For people born between, let’s say, 1972 and 1977, it’s a bit of a cliche to talk about how much Nirvana changed the musical landscape “back in our day.” In fact, it’s a statement as obvious and well-worn as the tattered pea-green cardigan forever associated with Kurt Cobain. But here, just past the TWENTY-FIRST anniversary of Cobain’s death—and amid news of Rolling Stone’s high-profile chat with Frances Bean—it’s worth saying again.
Although Frances Bean already hates me for doing so …
My dad was exceptionally ambitious. But he had a lot thrown on him, exceeding his ambition. He wanted his band to be successful. But he didn’t want to be the f**king voice of a generation.
Anyway, I was listening to Nevermind before Frances was even conceived, so I’ll ramble about it anyway. I was a senior in high school when Nirvana ascended onto the Top 40. Prior to, I had spent years in the sh*t, listening to (and enjoying, mind you) the New Kids on the Block, Bel Biv Devoe, Mr. Big, Sweet Sensation, Roxette, Michael Damian, and Color Me Badd. The top-20 songs of 1991 reveal a litany of harmless schlock: Amy Grant. Bryan Adams. Paula Abdul. Marky Mark
Wahlberg and the Funky Bunch. The only things passing for “alternative rock” those days were R.E.M., EMF, and Jesus Jones.
Then Nevermind hit the airwaves, thanks to heavy rotation on MTV (when there was such a thing) and a listening audience willing to give something new a try. Like so many girls out of Nikki Sixx’s bed, hair metal was kicked to the curb. Meticulously sprayed updos and latex vanished, as unwashed hair and flannel shirts became the new style. We all know this story well, but looking back, it’s still amazing such a sea change even happened. It never would today. “Popular” music is too siloed, there are too many channels on which to consume it, and traditional “rock” music is fighting to be heard on most of them.
All this said, it was a struggle for me to pick a “best part” of any Nirvana song. They didn’t rely on easy flourishes like key changes or lengthy crescendos. Chords progressions were simple and beats were steady. But I’ll try.
The first three notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are worthy of mention because they are so unmistakably recognizable. The final utterance of “Breed” at 2:56 (“She said–uh”) is another nice one … so final, so crisp, a burst of annunciation capping off a flurry of what many dismissed as marble-mouthed warbling. The gradual spiraling to the completion of “All Apologies” (especially the Unplugged version, 2:30 – 3:28) is haunting and surprisingly fun to sing along with (though I’ll never forgive the friend who sang “All we are is all, lasagna…” and now you’ll never forgive me).
But I think my favorite snippet to share here comes right at 0:13 of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” track 5 off In Utero. This has historically been among my favorite selections from the regrettably small Nirvana catalog, and it starts off with a whimper and a bang. After a bit of bass-guitar plunking (that, one discovers when listening through headphones, is nearly entirely contained to one channel), the guitar comes in, all brash and cacophonous like it owns the place. Just as quickly, things recede once again, leaving the stage to the bass, vocals and drums. The ups and downs continue throughout the song, and this bipolar aspect of the backing melody is a good fit for the titular heroine and the seemingly paradoxical hook: “I miss the comfort in being sad.”