No other artist and no other album dominated the 90’s in America like Nirvana and Nevermind. This was even true after Kurt Cobain’s death, for Americans, along with all of their other notable traits, are quite ghoulish creatures at heart.
To begin to understand how an under-publicized record stuffed with songs containing perfectly meaningless lyrics played by a band with little musical range could have achieved such a lofty position in musical history, you have to understand the difference between The Baby Boomers and Generation X.
Baby Boomers believed they were special; they thought of themselves as people on a mission. For many of them, the mission didn’t matter so much as the feeling of being on a mission, which is why they were able to morph from anti-capitalist peaceniks in the 60’s to greedy fucking bastards in the 80’s. Even if they were unable to articulate life’s purpose beyond a few slogans, they believed and generally still believe that life has a purpose.
Their children did not share their views. Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.
But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.
It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have. Dave Grohl observed that Cobain would often dash out the lyrics to a song five minutes before recording, and that’s about all the time and energy that his co-generationists desired to put into the apparently hopeless quest for human understanding.
This is the key to grasping the significance, if not the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song unwittingly named after a deodorant. The confused and meandering lyrics of the song reflect the confused and meandering soul, searching without aim for God knows what. Far more important than the lyrics is the timbre of Kurt Cobain’s voice, one of the greatest rock voices of all time, combining elements of shyness, angst and bottled-up fury. During the verses here his voice sounds like it’s drifting, like a compass needle unable to find the magnetic pole. But when he gets to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he comes at you full force with that incredible growl, exploding like a broken dam:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
Even with the comparatively professional production of Nevermind (a classic tempest in a teapot debate), the power of that voice singes the soul. I can’t explain why in words; it just does.
More accessible to the literate listener, “In Bloom” describes the wannabes out of the scene descending on Nirvana concerts after their maiden release, Bleach:
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Ah, that voice again. I love the way Cobain extends the syllable on “he’s” at the start of each chorus, holding that sandpapery voice to the note an impossibly long time without losing a single watt of power. On the downside, the song reflects a formula that dominates much of Nevermind and gets boring after a while: quiet verses followed by loud choruses. Straight from Pixies.
“Come As You Are” is one of Nirvana’s more popular songs, and it does feature both a strong melodic line and musical intensity. It also features a consistent and unfortunate motif that runs through the first three tracks: all of these songs mention guns. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” opens with “Load up on guns, and bring your friends.” The gun line from “In Bloom” is noted above; in “Come As You Are” it’s “And I swear I don’t have a gun,” repeated three times. You can read more about Cobain’s apparent obsession with firearms here. This was one of the features of Nirvana that made me feel less enthusiasm for them than my teenage schoolmates felt. I could read these lyrics and think, okay, maybe he’s using the gun as a symbol of human protectiveness against real friendship and intimacy. Still, it was hard to separate any perception of the song from the fact that the guy killed himself with a gun and the cops found four more firearms in his house. Whether the imagery represented the leavings from his drug-addled, gun-obsessed, anger-polluted brain or an unconscious precursor of his demise is something for a psychologist and a psychic to figure out. I find the constant reference to guns a disturbing distraction that detracts from the music in the same way that gratuitous violence dominates many Tarantino and Coen Brothers flicks.
More focused and to the point, “Breed” allows Dave Grohl to demonstrate his power as a drummer (though not his versatility—“unnecessary frills” were frowned upon in the band’s dogma). The song itself is nihilistic and neurotic, but at least Nirvana produces a pretty strong attack here. The overrated “Lithium” follows next, a song about a guy who finds religion. The arrangement and delivery sound rushed, busy and overly tense, and the song is about a minute and a half too long. “Polly” is a first-person narrative based on a true story about a rapist who has captured a 14-year old girl (but who eventually tricks him into escaping). Though it’s hardly a pleasant topic, Cobain does a decent job of expressing the muddle inside the rapist’s sick mind. “Polly” is also one of the two acoustic songs on the album, adding some blessed variety to the mix.
By far the worst song on the album, “Territorial Pissings” makes fun of the Baby Boomers by opening with Krist Novoselic singing (badly) the chorus from Dino Valenti’s “Get Together.” While the clichéd and sappy song deserves the jeers, there’s no insight here except “we think that song was dumb.” The rest of the song is repetitive and boring nonsense. “Drain You” involves vivid imagery to describe a manipulative relationship gone bad, but the images are so disturbing they say more about Cobain’s deterioration and insecurity than anything else:
One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
Chew your meat for you, pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss from my mouth to yours
Sloppy lips to lips, you’re my vitamins
I like you
“Lounge Act” and “Stay Away” don’t provide much in the way of variation or interest. More insightful (in the ironic sense of the word) is the song, “On a Plain,” where Cobain’s difficulty with words is admitted and the deliberate use of obfuscation is embraced as a valid approach to poetry:
Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?
It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?
The album closes with the funereal acoustic number, “Something in the Way,” remarkable for the stunning inclusion of cello in violation of punk-grunge dogma (Nirvana would use a cello again in “Dumb” and “All Apologies” on In Utero, those naughty boys). The lyrics in the verse describe a homeless guy living under a bridge (Cobain claimed it was his personal experience, a claim thrown into doubt by a biographer). Disconnectedly, the chorus simply repeats “something in the way” over and over again, but there’s a certain allure to the vocal and the background music that makes this piece unusually compelling. When I hear the song, I imagine Cobain looking at his life, and using his typical fragmentary form of expression, simply notes that there is “something in the way” of being who he wants to be or doing what he wants to do, but he lacks either the energy or the insight to move that obstacle out of the way. As such, it provides an appropriate epitaph to his short and painful existence.
Back in Seattle, my last stop in my U. S. existence, Kurt Cobain is still pretty much revered. I didn’t know much about Nirvana until after his death, as they hit the big-time in my pre-teens. So, both in terms of geography and generation, this San Francisco Native Gen Y girl is something of an outsider when it comes to Nirvana, which may explain my relative lack of enthusiasm. They were a phenomenon, to be sure, but I was somehow born with the gene that warns my brain to view all phenoms with skepticism. When I hear Nirvana, what I hear is a band that simply didn’t have a whole lot of room to maneuver beyond their basic sound and nihilistic philosophy, and even if Cobain had lived, Nirvana would not have lasted much longer. Dave Grohl’s talents and energy would have had to come out sooner or later, and a healthy Cobain might have explored his other artistic talents. Whatever the reason, the hourglass had already started to run out for Nirvana when Nevermind hit the stores.
They tried once more, rejecting the production values of Nevermind in an attempt to create a rawer sound for In Utero, with mixed results. Cobain’s screaming vocals would become annoying while his repressed melodic skills would provide the few highlights on the album. Novoselic’s bass certainly sounds better on In Utero, but the material itself is spotty. “Spotty” is also a good word to describe Nevermind: flashes of occasional brilliance and obvious talent are marred by confused, neurotic lyrics and the limitations of punk-grunge dogma. As a statement of rejection of the generally lifeless music people were listening to in the 1980’s, Nevermind is perfection; as a timeless work of art, it leaves much to be desired.