Hey all! So for this post, I’m doing something a little different. I had to choose a media artist (musicians allowed) to discuss for a final project. Instantly, I knew I wanted to write about Nirvana. Not only are they one of my favorite bands, but their music had a huge impact on the rock and grunge scenes. I wanted to learn more about them and now, I’m sharing what I found with you guys 🙂 ALSO–all quotes used contain links to the articles I got them from, so feel free to go read those articles!
How It All Began
When it comes to Nirvana, everything starts with Kurt Cobain. Kurt Donald Cobain, born February 20, 1967, did not have an easy childhood. His parents divorced when he was nine, and both remarried to less-than-stellar people. Cobain bounced around, never living in one place for very long. He was bullied in high school, and dropped out by his senior year. High school is when Cobain began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. There were two bright spots in these years: his guitar, given to him by his uncle at age 14, and his friend Buzz Osbourne, a punk band member who introduced Cobain to the genre.
In 1986, a few years after high school, Cobain met Krist Novaselic, the future bassist for Nirvana. The two hit it off and formed a band with Chad Channing as drummer. The trio officially named themselves Nirvana in 1988.
Nirvana in Action
In 1989, Nirvana got a record deal with Sub Pop Records and released their first album, Bleach. While the album was ill-received, the track “About a Girl” showed promise regarding Cobain’s songwriting abilities. Bleach served to establish Nirvana’s signature sound, a blend of heavy metal and punk rock. However, Cobain felt dissatisfied with how the record label was treating their band in comparison to other bands.
Nirvana toured with Sonic Youth in 1990, after which Channing was replaced by Dave Grohl. Then, in 1991, the band signed to major label Geffen Records and released Nevermind. Unlike Bleach, Nevermind exploded, selling fast and becoming popular instantly. Nevermind put Nirvana on the map, labeled the band as grunge, and “spearheaded a music revolution.”
As the band grew in success, Cobain used their fame wisely. He used it to “advocate for the rights of women, gays and other minorities and teen misfits like himself.” The teens and twenty-somethings of the nineties loved Nirvana and their music. This music was real and relatable, written as if they were talking to and about these kids. The songs covered real topics, not the typical “cars and girls” themes in past rock music. The music resonated with these young adults “because it speaks to them honestly,” as author Charles Cross put it. Cobain became the “figurehead of the grunge counterculture,” a human personification of these teens’ thoughts, feelings, and anger.
The End (Goodbye, Kurt <3)
As time passed, though, Cobain began to change. His mental struggles started to overtake his personal capabilities to take proper care of himself. Cobain began using heroin in the early 1990’s, initially to escape from his mind and help with chronic stomach problems; but over time it developed into an addiction, one that only worsened once Cobain met and married fellow musician and drug addict Courtney Love. He started to drift away from the other members.
But the worst was yet to come. Cobain began to act on suicidal tendencies. Whether or not those suicidal feelings were a new occurrence or had always existed is still unknown. Towards the end, Cobain made two attempts at taking his life. He first tried on March 4, 1994, overdosing on drugs while touring in Europe. Cobain was unsuccessful and ended up in a coma for twenty days. Cobain became reclusive upon his return home and was consistently high, making no efforts to get clean despite Courtney’s attempted help.
April 5, 1994. A month after Cobain’s first attempt, and a date that many would come to remember for this event. Alone in his hotel room, twenty-seven-year-old Kurt Cobain wrote a long suicide note, addressed to the fans, Courtney, and Frances. When he finished writing, Kurt picked up a gun, placed it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. It was three days before his body was found.
The Impact of Nirvana
Nirvana almost single-handedly revitalized and sparked the beginning of many underground punk scenes all over America during the 1990s. They changed what rock music could be about and “the course of where the music went,” according to Vernon Reif of Living Color. Nirvana shifted the themes and topics from “girls and cars” to broken homes, depression, anger, and more serious problems. And because of these realistic topics and themes, which were significantly more meaningful than fluff love songs, these songs speak across generations and “continue[d] to speak to new generations of people who find meaning in them” (Cross).
What was unique about Nirvana’s music is how it pulled on a wide variety of genres, and created a “remarkable fusion of so many different strands of influence” (Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop). They popularized a new way of songwriting and music arrangements: using loud and soft dynamics alternately in the same song. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a perfect example: the song goes from softer dynamics for the verses, then goes loud and hard for the choruses.
Cobain became living proof that one doesn’t have to be a virtuoso musician or play the instrument well to be a great musician. He brought back the grunginess of guitar playing, reintroducing “weirdness and dirt back into the guitar sounds of the day.” The band reminded people what rock shows should be—not David Bowie or Iggy pop-style gimmicks or stunts, just the band playing at top sound level. Just the band and the fans, enjoying the music together.
Nevermind is unquestionably the band’s most successful album. To date, this album has sold 30 million copies. It has been labeled as one of the most influential rock albums of all time, and is “arguably the last rock album to drastically change the course of popular music.” It effectively pushed grunge music into the mainstream and put the genre on the music map.
Why was it so big? Well, part of it had to do with the timing of the album’s release (Sept 24, 1991). The grunge scene at the time—especially in Seattle, grunge’s birthplace—needed “one really big breakthrough album to come through to really get people to focus on it” (Jack Endino, producer of Bleach album). Nevermind also changed the definitions of what was “cool” to sing about. Now it was cool and okay to sing about one’s deep, inner feelings, and “in a complex way” (Brandon Geist, editor of Revolver magazine). They made hard rock “cathartic as opposed to escapist” (Geist).
Let’s Make History with MTV Unplugged
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, filmed November 1993, is widely considered one of the best MTV Unplugged shows. The band chose not to treat this performance as a “greatest hits only” show, like most artists. Instead, they performed a mix of hits, random selections, and covers. The stage was decorated like a funeral, with lilies and candles. As a part of the acoustic effect, Grohl played with wire brushes instead of normal drumsticks to lessen the sound’s impact; this was also because Kurt didn’t like how Grohl’s heavy-handed playing sounded in rehearsals.
Nirvana opened with “About a Girl,” a track that was pivotal to defining Nirvana’s sound early on. They closed out the show with a cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” by blues singer Lead Belly. Nirvana’s performance of this song has been ranked among the greatest single rock performances of all time. The ending is notable: Cobain sang the last note up an octave, practically screaming the note and causing his voice to crack on the last two words. The music cuts out as he holds the note, creating a powerful effect.
The performance’s audio was recorded and released on an album a year after the performance. Songs from this performance received much airtime and plenty of attention. For example, “Rape Me” was nominated for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Rock Song in the 1995 Grammy Awards. Even today, certain tracks still get airtime.
What was truly impactful and important about this performance is that “it showed another side to them that unfortunately we never got to see again,” as MTV Unplugged director Beth McCarthy-Miller so perfectly put it. This was a stripped down, entirely acoustic performance: something Nirvana didn’t really do. Kurt even played on his own acoustic guitar, plugged into a Fender amp for the added sound effect. This performance was also more intimate than Nirvana shows tended to be, both due to the songs and the acoustic performance. At times it felt so personal that things got awkward. Audience members got to see a more personal, calmer side of Nirvana that didn’t get seen very often.
Watch the full show here.
To this day, Nirvana continues to be popular. People still listen to their music, and mourn Kurt Cobain every year on the anniversary of his death. The band’s music continues to majorly influence many artists from all genres. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which recently hit its 25-year anniversary, is even being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a part of the Class of 2017. Their music lives on, long after the band died.
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