NIRVANA ARE THE sensation of 1991. Their single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ shot straight into the UK Top Ten and is now number seven after an insurrectionary live appearance on Top Of The Pops last week. In their native America, the album Nevermind has sold more than 750,000 copies in a few months. It took Guns N’ Roses a year to do that with Appetite For Destruction.
But Nevermind is a classic punk LP in the tradition of The Stooges’ Funhouse, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks and Black Flag’s Damaged. Logically, it should have destined Nirvana for cult status. Nobody can quite figure out how it’s made them one of the world’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll bands.
Maybe Nirvana just got their timing right. Their inchoate, often incoherent rage has struck a chord – a fuzz-heavy power-chord – with the disaffected twentysomething generation, often accused of being directionless, apathetic and politically inert.
Nirvana certainly have the scruffy, shaggy look of ‘slackers’ (US slang for twentysomethings). Kurt Cobain (voice and guitar) and Chris Novoselic (bass) formed the band after dropping out of art school. Nirvana have the twentysomething attitude, too, a mix of faithlessness and idealism.
The cover of Nevermind encapsulates their world-view: a naked baby swimming underwater is confronted by a dollar bill on a fish hook, luring him to abandon his uterine paradise for the “world of criminals”.
The image also expressed Nirvana’s ambivalence about signing to major label Geffen. Their 1989 debut LP Bleach was released by Sub Pop, the indie label associated with America’s Northwest coast hard-rock scene that spawned Nirvana and other grungy, long-hair bands such as Mudhoney and Soundgarden.
Sub Pop sees itself as the lone guardian of the tradition of primitive rebel rock. Musically, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a glorious resurrection of that juvenile dementia. But lyrically it is confused, vacillating between the fury of the chorus “here we are now, entertain us/how stupid and contagious” and the fatigued fatalism of “I found it hard, so hard to find, oh well, whatever, nevermind”.
Cobain says the song is about feeling “disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” The song burns with a vague desire for revolution, an urge to create “a new generation gap”. But that desire is held in check by the title’s irony. Nirvana are bitterly aware that they are in an industry that routinely turns teen spirit into a commodity.
Most of the songs on Nevermind are “outcries of confusion about love and not understanding relationships.”. ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Breed’ deal with “reproduction”, revealing another twentysomething trait: the fear of emotional commitment. ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come As You Are’ are sung by characters who’ve been pushed from over the edge into psychosis. ‘Polly’ is a song about rape that manages to make you feel sorry for victim and violator.
What’s great about Nirvana is that they offer the aggression and visceral impact of hard rock, without the machismo. They’re masculine but vulnerable. In interview, Nirvana come over as right-on chaps – pro-feminist, anti-jingoist, anti-militarist, anti-materialist et al.
But they’re not political in the agitpop sense. They vent their fury and bewilderment without recourse to slogans or rhetoric. Perhaps the secret of their success is that their rage is unspecific enough to provide a catch-all catharsis that appeals across the political spectrum.
Nirvana are aware that there’s a danger that some fans won’t notice the subtitles but merely get off on the surface violence. ‘In Bloom’ pokes savage fun at one such reactionary, who “loves all our songs / and he loves to sing along/And he loves to shoot his gun/But he don’t know what it means’.
It’s the perennial dilemma of crossover; whether it’s better to lurk safely in the womb-like security of indie cult-hood, or make a change and risk being misunderstood or corrupted.
© Simon Reynolds, The Observer, 8 December 1991