Saturday, September 24, 2011

Nirvana's "Nevermind": My Twenty Year Voyage of Antipathy

A spin around the forthcoming release lists informs me that the inevitable twentieth anniversary expand-o-recyclings of Nirvana's Nevermind are soon to be upon us.  I'm sure Kurt Cobain - who notoriously thought everything corporate sucked save for his contract with Geffen Records and the resulting royalty checks - is sneering his flannel-clad disapproval from the grave.  In theory, I should care.

But theory is not reality, and in reality I am an exceptionally poor Gen-X'er, because I've never been really sold on Cobain or his band.  Not back then when, admittedly, I owned the tape just like every other angsty seventeen year old, and not now with the benefit of retrospect.  Look, I grant you that the guy was FOR REAL, MAN.  Dying of self-inflicted bullet wounds says more about that than an entire army of snarky writers could hope to.  Sadly, sincerity alone isn't enough to make great music, and that's always been the core of why, at least for me, Nevermind's myth is simply that.  All of that said, it has been twenty years since the world allegedly changed. Why don't we give the bean-counters over at Geffen their due, in a backhanded sort of way?  I'll pass on the multiple discs of barrel scrapings, thanks - hell, I don't even like the original album very much, as should be obvious by now - but let's have a bit of fun examining its impact. shall we?

Nevermind was the album that finally brought PUNK ROCK to the masses!  In a manner of speaking, I suppose.  Honestly, Nevermind's connection to punk has always seemed a bit tenuous to me; it always seemed a bit too slow 'n' sludgy for that particular horse race.  Still, the album certainly took its cues from a decade-ish of punk and indie ("college rock", whatever) music that had preceded it.  It wrapped all of that up in a big, blue, baby-penis bow and brought it to the production counter for a full-budget spit 'n' polish.  Result: radio play, sales explosion.  This is not a bad thing, mind you: the myth that all artistically substantial music must sound like unmitigated sonic slime is propagated by dudes who look like Steve Albini and don't get laid nearly often enough.  That's a scientifically proven fact, by the way.  Nevermind paved the way for recordings of music I liked a whole lot more to sound as good as they should, and that's one of the few things I actually like about it.  Credit where due, or "+1", depending on your age.

It's a solid, classic album full of great songs.  Not hardly.  I'll grant you that the first 1,284,983 times I heard it, the album's famous lead single was something to write home about: great sound, nice catchy chorus hook, good beat and you could dance to it, at least in an awkward, hormonal fashion.  The rest of the album offered little more than self-flagellation, rendered over great drums and indifferent guitars and notably lacking in hooks.  Alright, sure, there's also "Come As You Are", but let's be honest for a minute, shall we?  That's pretty much a cover, isn't it?  Ahh, Killing Joke, now that's some punk rock for ya.

But it killed hair metal.  You hate hair metal, Will, so why weren't you happy?  Simple: because replacing something lousy and dopey with something differently lousy and dopey isn't my idea of progress.  True, the vast majority of hair metal seems fairly vapid and worthless to me, and it's equally true that I often point to Poison as being my vote for the worst popular rock 'n' roll band of all time.  But was the newly-clothed emperor really the breath of fresh air his sycophants claimed?  Take this little pop quiz: who am I describing?  Simplistic, three-chord songs played by serviceable but not especially distinguished musicians, topped off by nasal singer dishing out meaningless nonsense.  The answer, of course, is "both Poison and Nirvana".  Seriously, do you really mean to tell me that Cobain's mumbledy-mumbledy-kill-myself-mumbledy shtick is somehow more worthwhile or profound than Bret Michaels' come here pretty baby and suck my cock bullshit?  Both were equally REAL, mind you; that is, both flavors of gibberish likely accurately reflected the artist's mindset at the time.  While I never want to hear another note by either band again, I know whose tour bus sounds like it was probably a lot more fun.

Fine, we get it, you thought Nirvana were shit.  But it bears repeating: they got rid of all that metal crap!  Yeah, but the problem there is that there's as much great metal in the world as there is great punk rock, not to mention plenty of top-notch bands who bravely refuse to acknowledge the distinction.  Ever heard the one about the baby and the bath water?

But Kurt Cobain was the voice of our generation!  The hell he was.  I didn't shoot myself.  If you're reading this, then you didn't shoot yourself.  If anybody wants to tell you that the voice of your generation had so little to actually say that he shot himself, I'd recommend that you pound your fists on the nearest available surface and demand a better representative, loudly.

You know, I'm not really that into Nirvana anymore, but they did get me listening to better stuff.  This is the other "+1" I'm willing to hand out.  I'll give Cobain this much: he was always pretty open about his influences.  If he is the reason that names like Hüsker Dü or the Wipers or the Replacements or the Meat Puppets or X...or, hell, even Cheap Trick for that matter first crossed the consciousness of you or someone you love then good on him, even if he remains proof positive that you can in fact make a bad band out of good taste.

Fine, I give up.  They were still better than Pearl Jam, though.  Fair enough, another "+1" for a total of three, then.  True, it's not a lot of credit in the face of so many demerits, but oh well whatever nevermind, every rose has its thorn, and life, for those of us brave enough to continue to face it, goes on.

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