Summer 1991. Kurt Cobain, leader of the emerging band Nirvana who has just recorded his second album -the first with a multinational-, comes home to find his belongings packed in boxes on the street curb. You just got evicted for falling behind on your rent.
Just a few months later, in December, the album titled Nevermind It reaches the dizzying number of a million copies sold in the US alone. That young misfit, who that night in late July had slept in the car, had suddenly become a superstar of popular music.
The meteoric success of the second work of a semi-unknown band from Seattle still has something mysterious and inexplicable
How Cobain and Nirvana achieved that sudden success, one of the most extraordinary cases in the history of pop-rock, is still today, thirty years later, a true mystery. It is not that behind they did not have a powerful industry -although without extraordinary investments-, nor a different or original proposal that justifies it; But the level of connection that a trio that came from an alternative and marginal Seattle scene reached with the general American public – and later, worldwide – is still difficult to explain.
And it still lasts: considered the sixth best album in history according to Rolling Stone, Nevermind it was placed again in 2017 among the 200 best-selling albums of the moment. Right now the single Smells Like Teen Spirit It has more than 1 billion listeners on Spotify.
As in these cases, unraveling the myth from reality is difficult. Already then rivers of ink were written on how Nevermind It made a strong impact on teenagers in the early 1990s. The album, they said, was the soundtrack of a new lost generation, Generation X. And something is certain.
“There was a type of authenticity in what Nirvana transmitted with its music that connected with the anger that many young people of that generation did not know how to shape,” says David Aceituno, by age, one of those boys, and author of Kurt Cobain: A Biography (Random Comics, 2019). And he insists: “The riffs of Breed, the bass line of Come As You Are, the chorus of Smells Like Teen Spirit Or the cries of Cobain in Lithium they were in tune with adolescent nihilism, and still do ”.
5 curiosities of a mythical album
Kurt Cobain initially wanted to call the album ‘Sheep’ and use a field full of motorhomes as the cover image. However, the idea was discarded and ‘Nevermind’ was chosen, which would mean ‘it doesn’t matter’ even if spelled incorrectly.
In the process of recording the album, producer Butch Vig proposed to the singer to double his voice, which Cobain rejected as an artifice. Vig convinced him by assuring him that John Lennon did too. And, despite his punk origins, the leader of Nirvana admired the Beatles.
The sixth track on the album, ‘Polly’, contains one of the most famous mistakes in rock history. Cobain starts singing ‘Polly said …’ a measure earlier than he should. Despite the failure, the band decided to keep it.
The inclusion of a janitor during the famous video clip for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a tribute by Cobain to the work that he himself, then broke, did at his old high school.
The famous baby on the cover is Spencer Elden, the son of a friend of the photographer. The parents charged $ 200 for the inclusion of the child. Elden has recreated the mythical image up to two times, in 2008 and 2016, although both times wearing a swimsuit.
Here is the differential factor of Nevermind: an apparently magical element that explains an a priori inscrutable phenomenon. However, it was not just a telepathic connection with the public. There are also more mundane reasons that made the miracle possible. The recipe is simple: musical quality and a well-calculated release in the media.
For starters, there is the music. There was an excellent raw material that, beyond taste, few critics discuss: simple songs, but far from the most familiar conventions of pop, and with direct and heartbreaking lyrics.
Also, before Nevermind, Nirvana was already differentiated from the rest of the Seattle scene by a sound that combined the aggressiveness of punk, the harshness of hard rock and easy-to-sing melodies. The album managed to perfectly channel these three elements and serve them on a silver platter to a mass audience. Butch Vig’s production and subsequent Andy Wallace remix had a lot to do with it.
According to the one who was manager of the band Danny Goldberg in Remembering Kurt Cobain (Alianza Editorial, 2019), Cobain never opposed more commercial recording techniques, although he later disavowed them. In any case, that forceful but melodic sound at the same time did not resemble almost anything that was heard then on the most commercial radio stations and partly explains such a sudden irruption.
Beyond the magical connection with Generation X teens, a measured music production and promotion strategy also explain the phenomenon.
Indeed, Goldberg’s vision is interesting: in the face of the cliché of a Cobain who shied away from success; whoever was responsible for Nirvana’s jump to a major label insists that the group and its leader knew exactly what they wanted. On that, Aceituno adds that they may not be exclusive views. “It is deduced from his writings and from the testimony of his close ones that, on the one hand, Cobain was ambitious and wanted fame, but, on the other, the success he obtained was not exactly what he wanted. It is likely that his position as an antihero was a strategy, but that does not imply that he did not end up becoming a real antihero ”, he maintains.
Cobain probably struggled to succeed but never expected to sell 300,000 copies a week as it would end up in January 1992, when they ousted no less than Dangerous, of the king of pop Michael Jackson, of the lists of the best-selling albums. The myth was born: the music of the misfits, of the rarities, it could reach everyone.
In fact, Goldberg points out that something was changing already in those early 90s. The new generations began to hate the great pop artists and some had the nose to take advantage of it and look for alternatives. Therefore, beyond the magic of Cobain (and the musical elements), there was also marketing.
Without large investments, those responsible for DGC, a subsidiary of the powerful Geffen record company, knew how to sneak the shocking Smells Like Teen Spirit on rock, metal and pop radios across the country, which was audacious at a time of great audience fragmentation. But in all the stations he managed to attract more and more devotees. The success of the album is inseparable from the impact of its thunderous single.
And, of course, there was even more to do with the famous music video for the song, whose continuous late-night broadcast on MTV just swelled the fan lists overnight. Low budget clip, the idea came from Kurt Cobain himself, who imposed on the director, Sam Bayer, the inclusion of the final shot in which the leader of the band shouts “A denial!”Glued to the camera. It is impossible to know how much that deranged nihilist proclamation that closes the song contributed to capturing disoriented adolescents.
The landing of ‘grunge’
1991 is one of those years that are marked in the history of popular mass music. The Nirvana explosion brought a new genre to the general public. Two other great albums appeared under that same label: ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam and ‘Badmotorfinger’ by Soundgarden. It may sound unfair but both bands, emerging from the prolific Seattle scene, owe their success to the inexplicable pull of ‘Nevermind’.
But, there was life beyond ‘grunge’. Other great albums of the moment were ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica’s ‘Black Album’, REM’s ‘Out of Time’ or Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’. Although of different genres, all these albums have something in common: they emerged from alternative currents and landed in commercial music with force. Different and aggressive sounds were making their way for a new generation.
The inheritance in 2021
After thirty years, the period in which it is usually fixed that a generation lasts; What is left of Smells Like Teen Spirit, of the Nevermind, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, beyond the generational myth? Has the biggest emergence of pop-rock and one of the best albums in history really left their mark?
If one reviews the most popular trends of today, it would be said that not so much. Neither music nor aesthetics grunge They seem to be very much in vogue, although that could even extend to the entire rock universe. In addition, it is legitimate to wonder if a sudden success of similar characteristics would be possible in 2021.
However, popular culture is still like geological layers that are superimposed and the influence of Nirvana and, in particular, of the Nevermind, continues to inspire in all kinds of disciplines. This is the case of the writer Miguel Aguerralde, a prolific author who did not hesitate to resort to the universe of Cobain and his family to novelize, of course, the confusion of the adolescent stage in The girl who heard songs by Kurt Cobain (Seven islands, 2016).
Aguerralde, who also experienced the rise of the Nevermind, is clear about the reason for his inspiration: “Nirvana and, in general, the grungeThey stand out for their abrupt, almost angry and sometimes confusing sound ”. In his opinion, the “high distortions” and “simple melodies” alternate with other songs of “slow time, dark and melancholic”. “Anger, sadness, suddenly bustle and joy … Isn’t that adolescence?” He proclaims.
Rough, angry, confused, dark sound … Isn’t that adolescence?
But the universe grunge It is not only a field for nostalgic people and it continues to influence those who did not experience it. Kobbe, drummer for the emerging Madrid indie band Niña Polaca, tells of his devotion to Nirvana beyond the pop icon. Born the same year that Kurt Cobain committed suicide, she is almost certain that her first experience with the Seattle band was precisely the clip of Smells Like Teen Spirit and see in the grunge a great influence on his musical day-to-day life, especially “seeing how they beat the instruments with that harrowing and catchy energy”.
Nevermind strikes, adds Kobbe, by the contrast between “the force and those catchy melodies” that are “pop, at the same time with an anti-pop attitude”. And is that the grunge It represents, he concludes, “the part of each one in which he wants to scream without caring about anything”. Exactly, it doesn’t matter.
From the album, I am amazed by the strength, those catchy melodies and, in a way, pop, but with an anti-pop attitude
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legacy of the album that did matter