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Monday, April 12, 2004
Me and some other folk were going to do a "Nirvana day" on the anniversary of Kurt's death, but we sort of never got around to it, and in retrospect I'm kinda disappointed, but mostly glad. Almost everything I've read about the occasion has made me depressed, with the notable exception of Klosterman's article in Spin, which was a smart, smart envisioning of Kurt's life if he hadn't died (which goes a long way toward soothing some of the disappointment).

But other than that, blech. For one thing, Kurt's pretty much only presented as a sort of unattainable ideal. And not just musical, which wouldn't be so bad, since we've gotten over that sort of thing before ("No one will ever be as good as the Beatles, man."). But, grossly enough, it's the parts of Kurt's life that he seemed to want to be emphasized that are being most fully lionized--his moral stances, his purity of essence, his cultural impact. You're a good musician and songwriter who's enjoying some success and making people happy? So what? Did you spend years touring relentlessly in a van, playing in small clubs? Do you have a naturally incendiary voice? Are you a wellspring of deepness? Did you write a single that changed the cultural preferences and values of an entire generation or two? Of course, a lot of this isn't true, and I know that, but the fact remains that, partially because of his death, Kurt has now become The Annoyingly Perfect Sibling in the rock world, the one who's an authority's wet dream, did everything perfect, and can never be matched. Maybe the standards by which he's being judged are fucked up, but that doesn't make one feel any better about one's self if, by those same standards, one hovers somewhere are Kajagoogoo.

But even more depressing is the fact that apparently people still haven't learned the fucking lesson of Nirvana, or at least a big part of the lesson. They still want to see it as a story about the value of authenticity and "darkness" and the way the bourgeois mainstream just doesn't get it, man. Take, as a somewhat random example, this bit from a USA Today article:

On Seattle alternative station KNDD, Cobain's music has a nightly showcase as well as a fixed position in the playlist.

"Nirvana, in Seattle and the rest of America, is still a cornerstone of this format," station manager Phil Manning says. "When Nirvana was a young band, rock music was glam-metal, very slick and overproduced party music that lacked sincerity. Kurt's music and lyrics and entire persona were the antithesis of that. Nirvana had a rawness and honesty that spoke to Kurt's generation. The music was the star, period. The band was the anti-star."

Blargh. Phil, didn't you get the memo? It's OK to admit in public that we like(d) Motley Crue now. (Although maybe not in Seattle, I dunno.) Are we honestly still peddling this discredited line? I mean, obviously we are (Matthew's April Fool's Day post consisted of Nirvana and Pearl Jam writeups culled solely from Amazon reviews, and are both hilarious and prime examples of this attitude) but sheesh, it's just shocking to see it being presented with a straight face. I mean, who's included in that "overproduced party music" category? Prince? Pet Shop Boys? New Order? Do I need to go on? Or is it just that old, weird anti-dance music bias thing again? And sweet Jesus, can we get over the glam-metal thing already? If you liked Nevermind you liked glam-metal. I'm sorry, but it's true. And yes, I'll also grant you the oft-mentioned significance that Nevermind kicked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts, but not because it signaled a new age where people woke up and realized how empty and meaningless Michael Jackson and his ilk was (because a) Thriller is better than a whole lot of alt-rock albums and b) indie-rock has always been less effective than multiple pedophilia charges at ruining an artist's public image); it was significant because it showed that indie rock could be pop, just as pop as Michael Jackson, and that this was OK, that this could really work. But people still don't get that. Look at what else the radio dude has to say:

"It's great that Kurt influenced so many young musicians. The flip side is that the ones who lacked originality tried to follow a template. Right there, it loses its honesty and reason for existence."

This would be true if it weren't for, you know, the Pixies, Black Flag, the Melvins, etc., etc., etc. This is all pretty well documented and agreed upon: Nirvana took a lot from its influences, and they were following just as much of a template as, say, Silverchair. But the conclusion we should draw isn't that Nirvana is a lame bunch of poseurs who are just ripping off bands that never had a shred of their success and should be thusly ignored, it's that templates are good. There are a lot of templates out there that we can learn from and try and implement, and one of those templates is pop, which is a whole genre of templates mixed with weirdness these days. It's just shocking to me that people are still on this search for pure originality when it neither exists nor is desirable. It's not like there's no music out there right now that we enjoy. Wouldn't you want someone to at least learn the lessons of those successful acts? And aren't a lot of the acts we love pop in one way or another?

The other thing besides the originality shibboleth is the sincerity thing, which seems synonymous with sadness. Sure, Kurt's life was ultimately pretty sad, and a lot of his songs are certainly mopey. But there's also a whole lot of goofiness and silliness and just general fun in there. I mean, "Floyd the Barber"? "About a Girl"? Krist doing pudding Twister on TV? The bits from The Year Punk Broke with Kim putting makeup on Kurt? Nirvana's style stole a lot of the good elements from the whole Olympia scene, being cute without going wholly twee, certainly much more so than some of the more metalheady, macho grunge groups. And then, of course, there's the beauty of "Sliver," but that's probably a post to itself.

Ack, sincerity. Why can't people see the pop in Nirvana? Why can't they then think about how much of pop is deeply sincere? (Indeed, it's that "cheesy" sincerity that turns some people off pop music!) Nirvana did a great service by taking the localist and community (i.e. social) based indie music to a broad audience, showing how it was done. It's not that they showed dumb record execs that there was this wholly different thing that was even better than, say, New Edition, it was that they showed dumb record execs how many similarities there were between indie bands and pop groups, how once you got past the prickliness there was a lot there to appeal to teenagers, deep ones or otherwise.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Nirvana that I think is often missed, it lies in another well-documented fact: Kurt wasn't actually much of an indie kid. He was a clueless small-towner trying to look cool. But the fact that he succeeded should tell us something. Don't get me wrong--I recognize that some of the indie posturing he engaged in had a really positive effect. Certainly you can't underestimate the good done by his championing of obscure bands to a wide audience, even if the way he did it smacked of name-dropping. But a pretty big function of his cred-maintenance was to allow a certain group of people to like his music. In a way, this is simply evidence again of his almost unconscious pop instincts, trying to get everyone in under the tent, and maybe by making the model he promoted a wholly legitimate one, he's done some good for future musicians. But we also see that people have missed the point. So I think it's time to be honest here. The fact that Kurt could basically fake indie cred should show us just how bullshit that is, that it's not honest and pure, that it's something you can make up if you've got the skills and hang out with riot girrls for a while. He hit a shocking number of points on the indie moral code, but he was also a total sell-out. So why do we cling to this? Why do we continue to limit ourselves?

This was a complaint. Nirvana deserves a celebration, and maybe we'll work one up for another anniversary, or just for no reason at all. But for now, I think this needed to be said.