Twenty years ago Nirvana's Nevermind came out. The album sold less than Creed, N'Sync, and a lot of other shitty albums, but it changed so much. Pre-Nevermind, rock was dominated by hair bands like Skid Row and Warrant. Mainstream, middle America didn't listen to cool or edgy music. We were still coming out of the Reagan 80s hangover.
Nirvana took the angst and ferocity and sincerity of punk and married it to chunky riffs and strong melodies. It was punk music your dad could listen to, Minor Threat by way of Fleetwood Mac.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was their first big hit, and it perfectly captured the zietgeist of the era. Teenage boredom and frustration. An entire generation of kids grossed out by the materialism and commercialism of the times, not content to be mere customers anymore. As Fugazi howled on a song released at the same time, "You are not what you own."
I listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" over and over and over, until I could no longer listen to it. I still can't That song hasn't held up very well. The rest of the album has. "Lithium" is the perfect distillation of teen boredom and dissatisfaction. "Come As You Are" is a creepy pop song with ominous lyrics. My favorite track, and one of my favorite songs period, is "Drain You." Here Nirvana nails their melody, rage, noise, and suggestive but obtuse lyrics.
After Nevermind, everything was different. You could no longer tell the hip kids by their record collection. All the effort I had put into defining myself by the music I listened to was negated. Jocks were rocking out to Fugazi and Nirvana. Punk became cool.
Cobain managed to last three years before he crashed and burned. "Grunge" lasted a little longer. Soon there were waves of shitty rock bands with distorted guitars riding the wave that Nirvana started. The sincerity and realness of Nirvana was cynically coopted by record execs and business men eager to sell gen x an identity. By 95, I was tired of being bummed out and started listening to Britpop. But from 91 to 94, grunge was kind and Nirvana were the rulers. I'm not sure any artist could shake things up so much in this fragmented media landscape, where even kids in the stix have access to everything ever made.
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