Nirvana's Nevermind Album At 27: The Album That Influenced A Decade
It’s hard to quantify the impact that Nirvana’s Nevermind album had on the musical landscape. My knowledge of popular genres and the time periods they belong to is fairly standard and if I hear a song, I can probably nail the decade it was produced on based on the tone of the instruments used. Nevermind and the grunge movement that sprung up from the album’s release represents an anomaly, and that’s precisely what makes it so important.
The late 1980’s was filled to the brim with synth-pop and the kind of rock/pop music your mum and dad would play at a party like Phil Collins or Bryan Adams. The kind of clean, nothing-to-say tracks you’d expect to find on the soundtrack to Top Gun or The Lost Boys. The alt-genre giants like Aerosmith and Guns N Roses might have led outrageous off-stage lifestyles, but in terms of the music they produced, it was like fast food. Greasy, bland and easy to sell to the general public. When the bands and genres that claim to be for society’s outcasts and underdogs are packaged and marketed in a way that means you can find their albums at the local supermarket instead of the local record store, where can those who feel like society condescends to them go?
Turning their backs on the clean production and tight craftsmanship of early 1990’s radio-friendly rock music, lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl opted to use detuned instruments and honest lyrics to create a sound drenched in reverb, sludge, and neurotic sentiment. The riffs used in Come As You Are and Smells Like Teen Spirit are up there with some of the most famous of all time – and the latter could be included in a playlist of tracks that I would call “Beginner’s Guide to Rock Music” alongside Walk This Way, Johnny B Goode, Welcome to the Jungle and Smoke on the Water. That’s how far Nirvana has penetrated into our cultural memory.
The band also hold the distinction of successfully surviving, and then subsequently killing, the notorious Seattle underground scene, where going mainstream or “selling out” would have led to a mass desertion of their fan base.
– Sam Brookes
In much the same way that emo, metalcore and hip-hop came to define the rise of the Millennial, the rise of grunge that followed in the wake of the album’s release signalled the start of Generation X’s reign over popular culture. Babyboomers bid goodbye to their reign over popular culture with their leopard print silk shirts, trousers rolled up over white socks and family-friendly sitcoms. They looked on in horror, as teenagers started wearing cardigans, long shaggy hair, flannel shirts, ripped jeans and influenced the plots and characters of neurotic comedies like Seinfeld and Friends. The teenagers of this generation were fed up with everything and Nirvana knew just how they felt.
The band also hold the distinction of successfully surviving, and then subsequently killing, the notorious Seattle underground scene, where going mainstream or “selling out” would have led to a mass desertion of their fan base. Bands like Blink 182 and Bring Me The Horizon wouldn’t have survived the move away from the sound that hooked their original fans if Nirvana hadn’t done it first. That hipster element of “I liked them before everyone else did” still exists, but Nirvana empowered bands and their fans to just roll their eyes and crack on regardless.
By the end of the 90’s, nu metal and rap rock was beginning to raise its head, and would arguably be the alt-genre that dominated that sound of the decade. To me, grunge feels like a footnote in musical history as opposed to its own full-blown era. Nirvana’s shadow eclipses nearly every other band from the genre, with only a few bands like Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains escaping (name me one of their songs, cause I can’t without googling them. I just remember them from The Simpsons).
Nevermind opened the minds of the industry powers and those who were happy to stick to the bland sound of the radio, to new musical possibilities. That is truly iconic.
– Sam Brookes
The genre has never experienced a revival either nor did it return to its underground roots like thrash and punk has. Bands like Basement, Superheaven and Turnover borrow elements from the genre, but those elements fall under definitions like shoegaze and punk which were the genres Nirvana borrowed from in the first place. Instead, the grunge movement appears to have largely disappeared or been absorbed into other genres and movements.
I’m not 100% sure you can call Nevermind a masterpiece. When I listen to the vinyl, the A side is definitely the killer, whilst the B side is the filler. There’s elements of the radio-friendly grunge sound, as well as the experimentalism that made their follow-up In Utero so divisive. For me, the true value of Nevermind lies in what the album did to the music industry. Buzzwords like indie and alternative don’t put artists in confining boxes nowadays. Instead, artists like Lorde, My Chemical Romance and Mac Demarco have owned those labels and turned them into a career. Nevermind opened the minds of the industry powers and those who were happy to stick to the bland sound of the radio, to new musical possibilities. That is truly iconic.