“Nevermind” was released on September 24th, 1991. However, it sold poorly until MTV began massive airplay of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and suburban kids were exposed to the first tastes of alternative music. Some will make the case for The Replacements and The Smiths as being the first shot across the bow, but they can piss off. Music history was made that day, as a cottage industry of mopey teens ushering in Seattle chic.
Looking for depth in Cobain’s work was decried by the artist while he was alive and I feel that we shouldn’t really push too hard against it. The lyrics don’t matter, but the music according to Dave Grohl’s accounts of Cobain’s process. But, as a writer…the lyrics do matter. Much has been made of Cobain’s body images issues, inability to deal with women and his troubled childhood. But, what very few people really take a look at is the guy’s obsessions. We have a man that grew up listening to the Carpenters, ABBA and other soft rock before progressing onto The Melvins and their ilk.
Harder, heavier pop music was the name of the game and the focus on hooks over words drove the band. If they came up with something beyond a song title and repeated incantation, it was incidental. That alone is enough to anger the hardcore traditional music types out there. But, it doesn’t matter. Cobain was the death of the serious musician rock star by becoming rock martyr. Even in that, he was still a hypocrite due to self-destructive angst.
When we look back at Nirvana, there’s always that push to coat in a fresh shade of nostalgia. But, we have to also recognize that those who came before will forever view the group with a certain disdain. Many scholars will try to tell you that Nirvana killed hair metal. A brief glance at metal sales going into 1991 will tell you that Cinderella was turning into blues rock. Poison’s numbers were dropping like a rock and Queensryche was already establishing Seattle as this weird bastion of dark rock/neo-prog sound. Nirvana had already dropped “Bleach” under Sub Pop in 1989 and was met with fanfare only in the underground community.
Nirvana didn’t even begin to come close to approaching popular awareness until the Christmas Holidays of 1991. Stores across the country were reporting wide sales data that was making Billboard go nuts. Thousands of copies of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” were being exchange for “Nevermind”. Demands for the video to play endlessly on MTV were popping up and soon Samuel Bayer’s imagery was becoming the face of the new sound. All the while, the rather gloomy Cobain was hating it.
Talent vs. emotional response is the real fight here. While Hair Metal represented the last dying breath of the traditional musician model, Grunge was the short transition period that introduced real angst into music making. Long associated with obsessive weirdos trying to find the right sound while playing a sandbox entrenched piano, emotional strength meant something new. It was a badge of honor for a new wave of emaciated loners to get together and jam out pop songs about no one understood their childhoods. Growing progessively darker until everything was about death or any of the many other dire consequences.
Like it or not, Hair Metal was fairly positive. Sure, it included using booze and the occasional drug to help make the good times last longer. But, you never heard Motley Crue singing “Drain You” or “Rape Me”. Still, this was also a superficial music subset based on the fact that most of the bands originated from the Entertainment scene in Los Angeles. These were guys who came in at the end of the previous era of Arena Rock and tried to make it big. Then, music videos hit and they tried to make it loud and pretty.
That’s not to say that LA based Geffen didn’t poach the living hell out of Seattle’s Sub Pop for a two year period. It’s just that the reach of picking talent for other music hubs diminishes the glamor appeal of Hollywood. Hell, New York City is still dinger than Los Angeles on their worst day. Did Hollywood glamor prop Hair Metal into a place that it couldn’t survive after the end of the 1980s? Was it just another era waiting to end in popular music? Honestly, I believe the movement was ahead of its time, as it seemed to symbolize in an era where young dumb males could wear make-up and dance around in tattered clothing.
What it boils down to is what do you need in your music? Raw noise or polished production? Nirvana represented the start of a movement where any Waffle House worker could pick up a guitar and scream into a mic about how living in a shitburg town sucks. It didn’t matter that they knew chords or structure. They had disillusionment and guttural anger to carry them through the three minutes it took to lay down a track. I can only imagine how hard that must’ve been to hear for a generation of listeners who automatically believed that heavy metal had to have a six-channel mix and gaudy album art to be considered canon.
Nirvana didn’t kill Hair Metal, the Zeitgeist did. If you’re still pining for the days of Cinderella and Skid Row, then you belong in the past. I often think of those little nostalagia humor jpegs floating around on Facebook. Something about how kids today can’t understand why you needed to use a ballpoint pen to fix a cassette tape. Well, guess what? They have no need to know, as the information has become irrelevant.
When people age, they automatically hope that the world will conform with them. When these same people are younger, they laugh and joke about how they won’t make this mistake. But, you can’t change psychological make-up in a single generation. Henry Rollins once said in a spoken-word concert that humans make up their minds about music when they’re 13 years old. They can try and like other styles that they approach in their later years, but they’re only going to be made happy by the music from their early adolescence.
I find that there’s some truth in that, as I try to combat people online that want to sell me on the sanctity of KISS. Everyone is a victim of the music era that was popular in their adolescence. We can’t help it and the best thing you can hope for is that you don’t turn into some weirdo collector that turns their basement into a shrine to Bobby Sherman. Fans of any entertainment format will in turn spend the rest of their lives battling over whose era was better. Hell, some of you might be lucky enough to develop a taste for music outside of your comfort zone.
But, it’s your comfort zone for a reason and it’s where you will always reside. For those keeping score at home, I’ll leave you with this. Go up to someone who’s just old enough to be out of your age range. Bring up two non-sequiters about music, film, television and/or politics. Then, throw in a graphic sexual act between both mentions. It’ll keep you entertained for hours and it doesn’t even have to make sense. When the other person punches you in the jaw, you’ll realize that I was right about Nirvana, Hair Metal and everything else.