This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s magnum opus. Here’s why it’s better than any of the rest.
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
By arrangement with AlterNet.org.
Not the White Album. Not Gimme Shelter. Not Are You Experienced. Not even The Fabulous Little Richard. Those albums are all canonical, and surely there are other very important records in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that are contenders. But none of them are Nevermind, the breakout album of a previously little-known trio from the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.
Other albums might have influenced the sound of music in certain ways, might have been important to rock’s trajectory. But none of them changed the culture at large so vastly, so roughly and so immediately. Even the hippies of the ‘60s counterculture weren’t influenced and changed so distinctly as those of us living in a post-Nirvana world. In a way, the strange epoch we’re stuck with now is both a reflection and a result of the way Nevermind affected us; we are living the chaotic meaninglessness the album prophesied, even more than the shitshow that was the 1990s. If Nevermind was an existential statement, we’ve been blasted into the apocalypse.
Nevermind was released 20 years ago next week, on Sept. 24, 1991, the result of two separate recording sessions conducted in Van Nuys and North Hollywood, California. Its nice-weather locale defied its intent: scuzzed with the desolate, dispirited lyrics of Kurt Cobain, not yet addicted to the heroin that would lead to his suicide, the album was all grit and dark days. We have lived for so long with the sound and aesthetic of “grunge” that it’s hard to imagine life without it, but back then it was not even invented. All anyone knew was that Nirvana was bucking the rock trend toward hair metal, which was about objectifying women and cocaine and gross excess. Nirvana wore Washington-typical flannel shirts, more necessary for the damp weather of Cascadia than fashion statement. Long before Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain had dated Tobi Vail, a drummer in the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill who spent her free time making feminist fanzines. Their whole existence would soon be a revolution.
In December 1993, my best friend’s parents drove us to see Nirvana’s last tour, one of the first and certainly most memorable concerts of my young life. Their tour T-shirts featured a glow-in-the-dark seahorse, with a message on the back explaining that the animal is remarkable because it’s the males, not the females, who carry the young—a welcome flip for a budding young feminist. At that time, Frances Bean Cobain had been alive for a little over one year. I bought the shirt, but ended up giving it to my good friend Steve Paul, a Nirvana fanatic who hadn’t seen the concert. By April, as everyone knows by now, Kurt Cobain was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A few years later, my friend Steve was killed in a freak accident on a construction site. Everyone who was alive when Nevermind came out and cared has a story or memory associated with the album—it dug itself into your subconscious no matter how old you were.
On Sept. 24, 2011, Jon Stewart will interview the surviving members of Nirvana (and producer Butch Vig) for two hours on Sirius Radio. While the two might seem unrelated, it was in fact a brilliant move to ask Stewart to host: Nirvana’s impact was inherently political, and Stewart’s humor is inherently Gen X. In honor of the most important rock album of all time, here are eight ways that Nevermind changed the political and cultural landscape of America.
1. Disenfranchised Kids, Winning
The dominant narrative in this country, even now, is that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you will be rewarded with great riches, power, and popularity. That is, of course, untrue—something that Nirvana explored in its lyrics. But something unexpected happened: they blew up. Their music resonated deeply with everyone who’d been disenfranchised by the voracious, greedy ‘80s, and there was a revolution rooted in ‘60s counterculture and ‘70s punk rock. Anarchist cheerleaders were suddenly on television, moshing. Nirvana were the depressive weirdos, and suddenly the depressive weirdos were the dominant narrative. Even if you’re used to being the underdog, sometimes it’s nice to be on top.
Just like they popularized and made cool fashion that less-fortunate kids could afford, [Nirvana] also helped arty nerds stranded in barren cultural environments find a lot of work they could believe in.
2. “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”
But sometimes you don’t want to be on top. The interminable slogan Cobain wore on the cover of Rolling Stone to protest the personal-political concessions his own weary fame demanded of him, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” represented the antiestablishment attitude of the band—and the crucial disconnect between his desire for people to hear his music, and his disdain for the tactics he took to get there. Still, Nirvana released its music on major label DGC—and now, in the split-income Internet era, it’s rare for even punk-rooted bands to have anti-corporate attitudes (evidence: every car commercial featuring your favorite music). Nirvana was the first to really grapple with this ethical conundrum, and ultimately opened the doors for “that one Volkswagen commercial” (read: every ad featuring your favorite music).
3. The Rise of the Working Class
Working-class rock music is the best, at least when it’s lefty (apologies to my fellow prog rock fans)—two words, Bruce Springsteen. But Nirvana did it different: they didn’t aspire to be within the system, ideologically speaking, and so they made it cool to buck a system that would hang you out to dry if you let it.
4. The Rise of Working-Class Fashion
In the same way, they made the grunge aesthetic cool—which meant those of us who’d been clothes shopping at Salvation Army out of necessity were finally in style. It sounds banal, but if you’ve been that kid, it’s absolutely important.
The aforementioned seahorse tour tee and Bikini Kill association (Kathleen Hanna famously named “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) were but two aspects of Nirvana’s foray into the F word. Cobain being an astute and thoughtful man, he was quite aware of the white male privilege he wielded, so peppered feminist talk into his interviews. On Nevermind, even his love songs were about not trying to dominate a woman’s body—“we don’t have to breed.” And “Polly?” A dirge about the rape and murder of a young girl. This dovetailed quite nicely with the decade of the third wave, although it didn’t really last—there aren’t too many dude bands representing ladies the way Nirvana tried to.
6. Depression Is Okay
Though it would ultimately claim him, Kurt Cobain’s embrace of depression was, in fact, vanguard; America was barely talking about the disease before the popularization of Prozac, but years earlier Cobain was writing odes to his own sorrow and letting them live. At the very least, he inspired many a kid to research what, exactly, “Lithium” does.
7. The Opening Up of a Scene
In the ‘90s, people were still snobs about not wanting their precious underground culture exposed—but those of us who lived in crappy places, pre-Internet (Cheyenne, Wyoming, right here) discovered a lot of great bands and outsider culture after Nirvana blew up, through Nirvana. Taping 120 Minutes wasn’t cutting it, thank you very much. Nirvana introduced a whole new world to its fans in interviews, bigging up groups like Bikini Kill (saved a lot of lives!), Beat Happening (Kurt’s K Records tattoo!) and the Vaselines (the original version of “Molly’s Lips” is close to a perfect song). Just like they popularized and made cool fashion that less-fortunate kids could afford, they also helped arty nerds stranded in barren cultural environments find a lot of work they could believe in. That was huge.
8. Rock Stars as Progressive Politicians
They weren’t the first rockers-come-politicians, nor will they be the last, but you can connect Nevermind’s popularity in a straight line to Krist Novoselic’s political platform later in life, when he became an elected state committeeman in Washington. In fact, he does that himself, in a 2004 book titled Of Grunge & Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!, which discusses how grassroots movements are the way to make a better country—and a bigger rock band.
This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.