Music

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.

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.

 
#1 "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

It's conventional music industry practice for record labels trying to break an up-and-coming band to release what's termed a "base-building" cut as the first single from an album. The idea is that this lead single -- specifically chosen because it contains the core recognizable elements of an artist's sound -- will get diehard fans excited enough to send it up the charts devoted to that artist's designated format. A more melodic single with broader appeal will be issued next, with the intention that it will build upon the momentum established by the base-builder to quite possibly (fingers crossed) cross over to other formats and become a genuine sensation with consumers.

This is the tactic DGC Records had in mind when it selected "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the initial a-side from Nirvana's major label debut Nevermind, both of which it unveiled to the public in September 1991. "Come as You Are" was already slotted as the follow-up, as it was pegged as the potential modern rock radio hit, quite likely because its warbly guitar tone and more restrained, moody atmosphere made it more palatable to the format's Cure/Depeche Mode-dominated post-punk leanings at the time than "Teen Spirit's" aggressive, in-your-face alterna-rockism. Some at parent company Geffen held hopes that the possible breakout track (if it did emerge) would be "Lithium", the eventual third single from the LP. This was the best-case scenario that Geffen/DGC could envision for its promotional plan, given the market for alt-rock at the time.

But history didn't work out that way. What instead happened was that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became a wholly unexpected phenomenon, the magnitude and rapid diffusion of which bulldozed DGC's little marketing strategy so utterly that the label had to throw up its hands and (in its words) simply get out of the way. Conquering sales charts, music television, and all rock radio formats over the course of late 1991 and early 1992, the song not only became a ubiquitous epoch-defining commercial hit -- peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and attaining similar heights worldwide -- but it also quickly ensconced itself into the canon of modern popular music. Today, it sits in that rarified echelon of all-time greats as the one song from the last 20 years that even baby boomers in thrall of the 1960s' overbearing cultural legacy can't dispute is an "important" record.

What is it that's so enrapturing about this particular song? The appeal of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- and by extension, Nevermind as a whole -- is primal and visceral, rooted in gut impulses triggered by the song's attack. From the moment Kurt Cobain's scratchy four-chord guitar intro is interrupted by Dave Grohl's bone-thuddingly massive drum fills and the switching-on of a distortion pedal, it's clear that "Teen Spirit" is a tremendous song. Driven by a lurching, thrashing rhythm and well-placed dynamic shifts to amp up or dial down the intensity as needed, the whole thing practically compels listeners to mosh along. The tune's chord progression is so catchy that the band built "Teen Spirit" around it, relying on Pixies-inspired contrasting loud choruses and subdued verses (where the distorted parts drop off so Cobain can play a hanging two-note lick) to move the song forward. One killer bit that is not often discussed by critics is the transitional riff that connects the choruses back to the second verse and the guitar solo, where Cobain's gnarled, chromatic chord changes are interrupted by well-placed exclamations of the word "Yay", which are themselves augmented by a string bend that matches the note he's singing.

"Teen Spirit"'s melody exhibits a simple, nursery-rhyme quality that makes it compulsively singable; it's unsurprising then that Cobain also utilized it for the track's guitar solo. Even though his straightforward replication of it for his lead break would forever earn him critical marks from more technically proficient players, that decision ensured that no one would ever forget it. According to Grohl, Cobain's songwriting mantra was that music came first, lyrics second. Thus, subordinate to the main melody and Cobain's nuanced vocal delivery, the song's subject matter -- where the lyricist ruminates on his generation, while both advocating and dismissing the concept of a teen revolution -- is pretty irrelevant. On paper the words for "Teen Spirit" might come off as patent nonsense at points ("A mulatto / An albino / A mosquito / My libido / Yeah!"), but one really shouldn't be following the song with a lyric sheet in hand -- Nevermind notably did not include full lyrics in its liner notes anyway, merely snippets of lines. And that's how you perceive Cobain's words on the tune, as verbal snatches slip out from his mumbled, hoarse singing to create impulsive sensations in the listener's mind ("Load up on guns and bring your friends"; "Hello, how low?"; "With the lights out / It's less dangerous / Here we are now / Entertain us."; "Oh well, whatever, never mind"; "A denial"). It's Cobain's attitude -- alternately antsy, aggravated, and snarky -- that imbues his words their power. As Nevermind producer Butch Vig once said about the track, "I don't know exactly what ‘Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something, and it's as intense as hell."

Listening to the track now, its appeal is almost mundanely obvious -- it's no wonder legions of alt-rockers spent years trying to rip it off. Indeed, those involved with making "Teen Spirit" knew it was a great song, even if they could never have anticipated how huge it would become. Vig recalled being impressed when he first heard a grainy cassette demo of the song, and, when Nirvana first rehearsed it live for him, he was so wowed that he asked the trio to play it again and again. Yet "Teen Spirit"'s massive success was by no means ordained, and there was indeed a time when it wasn't the reliable radio standard that it always seems to have been. As detailed in Jim Berkenstadt and Charles Cross's Nevermind book from the now-defunct Classic Rock Albums series, commercial radio programmers were in fact gun-shy about playing the track when it first hit the airwaves, restricting it to nighttime play due to its abrasive nature. However, market research showed that "Teen Spirit" was appealing enormously to all sorts of listeners regardless of age and gender, even when they were only played a 15-second snippet over the phone. Sure enough, overwhelming public demand sent the song into heavy rotation, where it has stayed ever since.

That tidbit reveals much about why "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ultimately became a humongous hit and the defining anthem of the 1990s. Endless analyses have offered explanations ranging from Vig's production and Andy Wallace's mixing making Nirvana's music more palatable to a mainstream audience, to MTV's support of its music video, to the song simply existing at the right cultural moment. What commentators often overlook is the most basic and probably most accurate explanation. Put aside the radio-ready production, the generational ennui, the iconic pep-rally-from-hell promo -- "Teen Spirit" grabbed the attention of listeners of all stripes first and foremost because it fucking rocked. In an era when dance music and hip-hop were gaining huge ground, and the popular face of hard rock was ballad-friendly glam metal, Nirvana delivered a powerful demonstration of rock music at its cathartic, riff-driven best. The caliber of what the grunge trio had wrought was immediately evident to awed listeners even after a fleeting exposure to the tune, a true testament to the group's songwriting ability and performance chops. Hell, if you cue up Nevermind right now, the sound of the full band kicking in nine seconds into that first cut will still feel like a hit to the stomach. That's why 20 years later, the exhilaration of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" cannot be denied. AJ Ramirez

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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