Ah, nostalgia. It’s wonderful to reminisce about our youths, but let’s not get carried away. The release of Nirvana’s greatest hits record has brought forth a flurry of articles and television shows hailing the Incoherent One and his lackeys, which consist of a mixture of misinformed analysis, hyperbole and plain old bullshit. As one who lived through it, please allow me to take on some of the quotes about this band I heard in a documentary the other night.
”Nirvana revolutionized the music industry and wiped out pop music.” Yes, as the sad tale of struggling pop stars N’Sync makes clear.
”Before Nirvana, there weren’t any rock bands of importance making the charts.” In 1991, the year Nevermind was released, Metallica, Jane’s Addiction and Guns n’ Roses were all over the radio and MTV. You may scorn them now, but you can’t deny that they were considered important both by critics and fans.
”’Smells Like Teen Spirit’ became an anthem for a generation.” From what I remember, everyone mostly talked about how no one could make out the lyrics. And, once they were revealed, the response was mostly, “A mulatto? An albino? What the hell?”
”Kurt Cobain’s music stood out because he meant what he said.” Um, actually Kurt Cobain was kind of a smartass. Just read an interview with him sometime. Eddie Vedder meant what he said.
So, yes, Nirvana were popular, and their success led to some other Seattle bands getting signed. But, note for note, there was as much crappy music coming your way in 1993 as there was in 1990. (Remember the cathartic release of “Rhythm is a Dancer”? How about the soul-baring “Show Me Love”?) So, where does that leave us in assessing Nirvana’s legacy? The music, I guess.
To be honest, I always feel a little cheap listening to Nirvana; sure, there’s a lot of power and emotion, but it comes too easy. Humming a nice little tune with mildly provocative lyrics, then SCREAMING OUT THE CHORUS. Nice trick the first time. But song after song after song, it feels like a bad soap opera; you just know Monique is going to find out Jake’s been sleeping with Amanda, and when the inevitable shouting match occurs, it’s kind of fun but ultimately predictable. Bands that respect their audiences don't jerk them around like that; they work on lots of ways to impact their audiences, with careful arrangements that swell and diminish, or playing countermelodies, or writing bridges for contrast.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Nirvana had plenty of nice tunes: “In Bloom” has a wonderful folksy melody, “Come as You Are” is a terrific Creedence ripoff, “Lithium” actually achieves some emotional resonance with lyrics that, for once, aren’t willfully obscure, and the scraped-from-the-vaults new release “You Know You’re Right” modulates a lengthy scream just enough to make it a hook. I'll give them this, too: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the first time I ever heard that kind of drumming, which is now an important part of modern rock.
So this new collection is probably the only Nirvana you’ll need. It’s got all the groovy pop hits with all the blaring choruses, and none of the filler that repeats the same formula but with less interesting melodies.
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