"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rare Pop Culture Post

This is indulgent. Over at the AVClub, Steven Hyden is beginning a new series on music in the 90s, and the rise and fall of the "alt-rock" era. I like it because he seems a lot like me- someone who liked music, but didn't closely follow it until that time, so when Nirvana came out it was a shot from out of the blue. These two paragraphs do an incredible job of capturing what that was like without over-stating the case. It is silly to say Nirvana changed the world; it isn't silly to say it changed the world for some individuals.
Nevermind probably would not have impacted me in quite the same way had I been aware of the context it came out of; had I been a little older and a fan of college radio, I’m sure it would’ve just been another record that I liked about as much as Bandwagonesque or Green Mind. But Nirvana was not a band I had to discover; it came right into my world, and discovered me. This is something Nirvana still doesn’t get enough credit for: Kurt Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed unfathomable. So, yeah, it’s worth noting that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like Pixies, and that “Come As You Are” is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference points.

It’s hard to convey today how revelatory it was hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come out of your parents’ car stereo for the first time, but this was a bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle, head-slapping pop-culture surprise of the highest order. By the time I started 7th grade, I had already absorbed enough bad TV and cut-rate pop music to get a sense that culture unfolded in a predictable series of fads and trends; nothing ever came along to upset the applecart. But Nirvana clearly was not part of that. It didn’t matter that the band was on a major label; that was just underground-rock semantics and I didn’t speak that language yet. These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Nirvana finding you was like being sucked into a whole new reality tucked inside the simpler, grayer world you’d always known. All of a sudden it was just there. If something this incredible could exist in the world right under your nose until it streaked in seemingly out of nowhere and smacked you repeatedly across the face, what in the hell else was out there?

The whole article is really well-written and insightful, and I am looking forward to the rest of the series.  I think this kind of hit me because we were drunkenly listening to Unplugged on Friday night, and although I have heard it a million times before, I was still stunned by just how gripping and powerful and sad and beautiful an album that was- a quieter Kurt at the height of his powers.  As the years have gone by I've tempered, somewhat, my over-the-top love for Cobain, and have for the most part left Nirvana off my current playlist.  But whenever they come on, especially the Unplugged version of "In the Pines", the great Leadbelly song, I'm always moved and surprised- because great talent should never stop surprising.  In Kurt, immense talent, passion and pain existed, flourished briefly, and then disappeared.

Holy shit, I feel old.  


  1. ...And I still blame them for kiling Loverboy's career...

  2. "Because those are Loverboy songs. And Loverboy has always sucked."

  3. YOU feel old? I feel old! Hyden was in 7th Grade when Nirvana hit the airwaves, but I was already in grad school. I remember thinking "cool song; sounds kinda like the Pixies." That, and "more anarchy cheerleaders, please."

  4. Wow, Brian. Speaking of indulgent pop culture references...

  5. Yeah, that one was a little esoteric. I assume you just googled it, or are you a closet ATHF buff?

    And Paul- sorry, buddy, but you are old. I was also in 7th grade.