90's Hit Parade #1
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
OK, first of all, no, this isn't actually my favorite song released between January 1990 and December 1999. But it's a great song, it makes my list, and where else could I put it? Can you imagine making a list of 70's songs and putting "Stairway to Heaven" at #8? No, with a song like this, you either have to have the guts to leave it off, or commit to putting it at #1.
And I've been, over the years, as much a naysayer as any punk rock snob about Nirvana's importance. I see them more as a band who was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. If anyone gets the credit, I'd go with Jane's Addiction, for putting on Lollapalooza. It was that tour in the summer of 1991, and the hefty bags of cash it generated, that convinced the big labels that there was gold in them thar indie bands. Whomever the next "alternative" band signed to a major label with a great single was, they were going to get the push from their label that had been denied their predecessors, and they would likely have a hit. Given the same circumstances at an earlier time, it could have been Sonic Youth with "Teenage Riot," or the Pixies with "Debaser," or Dinosaur Jr. with "Freak Scene," or Husker Du with "Makes No Sense At All," or maybe even Soul Asylum with "Sometime to Return." As it happened, Nirvana were signed to Geffen (thank you, Sonic Youth, for engineering that situation), and had Nevermind in the can, so it was Nirvana who walked into that breach.
But "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is still probably a better candidate than any of those songs. It has a physical force that none of them can match. "Teen Spirit" rocks like The Who's "My Generation," or Alice Cooper's "Schools Out," or The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," or whatever your example of a song that rocks is. It's simply one of the great kick-down-the-door, we-are-HERE-motherfucker! album openers ever recorded.
It's strange, when I think back to hearing the song on WUOG in those first weeks of late September-early October 1991, it almost seems like two different songs. It sounded so raw and powerful, so unlike the tired, heard-a-million-times classic rock track I hear now (as I said earlier, I strongly associated it at the time with "Jesus Built My Hotrod"). Then it slowly started playing on the rock and pop stations, which actually didn't surprise me. I figured it was a fluke, but "Teen Spirit" is such a commercial song, how could it not be a hit? For comparison, a few years earlier Living Colour had a huge hit with "Cult of Personality," which, whatever else you think about it, is a much more unconventional song than "Teen Spirit." In fact, earlier in 1991, Nine Inch Nails were getting plenty of airplay with "Head Like a Hole," also much more sonically radical than "Teen Spirit." (The Red Hot Chili Peppers, at almost the exact moment as Nirvana, had a significant his with "Give it Away" and a huge smash with "Under the Bridge," but since the latter is a soaring ballad influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and maybe Elton John, we don't count it.) The moment when I realized something was up--and I remember this very clearly--was when I was driving out of town, listening to the radio--not one of the college stations, not even 96 Rock, but Power 99, the top 40 station (which, in a few years, would transform into 99X, the "alternative rock" powerhouse)--and I heard "Lithium," a song with a chorus that's basically just Cobain screaming. And I said to myself, "what the fuck?"
Every now and then you'll hear someone tell you that Nirvana's best album is Bleach, their 1989 debut. Look, I'm prone to dropping "I liked their early stuff" as frequently as anyone, and especially with hard/garage punk bands, but that's just silly. Bleach is a good, solid punkish hard rock record, but consider the field in the late 80's: Fugazi, The Pixies, Pussy Galore, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and probably plenty more that I'm forgetting, were all hitting their artistic peaks. I'm sorry, Nirvana just didn't measure up. Yes, Nevermind cleans up a lot of the rough edges, but it also brings out Nirvana's real strengths as a band: pop hooks, stadium riffs, and Kurt Cobain's emotionally wounded voice. Nevermind is where Nirvana become Nirvana.
But if you want their best album, you have to go with their third LP, In Utero. In Utero is their harshest, noisiest album, with the band at their songwriting peak. Steve Albini's production brings out the abrasive clatter of the band, and Kurt's lyrics settle in on a level of self-loathing that would be comical if his voice didn't sound so convincing. They let it all out on "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," a full-speed mess of feedback and distortion which became their opener for their final tour. In the chorus, Cobain repeats the mantra that I find running through my own head far too frequently: "What is wrong with me?" It's possible that I've never related to any piece of music as closely as I do to that five-word chorus.
I remember hearing the announcement on the radio on April 5, 1994. I guess the news was still a little vague, so the DJ was trying not to say more than the police actually knew at the time. So the announcement was something like "Police have not yet identified the body of a man found dead of a shotgun wound to the face in Kurt Cobain's home this morning." And I thought, "Holy shit. He killed someone."
Over the years, I've frequently heard the explanation that Cobain killed himself because he couldn't deal with success. He came up in a punk scene that was defined by obscurity, and looked with suspicion, if not contempt, on commercial success. And yet, his band had become the biggest rock stars in the world. It was something that he couldn't reconcile, and that eventually led him to take his own life, his own success proof of his own failure. Looking back now, I realize what a load of horseshit that is. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that situation fucked with him, and he may well have lost many nights' sleep fretting about it, but the idea that this troubled him deeply enough to take his own life...well, that idea seems based on a very dumb Kurt Cobain. It's really not a mystery. The guy had severe clinical depression. This was common knowledge. He had a heroin addiction that he seems to have been powerless to kick (he killed himself right after bailing on rehab). He was plagued by intense stomach pains for which the only relief seemed to come from the needle. And...I hesitate to add this part, because I don't want to participate in the kind of misogynist Courtney Love-bashing that leads to conspiracy theories about her murdering Kurt...but his domestic life could not have been much of a respite from the drama, right? I can't read Kurt's mind, and he can't speak for himself any more, but it seems to me that if the concern that he had "sold out" played a part, it was a minor factor at most.
Somehow, that night, even as I was making irreverent jokes about it, I felt like Nirvana had become a more important band that day. Maybe he died a martyr, and his death would ensure that this moment of good music entering the mainstream would become permanent thanks to the romantic, live-fast-die-young legend he left behind. I'm not sure if that's correct. The window of me being able to listen to the radio ended around 1998-99, with the arrival of the three-headed monster of bad funk metal that was Korn/Limp Bizkit/Kid Rock, but those bands still seem part of the whole "alternative rock" milieu. The following decade, the story of music became the story of the dissolution of the whole idea of "mainstream," so the question becomes rather meaningless. But in some way, maybe the barriers that came down around 1991 contributed to the barriers ceasing to exist over the last decade.