When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" exploded into ubiquity in 1991, the traditional American model of the recording industry was having a heyday. Major record companies dominated the way people consumed music, and to stay on top, they stayed on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. And they were willing to take risks to find it.
DGC Records took just such a risk with Nirvana, and it paid off: The band sold an outrageous number of records, and Kurt Cobain was elevated to spokesman-of-a-generation status. The irony, of course, is that it was a distinction he never wanted. He was so uncomfortable, in fact, with his status as an American idol that it was arguably the reason he escaped out of rehab, went home, ate a snack and blew his goddamn brains out one spring day in 1994.
A lot has changed since then. In this day and age of electronic media, a growing number of bands are quietly flourishing with smaller audiences, no big-label support and no big-label profits. The kind of success Nirvana achieved — which was always the recording industry's bread and butter — is not even possible anymore; the way we consume media just doesn't allow for it.
But instead of adapting to the changing climate, the big conglomerates have resisted, trying to cram their square peg into an increasingly rounder hole (the more you think about it, the grosser that metaphor gets, by the way) with lawsuits and increased homogeneity. To that end, we have mind-numbing shit like American Idol, a bloated, feeble attempt to propel a Big Thing to market saturation.
Except, in the show's history, that model has never succeeded in producing a real idol — not like Cobain, anyway. Ultimately, the show suffers from the same insipid pussery that's plagued the recording industry for a decade: It's not giving us the Next Bit Thing; it's giving us a ticker-tape parade of the same boring bullshit.
Casey Abram's performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" last week was a great example of that — and not even so much because he opted to do a tried-and-true old chestnut like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Rather, because his choice of the song was somehow seen as...wait for it...groundbreaking. "Are you nervous that people out there will say, 'I don't get that?'" Jimmy Iovine asked Abrams before the show. To which Abrams responded, "What I really like doing is taking risks."
But what the fuck is there not to get? What could possibly be the slightest bit risky about doing a twenty-year-old classic that was such an enormous smash hit that it still gets played on the radio — like, frequently — and then performing a more or less faithful version of it? In the head-explodingly boring universe of American Idol, this is a risk.
And here's the real irony: What American Idol seeks to accomplish is what killed that song's author — and if he were alive today to see what his work has been reduced to, he'd probably kill himself again.