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

NIRVANA / Photo: Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

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





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