, who swore up and down on the powers of musical genre-ism. A South American grunge girl with scraggly punk-red dyed tips and an eyebrow piercing, she clued me in on the concept that a no matter a person’s love of all genres of music, there is always a specific sound that hits you just right, since your first listen. Although I wasn’t too sold on the concept (and still haven’t decided if it’s true or not), I could sort of see its truths. After all, I was (and still am) mostly a hip-hop and soul kinda girl. No matter how much weird indie rock, spacey electro or post-modern punk I get into, there’s just something that signifies home (cheesy, but true) when I hear that intro beat to Electric Relaxation, or LL profess “I Need Love”. As much stock as I put in my friend’s theory, there was always one exception to the rule, one song that defied all genre logic. I’d first heard it two years before in the 6th grade, an opening chord progression that stirred my soul, as if it was calling it back to its origins, something I could identify so deeply with. No matter how many times I’ve heard it in the past, no matter how many times I’ll hear it tomorrow, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” always gives me that same musical high.
The song, released in 1991, launched Nirvana into a mainstream so intense that it launched the band into Beatles-like stardom. With a bare-bones video, directed by Samuel Bayer in a local high school gym, that launched on MTV, the song took off immediately and made the band the spokespersons for “Generation X”, whether they liked it or not. It was far removed from their grassroots fanbase in their hometown scene of Seattle, Washington. Formed in 1987 when lead singer Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic met after frequenting the same punk rock scene, the band–which eventually grew to include drummer Dave Grohl–was signed early on to local label Sub Pop and released their debut album Bleach in ’88. Pulling from 80s punk and bands like The Pixies, they released the single “Love Buzz/Big Cheese”. Foreshadowing their youth appeal to come, the single did extremely well on college radio across the country.
Even though Nirvana (who chose the name to counteract the standard angry-punk mold they felt they were expected to fit in to) was doing well on college radio, Cobain watched their music evolving with each recording session, and knew they could achieve major success. He observantly noted in ’89 that “The early songs were really angry … But as time [went] on the songs [got] poppier and poppier as I [got] happier and happier.” This early insight would sadly become the crux of Cobain’s debilitating unhappiness as the band gained celebrity supporters. One of those fans was Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who pushed for them to get a major label deal with DGC Records in 1990s. Able to record in a full studio with all the amenities for the first time, the band pow-wowed. The result was the voice of a generation rising up in angry rebellion, the 1990 grunge triumph Nevermind.
The album took off almost instantly, with teenagers from the West Coast to Europe dressing like the band, chanting their songs, and buying tickets to every show. By Xmas of 1992, the album was one of the most popular holiday gifts, selling over 400,000 copies a week. Nothing stood in Nirvana’s way, not even MJ– Nevermind knocked Dangerous off the #1 spot on the Billboard charts. It had happened. The band was officially a household name. Critics praised their every move, dubbing “Teen Spirit” the anthem of a new generation. Cobain and the rest of the group were making music their way, with their own sound, and known across the world for it. And Kurt, who by this time had made his Sid-and-Nancy style relationship with Hole lead singer Courtney Love official with their marriage in 1992, could not have been unhappier. Even though he welcomed the birth of his daughter Francis Bean, and performed to a mass of adoring fans at the Reading Festival in England, his demons were taking over. His handlers and band mates watched him struggle with his stardom, unable to deal with his reversal from a social misfit to a role model for a nation of angry youths. Kurt was mortified, and even more so deeply terrified, that he was becoming just another cog in the corporate machine. But the cog kept turning, and in 1993 the band released In Utero.
After numerous revisions and remixes from the likes of R.E.M producer Scott Litt, the album was finally up to DGC’s releasable standards. It debuted at number one on the Billboard charts in 1993, spawning memorable hits like “Heart-Shaped Box”. Softening up their sound to fit more of an early pop-punk ethos that mimicked their heroes The Pixies, Nirvana’s release still saw critical acclaim, although sales eventually tapered off. Whatever the numbers ended up being, it was clear that Nirvana had landed and was here to stay. Their grunge look, consisting of unwashed long hair, Seattle-friendly flannels and used (and abused) Chuck Taylors, became the number one fashion statement in high schools, and made it to the runway with Marc Jacobs’ memorable groundbreaking collection.
In late 93, Nirvana performed for MTV Unplugged. Choosing to stay away from their major hits, including “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Kurt and the gang covered obscure punk hits. Obscurity did them well, because their recording of Unplugged went on to sell tremendously well. Kurt seemed to be coping with stardom, but that illusion was shattered when his heroine addiction, fueled by a similarly drug-addicted Courtney Love, resurfaced. Grohl and managers staged an intervention, only after Kurt collapsed in his hotel room, and they were able to convince the fame-affected superstar to check into rehab. His public persona as a rebel followed him into rehabilitation, though, and after less than a week in center, he hopped the facility’s fence and took off for Seattle.
A week later, on Friday April 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home, as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The singer was 27.
Cobain’s suicide note summed up his dissatisfaction with what the music business had turned him into, saying “”I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing . . . for too many years now”. His music and message made Kurt a martyr for millions of teens who felt like their representative voice had been ripped from them, suddenly and shockingly. Even though “generation x” has grown up and we’re now all adults watching pre-teens experience grunge for the first time. Not enough can be said to convey what Nirvana meant to pop culture, and what it continues to mean. More than a band, more than songs, Nirvana was our voice, the one that still gives me that same chill up my spine that I felt in 6th grade.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Heart-Shaped Box” (Live)
“Come As You Are” (Unplugged)
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