This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s first studio release, Nevermind. I’ve written before on this blog about how that album and the band’s sound shocked me out of a pop-music, Gulf War-induced stupor. I was in an MA program reading Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan (!) and considering their contributions to a critique of American culture as it turned increasingly sectarian, corporate, and commercial. This blog has contributed mightily to a discussion of that period through various assessments of Daniel Rodgers’s book, The Age of Fracture, and the struggle many of us have taken up to interpret the era out which we got everything from Jerry Falwell and Disney Corp. to varieties of multiculturalism and Kurt Cobain. It was an age, Rodgers writes, during which conservative intellectuals pined for a common culture that had, it seemed, existed just a couple of decades earlier. “But their ideas of society had been infiltrated by the new market metaphors, the notion of communities of choice, the narrowing of the language of obligation, and the appeal of the idea of natural, spontaneous civil society. They could desire a common culture. But only in fragmented ways could they envision the institutions that might create it.” (219)
As I read Niebuhr’s essays on the obligation Christians had to live out at least one of the Gospels, and Kennan’s “sermons” on American decadence and excess captured in books such as Democracy and the Student Left (1968), The Nuclear Delusion (1983), and Around the Cragged Hill (1993), I moved through communities that did indeed seem hopelessly ambivalent, if not outright fractured. I attended SUNY Albany, one of those big, concrete campuses that fostered little sense of intellectual community as students, by and large, seemed fixated on the careers they hoped would lead them to promise land of life on the upper east side of Manhattan. The city of Albany, once a stronghold of Democratic machine politics, had fallen into a stalemate of partisan gridlock. And in the fall of 1991, the nation had come down from its high after celebrating victory in the Gulf War that August. As a reporter for the New York Times put it: “Many Americans could not find triumph in the conquest of a nation with the gross national product of Kentucky.”
When Nevermind appeared that fall, it reminded me that there were still communities out there that lived off a grid that I assumed defined American life. A story on the album and the Seattle Sound in the New York Times reminded me that for a brief moment the idea of “grunge” seemed relevant to my hope that an anti-anti movement might still exist. Grunge wasn’t forthright “for” anything—it didn’t stake out a position that was outwardly anti-corporate or anti-fashion; anti-Los Angeles or anti-pop music. Grunge just simply wasn’t anything in particular—and so it was anti-anti. And while it wasn’t necessarily anti-authority, it did seem anti the anti-authority pose that became the trademark of a generation buy and selling their memories of the 1960s.
After a relatively short stint in Russia, where I did witness the genuine fracturing of an entire society, I returned to graduate school in the fall of 1993. I entered Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, a small, pretty town that sat like a preppy oasis amidst a hard region of closed coal mines and dilapidated villages. During my first fall in Athens, I stood on a second-story porch of my friend’s home looking over a mass of undergraduates enjoying a block party. I turned to my friend and pointed out that it took less than two years for grunge to disappear into the J. Crew catalog. Before us was a river of plaid and flannel, clothes of choice for those living in cool, damp Seattle as well as what many folks in the environs around Athens. The undergrads had on two even three shirts tied fashionably around their waists and layered in ways that coordinated colors and patterns. I couldn’t really be against them, I thought; after all they probably like the Seattle sound. And yet, these future masters of commercial culture stood in stark contrast to their neighbors in towns such as Chauncey and Nelsonville, places that had been overlooked and underemployed for decades. Those folks, not the ones wearing the new hip uniform, had much in common with that most famous of Nirvana’s refrains, tragic and fitting as it is: “oh well, so what, nevermind.”