20 years after Nevermind: A look back at Nirvana
For fans of rock music like myself, today is an anniversary of great importance to the genre. Released twenty years ago to the day, a little known grunge rock trio saw the release of their latest album, hoping to themselves that the album might see them get as much recognition as other grunge bands like Sonic Youth and the Melvins. That band was called Nirvana, that album Nevermind, and not only would the album earn them more recognition than either Sonic Youth or the Melvins, but would propel them to super stardom change, gave birth to alternative rock, and alter the sound and of music itself in the process.
Nirvana is with little doubt one of, if not the, most influential band of the last twenty years. Regarded by many to be the voice and sound of a generation, and rightly so to some extent, you never would have known what the future held for the band at the time. One of many bands of Seattle’s famous grunge underground, the unkempt trio made up of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had just come off the release of the bands first album, Bleach, and the album had bet with some minor recognition from critics and fans. Hoping to capitalize a little more on that momentum, as well as keep the bills paid, they began work on thier next studio album, pouring a years worth of effort into what would become one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
That album, entitled Nevermind, was successful beyond anybodies expectations. With that now famous cover featuring a baby chasing a dollar bill in a pool, and twelve tracks featuring a wide and diverse sound and feel, it was unlike anything ever seen before, or since. It tapped into the angst and anguish of the rising generation, resonating with certain crowds and circles in ways no other band had at until that point. That resonance quickly showed in record sales, selling 400,000 copies a week in the US alone, and in the process knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the number one spot on the charts, both literally and symbolically putting the glam and glitz of the 1980s in its grave, and ushering in the dark, gritty sound that would dominate the airwaves for over the next decade. Leading the charge of course, were many of the songs of Nevermind, with immortal classics like ‘In Bloom’, ‘Breed’, ‘Come as You Are’, ‘Lithium’, and of course, the legendary ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
If there has ever been a song that captured the spirit of rebellion in the heart of every teen, dreamer or outcast, it would be ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’. From the first opening strummings of the guitar and the boom of Grohl’s drums, the the closing wails of Kurt Cobain, it is melodic and powerful in ways any classic rock song should be. No doubt that is why an entire generation has adopted it as their anthem, ironically, much to the disdain of the band itself. Yet to millions of people since 1991, the song has struck a chord straight to the soul, a revolutionary anthem for all the folks who felt like no one had spoken for them. That universal appeal and capturing of raw emotion is a huge reason why the song became the song that captured the soul of a generation, and one of the greatest songs of any generation.
Nevermind was one of those rare albums released at the perfect moment that allowed it to resonate with the people and be allowed to wreck and replace the derelict sound that came before it. It has to date sold 30 million copies, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time – a feat unlikely to change anytime soon in an industry more focused on singles and remixes than on albums. Nirvana would usher in the era of alternative rock, a sound which would rule the airwaves long after Kurt Cobain’s untimely suicide, and bands like the Offspring, Linkin Park, and the Foo Fighters (fronted by Nirvana drummer David Grohl) would carry on the good fight long after his passing. For all of Cobain’s hatred of the trappings of rock stardom, he would be the last truly universal rock star, Nirvana one of rock’s last great band, Nevermind it’s last classic album, with the band and it’s sound the gold standard for all the bands that followed.
Even now, in the dark night of the soul of rock and roll, Nirvana and Nevermind are just as relevant as it was back in 1991. In a music industry all too tragically dominated by quickly passing pop stars and thrice-watered down rap and R&B, perhaps even more relevant with the utter lack of much of a rock scene that aside from a few older bands still going strong, is dominated by the hipster indie sound. So until some new rock star comes along and sets the music world ablaze, and burning down the old industry sound like Cobain and company did before them, Nirvana will continue to be the torch bearer of the rock world. If Nevermind is any indication, we could do worse for rock’s guiding light.