Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ turns 20

Eli Watson

Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that catapulted the grunge movement into the mainstream and steamrolled pop music in 1991, turned 20 this weekend. To commemorate the album’s legacy, Universal Music Enterprises has issued a deluxe edition that promises to delve deeper into the mythology of Nevermind, an album that Rolling Stone Magazine has regarded as one of the “greatest albums of all time.”

Why is this though? Why do Dave Grohl’s roaring drums, Krist Noveselic’s punk-laced riffs and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics of alienation, angst and animosity towards the “rock star” aesthetic still linger on well after Generation X has faded away?

Jon Stewart, in his discussion with former Nirvana bandmates Grohl and Noveselic and Nevermind producer Butch Vig, sums it up perfectly. “It had everything — sonic menace, melody, urgency, irony. It was like The Beatles had swallowed Black Flag.” Those who know that The Beatles and Black Flag are at completely different sides of the music spectrum would probably denounce this statement as foolish, but if you look back at Nirvana before the days of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can see that Cobain was the medium between the two.”

Cobain had always been into pop. His aunt Mari would give him Beatles records, and even in his posthumously-released journals, he called John Lennon his “idol.” So it comes as no surprise that “About a Girl” was the result of listening to Meet The Beatles! for three hours. “But I can see you every night, for free,” sang Cobain over jangly pop chords that, as producer Butch Vig states was “the first hint that there was more to Nirvana than grunge.” Although “About a Girl” was the diamond in the rough off of Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, songs such as “Negative Creep” were the crusty, punk jewels that would reflect Cobain’s desire to channel the inner rebel in himself.

Behind chugging riffs and dark tones was Cobain’s distorted voice as he yelled “I’m a negative creep,” the anger and frustration behind the lyrics leaving your head spinning. “Negative Creep” was the demented, rebellious counterpart to the melodic and sweet “About a Girl.” Cobain’s journey was barely beginning and it would be this challenge to
combine both sides of the spectrum that would ultimately lead to Cobain’s success and demise.

Fast forward to 1991 when Nirvana’s Nevermind is released, featuring the hit single, teen revolution anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Due to the success of the song and its video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an instant hit on MTV and contributed to Nirvana’s breaking out into the mainstream. Say goodbye to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous and hello to Nirvana’s Nevermind.

“It was shocking to be famous,” said Noveselic in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “Then, of course, there was Kurt, who was thrust into being the spokesman of a generation.”

Three nobodies triumphed over the King of Pop. How were the underdogs of the grunge movement able to pull the rug from under one of music’s biggest artist? The answer is not that simple, but we can look to Cobain’s constant battle with pop sensibilities and the punk aesthetic as the means of an answer.

Looking towards influences like Pixies and label mates Sonic Youth as sources of inspiration, Cobain was slowly drifting away from his past influences, intrigued by bands that incorporated dynamic contrast and were more melodic. Along with Pixies and Sonic Youth, R.E.M. became a large contributor to Cobain’s growth as a musician.

“I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest,” said Cobain in an interview with Rolling Stone, months before his death in 1994. R.E.M.’s influence on Cobain can be heard in Nevermind’s “Come as You Are” and “Lithium.” Fluid and enticing, each song was a beautiful display of dynamic manipulation as they would start off quiet and subtle, only to end with resonance and power.

You can see this same formula in mainstream music today. Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” starts with a soft verse, only to grow into a powerful wave of guitar and drums. Even hip-hop prince Lil’ Wayne, who was a Nirvana fan growing up, follows a similar routine in “Lollipop,” where his rhymes are backed by minimal electronic sounds that grow into explosive, pulsating beats. Dynamics and volume would become a huge part of Nevermind’s success, especially with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The soft melodies and Cobain’s guttural, low vocals clashing against Grohl’s roaring drums and Noveselic’s piercing bass lines formed to create something that was ahead of its time. It managed to bring together Cobain’s growing taste in music with that of his past influences. You still get The Beatles’ verse-chorus-verse pop formula, but you also get the dynamic manipulations of Pixies and the hard, anarchic sound of Black Flag. “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” said Cobain in the Rolling Stone interview.

Nevermind did what no other album was able to do during the 1990s: bring in both sides of the rock music spectrum. Most of the songs on the album are written in a way to where each melody can be hummed and easily memorized.

“I remember being in the sixth grade and Nevermind was a really popular album,” said UT History of Rock professor Benjamin Krakauer. “Kurt Cobain was a pop icon. A lot of kids wanted to look like him, dress like him and play guitar like him.”

The battle that Cobain faced wanting to encompass his pop and punk sides fueled the album into what it is known as today. From the lyrical content to the musicianship, you can hear, see and feel Cobain’s desire to master that middle ground. Nevermind bridged the gap between pop and punk, resulting in a masterpiece that still resonates with people today.

“I think Nevermind made disillusioned young people feel empowered, even heroic in the angst of their teenage experience,” Krakauer said. “The music was really fresh and clear, and that is why people have continued to enjoy it.”

Printed on September 29, 2011 as: "Nevermind" celebrates 20 years with re-release