Could Another Album Capture the World’s Imagination Like Nirvana’s “Nevermind”?

(Note: I was going to use the original album cover, but I read somewhere that Facebook banned it.)

 

Spin recently put an issue solely devoted to the 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. There were numerous tributes by musicians and artist who talked about how the album influenced their lives.

I was nine when the album was released, so I was too young to realize its significance at the time. I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from my older brother when he returned home from college and I thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever heard. The guitars screamed from the speakers and yet there was a catchiness to it that couldn’t be denied. Even though I had no idea what the lyrics were, but I knew the song was special.

But its true impact was lost on me. I had no idea that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ignited a revolution, and broke punk rock in the mainstream.  In the following months, Pearl Jam was the band that seemed to be everywhere.  I read the issue of Time Magazine with Eddie Vedder on the front while waiting for my mother in the doctor’s office.

In the years since, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Nevermind. On a purely musical level, I find it to be over-rated. Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song and anthem, but the album seems to be cluttered way too many half-baked songs.  The ones that do work for me – “Drain You” and “Lounge Act”  – only seem good in comparison to the lackluster ones and are drowned out by the greatness of “Teen Spirit”.

That being said, I can’t deny Nevermind’s significance. Everybody had a copy of that album and got caught up in its energy. Even rap-stars such as Chuck D and Lil Wayne had professed their love for Nevermind. It really did get the world excited, proving that music can be a force for change and a form of catharsis for an alienated generation.

Millions of identified with Cobain because he seemed like a nobody who achieve greatness. In the late 70s and 80s rock had become too flashy and the lyrics became unidentifiable to many. Bon Jovi may have had massive success, but the big-hair and excessive left many feeling cheated. This was rock and roll to have a good time to, but if you were looking for something more, hair-bands weren’t going to offer it.

Cobain looked and acted like the guy next door. His hair was a mess; he wore Chuck Taylors, and dyed his hair different colors. And like Bob Dylan, he proved to a mass audience that you don’t have to be a technically good singer to make people get inside the songs.  On the outside, Cobain was everybody.

20 years later, and Nevermind might the last album that became a rallying cry and had an impact outside of the musical landscape. No album since then has the same influence across the board.

Could a new Nevermind capture the current world’s imagination? Spin suggests that the reason for Nevermind’s success had to do with the anger of the youth, and the conservative swing of Reagan-era America. If that were all it took (and a damn good band and a couple of great songs), surely this new musical revolution would have already happened. The world seems in a worse place than it has in years, and people are pissed at the economy, the war, and many other things.  As the country gears up for another election, it seems more divide than ever. Just look at the recent Debt Crisis talks. Our leaders  -the ones who are supposed to be in charge can’t agree on anything.

So much has changed in the last twenty years that is sometimes hard to comprehend how far we’ve come. The Internet barely existed in 1991, and CDs still sold well. The combination of the Internet’s presence and the lack of CD sales would make it extremely hard for an album to galvanize a generation the way Nevermind did.

People looked to Kurt Cobain because he expressed sentiments that they didn’t know they felt. As the Internet gave birth to blogs, suddenly everyone who didn’t have a voice was able to post their thoughts instantly. Who needs someone to express your thoughts for you, if you can show the world exactly what is on your mind?

As digital albums climb, and sales of CDs decline, the sentimental value also drowns. It’s harder to be attached to something – emotionally or physically – if there’s only a file. Numerous articles have stated that more people listen to music than ever before. But we’re not sitting listening absorbing it. IPods might be convenient, but music has become something to put on in the background whether it’s while running or riding a subway. Putting on a whole record and taking in the artistry of a song has become something for music obsessives and teenage “freaks”.

The emotional attachment to a song might become a thing of the past.

There have been some artists and artists since Nevermind that have achieved a legendary status beyond the music. Yet they’ve never managed to leap into the cultural stratosphere. Radiohead’s Kid A, while love by hard-core and critics, is too cold and atmospheric.  Kanye West is too polarizing and controversial, despite having a string of brilliant albums. Lady Gaga comes close as a voice for the LGBT community, but it’s still hard for some to take a pop artist seriously.

All of this makes the success of Nevermind even more perplexing. There’s no doubt that it came out at the right time and right place. But no one was betting on it to change the world when it came out, least of all Nirvana. Change like that can’t be predicted, and maybe the next musical revolution will happen when an artist isn’t even trying. Or maybe it already has occurred and no one has noticed.

As Cobain would say, “Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.”

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10 thoughts on “Could Another Album Capture the World’s Imagination Like Nirvana’s “Nevermind”?

  1. Kevin

    Nice post. One thing I’d add: Nirvana never breaks through without a lot of help from MTV. Back in the early 90s, a flashy video getting tons of play on MTV was invaluable (as were VMAs, Newsbreak promos, and an Unplugged appearance). Take MTV out of the equation and Nirvana probably never makes it out of Seattle clubs to a national audience; neither, for that matter, does grunge in general.

    1. Matt Satterfield

      Yeah I should have mentioned MTV. That was a definite break-through. The video of “Teen Spirit” captured a lot people’s feelings and is so iconic. Especially image-wise, MTV help too.. It also doesn’t hurt that Nevermind is a pretty slick record.

      1. Janna

        Speaking of that video…have you seen the clip of KC talking about the making of it? I know it’s up on MTV.com now. Interesting hearing a musician talk about the creation of a video. I guess I just figured that they didn’t have a lot of say in what shape the video took, but I learned from that clip that KC actually did some of the editing himself because he wasn’t satisfied with it initially. I had no idea.

        Matt- how old were you in 1991? I was 11. The album was very important to me…but I didn’t really find Nirvana until I was 13 or 14. KC’s death screwed me up like whoa. I will never forget that. It was Spring Break during 8th grade. I’d just fallen in love with him and his music and then…he was gone. I felt abandoned, but I still loved him all the same. And I guess that’s the thing…as much as we all loved the music…we loved *him* even more, I think. Or at least, what we felt he represented for us. To this day, I can’t look into those eyes without an emotional response. Pictures of Frances get to me, too.

        -Janna
        http://www.hifilives.com

        1. Matt Satterfield Post author

          MTV.com has dug up a lot of cool videos from Nirvana over the past few weeks. It’s really wild to look back at that – Cobain was definitely the last of a dying breed. Besides the music, he always involved in a lot of the bands images as well…I believe he had a hand in the cover for “Nevermind” as well. I also remember reading somewhere that he used to say stuff like “if you dislike gay people then we don’t want you to buy our records”. That always struck me as such a cool thing to say, but also brave in a way.

          I was 9 when “Nevermind” came out (though my birthday is December so I would have turned 10 by the end of the year). I first remember hearing “Teen Spirit” from my older brother when he came back from college and it was the coolest thing. I guess I didn’t really “get” them until “In Utero” came out and I remember being disappointed by his death because i just found out what everybody was talking about.

          I’m interested in hearing the original mix of “Nevermind”. While the music is great, sometimes I feel it’s a little too slick for the sound they were creating. (Not to say I dislike the album by any means.) Maybe that’s why I like “Live at Reading” a lot. It’s the same songs but played with a wild abandon that the album only hinted at.

  2. Sean

    Wow, 20 years old. This came out just as I graduated college. Remember that there was a recession in 1990-1991 and may of us young uns weren’t finding jobs. Lots of anger in nirvana, and it echoed the times. Could put Beck’s Loser in the same category. Anger, then bitterness, then f it never mind.

    Not sure about the MTV connection. At least for me and my cohorts MTV was passé by ’89.

    1. Matt Satterfield

      But then again you were listening to alternative before Nirvana, right? Kevin might be right about MTV for those who didn’t know this muss existed MTV opened up whole new doors. I suppose Nevermind’s true impact is lost on me because I didn’t live through it. Unplugged is still their best though.

  3. Sean

    Yes, Unplugged was their best. Unplugged was also MTVs swan song. Just disagree on the impact of MTV at that time for new artists. Certainly was not anywhere close to the impact of the early 80s, with Madonna and Duran Duran, etc.

    Funny you couldn’t post the cover–I remember that the record stores had well placed stickers (“New Artist!!!”) over the offending member.

  4. JC40

    Of course, they’ll be another collection of songs with the impact of Nevermind. Every generation asks this question – except its about the album they think has had the most impact. I doubt the decline in physical CDs, etc will impact this. Its just too bad that the internet exposes local music scenes to a mass audience before those scenes can really develop their own sound or quality. Liverpool in the early 60s and Seatle in the late 80s — this all happen in relative isolation.

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