Written for Spin Magazine, August 2011
In the wake of Nevermind’s historic spew and cry, the world embraced the dark side, and then it didn’t. Will it ever again?
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” started as a joke, was misinterpreted as a revolutionary message, became recast as the ultimate alienated teen anthem, bloomed into a successful crossover hit, and ultimately caused no end of grief for the band that created it. In a sense, Nevermind’s most famous single is a Greek tragedy played out over 16 bars.
Fittingly, Nirvana’s ascent to pop stardom and enshrinement in rock history occurred at a specific moment, when America’s disaffected youth inherited a terrible economy, a trashed environment, and shattered fantasies of nuclear families. Appearing against this backdrop, Nevermind was an album crammed full of angst, inner struggle, and contempt for the society that had pushed America to the brink of collapse. As song after song from the album entered heavy rotation on the radio and MTV, Nirvana reached millions of people who saw themselves as outcasts, and who began to sense some sort of redemption in the bass line of “Come as You Are.”
Unfortunately, while Nevermind has endured as a musical achievement, the widespread disquiet that allowed the album to penetrate society so deeply appears to be over. Agitated, introspective, ambiguous lyrics flickered prominently in the pop mainstream, but were totally eclipsed by the end of the 1990s, when the relentlessly peppy sounds of boy bands and teen queens began to rule the charts. The idea of pondering the wider world in a pop song fell away as the Internet’s seductive pool encouraged young narcissists to drown in their own reflections. Bland smiles replaced wry smirks.
So what made skepticism, political awareness, and soul-searching so uncool? And what happened to the lost generation that related so intensely to Nirvana? In order to figure out why teenage angst “paid off well,” as Kurt Cobain put it post-Nevermind, but then virtually disappeared from pop culture for 20 years, we need to start further back.