Twenty years ago tomorrow, music changed for me and changed me. September 24, 1991 was the day Geffen released Nirvana’s Nevermind, widely considered a game-changing album throughout the record industry. It changed even more than that.
Well, honestly, it didn’t change me on that exact date, 20 years ago. The shift came some time after, whenever “Smells Like Teen Spirit” entered my zone of awareness. I searched out the track and decided it was worthy a purchase. I can’t remember who actually paid for the cassette, but my brother and I exchanged it back and forth as we played the hell out of it.
By now, the story of Nevermind is well-known. It bumped Michael Jackson and/or several hair metal bands from their perch atop the Billboard charts. It set off a signing frenzy of bands from Seattle. Grunge became a household term to describe anything in flannel, combat boots, and full of feedback. It ignited a cultural revolution – which may have only been superficial, but a movement nonetheless.
For me, it opened up a whole new world. There was the introduction to an underground I had no idea existed. It validated my disgust for the mainstream. And it gave new voice to my burgeoning political views. It did all this and then some.
Nirvana was one of the first (and maybe only) true indie bands to completely blow up. Their previous record, Bleach, sold a few thousand copies and sounded nothing like a band ready to take the world by storm. I love some tracks from that record, but I never heard anything on Bleach that made me think Nevermind was possible – and this was in retrospect.
The band was originally signed to Sub Pop. In fact, Nevermind featured Sub Pop’s logo, indicating that the label would pay its bills with Nirvana money for years to come. The Sub Pop narrative became an obsession of mine. My uncle was school chums with Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of the label. My uncle developed a substance addiction and Poneman developed bands. The rest was history. Still, I felt some sort of connection to the label and even the band that went beyond mere fandom.
Nirvana started getting press and at every turn, Kurt Cobain was championing some great band. Off the top of my head, I can think of Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, The Breeders, Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, etc. that came into my collection mainly due to Cobain’s insistence that his fans listen to other bands besides his own. And each of those new bands lead me to an infinite number of bands I won’t list here (not to mention all the great bands on Sub Pop over the years).
The funny part about Nirvana and Nevermind‘s influence over my music tastes is that this record wasn’t that great. Sure, it’s a nice collection of good songs. However, it’s a clear ripoff of The Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Someone had finally put to tape a collection that properly nodded to the underground and then spruced it up with a remix. It’s a slick-sounding record which sort of betrays what Nirvana was about. Lucky for us, MTV still showed music videos and live performances at that time to help us see what Nirvana was all about. Still, I’d have to say that In Utero was a stronger album and represented a truer version of Nirvana, but it didn’t have the impact Nevermind had.
Either way, the aesthetic and message of that album, Cobain’s championing of the underground, and my new obsession with Sub Pop and the Pacific Northwest pushed me into what is turning out to be a lifelong pursuit of independent rock, aka indie rock. Sure, Pavement is my favorite band of all-time, but Nirvana was my first true love.
Cobain not only used Nevermind as a way to promote the music he loved, but it was also the thing that vaulted him in the public eye in a way that made him the spokesperson of our generation. Fair or not, Kurt Cobain spoke to and sometimes for all of us. And the things of which he spoke were important. He was notorious for testing gender lines and the status quo. My eventual path down progressivism was initially guided by Cobain’s own political and social views. There are pieces of that in Nevermind. I found them while listening and re-listening in vain attempts to decipher Cobain’s screams.
It’s easy for someone to discount Nevermind‘s importance to society. I mean, it basically rehashed the previous 20 years of punk in one fell swoop. So, very little new ground was ever covered within its grooves. One might even point out that the record industry looks very much the same despite Nirvana’s success.
Still, it was the first wildly successful record that sounded the way indie bands did in those days. Nevermind‘s release was the culmination of decades of punk, hardcore, and indie breaking through a wall put up by major labels and corporate radio. That had as much to do with its big sound as anything. And the lasting effect is that indie artists actually share space on industry sales lists with major label releases. They command the same venues and often outlast their corporate cousins. I’m not sure indie music is as strong without Nevermind‘s success, even if it wasn’t an indie release itself.
And what about the music?
Maybe some of the most famous guitar licks to open an album ever happen at the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The best part of the song is that insults the mainstream kids who flocked to stores to buy Nirvana’s major label debut. It was an inside joke with legendary riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna. It’s the song that signified everything was changing. Maybe that change was fashionable or superficial for some, but whatever it was happened as this song first hit the airwaves.
The second track was the fourth single off the record. Interestingly, “In Bloom” was considered for Bleach, but I think most would agree that it fits with Nevermind‘s anti-mainstream theme. I don’t know whether it was prophetic or not, but the song came out as a single at the right time as sort of retort to all the d-bags and jocks who were adopting Nirvana as their own.
“Come As You Are” was the second single and, quite honestly, was more hit-worthy than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The only thing it lacked was the punch the first track contained. Still, a hit is a hit. Sadly, it’s clichéd to say, but this song was ironically accurate with its now infamous gun lyric.
“Breed” brought it in a way that Bleach-era Nirvana did. This song reeked of angst and alienation. Plus, it never hurt to attract young males with aggression and some heavy guitars.
The third single was “Lithium,” a song I think would have felt at home on In Utero, Nirvana’s best album. Teenage angst and male awkwardness comes through loud and clear. The loud-quiet-loud dynamic is certainly apparent. This is maybe Nevermind‘s best track.
Where do I begin with “Polly?” As the story goes, some assholes sang the song while raping a woman. Cobain was disgusted by the entire episode and made sure to call out the perpetrators in the liner notes for Nirvana’s rarities release, Incesticide. Aesthetically, it didn’t fit with Bleach and found itself on Nevermind. We all ate up that grunge performed acoustically thing. (see: MTV Unplugged)
Fuck, man. Rocking out to “Territorial Pissings” was what it was all about. And was he saying “gotta find a way, a better way” or was it “gotta find a way, I better wait?” Does it matter?
A perfect B-side for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “Drain You.” This is maybe the lone love song of Nevermind. Following “Drain You” is the fantastic “Lounge Act” with its obtuse drug references. “Stay Away” was what every teen-age boy questioning everything thought all the time. “On a Plain” is one of the best songs any band has ever snuck into a next-to last slot.
“Something in the Way” is an eerie and depressing way to close the record. However, it hints at the subtlety Cobain longed to fit into his repertoire, getting away from the aggression of grunge and moving beyond Nevermind‘s pure aggression into something more complex.
I could write about the hidden track (“Endless, Nameless”), but it was hidden for a reason…
Nevermind was an important record for many reasons. This is the first time I’ve seen the reason to celebrate something that’s 20 years old. This album represented a movement, even a generation. I remember feeling a ton of dissatisfaction with the world and Nevermind captured that. In fact, I’d argue that Nevermind is still meaningful to our current condition. Generation X has been through a lot and Nevermind was there for all of it.
I was lucky enough to see Nirvana during their In Utero tour. They were probably the last huge band I could ever love. Nevermind was the beginning and the last two decades of searching for the thrill Nevermind gave me since has made for a fun ride through indie rock. Happy birthday, Nevermind.