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, never had an easy life growing up: his parents divorced when he was nine and both remarried to less-than-stellar; he bounced around from place to place, never living in one place for very long; he was bullied in high school, and dropped out by his senior year. During high school is when Kurt 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, who played in a punk band. Osbourne was the one who introduced Kurt to punk.
A few years down the line from high school, in 1986, Kurt 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. This album didn’t do all that well, but one track, titled “About a Girl,” showed particular promise in regards to Kurt’s songwriting abilities. Bleach also served to establish Nirvana’s signature sound: a blend of heavy metal and punk rock. All the while, Kurt felt dissatisfied with how the record label was treating their band in comparison to the treatment of other bands.
The next year, Nirvana got the chance to tour with Sonic Youth, after which Channing got the boot and was replaced by Dave Grohl. Then, in 1991, the band signed to Geffen Records, a major label. That same year, Nevermind was released. In contrast to how Bleach did, 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, Kurt used the 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, 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. Kurt became the “figurehead of the grunge counterculture,” a human personification of these teens’ thoughts, feelings, and anger.
The End (Goodbye, Kurt <3)
As time went by, though, Kurt began to change. His mental struggles started to overtake his personal capabilities to take care of himself properly. He began using heroin in the early 1990’s, initially to escape from his mind and help his chronic stomach problems; but over time it developed into an addiction, one that only worsened once Kurt met and married Courtney Love, who was also a drug addict. He started to drift away from the other members.
But the worst part was yet to come. Kurt began to feel suicidal. Actually, for all anyone now knows, he may have always been suicidal. Towards the end, Kurt made two attempts at taking his life. The first time was on March 4, 1994: while touring in Europe, Kurt overdosed on drugs and ended up in a coma for twenty days. When he finally came home, Kurt became reclusive and was always high, making no efforts to get clean despite Courtney’s attempted help.
April 5, 1994. A month after Kurt’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 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
Back then, Nirvana almost single-handedly revitalized and caused the beginning of many underground punk scenes all over America. They changed what rock music could be about and changed “the course of where the music went,” according to Vernon Reif of Living Color. Nirvana changed the themes and topics from “girls and cars” to broken homes, depression, anger, and more serious problems. And because of these real topics and themes, so much more meaningful than fluff love songs about a girl, these songs speak across generations and “continue[d] to speak to new generations of people who find meaning in them,” as Cross described it. To this day, Nirvana continues to leave their mark.
What was unique about Nirvana’s music is how it pulled on such a wide variety of influences, 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 you’re your instrument extremely well in order 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—no 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 hands down 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, putting 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). This was a time when the grunge scene—especially Seattle’s, since that city was the birthplace of grunge—needed “one really big breakthrough album to come through to really get people to focus on it” (Jack Endino, producer of Bleach album). The other reason was because Nevermind changed the definitions of what was “cool” to sing about: now it was cool and okay to sing about one’s deep feelings, and “in a complex way” (Brandon Geist, editor of Revolver magazine). They made hard rock “cathartic as opposed to escapist,” as Geist put it.
Let’s Make History with MTV Unplugged
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, filmed in November 1993, is widely considered one of the best MTV Unplugged shows. The band chose not to treat this performance as a “let’s play our greatest hits only” kind of show, like most other artists. Instead, they performed a mix of hits, random selections, and covers. They asked for the stage to be 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 impact of the sound; although, this was also since Kurt didn’t like how Grohl’s heavy-handed playing sounded in rehearsals.
Nirvana opened with “About a Girl” from their first album, 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 (click the link to see the performance). Their performance of this song in particular has been ranked among the greatest single rock performances of all time. The ending is what one should listen to: 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. This creates a powerful effect.
The performance’s audio was recorded and released on an album a year after the performance. Multiple 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, some tracks will be played on air.
What was really 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, totally 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 just 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 year after year on his death-iversary. The band’s music continues to be a major influence on so many artists from all genres. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which recently hit its 25-year anniversary, is even getting 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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