Select Your Memory: Geffen, MTV and Pop Culture Exhume Nirvana

Scott Thill

[T]rue to the reflexive nature of media in general, MTV's self-absorption quickly deflects whatever cultural capital the station tries to give Nirvana back onto itself.

US release: 29 October 2002

"Within weeks high-powered executives were offering contracts to bands they had only seen once, college radio playlists became the objects of intense corporate scrutiny, and longstanding independent labels were swallowed whole. Rolling Stone magazine began making pious reference to the pioneering influence of defunct bands like Big Black and Mission of Burma, whose records they ignored when new, and MTV hastily abandoned its pop origins to push 'alternative' bands round the clock. By 1993, the mass media had risen as one and proclaimed itself in solidarity with the rebels."
-- Thomas Frank, "Alternative to What?", Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos From the Baffler

"From what I've been told, we've proved that independent alternative music is a viable commodity."
-- Krist Novoselic, MTV's Nirvana Compilation Special

"We're Nirvana. And you're watching MTV".

"There have always been good passionate bands throughout rock 'n' roll. It's up to the fans and people in the music industry to make sure that it doesn't get as stale and bad as it's been in the last ten years."
-- Kurt Cobain

It's October 29, 2002 -- do you know where your slacker revolution is?

Still on its couch, flipping through channels and hoping to find some galvanizing force that avoids messy political situations (ex-military snipers, Iraq, stolen elections), ye olde underground vs. mainstream conundrum or, worse, hindsight historical revisionism? Still hammering out grass-roots music scenes looking to stay true to its musicianship rather than its packaging? Good luck, Gen Xer, because, little more than a mere decade later, the world still belongs to those you were aching to destroy.

Like MTV -- whose latest plugs for the new Nirvana compilation (simply titled Nirvana) is spending a good amount of air time trying to remind you that it was at the forefront of the so-called alternative revolution. And in case you missed it, MTV has done the honors of synopsizing that complex insurrection in two half-hour shorts: the aptly titled, No Apologies: MTV's Nirvana History -- which recounts Nirvana's stints on the infamous media outlet -- and an unnamed infomercial which, on the surface, trumpets the band's impact on pop culture the same time it's hawking Geffen's latest product.

Some may not, but most of us do remember when MTV was ceaselessly looping vacuous Winger, Bon Jovi, Michael Bolton and MC Hammer videos into our brain stems. And, well, MTV evidently does too -- it riffs off of that musical horror as a disturbing preface to Nirvana's surge out of obscurity, while at the same time cleverly deflecting its own complicity in the banal turn-of-the-decade cultural landscape. To hear No Apologies' exceedingly animated VJ Iann Anderson tell it, MTV was looking just as hard as you for a cultural zeitgeist to rid itself of Michael Jackson forever. Forget that this is the same corporation that, only ten years later, is now ceaselessly looping Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and no-name bling-blingers that will be gone at the dawn of the Next Big Thing. That is, of course, when MTV is actually playing music rather than loosing its horde of teen-dumbass shows like Real World, Road Rules, ad nauseam on the Reality TV-hungry public.

Enter mass confusion. Or should I say, confusion of the masses.
-- ote>"Why did we need a voice? Dig this. On the music charts there was pretty much nothing but Wilson Phillips and Color Me Badd . . . The music was C+C Music Factory playing over and over. Michael Bolton was seen as deep and thought-provoking. Meanwhile there was massive unemployment, a war in Iraq and a feeling among young people of alienation and bitterness towards the world they'd been left."
— Iann Anderson

Contra Anderson and MTV's assertions, times -- Nirvana revolution or no -- haven't changed. Today's bankrupt MTV so closely resembles the mainstreaming engine that Nirvana, like it or not, was poised to dismantle when Nevermind brought alternative out of the indie record stores and into popular consciousness that you couldn't be faulted for thinking you fell asleep and woke up ten minutes later. Even the guys sitting in the Oval Office share the same name, if not the same policies. There is still a war in the Middle East, and it is still about oil. And yes, the power-that-be still wants everyone else -- besides them, of course -- to Just Say No (except to escalating CD and movie prices) while they rob the retirement coffers.

But MTV is adamant about neglecting these disturbing continuities in favor of the type of self-congratulation that, as Frank argues above, was at the center of their appropriation of "alternative" music in the first place. In a segment that, on the outside, seems designed to honor yet another one of rock and roll's seminal yet fallen heroes, MTV just can't help talking about why it, not Nirvana, mattered so much. All of the major interviews and concert footage of Nirvana are culled from MTV's tape banks (it's called repurposing content, people), which is in step with the first segment's title. But that title itself is an indicator of what MTV is trying to sell: MTV, as always. And, after sifting through the various verbiage, it's clear that the compilation segment is as much a promotion of past events like Nirvana's Unplugged stint as it is of a Geffen release that features one, count it, one new song.

And what a song it is, getting back to the point of this column, which like MTV, is hiding its true purpose (slamming mainstream media's ravenous revisionism) in favor of its superficial one (a harmless media review). Nirvana's blistering new/old tune, "You Know You're Right", is available for listening or viewing everywhere, from Geffen's website -- which curiously offers no further information on the comp -- to MTV's website to your local megachain. But woe to you if you try to justify not spending your hard-earned twenty bucks by downloading it (and thereby owning it) off any number of peer-to-peer networks that the RIAA and its legions of lawyers feel are sucking artists dry. Because just like Nirvana themselves, Nirvana has come along at a dangerous time, tightly tottering between two violently opposed worlds of corporate money-grubbing and democratic technological innovation. In short, Nirvana is a true test of the file-downloading ethos, posing the question that the RIAA and file-sharers everywhere have been asking themselves: is it fair to freely obtain an artist's hard work?
-- ote>"A lot of generations talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot. My generation, we talk about where we were when Kurt Cobain passed away. I was at my house with a friend and we looked at each other and said, 'That's it. It's over'. But even with all the sadness, what we have is the music and the moments. Nirvana's greatest hits package hits October 29th!"
— Iann Anderson

Usually, the safe answer is no, because whether you're an indie or a mainstreamer, you should always try to financially support those who are making the "art" that speaks to you. And MTV or no MTV, Nirvana spoke to millions -- loudly. But cases like Nirvana are where these types of arguments tend to deteriorate. Because if you buy Nirvana, you're literally buying one song. A throat-shredding, cathartic, addictive song, but one ($20) song nevertheless. And it might be worth it to you, especially if you want to revisit the verse-chorus-verse/soft-loud-soft paradigm that Nirvana borrowed -- and perfected -- from the Pixies and countless other bands that didn't make it onto MTV (or into Rolling Stone, for that matter) with any regularity. But no matter what kind of fan you may be, you're not really going to need the rest of the album. If you're a Nirvana fan at all, you'll probably have those songs already.

Which is where MTV's promos come in. Flashing an endless loop of Nirvana footage is one way to get its fans' memory jogged; it's also a sure-fire way to connect the dots for a pop culture aching for someone to -- once again -- come along and -- like Travis Bickle muttered in Scorsese's Taxi Driver -- "wash all the garbage away". But true to the reflexive nature of media in general, MTV's self-absorption quickly deflects whatever cultural capital the station tries to give Nirvana back onto itself. And if you've been around since the days of Marshall McLuhan or MONDO 2000, this is nothing new. But if you haven't -- as the majority of MTV's demographic hasn't -- then you're being grifted. It's pure robbery, and worse than renegade file-sharers pilfering one twenty-dollar song on Kazaa. MTV is conflating your memory of the Nirvana Phenomenon with its own representation of the so-called grunge movement, the zeitgeist it initiated, and the hype it set loose on the world. And that might sound alarmist, but it's hard to dispute. It's even harder to accept.

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