Synopsis of Pop Music
“Here we are now, entertain us…”
It only takes four chords to ignite a revolution, but you have to play them in the right order, with animalistic passion, filtered through a gut-punching, distorted layer of 'white noise.' Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did all of the above, firing the first shots of the biggest music revolution of the 90’s: grunge.
The opening seconds of the song introduced those four chords, with light distortion, setting up a catchy pop riff. But once that 'white noise' kicked in the third time through, the world of hard rock would never be the same. It’s said that if you hold your ear to the speaker and listen closely to those first ten seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can still hear the sound of a thousand late-80’s hair metal bands crying.
Formed in Aberdeen, Washington, on the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, Nirvana introduced the world to what would become known as the 'Seattle sound'—a rough, unpolished, deeply angst-ridden vibe pioneered by bands like The Melvins. Melvins drummer Dale Crover joined up with the band in the late 80’s, moving ex-drummer Kurt Cobain to guitar and vocals, while ex-guitarist Krist (then going by "Chris") Novoselic took up the bass. With that lineup, Nirvana stormed the Seattle region’s club and college scenes, soon signing with Sub Pop records for their first album, Bleach.
Recorded on an 8-track deck in only three days, Bleach was a taste of the post-punk treats to come. Cuts like “About A Girl” and “Negative Creep” showcased songwriter/resident-brooding-genius Cobain’s ability to mix industrial-strength punk with catchy musical hooks, a gift that would soon launch the group onto the international stage. As college radio support bloomed (alongside contemporary grungers like Soundgarden and Mudhoney), music guru David Geffen signed the band to his Geffen label, and in 1991, the seminal Nevermind was recorded.
By this time, Dave Grohl had replaced Chad Channing (who had replaced Crover) as drummer, laying down the rhythms for Nevermind’s grunge masterpieces. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought the group instant radio play, and the accompanying video—depicting the kind of anarchic high school pep rally we all wished we’d had—was soon topping request lists at MTV. On the strength of that #6 single, Nevermind entered the U.S. charts in October of 1991. By November, the album was #1, as music lovers discovered the headbanging poppiness of tunes like “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom,” “Lithium” and “Drain You.”
Nevermind did more than rocket Nirvana to superstardom, however. The album sparked a rare overhaul of almost the entire pop music scene. Big, bombastic hard rock, typified by Harley-riding bands like Poison, Warrant and Mötley Crüe, was unceremoniously pushed aside in favor of fellow Seattleites like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and—finally getting national airplay—Soundgarden. Suddenly, 'alternative' music was the new mainstream, as suburban kids exchanged their moussed hair for long, unwashed locks, and their shiny threads for second-hand plaid flannels and faded jeans. The guys from Nirvana, who had seemed to thrive on being outcasts, were suddenly the coolest thing on the planet.
Nevermind eventually sold over 7 million copies, but success didn’t seem to take any of the edge off of Cobain and company. In live performances and other television appearances, Nirvana flaunted its anti-rock-star image, taunting the kids of America for liking them without really understanding them. Cobain married Courtney Love (leader of the rock group Hole) in February of 1992, and the couple had a daughter, Frances Bean, in August. While the group struggled with its sudden success and the uncomfortable international spotlight, Geffen released an album of cover tunes and other early material at the end of 1992. The album, Insecticide, reached #39 on the U.S. charts and eventually went platinum, but fans had to wait several months for a proper follow-up to Nevermind.
In Utero hit stores in September of 1993, offering an even deeper look into the troubled soul of songwriter Cobain. Songs like “All Apologies” and “Heart-Shaped Box” proved that as much as Cobain may have loathed popular music, he certainly knew how to write it. Despite the pre-release hype that Nirvana was trying to get rid of its fair-weather fans, In Utero was another smash hit, debuting at #1 and eventually selling 5 million copies.
Sadly, In Utero was the last album of all-original material from the groundbreaking alternative trio. Cobain, who had long battled with depression and drug abuse, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in early April, 1994. In life, Cobain had become the voice of a dissatisfied Generation X; in death, he became their martyr. A late 1994 acoustic live album, MTV Unplugged in New York, proved what had been lost to the world—beneath the industrial white noise and screamed vocals, Nirvana’s (and Cobain’s) real appeal had always been in the music’s simple hooks and soul-wrenching lyrics.
A final album, 1996’s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, delivered the second half of the Nirvana live experience—loud, distorted and angry. Both this recording and the Unplugged album were #1 charters and multi-platinum hits, keeping the Nirvana legacy alive in a music world that was shifting back to the mainstream.
Dave Grohl went on to continued success in his own band, Foo Fighters, and Chris Novoselic formed the experimental group Sweet 75 with singer Yva Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Kurt Cobain remains a tragic hero to a generation of music lovers, and Nirvana’s instantly-recognizable songs remain a staple of rock radio, now a souvenir of a revolution that burned out all too soon.
"Oh well, whatever, nevermind..."
Artist Release History1 Oct 1989 - Bleach
24 Sep 1991 - Nevermind
15 Dec 1992 - Insecticide
14 Sep 1993 - In Utero
25 Oct 1994 - MTV Unplugged in New York
19 Oct 1996 - From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsNevermind (Geffen)
Band MembersKurt Cobain guitar, vocals
Krist "Chris" Novoselic bass
Dave Grohl drums