Nirvana is dead. Yes, Kurt Cobain killed himself over 14 years ago, and so of course they’re dead. But John Lennon died almost 30 years ago, and The Beatles are still alive and well. Their music is the basis for a hit show in Las Vegas, their albums still sell millions, and the anniversary of Lennon’s death has become a borderline holiday for Beatlemaniacs. Nirvana, though, is most certainly dead and gone.
Suspecting that Nirvana may in fact be deceased, I began a little experiment. I polled several of my 13-year-old brother’s friends about their knowledge. First, I asked them to name the most influential groups of the last 20 years. An odd collection of names popped up, including Britney Spears (more accurate than you’d think) and Kiss, who really made their name before the time window, but whatever. All that matters is Nirvana wasn't one of them.
I dug a little deeper. “Do the words ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ mean anything to you?” Crickets. “How about the name Kurt Cobain?” I thought that would be a giveaway, but no, there were nothing but blank faces. “What about Nirvana? You must have heard of them.” Zilch.
These are 13-year-old kids we’re talking about, but at 13, I was watching MTV name the premiere of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one of the most important moments in MTV history. Nobody even debated this. Nirvana was unquestionably one of the most influential groups of all time and their symbiotic relationship with MTV changed the face of the music industry. They had created the future of not only rock music, but also all music from 1991 onward. Or, maybe, they would fade into nostalgic irrelevance 15 years later.
Before you tell me about how you heard “Polly” on the radio eight minutes ago, ask yourself if you really think occasional radio play makes a band relevant. Shit, I hear Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” twice a month, but that doesn’t mean that Harvey Danger shaped American music history. Nor would anyone ascribe to them such a title. But Nirvana, well, at one point they were saviors. Look into your soul. Can you really tell me that Nirvana had a lasting effect on music? If you still say yes, please e-mail reasons why to firstname.lastname@example.org. If they are good enough, I will write a retraction of this entire article.
I will not, however, have to do that. Everything Nirvana stood now looks rather fad-ish. Evocative, interesting, minimalist music videos do not sell records like we all thought they would; just ask Jamiroquai if “Virtual Insanity”—arguably one of the best music videos ever—turned them into true American superstars. The three-chord power rock of Nirvana has been replaced by three chord punk progressions, which were popular way before Nirvana’s time. Grunge itself is now irrelevant, and flannel shirts are borderline hilarious. They’re the acid wash jeans and leg warmers of their time.
There is a reason why Nirvana seemed so powerful at one point and now slowly works its way to niche fandom and general obscurity: Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Jackson is in no way dead. His music maintains its popularity and cultural familiarity. We all still love Thriller. You probably know the words to at least three Jackson songs. The songs still pop up in covers or hip-hop samples. During the late 1980s, Michael Jackson was at the pinnacle of pop music. No one will ever reach that height again.
Jackson dominated pop music in a way no one did before—including The Beatles—because he dominated a very specific type of pop music. At his most critically acclaimed, he was still a teen idol with millions of teenage girls and boys grabbing up his albums. The Beatles, at a similar point, had moved beyond screaming girls and larger-than-life stage performances. Jackson did his best work with this sort of image. He was the king of fucking pop. If you add the glamour of heavy metal to the music scene, you have a very glitzy, very poppy picture in the late 1980s. You have the purest anti-Nirvana possible.
Then they came. The kids returned their Jackson CDs and tapes for Nevermind. Pop was dead. Critics were thrilled that music with substance had come back into vogue. And, by the late 1990s, pop was back with a vengeance. The Backstreet Boys, *N Sync, 98 Degrees, Britney Spears, and the like took control of MTV and the mainstream music scene. Kids were listening to songs about puppy love and being a fun-having teen again.
The only musical remnants of grunge have come in the form of fairly popular Foo Fighters—who don’t’ really play grunge music—and Pearl Jam copycat groups like Creed and Nickelback, crappy bands popular in parts of the country that still crave 80s power rock. They are the bastardized reproduction of distortion and Eddie Vedder-style singing, only they don’t write complex, haunting songs like “Jeremy,” they write lyrics like “Tired of livin’ like a blind man/I’m sick inside without a sense of feelin’/And this is how you remind me.” What the hell does that even mean? I had to Google that shit and it still doesn’t make sense.
We thought Nirvana was changing music because they were the response to a particularly dominant and powerful musical force. They’re not the only casualties of this odd period in music. When was the last time you saw one of the Sublime t-shirts that became ubiquitous in the late 1990s? Everyone older than 16 still knows every word to “What I Got,” but I’ll be damned if anyone under 16 would even recognize the beautiful opening riff. Ska/reggae has been replaced by dancehall acts like Sean Paul. Just ask Gwen Stefani.
Bands die all the time. It happens. We may lament it if we love the band, we may rejoice if we hate them. I, for one, am thrilled that I never have to hear Backstreet Boys songs anymore. The cultural disappearance of Nirvana, though, reveals something deeper about American mainstream. We want pop to win.
This is an odd thing to grapple with. On the one hand, it sucks. Complexity, pain, and quality writing aren’t necessarily rewarded. We want simple. We don’t want to hear the fatalist pain in Brad Nowell’s voice as he sings about heroin addiction or the horrifying storytelling in “Jeremy” or Kurt Cobain’s feelings of generational alienation. It’s hard. We want to hear about the easy-to-grasp pain of losing your boyfriend to another girl and trying to steal him back. We want simple, dumbed down catchiness. Backstreet’s back, all right!
But there's something to be said about wanting everything to be all right. We hope for the best. As a culture, we have faith in good defeating evil. We have our problems, but we cling to optimism, waiting to overcome anything in our path. We’re the “can-do” people. So of course Nirvana is dead. The American spirit prevails.