I am bracing myself for the incoming fury of guys who graduated high school in 1996, but I’m just going to come out and say it: Nirvana ruined rock & roll.
Every couple of years I check out their catalog again. Every couple of years I’m left with the same impression: Bleach has a couple good tracks but is mostly forgettable. Kurt Cobain was right — Nevermind basically sounds like a Mötley Crüe record (in a bad way). Incesticide contains the cream of the band’s work, but I usually end up listening to the covers and skipping the rest. In Utero has some cool solos but is otherwise noisy, unlistenable garbage. Ultimately, there’s not a single Nirvana record I would voluntarily choose to put on.
Hold on. The nuance is coming.
So Nirvana were pretty terrible, at least musically speaking, but so was most of the rest of grunge. For the most part, grunge was a media sensation, driven by hype. The bands from that era worth listening to, which can be named on a single hand (Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone, Stone Temple Pilots), are the ones furthest from Nirvana’s divorce rock.
But I’m still super glad that Nirvana were around, for one reason: Without them, I’m not sure that I’d be into any of the music I'm into today.
Say what you will about Kurt Cobain, but the guy knew a good band. That’s why he was able to be influenced by everything from Cheap Trick to Black Flag. Nirvana was the band who got me checking out both of those bands. From those two it was just a hop, skip and a jump to Screeching Weasel and Dropdead.
More importantly, Nirvana were the band who made me feel like I could actually participate in rock & roll. I’d been listening to your standard hair metal in the years before. But nothing about Guns N' Roses, my favorite band on Earth to this day, said, “You can do this, too.” Those bands were all happening somewhere far away, doing stuff I couldn’t ever imagine doing. Nirvana was the band that had me picking up a bass and wanting to play in bands.
Still, it’s hard for me not to also see Nirvana as the band that killed rock & roll stone dead. We’ve gotten brief flashes of good bands in the mainstream since (Oasis and The Strokes stand out) but nothing that equals, let alone bests, the work that came before Nirvana's success made irritating riffs and boring personal confessions de rigueur. Bands like Steel Panther have played up the campy, cartoonish aspects of rock & roll since Nirvana, but has anyone really meant it? The ’90s underground offered a couple of bands that might have been worthy of inheriting the crown (The Murder City Devils were my personal favorite, but At the Drive-In weren’t half bad, either), but no one ever managed to break through.
Today’s rock audience prefers stuff like The White Stripes, The National and Arcade Fire. It’s over, kids. When Nirvana came along, they broke everything and the pieces are never going to be put together again. People might still keep killing it on the underground circuit and that might be better, but since Nirvana, rock has slowly exited mainstream consciousness.
Thanks, Nirvana. At least black metal is still cool.