Every year, a new spin on “Rock n’ Roll is Dead!” makes the rounds, declaring that the the beloved child of the blues’ glory days are over. You can set your calendar by the predictability of lamentation that the given writer’s ideal era of Rock has passed, that some new sonic trend is the lifeless canary on the sooted floor of the coal mine of Good Music. It never ends.
The latest culprit is Nicholas Pell, a generally strong writer for L.A. Weekly with whom I share a Lightfoot and whiskey admiration. Last week, Pell wrote a rootless rationale for why “Nirvana Killed Rock & Roll”. While backhanding the entirety of ‘90s rock, he declares that only three bands are actually worth listening to – one being a Pearl Jam precursor, all three featuring frontmen who died from drug-related causes. Nirvana’s “success made irritating riffs and boring personal confessions de rigueur,” he declared. Consequentially and fortunately, he had the foresight to brace himself “for the incoming fury of guys who graduated high school in 1996.”
Because that very crowd, of which I am a diploma-carrying member, is perhaps most finely tuned into the frequency he gets so painfully wrong, having come of age squarely within Nirvana’s spectrum of existence.
Rock music of the eighties was a riotously fun party of flashy and vapid anthems, a downpour of insincere power ballads and get-your-tits-out
cocaine stadium rock. Hair metal and pop were completely dominating the scene and were totally disconnected from, and alienating to, the generation that was coming into their own at the time. With Nirvana’s arrival, however, the arena bombast came to a screeching halt. Kurt Cobain and Co. immediately torched the shameless faux-joy pop scene, finally offering a place for the pendulum to go upon its inevitable return from the glammy extremes of Nothin’ But a Good Time coke and hookers era.
The acerbic, acidic wit and fearlessness of Cobain’s songs immediately eliminated the stilted legitimacy of leather pants with socks stuffed in the crotch. Nirvana put the grit of realism back into mainstream rock, and kicked down the door for the avalanche of those who followed. They didn’t start the fire, but their flame burned the brightest for a short while – long enough to burn off the thick, mucosal Aqua Net sheen from rock, and replace the sock with some actual fucking balls.
Back in 1991, the extravagance of commercial pop was just gross. The top 10 artists on the Billboard chart featured Paula Abdul, Color Me Badd, Boys II Men, Amy Grant and more polished pop atrocity. Of what little “rock” one could find on the charts, the bands responsible for the music looked as if they’d spent more time on applying makeup and hairspray than learning their craft. The songs were either whiny heartbreak power ballads or spandex-bro party anthems. It was a dismal scene, with one shining exception: Guns n Roses.
Then, without any warning at all, the dam broke. And the youth of modern culture were given not just a voice, but a megaphone. A template for visceral expression. The reason? One song: Smells Like Teen Spirit.
School had just started, and radio was pumping out the same tired nonsense we’d been trying to escape all Summer – music that sounded as if it were made for the people who lived in sitcoms. Then that one kid came into class, eyes wide, asking if we’d heard that new song on the radio. That something spirit thing. Teen Spirit? What? None of us could understand the rumors at first, but news about this song rippled through the halls like a revolutionary fire we had no way to understand.
Then we heard it for ourselves. The sky ripped open. The veil was pulled. That opening riff was the incision, the razor’s edge going under the skin before we knew what was happening. Then Dave Grohl’s pulverizing drum arrival truly began Smells Like Teen Spirit, the single most pivotal song in the history of rock n’ roll, and we were impaled with Nirvana.
The lyrics made no goddamned sense. But the sounds were ominous, raw, dangerous in a way that had nothing to do with that putrid ecosystem of pretty faces and voices packing cellophane in our ears. And that voice… there was an honesty, a dryly cynical and pained but real voice coming through. There was no precedent on the FM dial for this.
Those first moments of the song’s arrival will forever stick in our heads. The blaze of discovery that would lead to that vital connection between a generation and its music. One song changed the entire course of our culture, and it was ours.
Former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg remembers the first time he saw the band live: “I was stunned how intimate the relationship was between Kurt and the audience, even with material that a lot of people didn’t know. There was something about the way he performed that made him seem like a member of the audience and being on stage at the same time.”
Building on Pixies and punk blueprints, Kurt Cobain eliminated the fake, glossy, enormously overblown hollowness of ’80s party rock with a direct line to his own tortures. His sounds, contrarian behaviors and aggressively subversive lyricism were a conduit for the disillusioned confusion and anger of a latchkey generation, the final pre-internet teen wave, the conscious end of an era.
We were ready for it, having heard our Dads’ stories from a time when music actually made a statement. We didn’t know what statement to make, but suddenly there was somebody with a microphone whose frequency and volcanic intensity matched what we were feeling, making sense through abstracts.
Was it all a manipulation of Cobain’s grand ambition? To some extent perhaps, but Quiet fucking Riot had no idea how to breathe in that world. Golden God posturing and false mystique was critical to the essence of the ‘80s rock era, crumbling beneath Kurt’s recalcitrant sneer and direct emotional assessment.
All of a sudden, there was no atmosphere left for the strutting, insincere groupie-baiting cockrockery that kept music from being relatable, from being believably real in any way. Suddenly this new voice was articulating our own passions, frustrations and the alienation of youth caught in pop culture gone wild.
Nirvana made love to the feedback, but also shared a naked passion and vulnerability we’d never seen before. Are we nihilistically cynical enough to call every approach contrived? No, but I’ll err on this side of the spandex. Their albums were all over the place. Bleach was raw, gritty, the sound of nothing to lose. Nevermind was an acidic, game-changing, flawed masterpiece. Incesticide was astoundingly weird and forced us to look at the underbelly. Their Unplugged record was a sweetly gorgeous, unexpected coda on an artistic streak complicated by toxicity and chemicals.
Six years later, Radiohead drove a glacier across the face of modern popular music with Kid A, and knocked guitar rock flat on its face. But Nirvana’s impact was and remains universally evident.
Not everybody was on board with the transition, however. Mickey Rourke, playing washed up wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler back in 2008, encapsulated the cultural resistance to the extermination of ‘80s goof-rock vermin, lamenting that “that Cobain pussy had to come around & ruin it all.”
Still, while echoing Rourke’s sentiments in prose, Pell is thankful for Nirvana’s existence. “Without them, I’m not sure that I’d be into any of the music I’m into today,” he proclaims. But somehow, the rock music of today doesn’t quite reach his golden standard of metal horns in the air during arena power ballads, which he complains that only spoof-glam rockers Steel Panther presently call back to. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned for Pell in the fact that the only such band tolerated these days is a novelty joke act. They still sell out shows, it’s a great place to go and have a dumb good time.
But real rock has finally come to mean something more.
“Today’s rock audience prefers stuff like The White Stripes, The National and Arcade Fire,” Pell laments, perhaps unaware that the White Stripes have been dead and buried for nearly six years. Completely ignoring the fact that a potency of rock, firmly in touch with its feminine side while embracing raw power, are carrying torches set ablaze by Bowie, Iggy Pop, Zeppelin and the like. They look you straight in the eye and share vulnerability without making it a goofy Silent Lucidity caricature.
Yes, for every Pearl Jam to rise there were a hundred Seven Mary Threes. The Godsmacks and Creeds couldn’t be avoided – it’s the inevitable evolution of entertainment capitalism. But in modern contrast, I’ll pit Arctic Monkeys and Queens of The Stone Age against Winger and Poison any fucking day. Deftones to Bring Me The Horizon. Mastodon to Deafheaven. Trent Reznor may be too wrapped up in Beats and happiness to draw blood with his Nails anymore, but the potency of his ‘90s run with NIN is unquestionably monumental.
Hell, most of us would even take Anthony Kiedis’ inescapable marble-mouthed 8th grade skiddly-bop-popisms over fucking Cum on Feel The Noize.
As for The White Stripes? Jack White is presently busy tricking rock kids into liking country, while singlehandedly reviving lost recordings that birthed all of this. He’s the key in a lock few of us know just how badly we need opened.
These days, I change the station when Smells Like Teen Spirit comes on the radio, because it’s played every day, two and a half decades after its arrival. This is indicative of a problem in radio, in the bullshit commercialization, not of rock itself.
As I wrote on this very topic six years ago, “Radio’s fucking dead, and has been long before Howard Stern left for less-censored pastures. It’s the human connection that matters now, and there’s not a single wacky morning DJ out there who grasps that concept.”
Rock’s attitude and authenticity was re-prioritized by Nirvana. They brought the grit and fire back to a genre hijacked by glam and party anthems. As ‘90s kids, our love for Nirvana became a malignant infection, expanding into other realms of musical expression we’d never considered.
We discovered everyone from Leadbelly to The Vaselines to David Bowie through Nirvana. The demos (Polly, Drain You), throwaways (Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol) and unreleased tracks (D7, Pen Cap Chew) delivered a visceral soundtrack to my youth, to skating in New York with buddies, to sneaking out of the house in the Summertime. They showed us that the sky was the limit to the creative expression of Rock. To thousands of other bands who followed, the fuel was on the fire.
That fire will keep burning through the girl pants synth revival era, through the next ridiculous fad and onward. Just as it did with rap-rock, nu-metal and whatever the hell the Chili Peppers are classified as these days. Someone’s going to come along and kick the pendulum back.
Maybe then I’ll get to be the guy kicking everyone off my lawn.