20 years ago this year Nirvana released their sophmore album Nevermind, an album that somehow changed the course of music in the 90’s. But why did it become such a popular, well-loved album; an album that an entire generation is able to reminisce on?
Let’s face it, it wasn’t the greatest album ever made – musically it was simplistic, Kurt could barely sing, the ideas weren’t original and the band themselves admitted as much.
Regardless of the facts, it did go on to become an album that effected a generation – from their attitudes and values (or at least confirmed those attitudes and values as legitimate), to lifestyle, to clothing.
If we look back at the decade before, I think we can see how all this happened...
At the end of the 70’s punk exploded on the world, as a reaction to the political and economic situation at the time, but also as a counter to popular music of the time. The first wave of punk only lasted a short period, a few years perhaps, before the energy started to wane in the movement.
In the early part of the 80’s, in the U.S. in particular, the economy was starting to improve and people were enjoying a higher quality of life. Towards the mid-80’s this was visible in the fashion, lifestyle and morals of the time – big was in, money meant nothing, shallowness triumphed over style.
The mainstream music of the era was bland, hollow pop – meaningless lyrics, catchy yet forgettable melodies. The rise of music television furthered the conquest of pop music over other music styles. Of course other styles bucked the trend, but these were the minority, and enjoyed by small subsets of people, rather than a serious musical movement. Even amongst many of those other genres, with the exception possibly of hip hop, the music was concerned more with getting high/drunk, violence, or getting laid. It presented a fantasised viewpoint that was unrealistic and unachievable to most.
At the end of the 80’s we started to see a change in the way the world worked and played – computers were becoming more available to the masses and with that came an uncertainty about what technology would mean for the world.
This uncertainty, and a growing distaste for the excesses of popular culture, created the conditions for a rebellion against popular culture. The band who would become the focal point for that rebellion was Nirvana.
They told us that it didn’t matter if you didn’t know what to do with your life, it was okay to show your emotions, you didn’t need to live up to others high expectations.
Most of all, they were real. Sure Kurt sounded raw, both in his vocals and his riffs, but he meant every tortured word, every distorted note. You could hear it in the music and it was in such contrast to the other music that was around, that it drew people to it.
Sure, the Pixies had been doing it before Nirvana, but they weren’t this raw, this emotional. And yes, it was just a reinvention of punk, but punk told us we had to care about things, we had to rebel against specific things – whether it was the economy, the government, our parents. Nirvana told us we could rebel without rebelling against anything at all; we could care, without looking like we cared.
20 years on, there’s still a need for that raw emotion. The music we see and hear now is in a way even worse than it was then. Pop music has become ever more subservient to business – if your song doesn’t make money for the corporations that own it, you probably won’t last long. So songs now are made to be catchy, to hook you in, to last 5 minutes before you need to buy the next top hit.
Nirvana still seem fresh because they still act as a counter to that, and remind us that music can have a soul, even if that soul is depressed, anti-social, stoned, and in the end, suicidal.
But is that too simplistic, or completely off track? Why do you think Nevermind had such a huge and lasting effect on music? What did Nirvana mean to you when Nevermind first came out? More importantly, what does it mean to you now?