My Complicated Feelings on Nirvana
While impossible to separate music from those who made the music, we all make some attempt to do this. If we didn’t, no one would ever listen to Michael Jackson again. Everything produced by Phil Spector would be burned and shunned. Jerry Lee Lewis (modern reference, I know) would have banned from radio forever ago. If questioned, we make some argument about the music standing on its own.
With Nirvana the music never stands on its own. Every song lyric carries the weight of Cobain’s eventual suicide. We look for signs of his pain, as if pain isn’t the reason for 90% of all music to begin with. We give deep meaning to every breath heard on Unplugged in New York. We like to believe that Nirvana’s whole catalog is really a look behind the curtain of an impending suicide case that we all missed in real-time. If we had just recognized the signs from “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” then everything would have been different. This is ridiculous.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about my relationship with Nirvana. I’ve been doing this because (a) over-analyzing my one-sided relationships with 90s bands is the type of thing I spend a lot of time doing; and (b) the 20th anniversary of In Utero has led to a million things being posted on the internet about In Utero (you can consider this post million + 1). On Grantland, Steven Hyden has a terrific piece comparing In Utero to the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. This piece made me realize two things: (1) August continues to be an underappreciated album (thought not by me); and (2) I had not listened to In Utero for years. After remedying this situation multiple times since yesterday afternoon, I have come to one conclusion: I would have rather listened to August.
In Utero is a good album. You could easily make the case, and most will or have, that it is a great album. I won’t fight you on that. “Serve the Servants” is my favorite Nirvana song. “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box” are tremendous. It is a good rock album from a legendary band. I simply, rarely, if ever, have any interest in listening to it. If it wasn’t a Nirvana album, I’m not sure I would ever listen to it again.
(I should state that this isn’t true for all Nirvana. Unplugged in New York remains one of my top 5 albums of all time. I listen to it regularly and miss it when I haven’t played it in a while. It’s like an old friend. The problem is Unplugged is the only Nirvana album I still feel this way about.)
I’m tempted to chalk this all up to evolving musical tastes, but it’s not as if I’m turned off by all 90s rock music. I still love Pearl Jam and listen to them regularly. I also play the Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains pretty frequently. If I’m going crazy, I’ll even throw on one of the 4 or 5 good Stone Temple Pilots songs.
The only explanation I can come up with is that maybe I never liked Nirvana’s music as much as I liked Nirvana, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe Nirvana feels like an important piece of musical history that my generation can own (to the extent that anyone owns music produced by complete strangers). Other generations have ownership of the Beatles, or the Stones, or Zeppelin, or even the Ramones. I’m sure not everyone in the 70s still enjoys listening to Zeppelin, but they still have Zeppelin. My generation has Nirvana. In the end, that’s not a bad band to have.