Music History

Nirvana's Nevermind turns twenty this Saturday

The forthcoming twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind isn't just an observance of the release of the 1991 record; it is a tangible marking of a shift in popular culture.

Yes, the record was important. It still is, as evidenced by not only the thousands of bands that have been influenced by Nirvana's discography, but the undying interest in a phenomenon labeled "grunge" (though many fans and critics -- this one included -- would argue heavily against the weight, meaning and origin of the word). Dozens of books -- like this month's release of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge -- have been devoted to dissecting exactly how and why this music came along at the right time.

In a recent interview with NPR, Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis and filmmaker Cameron Crowe talked about why bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam needed to happen. Of the late '80s/early '90s pre-grunge rock-lyric realm, Crowe says, "At the time, if you kind of go back into the history of rock, there were no songs like that. It was about...'I'm on the road baby. You're not going to see me tomorrow because I'm moving on,' you know. And so here comes Eddie Vedder writing these songs about, 'I'm still alive; your real daddy was dying.' It's like, it was so real and authentic that he and Cobain, and many of the other musicians that were writing so soulfully and powerfully from their hearts, you know, took over the landscape of rock."

And that was it. Nirvana was just what popular music needed. Yes, bands were making hard marks on the Billboard charts before Nirvana -- in a recent Q&A with Billboard, Krist Novselic acknowledges and sweetly refers to Jane's Addiction, Faith No More and the like as "beachheads" -- but Nevermind was born into (or perhaps was responsible for creating?) the perfect storm. Hair bands were out -- grunge, or whatever it was to be called, was on its way in.

Pre-Nevermind, Nirvana's work was so much heavier -- so sludgy and raw. Too raw for radio. But Nevermind was different; it was glossy in production, yes (thanks in part to the band's work with Butch Vig), but the intelligence and social commentary embodied in Kurt Cobain's lyrics were like nothing else happening at the time -- on the radio, anyway.

Even the video for the record's first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was pretty unreal for a 1991 MTV world; Tattooed anarchist cheerleaders shook their chests and pompoms for a makeshift gym full of restless teens as Cobain sung about guns. Nirvana was the figurehead for a shift in rock music, a shift in video, clothing and young adult lifestyle aesthetics, and a shift in the way millions of bands to come would be treated by record-label execs.

But beyond hiding lyrical guts underneath an accessible sound, Nirvana had chops -- be it simple ones. The three-piece managed to stay punk while being pop, stay heavy while being daringly presentable to the mainstream world. While "Teen Spirit" showcased Dave Grohl's brutality behind the kit, the fourth single, "In Bloom," was carried by Krist Novoselic's melodic bass lines. That bass line also provided the infernal-sounding backing for Cobain to quietly sing "Nature is a whore" on a radio-aimed single.

"In Bloom" also came with another excellent video, but this one felt closer to the band's humorous heart. Doug Llewelyn from The People's Court hosted a clean-cut Nirvana, a Nirvana that later in the video would become wild, dress-donning men through the lens of a Kinescope camera. These videos (along with the other two singles, "Come As You Are" and "Lithium") were also part of a bigger picture -- the MTV picture.

In the early '90s, MTV not only had hours of shows devoted to playing videos, but the channel did interviews with artists. In its short MTV life, Nirvana did several, including the infamous Cobain/Novoselic appearance on Headbanger's Ball. They also did several live shows for the channel, both prior to and after Nirvana's seminal Unplugged performance.

But beyond these four radio and MTV-friendly singles, Nevermind was a consumable whole. The album's twelve tracks played like complementary A and B sides to each other; from the power-poppiness of "Teen Spirit" to the nakedness of "Polly," and back up again with "Territorial Pissings" before the dragging down of "Something in the Way" and all of the jittery unease of each track between, it was made for the record format. (Or the cassette, a format that encapsulated the link between a life before and after Nirvana for a lot of kids.)

When Cobain committed suicide on April 5,1994, the effect on popular culture was felt immediately. But it wasn't just in the form of a musical legacy (though Nirvana's is a deep, complex and far-reaching estate that has been compared to the Beatles) -- it was also visual. T-shirts bearing the singer's face were everywhere. Stills of Cobain from Nirvana's Unplugged performance became the velvet Elvises and Jim Morrison poses of teenage apparel. The homage to Kurt was almost as important to the kids who came after as the music was and is.

In the weeks prior to this impending anniversary, Kirk Weddle's underwater photos of Nirvana, taken in promotion of Nevermind, have been all over the Internet. These photos will no doubt join the thousands of other iconic images of a three-piece band that changed the way the world looked at not only the sound of rock and roll, but the look of it, too.

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