x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The music still rocks, but Nevermind the lumberjack look

Nirvana's masterpiece album Nevermind, 20 years old this weekend, remains a timeless classic. But it's too bad the band spawned all those bad imitators.

Every cliché starts off as an original idea. Every trend was once a singular inspiration. And every played-to-death song was once a tune in someone's imagination.

"Alternative" music, "grunge" fashion, Nirvana imitators - Kurt Cobain, you have a lot to answer for.

Once every generation, if that generation is lucky, comes a song that defines the era. The Who's My Generationin the 1960s. Saturday Night Fever in the 1970s. And Billie Jean in the 1980s were all game-changers.

Then in 1991Nirvana, a band from Aberdeen, Washington, unleashed Smells Like Teen Spirit on an unsuspecting public, and overnight the Seattle music scene was born. As the album that spawned it, Nevermind, celebrates its 20th anniversary on September 24, it's easy to forget how astonishing the song Teen Spirit - and indeed the rest of the album - sounded on first hearing.

At once fresh but somehow familiar, it rendered all other pop music, for a glorious three years at least, irrelevant. The song's opening riff is as instantly recognisable as the The Beatles' Hard Days Night and The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction. Rough but irresistibly melodic songs like Come As You Are, In Bloom, Lounge Act and Stay Away have rarely been bettered.

Claiming Nevermind as your favourite record of all time, as many of us do, may sound clichéd, but that doesn't necessarily make it untrue. It came at a time when the charts were dominated by bland pop songs like Bryan Adams's interminable (Everything I do) I do it for you. Nevermind, meanwhile, soon replaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the Billboard album charts. For a genre of music that was anything but mainstream, it was a remarkably accessible listen then, and remains so today.

Nevermind's overnight success paved the way for Nirvana's contemporaries like Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to share the spotlight. Seattle was the undisputed centre of rock's universe.

Unfortunately, Nirvana also bred, and continues to produce, a thousand pale imitations.Worse, it introduced the concept of grunge - a meaningless term so beloved by marketing men, loathed by the bands themselves - as a fashion statement.

"Alternative" music, meanwhile, was all the rage at precisely the moment it stopped being alternative. But to many, grunge was about many things, music being the least of them. Grunge became about the look, the attitude.

If, like Kurt, we all dressed in plaid shirts and ripped jeans and drank massive cups of coffee maybe we would be mistaken for brooding, misunderstood artists? And surely then, all the girls would like us, right? But we weren't, and they didn't.

Nonetheless overnight, trendy hotspots in cosmopolitan cities like London and New York resembled lumberjack conventions. Never one to miss such an opportunity, the irony-free fashion industry adopted the Seattle look too, anaemic models sporting plaid clothes that were probably heavier than they are. And what better way to assert your individuality than by sporting a goatee, just like Kurt?

Kurt's devotion to his friends and inspirations didn't help matters. Previously obscure bands were suddenly the names to drop at dinner parties. Excellent bands like the Meat Puppets and The Melvins were unknown before being championed by their most famous fan.

Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994 bought the grunge scene to a grinding halt. Seattle was in all likelihood relieved to see the back of the marketing gurus. By the mid-1990s "grunge" was all but dead.

It's a safe bet that no single piece of music will ever again change the world the way Nevermind did. The advent of online downloading and manufactured bands has made sure of that. Twenty years from now, it is unlikely we'll be discussing the impact that dross like Nickleback has had on our lives.

And considering the baggage spawned by the utterly brilliant Nevermind over the last 20 years, perhaps that's not such a bad thing after all.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae