CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sundae Monday's Grungy

I am not a big fan of Nirvana. It's a generational thing. This post is entirely about Nirvana. Before I get into it, I feel that I should provide proper context, starting with 70s punk. For the record, when I refer to the Big Four, I mean the most popular grunge bands to come out of Seattle in the early 90s: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

I have always lived in the shadow of Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain shot himself and essentially ended the grunge movement, I was seven years old and had just seen my first music video on MTV (for the record, it was Green Day's "Basket Case"). I didn't learn who Nirvana was for a long time, as I was brought up in a home that favored the works of Billy Joel and James Taylor. By the time I finally did get a chance to listen to Nevermind, Nirvana has already been proclaimed the greatest and most influential band since the Beatles. Nevermind is now the usual runner-up in any list of the greatest albums ever made, behind some Beatles album, usually Sgt. Pepper's. With my expectations placed so high by the rest of society, my first couple of listens inevitably led to disappointment.

Since then I have found it difficult to approach Nirvana's work, in much the same way that I find it hard to try listening to the 60s work of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. You can yell at me that I need to listen to these "seminal" works immediately, but that only makes me shrink from the discs. When something is so highly rated, especially works that require a certain context, it becomes increasingly difficult for a modern listener to hear these works with fresh ears. Some bands that play important historical roles can be appreciated on their own terms, like the Sex Pistols. Listen to "God Save the Queen":

You don't need need to see their appearance with Bill Grundy or the context of the 70s to see them as outrageous and rebellious. It's harder to appreciate the works of the Ramones without recognition of how their simplified song structure flew in the face of the growing movement of progressive rock, as exemplified by the works of Pink Floyd, Yes, and King Crimson. Listening from 30 years in the future, the Ramones sound like surf-rock on speed: faster with more edge. Just compare the Ramones' "Rockaway Beach"

with the Beach Boys' "I Get Around":

Where the Sex Pistols had a distinct message that was carried through their lyrical content and their musical style -- anarchy reigned in their music -- the Ramones had a much subtler message. Their revolution was strictly musical. Blitzkrieg Bop stands as a message on the state of music at its time. It's a call for simplification that seems just as relevant now in the face of the music of bands like Tool.

Nirvana's music came as a similar call to arms. However, the excessive musicianship of prog rock that punk reacted to had been replaced by the superficiality of hair metal in the late 80s. Nirvana wasn't about returning rock music to its simplistic roots; it was about removing the sheen exemplified by Poison, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi. In this way, the grunge movement wasn't the changing of the guard that everyone thinks it is. Nirvana simply replaced one style with another. Deliberately inane lyrics ("a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido") replaced overwhelmingly stupid lyrics ("every rose has its thorn, just like every night has its dawn, just like every cowboy sings a sad sad song"). The movement was one of stylistic concerns. There was no return to the good old days when rock music was just three chords. Nirvana's sound stemmed directly from the underground music scene that had blossomed during the 80s.

With the exception of Alice in Chains, each of the Big Four is immediately credited with a distinct set of influences. Pearl Jam's relatively clean sound and big guitar hooks echo the late 60s work or the Rolling Stones and the Who. Soundgarden, before breaking big with Badmotorfinger, were labeled a Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath hybrid. Nirvana is the most distinctly punk-influenced of the Big Four, as noted in Kurt Cobain's statement that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is his version of a Pixies' song. Nirvana never developed a musical team like Mike McCready and Jeff Ament or Kim Thyil and Ben Shephard. In fact, it often feels as if Cobain prides himself on how simple the music is. One of the most interesting things about the video for Nirvana's "In Bloom" is how it directly references pop music from the 60s when "In Bloom" is one of the most strikingly pop-y songs of the grunge movement:

Kurt Cobain wrote good pop songs and then slathered them in distortion. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, musical break, chorus. Though this template is unavoidable in all music, Nirvana's use of this structure was particularly apparent. Verses were often quiet, and choruses were usually much louder. If I were to intellectualize this to an absurd degree, I would say that this is Cobain's way of emphasizing the traditional pop song structure so as to make his audience recognize the utter sameness in the songs they normally listen to. I think that this is giving our friend Kurt a bit too much credit. I think he just like a good pop song but wanted to hang out with the cool kids. If you want to look at a nice twist on a normal pop song template, look at Soundgarden's Rusty Cage:

Here, the musical break never really ends, as it changes the entire rhythm of the song. That is what draws me to Soundgarden rather than Nirvana; Soundgarden attempts to make more than simple pop songs. Nirvana never really seems interested in the music they make. It's hard to look at Nevermind as a good album without placing it in its context. Even so, of the albums released in 1991 by the Big Four, Nevermind comes in a distant third to Badmotorfinger and Ten, respectively. Nevermind isn't as interesting rhythmically as Badmotorfinger or musically as Ten. Without a personal stake in the music, I lean away from Nirvana's simple style.

A quick thought on my earlier comment about one style replacing another; look at these two videos:

Look at the way shots of the band are intercut with death. The band isn't presented in glamour shots like they would in a Poison video. The Toadies use stark lighting as if to highlight their flaws, and shots of Soundgarden are often dominated by the lights in the background in an effort to hide the band. These techniques are common in grunge and alternative videos, as they reject what was once considered the standard for a rock video and try to rebel by fitting another sort of conformity.

Though I would prefer to listen to Badmotorfinger or Vs. on any given day, I would say that the one album that just gets better with every listen is Alice in Chains' Dirt. Often listening to that album, I feel like this is what Hell should sound like:

Layne Staley sounds like he is screaming in pain, and the guitar sounds like a car revving up about to drive off a cliff. Even songs written by Jerry Cantrell that don't thematically fit in with the majority of the album, which is devoted to Staley's heroin addiction, never sound out of place. The prime example is Rooster, which to my mind is the ultimate song about the Vietnam War:

Dirt is an unrelentingly bleak album, but its sound and lyrics cohere so perfectly that it transcends its boundaries to become truly beautiful. It is an album born of pain, so its grand themes suit it well. I never get that sense with Nevermind. But before people just think I hate Nirvana, I want to present what I think is Nirvana's best song:

I don't hate Nirvana. I just don't get it. I feel like someone is trying to tell me a joke and ends it with "you had to be there." Can someone tell me from an objective point of view, what is so good about Nirvana?

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Blogger Robert M. Lindsey said...

Great post. I remember when Nirvana's nevermind came out. A few friends bought it, but no one liked any song other than Teen Spirit. Pearl Jam's Ten is one of the greatest albums of all time. Cobain was way over-rated.

2:29 PM


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