Nirvana released Nevermind on September 24, 1991. The album changed the musical and cultural landscape. The music world refocused from dino rock, hair metal, and corporate rock. For a brief moment, so-called “alternative” music ruled the radio and fashion designers started selling plaid. Eminem notwithstanding, in less than a decade, the radio shifted backward toward “safe” genres and the music industry never recovered.
In 1991, overly polished rock music and dino rock dominated the musical landscape. Even Metallica released a slick album. The pop metal scene had run its course. On top of this, several artists from the 1960s and 1970s, pejoratively labeled “dino rock”, continued to receive extensive radio play. People were hungry for a musical change. A member of L7 probably summed it up best when she claimed that young people could not identify with acts from the seventies.
Record executives and critics should have seen change on the horizon. Garth Brooks became a huge seller and people flocked to country music. Hip-hop emerged from Vanilla Ice’s shadow and shifted to “gangsta rap.” In November, U2 changed musical direction with Achtung Baby. Most importantly for the short term, R.E.M. broke into the mainstream with Out of Time. Their omnipresent single, “Losing My Religion” struck a nerve with people starved for change. In an era dominated by electric guitars and hip-hop bass, a folk song featuring a mandolin catapulted to #1.
R.E.M. influenced Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. Before Nirvana exploded, the band stayed at R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck’s home in Athens during a tour. They could not afford a hotel. There is a story that flat broke Kurt Cobain slept on the streets the day the band released Nevermind. He became a success within a few months of the album’s release.
Nevermind’s lead single struck like a thunderbolt. At first listen, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appeared similar to other hard rock acts of the time. In fact, Cobain altered Boston’s riff on “More Than A Feeling” for the song. However, the song’s content and raw emotion, fed by the music video, demonstrated the difference between Nirvana and their hard rock contemporaries. The song’s lyrics spoke of alienation and isolation as opposed to sex or partying. Instead of supermodels, the video showed gritty cheerleaders donning tattoos. On top of this, the band wore normal everyday clothing as opposed to spandex. At the end of the video, the extras destroyed the set in a riot.
The song and its video became a battle cry. People flocked to the stores to purchase the album. So-called “grunge” music became mainstream. Grunge involved distortion, apathy, and angst mixed with metal, punk, and indie. Many of the genre’s acts despised the term. Regardless, Nevermind sold 30 million copies and dethroned Michael Jackson atop the album charts. Overnight, record companies jettisoned acts like Poison and Warrant in favor of grunge. Many believe this movement returned rock to its roots and restored rock n roll after hair metal blasphemy. Few pop metal acts survived the great extinction.
The culture changed with the musical landscape. Cobain, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and others became “spokesmen” for Generation X. People began wearing flannel after Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and other acts appeared on stage and in videos wearing flannel shirts. The acts wore what they could afford and did not choose flannel as a gimmick. After Nirvana and the others broke, fashion models walked runways in plaid. Magazines spoke of the “grunging” of America. Years later, The Simpsons poked fun at the period when they rebooted Homer and Marge’s past.
Grunge did not last long. It began to decline relatively quickly. The second and third round of “grunge” acts lacked the musical credibility and personal background of the originals. Additionally, they seemed to be ready-made copies and became as polished as pop metal. Most importantly, alienation themes played themselves out. In 1991, people wanted a counter to party rock. A few years later, they wanted an alternative to apathy. Smash Mouth front man Steve Harwell claimed he wanted to create upbeat music because he was tired of grunge’s depressing tone.
Nirvana’s tone emanated from their front man. Kurt Cobain suffered with the success and his band’s influence. Nirvana released another album, In Uetero, and filmed an episode of MTV Unplugged. Cobain self-medicated to deal with the pressures of touring and expectations. On March 4, 1994, he overdosed in Rome, but survived. This might have been a suicide attempt. One month later, on April 8, 1994, he committed suicide with a shotgun. Kurt Cobain was the last real rock star.
Rock music decreased in popularity following Cobain’s suicide. No one filled the void left by the alt rock movement. Pearl Jam intentionally moved away from the mainstream. R.E.M. and U2 altered their musical directions. Other acts imploded or disappeared leaving the music industry to more corporate rock types. Hip-hop experienced a similar decline with the collapse of Gangsta Rap. However, hip-hop proved better suited to adapt to pop music than rock. After grunge’s decline, teen acts filled the void. In theory, record companies could better control teen acts and bland rock bands. These acts proved safer for Middle America. A couple years later, music downloads further hurt rock music. Rock is an album-oriented genre while pop music albums tend to coalesce around a couple of hit songs and a bunch of substandard filler. People would rather purchase a solitary song online than an entire album risking a bunch of poor quality songs.
Nevermind ended the 1980s pop metal period and ushered in a short-lived grunge era that marked rock’s last gasp. In 1991, people wanted something raw and fresh and Nirvana provided it. The album changed the music scene and culture. By decade’s end, grunge was dead and rock music on the decline. Twenty years later, music fans are still waiting for some act to fill the void.