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Nevermind Nostalgia: The Music of 1991... 20 Years Later

Over the next several weeks, PopMatters explores the artistic diversity of 1991, as we revisit some of the year’s most memorable albums, address the trends of the day, and mine the cutout bin of history.

Edited by Arnold Pan and AJ Ramirez and Produced by Sarah Zupko




How you make sense of and appreciate what happened in music in 1991 depends on what theory of pop culture history you subscribe to. Over the past 20 years, what you might call the great band theory has won out, which casts Nirvana and Kurt Cobain as driving forces changing not just their own times, but the course of pop music to follow. They say history is written by the victors, and, according to the annals of rock criticism and cultural memory, Nirvana and its outsider Gen-X demographic turned the page on ‘80s decadence and overindulgence, wresting the sound of the zeitgeist from those titans of excess, Michael Jackson and Guns N’ Roses—well, that’s at least the easiest narrative to 1991 two decades later. The reason why this theory is so appealing, though, is that it holds some kernel of truth, especially for many of us who experienced first-hand what you can truly describe as a sea change in styles and attitudes. While the rose-tinted nostalgia of the present might bias how we recall and judge the past, one also can’t deny that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” makes for a neat before-and-after dividing line to define how social trends, musical styles, and the culture industry changed at the time.


While the great band theory might be compelling and convenient, Nirvana didn’t exist in a vacuum, either. In the larger scheme of things, 1991 was a period of great social foment, though just in what direction the world was heading was in question: The year saw epochal revolutions culminate with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the legal repeal of apartheid in South Africa, but it also revealed how postmodern war would be waged with Operation Desert Storm and proved that the problems of racial inequality were as persistent as ever in light of the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. While pop culture was small potatoes in this bigger picture, you could say it channeled the anxious energy of the time, which was, perhaps, looking for an outlet and new forms of expression.


Along these lines, it’s tempting to ponder whether Nirvana was really a world historical force or more of a product of its times. In other words, was Nirvana just the right band in the right place at the right time or—to riff off a line from the year’s top grossing film, Terminator 2—is there no fate but what we make? Could another song have taken the place of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and could another band have filled the era-making role chalked up to Nirvana now? Something big was definitely brewing and moving towards critical mass at the time, since 1991 was a year of an inordinate number of what would become landmark albums—just one case in point, Nevermind was released the same week as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and the Pixies’ swan song, Trompe le Monde. Then again, neither these acts nor the reining modern rock establishment (R.E.M., U2) nor Pearl Jam and other grunge contenders accomplished what Nirvana did when it did, changing not only the musical landscape, but also everything from the way we dressed, consumed culture, and thought of the social order of things as alternative became mainstream.


Our “Nevermind Nostalgia” series will be working through just these mental exercises and hypotheticals, covering the year’s grand and not-as-grand narratives from a variety of perspectives. Over the next several weeks, our authors explore how artistically diverse 1991 was, as they revisit some of the year’s most memorable albums, address the trends of the day, and mine the cutout bin of history. What the different accounts and points-of-view have in common is that they tell a story of what was happening in 1991 as a progressive history, musically speaking, at least: Big changes were happening everywhere in the musical universe at the time, even if what they wrought might not seem as splashy or obvious now. The bestselling album of 1991 was Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, which helped to usher in a pop-friendly, arena-ready form of country music that has been topping charts and filling stadiums ever since. If popularity and impact are measured by sales and airplay, then alternative wouldn’t have touched R&B back in the day, either, which was a genre undergoing its own transformation in the New Jack Swing era as it incorporated hip hop elements. And in terms of leaving a cultural and social imprint, it’s tough to say that grunge made a greater impact than rap and hip hop, which was blowing up commercially and creatively, with acts as different in styles and thematics as Cypress Hill, De La Soul, and Ice Cube. Without that intangible je-ne-sais-quoi which has made Nirvana legendary, who’s to say that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a more essential document of the era than the best music by any of the acts from the genres mentioned above?


But history isn’t necessarily something that can be logically explained, nor is what counts as important predictable when you look at things in the moment or even in retrospect. Who would’ve guessed then that Pearl Jam would overtake Nirvana in sales and popularity by the time their next albums rolled around? Or, on the other hand, how many could’ve imagined that Pearl Jam’s long-term significance would wane after they became the biggest band in the world a few years later, so much so that the influence of Ten is arguably no stronger 20 years later than, say, the legacy of a subcultural work like My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 shoegazer touchstone Loveless? Other histories were being made just out of earshot underground in 1991, as the indie scene was bubbling below the surface only to enter into the popular consciousness through the back door a few years later as a “real” alternative when grunge basically became hard rock. Dance music, too, was blossoming even as it was biding its time, as the likes of Massive Attack were pioneering a hybrid sound that would become pervasive as mood music for the millennial years.


However you slice it or account for it, the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of good music came out in 1991. That’s something worth remembering and celebrating in and of itself, whether “Nevermind Nostalgia” is good for just a stroll down memory lane or these pieces articulate a more profound revisionist history that can only be told with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight.


Arnold Pan

Thursday, January 5 2012

From Touring Carnival to Destination Festival: Lollapalooza at 20

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Thursday, October 20 2011

Lollapalooza 1991: The Underground As a Community

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Wednesday, October 19 2011

More Than Music: How Going Underground Kept Punk From “Breaking” in 1991

From pivotal, iconic venues in New York and California and the ubiquity of the house show, to the dramatic, intentional divorce from the highly lucrative hardcore/metal crossover scene, 1991 saw numerous DIY punk rock groups reinterpret a 14-year-old subculture with new and urgent relevance.


Tuesday, October 18 2011

True to the Game: Ice Cube’s ‘Death Certificate’

It was during the period between the Rodney King beating and subsequent court verdict that Ice Cube cut Death Certificate, a chilling glimpse into the anger and frustration South Central Angelinos were feeling.


Monday, October 17 2011

‘Screamadelica’ and the Altered State

In the context of Primal Scream's prior and subsequent career, Screamadelica is a miracle.


Sunday, October 16 2011

Rock ‘n’ Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.


Friday, October 14 2011

The Album That Changed Everything: Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’

Even now with all our understanding and acceptance of genre-mashing, Massive Attack’s opening salvo remains as bold and eclectic, as utterly assured a musical message as it was upon release.


Wednesday, October 12 2011

“Something in the Way”: ‘Loveless’ and the Un-Invention of Cock Rock

My Bloody Valentine's Loveless stands as an album of (at least) equal importance to Nirvana's Nevermind, garnering a great deal of its importance for the way that it offers a gender-bending sonic style that severed the entrenched connections between the electric guitar and masculine phallic power.


Tuesday, October 11 2011

It’s All Right, It’s All Right, Alllllll Right: U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’

Pretty much everyone under the age of 35 views U2 as a bunch of overzealous assholes, but this 25-year-old can't help but still blast the group's 1991 masterpiece.


Monday, October 10 2011

An Album Found in a Trashcan: De La Soul Is Dead

Listening to De La Soul Is Dead means immersing oneself inside a funny but terrifying universe, where brutality and self-destruction exist side by side with smart-ass jokes and sex talk and good music.


Sunday, October 9 2011

New Jack Black: Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in New Jack City

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"


Thursday, October 6 2011

New Jack Swing Forever: How a Movement Redefined an Era

New Jack Swing was the soundtrack to young America of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the same vein that Motown was the soundtrack to young America of the 1960s.


Wednesday, October 5 2011

R.E.M’s ‘Out of Time’ Over Time

On Out of Time, R.E.M. wasn't too big to be cool -- yet.


High Flying: Pop Goes Country

1991 was a significant, even historic year, for country music, giving a strong indication of the direction it would take from then on to now.


Tuesday, October 4 2011

Exquisite Corpse: Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Use Your Illusion I and II’

If there was a gravestone for MTV-style '80s metal, it would probably be Guns N' Roses' 1991 opus Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.


Monday, October 3 2011

Was Grunge the Last American Musical Revolution?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. In revisiting the grunge genre which altered the musical landscape two decades ago, the question arises: was this our last musical revolution?


Right There, Right Then: Jesus Jones’ Alternative History of 1991

Twenty years ago, there was no question about who one of the most talked about bands of the time. So yeah, let's talk about Jesus Jones, then.


Sunday, October 2 2011

The 20 Most Memorable Songs of 1991

In a year when so much remarkable music was released, it's hard to choose just 20 memorable songs without a few omissions. Still, you'll be hard pressed to quibble with the picks of the PopMatters music staff and guest contributors.


Thursday, September 29 2011

The Year Alternative Went Massive and Defined a Decade

Above all else, musically 1991 will forever be remembered as the year alterna-rock conquered the masses. PopMatters explores how alternative became the dominant form of rock music in the '90s.


Nirvana: Nevermind (Deluxe Edition)

Over time, it has become clear that this is an album about the feelings of one man (not a generation), and his struggle between rock purity and pop sensibility is what makes this classic.


Wednesday, September 28 2011

Id N’ Ego Killed the Pop Metal Star… and the Alternative Rocker, Too

Grunge didn't kill pop metal, it merely succeeded it as the genre of choice as part of a logical progression. To understand the emergence of alt-rock, we need to examine why the tide turned against a wave of music that had once been so popular.


Tuesday, September 27 2011

Michael Jackson, Dangerous, and the Reinvention of Pop

Nirvana and company may have killed off '80s rock. But if pop was dead, its "king" had successfully created alternatives.


Monday, September 26 2011

Smells Like MTV: Music Video and the Rise of Grunge

MTV’s central role in delivering grunge to a national audience in the early 1990s demonstrated the network’s power as a creator and definer of culture, and the reaction of many of grunge’s iconic figures against the video medium revealed the gulf between principle and reality.


Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, 20 Years On

Released alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind, the importance of Pearl Jam's Ten has been somewhat overshadowed by that record. Here is a young band, barely together for a year, yet confident enough in it style and aware of its strengths to release a cohesive debut album that would serve as a fine indicator of its potential.


Sunday, September 25 2011

Between the Grooves of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’

Our stable of writers undertakes a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the last 20 years, from the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be included on your copy of the record.


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