Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Reflection on Grunge, 20 Years On

I tweeted on the weekend:

Kurt Cobain has been dead for 20 years now. And it is with some trepidation that I remember his passing. It is a contentious one that has confused, upset and infuriated people for years.

Kurt, and by extension, Nirvana, were not particularly innovative. Nor were they the most talented band in the world, nor were they the flag-bearers of any particular cause, mission, concept or idea.

What they were, however, were the right band at the right time. Music in 1991 was boring. If you lived outside of any capital city in Australia there was very little alternative media to amuse you. Triple J, the lone bastion of alternative music and culture, was only starting to go national, but most regional centres didn't have it yet. There was no internet as such. You had to make do with what the radio commercial stations fed you.

What was the prevailing musical fashion of the day in rock music in Australia?

Hair metal.

Motley Crue. Guns n' Roses. Skid Row. Aerosmith. Metallica. Poison. Warrant. Bon Jovi. RATT. WASP.

The music, the imagery, the costumes, the gimmickery, the wankery, the cookie-cutter feel to it all. It was stale by then. I was bored. Many, many other young people like myself were feeling the same.

Nirvana's "Nevermind" album, was issued with little fanfare in September 1991 around the same time as Metallica's self titled "Black" album and Guns 'n Roses' colossal ego-trip "Use Your Illusion". The industry wasn't expecting much from it: maybe it might sell gold (500,000 copies in the US). By January 1992, it had taken Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" off the top of the US Billboard album chart and the lead single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit number 1 on the Australian Singles chart, and stayed there for a number of weeks. Nobody saw it coming.

What was the net result of this? Michael Jackson struggled to have a number 1 album ever again. RATT, Motley Crue, Skid Row, WASP, Poison, Warrant and other hair-sprayed confections were blown out of the water. Independent music was given greater exposure, and a lot of people heard a lot of great music they would never have heard otherwise. Guns 'n Roses and Metallica survived it all. But G'nR failed to deliver a timely follow up and were quickly forgotten. Metallica did change their image and were pilloried for it. Bon Jovi changed their sound to be more commercial radio friendly and survived. Rock became alternative, and the alternative scene is still defining music trends to this day.

They'd changed the world without really trying.

The down side? Kurt Cobain himself really struggled to be the one everybody wanted a piece of. He struggled to reconcile this age-old facade that mega-selling bands have no artistic credibility. He couldn't reconcile the need to starve for your art with working to live. His depression got worse. The tortured artist became even more so. The illicit drugs messed up his mind until...

...that fateful day.

Kurt didn't need to go to the lengths he did. He had the world at his fingertips, the ear of music fans everywhere. The record company would have given him carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted to. I've always said he could put out an album full of elephant farts and still have a million selling album: such is the amazing cache that the Nirvana/Cobain name carries. Everything he committed to vinyl is pure and honest - it was real, never contrived. He should never have worried about his artistic integrity: only when you become a parody of your former self on record do you need to worry about that. And there was no sense that that was on the horizon.

Kurt was a hero to people because he gave of himself - probably a little too much. Millions of people knew he was the real deal, and his honesty - in his lyrics and his songs - spoke volumes to people who were fed up of the manufactured idols on MTV; the useless politicians, and the self-indulgent wankers in hair metal bands singing about unattainable (for us, at least) women and other shit that has no relevance to us.

The problem was, he never wanted to be an idol. He was not a spokesperson for a generation of disaffected teenagers, and he knew it. He felt like a fraud. The public wanted him to be something he wasn't prepared to be. He was an average bloke in a rock band. The public knew that, but they wanted more.

No-one knows what goes through the minds of someone in such a low depressive state like that. It feels odd to celebrate someone who ended their life in the way they did. But that doesn't take away the value of the contribution they made to music during their lifetime.

I'm glad Nirvana and "Nevermind" changed the world. We're almost due for another one...

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