Nirvana’s Nevermind is nauseatingly poppy, overly produced, and often depressingly sarcastic. It is probably the band’s worst album, save perhaps the live Wishkah. But 20 years later, it is clear that Nevermind has changed the music industry indelibly– and us in the process– very much for the better.
Most people listen to pop music. The radio. The mainstream. So what is put in people’s heads is catchy tunes. Nirvana changed the music world in that it had huge success without the sole goal of huge record sales. Which means anyone listening casually might get exposed to broader ideas. Something substantive. And when they were in the public eye, Nirvana ceaselessly promoted those ideas.
While music snobs like myself chastise pop, it is undoubtedly true that pop holds sway. Yes, classical, jazz, blues, folk, etc all have higher aesthetic value than pop and many times these other genres have educational value, social value, intellectual merit. But pop is the medium to the masses, and will seemingly always be. And music, like TV and movies, definitely influences us. So when our popular music has value, our society is stronger.
What Kurt did was write a deliberately overly catchy album, and when it went big, he used this platform and time in the limelight to promote the underground–obscure bands, punk rock, and the idea that music is art. Cobain upended the status quo, both musically and in his ideas. For example, he wore a homemade t-shirt reading “corporate magazines still suck” on the cover of Rolling Stone. With an album cover of a baby chasing a dollar on his way to drowning, Nevermind brought a very clear message into the pop mainstream.
Kurt felt so isolated because many people didn’t understand his message. I certainly didn’t get it. I was too young, in middle school. But I understood it better later, through Kurt’s music and through those he influenced. And very, very many others also took his lessons to heart: Principles matter. Authenticity matters. Changing to fit in is not acceptable. That is the punk platform that got turned into the grunge dogma, relentlessly proselytized by preacher Kurt.
It’s common to say that “grunge is dead” and that the era where underground music could get sales is over. Four, perhaps five, glory years in the mid 90’s when mainstream music was good, then back to the same old corporate rock and pop. But it’s apparent that that is not really the case. Grunge is an aesthetic, yes, but even more than that it’s an ethos. The sound and “style” may be out of fashion, but the grunge values and ethics still pervade.
Popular music is not as straight-from-the-indie-label as 1992, but record labels do indeed still allow some amount of the independent forces to sneak in, both in the bands they sign and the amount of creativity they allow artists. Radiohead. The White Stripes. Arcade Fire. TV on the Radio. None of them would have had the same (or any) success or influence without Nevermind. And that means those people who are reached by those bands would not have been affected without Nirvana. Released on the last Tuesday of September 1991, this is Nevermind’s 20th anniversary and its ripples are still felt.
It’s important to point out that Nirvana wasn’t the first or even the best at the indie/ noncommercial sound or stance. REM and Sonic Youth preceded them, and many more. But Nirvana’s real impact is not about the sound, the style, or the image. It’s that their ideas got so exposed to the masses. Nirvana brought the underground front and center into our living rooms (those of us who has MTV). You can buy knockoff Nirvana CDs in every developing country of the world, alongside Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. Nirvana got big, and didn’t compromise themselves in the process.
When the easiest thing to eat is healthy, people eat healthy. When the most easily accessible music has value, people listen to substantive music, and benefit from the many kinds of good that comes with it.
BTW, the best Cobain article that I’ve read can be found here: http://davemarsh.us/?p=342