Nirvana’s Nevermind was not released in a vacuum. The year also saw Primal Scream’s druggy masterpiece Screamadelica, Pixies’ widely misunderstood Trompe Le Monde, A Tribe Called Quest’s boom-bap blowout The Low End Theory, Bikini Kill’s radical manifesto Revolution Girl Style Now!, Massive Attack’s ultra-sophisticated dance party Blue Lines, R.E.M.’s stately Out of Time, My Bloody Valentine’s feedback symphony Loveless, Smashing Pumpkins’ neo-psychedelic Gish, Guns N’ Roses’ operatic Use Your Illusion I & II, The Jesus Lizard’s uncomfortably aggressive Goat, The Orb’s dub update The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, De La Soul’s forceful De La Soul Is Dead, N.W.A.’s cartoonish Efil4zaggin, Jodeci’s supersmooth Forever My Lady, not to mention Achtung Baby or Blood Sugar Sex Magic or Spiderland or Kill Uncle or Breaking Atoms or Mighty Like a Rose or Mr. Hood or Laughing Stock or Foxbase Alpha or The Black Album or Ten. The conspicuous awesomeness of the class of 1991 in unquestionable: more stone-cold classics came out that year than in any other year of the decade. But what makes Nevermind different from these albums? Why is Kurt Cobain on the cover of Spin (again!) and not Kathleen Hanna or Q-Tip or Kevin Shields or Eddie Vedder? Why has a slick Pixies knockoff with a major label’s backing captured the public imagination when a dozen other infinitely more progressive records have become cult classics?
Some answers, of course, are a little discomforting. Because Kurt Cobain was a white man with the backing of corporate label with all their fiduciary resources. Because we were all 16 years old at one point in our lives. Because Nevermind safely operates in known punk rock idioms. Because the album is more immediately palatable than Loveless or Spiderland or Goat. Because Nevermind is the best symbol for what most rock kids want to remember about the 90s. Because rockism as a critical posture has a frustrating amount of staying power. Because we keep telling ourselves that rock n roll will never die. Because we stubbornly refuse to believe that any other album released in that decade tells a better story about our culture than the triumphant story of a nasty little punk record blowing everyone’s minds. Because Kurt Cobain martyred himself with a shotgun blast to the face.
Other answers, of course, are exactly what we want to hear about Nevermind. That it is a great punk pop record brimming with piss and vinegar. That it is the most singular statement by one of the foremost songwriters of his generation. That “Drain You” is still among the most underrated album tracks in the band’s catalog. That the polish on the Grohl’s kit for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is still breathtaking. That the tubular riff of “Come as You Are” is still sounds as deep and blue as the pool water of the album’s iconic cover. That the mammoth riffage of “In Bloom” is still best encapsulates teen hormonal rage at every meathead with a locker full of football equipment. That “Lithium” might still be the best single the band ever released because the Pixies never perfected the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic with such Euclidian precision as Cobain and company. That while Nevermind certainly isn’t the best album of the 90s by a long shot—Ok Computer, Endtroducing…, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Exile in Guyville, The Low End Theory, Homogenic, The Soft Bulletin, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all easily best Nirvana’s grandest statement—it is still a searing document of punk rage and rock pathos and outcast wit.
And all of these answers are undoubtedly true in some way. But one of the larger points I want to make is that talking intelligently about Nevermind is kind of impossible because all the shit that attends this record—the superstardom, the punk mythology, the punk revisionist history, the fuck-all followup, the voice-of-a-generation bullabaloo, the waxing alt rock nation and the waning of cock rock, the misguided acolytes, the world-ending suicide—all of it prevents us from actually hearing the record anymore. I mean this is a pretty literal sense, too: actually hearing Nevermind is nearly impossible as actually watching Star Wars. The parallel here, I think, is obvious: these cultural artifacts, for all intents and purposes, do not exist as anything other than a repository of all our feelings about them. In other words, Nevermind exists only insofar as we continue to praise it. And as long as we keep telling ourselves stories about its greatness, the less we actually hear what we are praising in the first place. This is a problem because it’s ultimately an exercise in solipsism, telling us more about ourselves than about the subject of study itself.
I doubt many will agree with that Baudrillardean assertion that the album no longer exists in any recognizable form. And, in a way, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s true because, uh, here we are, celebrating Nevermind at a time when records like Nevermind are hopelessly unpopular. There’s still a nagging outstanding question on the table: why do we do this every five years?
The cynical take is this is simply what we do as a culture. We troop into the cemetery of pop culture and exhume our lost loves, propping them against their crypts, looking them dead in the eye and asking in all seriousness if they—the dead!—still speak to us in the way that they did when they fell. The dead don’t speak. We simply make the dead speak, and the voices coming out of Nevermind for the last 20 years have become increasingly unrecognizable.
The more optimistic view, I guess, is that we can still occasionally hear a note of it that registers loud enough to tower over the cultural hagiography that has surrounded Nirvana from the second that Kurt Loder appeared on MTV News, grave and grim, with news of Cobain’s death. Like any other cultural artifact whose legacy dwarfs its achievement, Nevermind can still find ways to speak to us above all the noise. By escaping near constant rotation on mainstream rock radio, songs like “Drain You” and “Lounge Act” have retained enough pop power to remind us that rock was once a viable prime mover. Moreover, these twelve songs stand head and shoulders above the work of contemporaries like Mudhoney and The Jesus Lizard. And Nirvana certainly outshines the pale imitators that would spontaneously generate for years to come.
If responsible criticism is a dialectic, then I’d like to propose a synthesis of the cynical thesis and the optimistic antithesis. There is a great record somewhere within the tangled mythology of Nevermind. Somewhere in there is a pop/punk hybrid that sounds slicker (and more mainstream) than most are comfortable admitting. Somewhere in there is a great record that would shine through if we just shut the fuck up about it. Somewhere in there is a great record that cannot be ignored because we refused to ignore it.
via No Genre