For a Gen X’er such as myself, it’s hard to believe that Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind album was released 20 years ago today.
To give a little perspective: I was 14-years old, in 9th grade. At the time, I was a huge fan of MTV’s 120 Minutes, a 2-hour show that aired Sunday nights around midnight and played “alternative” and “modern rock” music- bands such as Public Image Ltd, the Cure, Cocteau Twins, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, and the Pixies. It was a welcome respite from the hair metal / glam inanity (which we now look back on with nostalgia and fondness- yes, I’m looking at you, Ratt and Warrant) or the pop drivel (Milli Vanilli, come forward. Glenn Medeiros, I see you back there hiding…) that permeated the music landscape at the time. In short, creativity was in short supply and the radio was an endless drone of pop mediocrity. Since 120 Minutes aired too late for me to watch during the school year, I had programmed our VCR to record it weekly. Every Monday morning, I made it a habit to catch some of the show before heading off to school.
I remember this one episode clearly. It was an MTV Premiere for some song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, by some band I had never heard of called Nirvana. I thought it was a quirky title for a song, but sure, I’d give it a go.
Oh. My. God.
I don’t think I have ever, before or since, felt a pop culture seismic shift so pronounced. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lured you in with the simple, low-key guitar intro, only to take your ear drums and burrow into the deepest parts of your musical cranium with one of the most catchiest rock rifts ever.
But then there was lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain’s deceptively catchy lyrics, which straddled the line between meandering gibberish and alt-rock revelation. This curious alchemy struck a chord in my teenage mind. It was not just Cobain’s brilliantly subversive lyrics that hooked me, but his delivery, earnest, almost pleading for understanding while constructing walls and daring you to tear them down. He was so accessible to teens, with hormones and inexperience clouding our sense of self and place in this world. Cobain was able to perfectly articulate that cacophony of youth and lay it down onto 12 perfectly crafted tracks on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind.
I played this album (okay, cassette in my case) to death. It is one of the few albums where I loved every song. I spent many a nights listening to this album, sometimes during my teen depression, finding solace in Cobain’s anger and confusion. It was a buoy through those confusing times, providing a small consolation that someone out there got it.
A couple of years ago, my son told me that he wanted me to buy him a song to load onto his MP3 player. He had heard it on a YouTube NASCAR compilation video, and really liked it. I asked him to play it for me and he did. I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh as the all-too familiar intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played. I’d say, judging from my son’s reaction to the song, that it has held up after all this time. And it makes for an interesting bridge between my son and me, something I find immense pleasure in.
And who knows? Maybe when 2031 rolls around, his son will ask him for the holographic remix version of Nevermind.