Smells Like MTV

Music Video and the Rise of Grunge

by Bob Batchelor

26 September 2011


Authenticity and MTV: Grunge Fights Back

While Nirvana and other grunge bands claimed the moral high ground regarding MTV and its role in their successes, the musicians still kept putting out videos, thus participating in the corporate machine. As a matter of fact, for all Kurt Cobain’s mockery of MTV, once telling a reporter at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards that he kept his past trophies in the toilet, the band participated in the channel’s program MTV Unplugged to pump up sales of In Utero (1993), which had been successful, but had not generally lived up to the record company’s expectations following Nevermind.

There is more than a little hypocrisy in Nirvana’s public stance. For example, Dave Grohl, mocking the cable channel in the same interview, claimed MTV’s real motto was not “Choose or Lose”, but rather “Schmooze or Lose.” His band mates felt that if they did not perform at the awards show, MTV would no longer play their videos. With scorn, bassist Krist Novaselic exclaimed, “Then our careers would be over.”

Yet, despite the disconnect between the grunge ethos and MTV’s history of slick, model- and sex-filled videos that appealed to a broad mainstream audience, Nirvana retained its authenticity. Journalist Karen Schoemer, writing in The New York Times in early 1992, shortly after the band appeared on Saturday Night Live, claimed, “Nevermind may not speak to pop consumers or fans of classic rock, but it obviously speaks to a young audience hungry for alternatives. The albums lyrics… deal with issues like apathy and suburban ennui in blunt but poetic languages.”

Nirvana and other grunge bands that rode the MTV wave to stardom soon had enough power to speak publicly about their disdain for the music channel. In October 1993, Pearl Jam won four MTV Video Music Awards for “Jeremy”. At the show, lead singer Eddie Vedder admitted “If it weren’t for music, I think I would have shot myself in the front of the classroom.” Yet, a month later a long profile in Rolling Stone by superfan Cameron Crowe revealed that Vedder refused to do a video for its song “Black” and that he did not even have MTV. “Ten years from now”, bassist Jeff Ament said, “I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” Yet, here we are 20 years later, and it is hard to imagine anyone who does not link the group and that haunting clip of teenage suicide.

By early 1994, several months before he committed suicide, Cobain spoke disparagingly about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in an interview with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. The link between the band’s popularity, Cobain’s disillusionment with fame, and the role MTV played in blurring the line between authentic and sell-out converged. The singer explained, “Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better.”

MTV Minus the Music

MTV’s central role in delivering grunge to a national audience in the early 1990s demonstrates the network’s power as a creator and definer of culture. From a broader perspective, MTV’s influence makes sense for those who grew up in that era of mixed messages, from AIDS and “Just Say No” to the residual conservative strains of the Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush presidencies. For that generation of young people vacillating between the sugary-sweet message of Jermaine Stewart’s 1986 hit “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” and the safe, MTV-promoted sexuality of Madonna, Prince, and bands like Duran Duran, grunge gave voice to audiences searching for social consciousness and intentional defiance of what was considered hip, popular, and cool.

Cobain served as a catalyst for grunge’s popularization and demise. His 1994 suicide deflated the energy from grunge and provided the opening for saccharine and corporate-formulated music to regain the footing it lost when swept out by the success of Nevermind. “Cobain was a tragic, poetic figure”, says Alternative Press’s Pettigrew. “When it looked like he was in control, it turned out he was as lost as ever. But, Nirvana was just as important as Elvis or the Beatles because of the cultural change that threw everybody for a loop.”

Today’s readers may find it hard to believe that MTV held this kind of power 20 years ago, or maybe even that the station back then focused on video over pre-programmed content. Yet, MTV is still a powerful force in popular culture. This notion becomes clearer when examining the way the network currently breaks reality television stars to a national audience (the hideous cast of Jersey Shore, for example). Given MTV’s pervasiveness as a cultural arbiter, it is evident that the network could once again dominate the music industry. Music fans may have changed significantly over the last two decades, but they still yearn for a guide on their journey.

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