U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Music to Fracture By

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.”

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One of the narratives around Nevermind is that the record brought the “underground” bands into the “mainstream.” It has sometimes been blamed for the destruction of the punk subculture.

    Having not read Age of Fracture, I wonder: would this narrative fit into, or work against, Rodgers’s thesis?

  2. Good point, though, I guess Nirvana can’t be blamed for this transition. As for your question, which is also great, I think the narrative works both ways with Rodgers’s thesis. It is both an example of a community that organized beyond the fracturing he documents but was also a product and ultimately a victim of the age of fracture.

  3. This has indeed been a week for strolling down memory lane–for this cultural-intellectual historian to exercise his own cultural memory. What impressed me about Nirvana, way back when, was the amazing difference of its, well, “soundscape.” I had heard nothing like it. It was just cool and different.

    I don’t recall hearing of Nirvana over the summer of 1991. But I was working off-the-grid as a staffer at a Boy Scout camp in the middle-of-nowhere Missouri. That fall I came back (or thought I came back)* to the University of Missouri listening to U2’s Achtung Baby. I have been chronically late on the “new band/music awareness” front, so my knowledge of Nirvana grew slowly over the months of September to November.** I remember that by December 1 the band, the album, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were genuine, certified smash-hit phenomena.

    As I checked on the release dates for the album and the song (as well as for Achtung Baby), the funny thing is that I was really not that far behind on Nirvana (or U2) awareness. I was probably only made to feel out of it due to my hep friends.

    What’s also amazing to me is that I really had no idea of the band’s larger cultural significance. I thought the grunge aesthetic was mildly attractive, and I dutifully increased the number of flannel plaid shirts in my wardrobe. Otherwise it was just cool music that does, or did, what all rock music did for me: it provided yet another outlet for my sense of alienation—a stage that has lasted for, well, it’s not over yet. It only gets repressed for short periods. [Aside: Do we ever stop being alienated?]

    So Nirvana didn’t represent a fracturing for me so much as it was a break point from what I saw as the soundscape of 1991. I remember the band as musically significant, but the larger significance of that period of my life has grown over time. That may be because I’m supposed to feel that way about cool music that comes on the scene during important, usually youthful parts of our lives. – TL

    * Apparently Achtung Baby wasn’t released until November 19, 1991.

    ** “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single on September 10, 1991. The album Nevermind was released September 24, 1991.

  4. @Christian: This seems to be a pattern with most DIY musical subcultures that break into the mainstream (i.e. that the culture industry figures out a way to monetize). It happened to the folk revival of the early ’60s and to the various punk scenes of the 1970s, too. Many of the leading lights of these scenes try to somehow resist their commodification. Bob Dylan’s case is perhaps most famous (though his “betrayal” of the folk scene in fact led to greater commercial success). But the Sex Pistols’ (semi-planned) self-destruction is another example. And certainly there’s a reading of Kurt Cobain’s suicide that fits, too (though that’s perhaps being too willing to turn Cobain’s personal demons into a cultural statement).

  5. Very interesting post, Ray!

    Your Athens memory reminded me of something that happened right around the time of the First Gulf War, when I was also in grad school. I was sitting in what functioned as the student union at Princeton, eating lunch and watching tv with a bunch of students, mainly undergrads. A commercial came on for the US Army, whose slogan at the time, you may recall, was “‘Cause Freedom Isn’t Free.” When the ad ended, one of the PU undergrads turned to another and said “sitting here it pretty much is.” I found it unfortunately hard to argue with that.

  6. I was trying to explain what a revelation this album was to my students. Imagine being in a car and turning on the radio and hearing Achey-Breaky Heart, and trying to change the station as quickly as possible only to find stumble across Smells Like Teen Spirit, and in that moment being assured that music is not in fact dead.

  7. As usual, the comments to this post are excellent and worthy of extended posts themselves. As to Tim’s point about alienation, I had the sense that Ben hints at in his comment that there was not so much an alienation from any social norm–I wasn’t quite sure what those were any more–as much as a creeping recognition that there was little to feel obligated to. I think Nirvana’s break across the rock scene illustrates what the totality of Dan Rodgers chronicles in his book–the inescapable sense that what used to be there no longer is, and nothing really has taken its place. So while you can’t feel alienated from a society that isn’t whole enough to rebel against, you also can’t feel kinship to a society that lacks genuine bonds of attachment.

  8. I am currently researching the American Hardcore movement as cultural evidence of what Rodgers claims regarding the disaggregation and fracture of America, a movement which in my opinion died out shortly before grunge came on the scene. I was a senior in high school when Nevermind came out and the grunge explosion occurred. Growing up listening to punk rock and hardcore bands such as Black Flag, the Misfits, Minor Threat, Youth of Today, and a whole host of others, Nirvana’s groundbreaking album in no way resonated with me or others who were hoping for a continuation of what seemed to be becoming a more unoriginal, violent, and anti-intellectual musical culture. We were hoping for more of what we considered to be a good thing and what we got was grunge, which very quickly became mainstream, the antithesis of what punk and hardcore stood for. In his book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, Steven Blush had this to say about the movement – “Hardcore was more than music – it became a political and social movement as well. The participants constituted a tribe unto themselves.” With grunge, whatever social or political stance bands such as Nirvana took quickly evaporated with the increasing corporatization of the music and movement. We knew grunge wasn’t for us the first time we saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV or Nevermind on the rack at Sam Goody. The “river of plaid and flannel” you describe in your post was the death-knell of a music that could have rekindled the assault on the mainstream that punk and hardcore had embraced but somehow lost. Great topic for discussion – thanks for posting it!

  9. I wonder if there’d be so much fuss if Kurt Cobain hadn’t succumbed to his demons, or to paraphrase Pete Townshend, if Nirvana had, as happens with so many bands, gotten old before they died. Nirvana’s reputation rests on a foundation which can only be described as modest. They released one album that made minimal impact (Bleach, 1989), followed by the meteor that was Nevermind, and finally In Utero (1993). That’s a grand total of three studio albums. That’s it. In terms of output, it’s hardly an overwhelming legacy. In terms of its cultural significance, though, it certainly is, and that along with the sense of “what may have been?” goes a long way toward explaining why Nirvana continues to attract so much attention, since what they did can’t support that weight.

    I remember it quite well, surely in part because of my time and place when Nevermind hit: I was a month into my freshman year of college. And there was a lot of buzz. But what gets forgotten now is that at the time there was even more buzz for another band, one which was already established and immensely popular. That band being Guns N’ Roses, whose double album Use Your Illusion hit record stores a week before Nevermind. That had even more hype and publicity and commotion. That hype may seem misplaced now, but at the time the follow-up to Appetite for Destruction was a bonafide big deal, and properly so. That one week gap between the albums’ releases (17 September to 24 September) now looks something like a huge cultural shift, a changing of the guard. At the time, it was GNR who got the midnight release parties. (One of my neighbors from my dorm went, so I gave him cash to get me the two CDs; might as well take advantage of his enthusiasm.)

    Nirvana didn’t come out of the blue, even though it seemed that way. The ground had been prepared, by among others a band which recently died after it had gotten quite old. R.E.M.’s Out of Time was released in March of 1991 (three months before the end of my senior year of high school; lots of parallels going on here) and it was an absolutely massive album. “Losing My Religion” was one of those songs that gets played on all kinds of stations, from AOR to Top 40. R.E.M. had been creeping its way into the mainstream for years, but now it just exploded into it. And that was a sign that popular music was about to change. A previous commenter noted what a breakthrough it was to flip stations from one playing “Achy Breaky Heart” to one playing Nirvana. It’s exactly that disgust with contemporary music and the desire for something new and willingness to find or create it for oneself which permeates the first track on Out of Time, “Radio Song.”

    Hey, I can’t find nothing on the radio
    Yo – turn to that station

    That spoken exchange begins the album, and then Michael Stipe goes on to sing about how he turned up the radio but couldn’t hear it. In 1991, if you turned to that other station, all of a sudden you might hear R.E.M. or Nirvana. “Alternative” radio was about to become anything but.

  10. Think about what popular music was like in the late ’80s and 1990. We’re talking Milli Vanilli (doing stuff then which cost them their reputations, and one of the duo his life, but is now standard practice in the industry), MC Hammer, Wilson Phillips, Bell Biv Devoe, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins (at his slumming worst), Billy Joel (in his “We Didn’t Start the Fire” phase), Taylor Dayne, etc. Rock seemed to be in one of its periodic fallow periods after the waning of punk and new wave. Stuff that charted was hair bands like Poison and Cinderella, and pop-rock stuff like Bon Jovi. There were exceptions like U2 and GNR, and some interesting stuff did reach the upper echelons of the chart occasionally, like Sinead O’Connor (anything but mainstream) , the B-52s, whose “Love Shack” was huge in 1989, and Depeche Mode, whose Violator (1990) spawned the enormously popular “Personal Jesus” (and you know something’s going on when Depeche Mode is top of the pops). But overall, yeah, you’d probably want to change the radio station, too. And back then that’s all you got, since there was no internet, no iPod, no MP3s, no downloading, no Napster, nothing. If you couldn’t find nothing on the radio, you were pretty much screwed, or forced to turn to the classic rock stations (then just coming into its own as a format).

    Then along came Out of Time, then there was Nirvana, GNR was back, in August of 1991 Metallica’s eponymous “Black” album hit stores and airwaves with “Enter Sandman.” Metallica originalists still haven’t forgotten them for the treason of aspiring to, and then achieving, popular success. What a crime, almost as egregious as Dylan plugging in! But perhaps the most significant milestone in this revival was the one Tim Lacy mentioned, U2’s Achtung Baby. What a huge, almost unfathomable leap to that album from 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Another album that had a huge amount of buzz, and unlike GNR the Irishmen delivered in full. That hit at the end of November and I picked it up a few weeks later during finals. (And as a side note, I can only hope it receives half the attention of Nevermind, since it is in nearly every respect a superior record.) Suddenly, rock wasn’t dead – again. (What’s had more resurrections, rock or capitalism?)

    The rest, as they say, is history. Seattle became the center of the music universe, grunge its lingua franca. Pretenders to the throne were minted by the week: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and an army of others that were quickly forgotten (Mudhoney, anyone?). The word “modern” found itself appended to the word “rock.” MTV’s “120 Minutes” became appointment viewing. Alternative music became a genre, a format, a cliché, and a nullity, all in the space of three years. Then it all came crashing down. A little over twenty-seven months later, on 5 April 1994, Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. And that was it. Rock, again, was dead. But it would still live. Oasis’ debut single was released in the UK six days later, and would soon make its way across the Atlantic. Radiohead’s “Creep,” which fell stillborn from the presses in 1992, was released again in 1993 and became a huge hit. (Four years later came the epochal OK Computer, an album which may as well be from an entirely different universe than Nevermind.) Blur’s Parklife was released at the end of April 1994, and also soon made its way to this side of the Atlantic. Britpop was here. The American music press had its new story: Was another British invasion in the offing?

  11. Twenty-seven months. That’s how long Nirvana’s hegemony over American popular music lasted. Kurt Cobain abdicated that crown as soon as he could, and did so in a way that ensured he could never reclaim it nor have it thrust upon him again. What to make of it? I’ve always been of the opinion that Nevermind is a hopelessly overrated record, considerably inferior to its outstanding successor, In Utero. It certainly is not in the same class as either U2’s or R.E.M.’s albums from that year. I’d argue Nirvana’s overrated, too. Let’s be honest, Kurt Cobain’s influence would barely fill Michael Jackson’s glove. But let us say that glove is a very large one. There’s no denying Nirvana’s significance or influence. Again, though, that impels us to acknowledge that both owe at least as much to what Nirvana has come to represent as to what they actually did. Which is the great irony. In death Kurt Cobain became everything he hoped not to be in life. Or to put it another way, by striking himself down, he became more powerful than he could possibly have imagined, or wanted.

  12. Very interesting comments! I must admit, I was a fan of Nirvana. However, when looking back at social implications, I must agree with the overall tone of this thread that Nirvana was not as influential as a band as say, Curt Cobain was as an individual. His death seemed to really kick start the grunge, anti-social, depressed trend that we still see today in the “emo” or “goth” crowd. As disturbing as it sounds, Curt Cobain made depression and self loathing fashionable to young, disenfranchised teens. It is interesting to ponder what sort of mark the BAND would have left on society had they grown old and been forced to evolve their musical style as times changed. One only needs to look at David Grohl’s direction after the break up of Nirvana to surmise that grunge may not have been a long term style of the band (whether they were aware of it or not).

    -Brad Marcy

  13. Remember when I mentioned that I was listening to U2’s *Achtung Baby* around the time *Nevermind* appeared (Varad also mentioned this)? Slate.com’s David Haglund wonders if it too deserves “the Nevermind Treatment”? – TL

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