I really don’t want to write another this-is-where-I-was-when-I-first-heard-Teen-Spirit piece. It’s too obvious. Every blogger under the age of 40 must be doing that today.
If you must know, I was in my bedroom in my teenage home in Fenton, Missouri. I was listening to 89.7, which was a commercial-less indie station with an incredibly weak signal, run by a local YMCA or some other similar community organization. I could only get it in certain parts of St. Louis, and to get it at home, my boombox had to be in the right place in my room.
This would have been sometime in September 1991, long before the Top 40 stations got their grubby mitts on it. At the time, 89.7 was getting several requests for the song every hour.
Much has been said about how the album, and that song in particular, were a rampage against the overproduced, overly flambouyant pretty-boy pop metal that ruled Top 40 radio until late 1991. And certainly it was a shock there. But it was a bit of a shock in the alternative radio world too–to ears that were used to hearing Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Inspiral Carpets, and the immortal Elvis–Elvis Costello, of course–it was a bit of a shock. Ned’s was certainly odd enough, and Inspiral Carpets had their share of angst. But Nirvana was more raw, and, well, a lot more loud.
Of course, Kurt Cobain committed suicide 10 years ago today.
In college, I lived for a time with a bunch of farm boys, and I remember them ragging me about how I "liked bands whose lead singers killed hisself." (Yes, I bristled at the butchered English.) Cobain was of course the poster child.
Nirvana of course opened the door for a new form of mainstream music, helping alternative music move from the lower left end of the FM dial to the right-hand side occupied by classic rock and Top 40 stations. But the originality fizzled, and Cobain wasn’t dead two years before people were ready for the alternative to alternative.
I think that has more to do with record company execs than with Cobain, of course. Signing bands like Nirvana is risky business. You can sign every garage band that comes around and strike out 99,999 times, or you can sign a band that just imitates something that’s already proven to be popular, make a few million, and just sign another one with that band fizzles out. Certainly, it’s easier that way.
People got tired of bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, and soon we had highly polished bubblegum bands again–boy bands and girl bands who looked good on magazine covers and posters, and who maybe could sing, and if not, well, that’s what post-production is for.
It was once said that grunge is what happens when children of divorce get guitars. Does that mean boy bands are what happen when children of divorce get Prozac?
For a while, at least, it was OK for the music you listened to to reflect your problems and your inner demons.
Nirvana had a brief resurgence when the last song they ever recorded was finally released. "You Know You’re Right," it was called. More than a decade after "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it struck a chord with me again. Some people can’t be reasoned with, and that, to me, seemed to be what that song was about. I was dealing with one of those at the time.
The song was different and the message was different, but once again, I found myself cranking the radio whenever a particular song by Nirvana hit the airwaves. Or, if it was really bad, I’d carry a Nirvana CD with me and pop it in my CD player. And for a few minutes, I’d feel better. When the song ends, the problem is still there, but at least you know you’re not alone.
I really couldn’t care less if Nirvana changed the world or changed the music industry, or the direction the industry took in the wake of Cobain’s self destruction. Change doesn’t really seem to matter all that much, because it’s only a matter of time before some other unlikely–and probably unwilling–revolutionary comes along and changes it back.
As a stereotypical GenX male, what matters most to me was that Kurt Cobain came along, and in him I found someone I could relate to, three minutes at a time.