Happy 25th Anniversary to Nirvana’s Nevermind, originally released September 24, 1991.
“At a friend’s house sitting on a roof.” “Cruising around with friends, or while into some type of juvenile hijinks.” “Watching MTV’s 120 Minutes.” “…[W]orking in the back of Gingiss Formalwear when my coworker brought the cassette tape in to listen to.” “In my bedroom in my parent’s house, sprawled out across my floor with the same ugly carpet they didn’t take out until I moved out.” “[In] my cousins room, [who] had just gotten the CD. I remember laughing at the cover. [I was in the] 5th grade.”
Where were you when you first heard Nirvana’s Nevermind?
After asking this icebreaking question to nearly 50 people whom I know in some capacity—from childhood friends to recent acquaintances—I discovered that most of them remember where they were the moment they heard songs from the musical monolith that changed the musical landscape forever. For better or for worse, four chords and a stigmatizing chorus eviscerated hair metal, cock rock, and boy bands for more than half a decade.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” tore open the thin veil between the Heavens and us, finding redemption in destruction, illuminating the truth with an arson’s blaze. What came before it slipped into oblivion. What came with it was a communal embrace linking us in the way religions once had. What came after it—scrunge’s Better Than Ezra, Silverchair, Sponge, Goo Goo Third Eye Matchbox Blind Dolls 20 bullshit that watered down the golden ethos Nevermind had purified before and after it. For every Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mudhoney, there was a Bush, Filter, Creed, and Blink 182.
However, I come to praise Nevermind, not bury it with all the unintentionally generated dreck feasting from its brilliance like a syphilitic host. No, brothers and sisters, today we reminisce in its grandeur and its flaws, its blessings and its curses, and its hair-trigger impact and its repercussive effects it had on each one of us.
And most significantly, the praises for Nirvana’s culture-shaping masterpiece come from the entire fabric of America’s identity: soldiers, Mormons, gender neutral individuals, artists, mothers, fathers, children, teenagers, Generation X-ers, Millennials, Baby Boomers, sisters, brothers, adopted sons and daughters, teachers, entrepreneurs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, gay, lesbian, straight, Southerners, Midwesterners, Yankees, white, black, Latino, Latina, Asian. American.
“’Holy crap! What is this?’ was pretty much my initial thought,” Jeremy Hart, 43, reflects when asked about his initial reaction to hearing the single that launched a million bands, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “I’d spent most of high school listening to either hip-hop or metal, attempting—and failing miserably—to emulate people like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai on guitar, and then along came this song, which didn’t give a shit about any of the guitar-god stuff.”
“It made me want to go apeshit,” Michelle Yue, 26, remarks. “I’m pretty sure I started a band within a month after hearing it.”
Not everyone responded viscerally and positively to the track. “I don’t remember thinking it was particularly special at the time,” Ross Pollack, 44, comments. Pollack is not alone in his sentiments. They did not do anything brand new. Punk luminaries like Sex Pistols/P.I.L.’s John Lydon thought of the band as a “record company’s ploy to rephrase punk in a manufacturable way.” Even Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, told Rolling Stone that she did not like her father’s music. Between Pollack, Lydon, and Cobain’s daughter exists a generational divide. Lydon helped to establish the music Cobain revered whereas Frances Bean, a Millennial, possesses affection for Mercury Rev and Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Undeniably, Nevermind’s lead single’s asteroid-like impact continues today. “I know I liked it a lot after the first time I listened to it,” Miguel Carrasco, 20, recounts. “I kept listening to it every day. When I was listening to it, I had no idea it was Nirvana’s ‘masterpiece’ or ‘breakout record.’ I loved how melodious it was. I knew it was beautiful.”
“I didn’t understand how this song, which repeated randomly strung together words, without Michael Stipe’s enigmatic delivery, and with production that seemed sanded down into a typical rock song was one of the greatest songs ever,” Maxwell Metyko, 19, wonders. “He was just screaming ‘mullato, albino’ at one point. Now, I look at it as [something often imitated], a sort of proto-‘Cannonball’ by the Breeders, with all [of] its hooks.”
Where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” enthralled some, leaving others bewildered or indifferent, for others, Nevermind embodied more than just their initiatory offering. The twelve other prokaryotic lifeforms that followed, including the silent prelude of “Something in the Way” to “Endless, Nameless,” meant more to the masses who embraced them.
“Lithium—my sister attempted suicide right around that time,” Keri, 35, laments.
“Two that I can’t separate: ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Lithium,’” Terry Suprean, 36, points out. “I thought the name was actually kind of thought provoking, and I liked how it was able to be intensely noise and deeply melodic at the same time.”
“’Something in the Way’ was my favorite track,” Brian Eley, 28, recalls. “The contrast to the rest of the album was so stark. The rest of the album felt kind of manic and hectic and aimlessly angry, which was a new feeling for me. Going from [‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’] to ‘Something in the Way’ made me understand a depth to the rest of the album and to the mindset that made the album so powerful to me.”
Like a collection of short stories under the threadbare blanket of common themes, each song shares something different. “Come As You Are” poses as an ironic report on the myth of individuality. Most of the words are soaked in clichés and bromides: “The choice is yours,” “As a friend” and “Take your time.” Each phrase emptier than the next creates angst for the narrator. Offered as words of comfort, these familiar lines generate anxiety.
Those who have ever taken Lithium know the mood stabilizer’s personality-altering effects. Although the song “Lithium” maintains dark humor within the lines “I’m so horny but that’s okay / My will is good,” the speaker in the song is a truly tragic figure. Misunderstood and marginalized, the speaker has found friends, but they’re in his/her head. The speaker shaves his or her head, and in spite of not being sad, bears guilt for everything said about them. For those suffering from bipolar disorder, Sunday morning is every day. Kurt Cobain at once becomes the spokesperson for this marginalized hero who cracks regardless of their affirmative attempt not to.
“When I was an alien / Cultures weren’t opinions” seethes Cobain over Dave Grohl’s precise, mechanical destruction of his kit and Krist Novoselic’s bottomless bassline like a black hole tearing open inside the cosmos. Songs like “Territorial Pissings,” “In Bloom,” and “Polly” discussed subjects from the point of view of the victim and the assailant. Hearing the opening line of “Polly,” “Polly wants a cracker / I think I should get off her first,” isn’t meant to be a 30,000-person sing-along at 1992’s Reading Festival, but it becomes just that. “In Bloom” speaks for the bored kid who hungers for more than shooting his gun and singing all the pretty songs. Cobain wraps the enervated soul in the myth of mastering his own destiny. The song, memorably set to the Ed Sullivan black-and-white backdrop, mocks and, at the same time, sympathizes, with the character’s disaffection for life.
Oddly, Nevermind’s influence and reach is far more difficult to characterize than it was when it reared its lovely misshapen head. “I think it was definitely a gateway to the music I currently like,” Claudia Morales, 20, reflects. “It was formative to me as an early teen, even if I never got into the cult of Cobain, or I never wore a Nirvana smiley face tee until it faded. I remember playing ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Drain You’ on different Rock Band video games, watching the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ music video on TV, and lying in bed staring at the ceiling while listening to the likes of ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium.’ I can trace the stylistic path lines that led me from Nirvana to Joy Division to Bauhaus (I ended up settling comfortably for Joy Division and New Order; Bauhaus is an occasional listening experience).”
“Nevermind helped me as a musician to appreciate that less is more, and that ‘hooks’ can be heavy and rich with the right sonics applied and a spontaneous moment in performance captured [during] recording,” Anthony June, 40, recalls.
“It was the first major shift in the status quo for accepted and popular music that I can recall,” Chris Cashman, 40, says. “Though I ultimately prefer Bleach to Nevermind, Nevermind’s success was very significant. Seeing the public attracted to something that would have previously held no public attention forced a re-evaluation of the limitations placed upon us musically, as well as other areas, and quite possibly impacted and shaped my life significantly because [of it].”
“I was more of a Pearl Jam fan publicly because they seemed more socially acceptable for my young age. But Kurt Cobain scared me—in a good way,” Julie Grinsfelder, 34, declares.
Of course, Cobain terrified some of us. But he edified us, too. He introduced us to Scotland’s The Vaselines through the band’s complimentary covers of “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” and “Molly.” He lauded the Wipers and showed us how they influenced the music he crafted, now bearing the commercial label of “Grunge.” His favorite band was The Raincoats. He introduced the world outside of Austin to Daniel Johnston, wearing the great songwriter’s Hi, How Are You album cover on a t-shirt in one of their Rolling Stone features.
Many of us came to those and many other artists through him. He helped us to appreciate music we may have otherwise never heard, or if we did, dismissed. Cobain showed us through his own interpretation of their songs their significance. Today, social media, streaming music sites, and Google does this for us. How much more meaningful was it for us to be educated by him than some algorithm assuming what we might, or might not, like.
Nevermind made us question everything before it, everything during it and everything after it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just the beginning. It forced the record industry to take risks, and most of those risks failed. The risks that reaped rewards were bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, L7, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hole, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Gen-X’s entire CD collection. They liberated, and their liberation led to our discoveries of new musical landscapes tainted only by locals with worn 7” copies and unmarked cassette tapes.
Nirvana’s Nevermind reintroduced us to The Beatles. The melodies beneath the murkiness presented alluring moments, and behind the mask of distortion were arrangements paying homage at times to the Fab Four, especially during repeated listens of “In Bloom” and “Drain You.” Their arrangements displayed hints, resembling The Beatles in spirit. Cobain’s restrained vocal moments exhibit this during “Polly” and “Something in the Way,” the latter not just because of the harmonies between Grohl and Cobain, but the sadder moments found in The Beatles’ White Album on songs like “Julia” and “Cry Baby Cry.”
Were there other bands that could have made a similar, or even greater, impact than Nirvana’s Nevermind? Opinions on this subject vary just as much as the significance of other bands emerging around the time of The Beatles:
“Had Mudhoney or the Melvins received the same amount of airplay, I think they could have.” – Ross Pollack
“Nobody else was writing these fire songs with this much energy and originality.” – Michelle Yue
“I'm not sure. I think the circumstances surrounding Cobain's death definitely amplified the significance of the band years down the road, but at the time of Nevermind's release, they still made a huge impact.” – Claudia Morales
“Something was inevitably bound to break through and if not Nevermind then it would have been one of the songs which followed. If you can say that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ paved the way for other popular songs by ‘grunge’ bands then any of those songs could have just as easily done it. Popularity in music is largely a crapshoot.” – Joshua Macala
However, Keri strikes the chord in most of us who continue to live with the album in the present:
“Nevermind is like coming home. Something about Kurt's talent translated to his music. He could address so many issues and make it all okay.”