Music

Rebels Wit Attitude: Nirvana

In this excerpt from PopMatters' new book Rebels Wit Attitude, Iain Ellis discusses how Nirvana were a rocking perfect storm of punk’s attitude, metal’s riffs, and pop hooks.


Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists

Publisher: Soft Skull
ISBN: 1593762062
Author: Iain Ellis
Price: $15.95
Length: 256 pages
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2008-12
Affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

Excerpted from Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists by Iain Ellis The Nineties: Rock in Flux / Slack Attacks (PopMatters/Soft Skull, December 2008)

Iain Ellis talks with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Listen to the interview here: Humor as a Weapon

After long laboring in the wilderness of underground obscurity, alternative rock pushed its way onto the big stages and into mainstream culture with Nirvana. In terms of the trends and tenor of the times, Nirvana were a rocking perfect storm; they invoked punk’s attitude, metal’s riffs, and pop hooks that would feel at home in a Beatles songbook. Hollywood could not have scripted their heavenly rise any better, though the band were far from willing participants in the process. Hailed as the voice of his generation (X), Kurt Cobain focused much of his songwriting attention on pouring scorn and sarcasm on the band’s predominantly slacker and head-banger following; embraced and propelled by the financial and media clout of Geffen Records and MTV, Cobain likewise mocked these institutional forces with a venom and disdain not witnessed since Johnny Rotten sang “EMI” in 1977. Unlike the Pistols and punk, though, Nirvana reneged on the “us versus them” subcultural contract; for Cobain, “we” were the pawns of “them,” and “he” was as trapped in the corporate machine as anyone.

The zeitgeist moment for Nirvana, alt-rock, and Generation X came with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in late 1991. Though peaking at number six on the U.S. national charts, the single hit the number one slot in many other countries. Nirvana crashed the national stage with an anthem, centered on a guitar riff of which Boston (the band) would have been proud, that spoke against their generation as much as it spoke for it. “Here we are now, entertain us,” demands Cobain, mercilessly mocking slacker apathy and self-centeredness. Through a first-person point of view and a slurred voice emoting part-boredom and part-rage, Cobain implicated himself as victim/point-man of this “teen spirit,” establishing the line between the authentic and the phony but unable to locate himself in either camp. Using a series of paradoxical lines to establish the schizoid struggle, Cobain provided both a sarcastic take on teen rebellion and an endorsement of it. As with Bob Dylan’s early “anthems,” Nirvana captured the tortured mood of their time, and just as Dylan’s “answer” was “blowing in the wind,” Cobain’s sarcastic conclusion to his own tortured position as consumer and dupe was “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” There is self-deprecating resignation to this line, as language itself denies him a satisfactory resolution. The conclusion of the song traces Cobain in his descent into a Samuel Beckett–like void. “A denial,” he screams, over and over and over again.

The video representation of “Teen Spirit” (a clip as responsible as the song itself for thrusting Nirvana to rock stardom) provides clarity to the obfuscations of Cobain’s lyrical abstractions and marbled vocal wailings. Set at a high school pep rally, a stereotypical suburban scene is established with Nirvana performing their song for the seated students. Signs of dissent come into view, though, as the camera pans in on the cheerleaders, who are all sporting anarchy symbols on their outfits. As the song progresses, the student body grows restless, ultimately erupting in a spontaneous riot. Beneath its self-consciously tongue-in-cheek “rock ’n’ roll high school” codes, the video countered the assumption that contemporary youth is doomed to ennui. Within even the most apparently staid middle-class kid, it suggests, resides a simmering cauldron of outcast rage just waiting to boil over. Nirvana, apparently, can provide the necessary precipitant heat.

If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” established Nirvana as the voice of, about, and against Generation X, the album that followed, Nevermind, solidified that designation. Replacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the charts in January 1992, Nevermind made a symbolic and literal statement in dethroning the King of Pop. Some in the underground rock community were thrilled by the breakthrough, optimistic that it might usher in a new era of meaningful rock in the mainstream; others were more skeptical, aware that success can precipitate a sellout of a different kind. Both schools of thought were partially right, and Cobain was front and center, attempting to negotiate the possibilities and perils of his band’s new stature. As many of the songs on Nevermind suggest, Cobain had already been musing over the consequences of fame and fortune before their arrival. “I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend,” he had once presciently written in his journal. Indeed, the cover of the album illustrated the dilemma, with its image of an “innocent” baby underwater, reaching out to claim a dollar bill from a fishing hook. It was not necessary to show who was holding the rod at the other end of the line. In “Stay Away” Cobain wonders, “I don’t know why I’d rather be dead than cool,”13 while “In Bloom” foresees the adoring masses that would soon leap onto the Nirvana bandwagon. “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs,” Cobain sings, sneering at the average “everyfan.” “But he don’t know what it means,” he concludes. Nevermind even had a working title of Sheep prior to its release, a further indication that Cobain was pointing his satirical stick squarely at the hands that fed him.

By the release of In Utero a year later, Nirvana were international rock stars. In response, the band raged with even greater sarcasm against their now-mainstream fan base. “Serve the Servants” sets the tone with its ironic opening lines, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m old and bored.” The darkening mood (both musical and lyrical) and (self-)loathing are further developed in “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” the title of which invoked pat industry-speak with icy sarcasm. “Rape Me” constituted Cobain at his most stark and cynical. The opening notes echoed the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff note for note, signifying (in the context of the new title) that that milestone song had since become the band’s millstone. “I appreciate your concern,” Cobain sneers, mocking the self-interested helping hands of the media, corporate establishment, and rock community.16 “Rape Me” is one of many primal screams on In Utero that evoke the kind of raw, candid, and scornful songs that John Lennon wrote after the Beatles’ breakup. Both artists employ black, self-deprecating humor as a kind of survival mechanism, a lifeline against the mounting internal and external pressures and expectations. If, as some have suggested, In Utero was Kurt Cobain’s official suicide note, it was not expressed without a modicum of gallows humor.

Despite the torment and pain (physical, mental, and psychological) that Cobain undoubtedly endured during his two years under the spotlight, he was not averse, like his doppelganger John Lennon, to periodic retreats into the most juvenile forms of prankster humor. As a kid, Cobain had garnered a reputation for such humor by spraypainting god is gay on random pickup trucks in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, mocking the local narrow-minded “rednecks” (he would later redeploy this phrase sarcastically at the close of “Stay Away”). Such a penchant for gender/sexuality subversions would prove to be an integral part of Nirvana’s public displays, too. While his heavy metal peers kitted themselves out in scary costumes for the 1992 MTV Headbangers Ball, Cobain showed up in full drag. A serial crossdresser (as were bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl), Cobain often donned women’s clothes for both videos and stage appearances. At their legendary Reading Festival performance in 1992, Cobain provided a comic response to the rumor that he might not perform that night due to (much-publicized) health and heroin problems by arriving onstage in a wheelchair and hospital gown; then, like Lazarus, he proceeded to spring into full animated rock star mode. For their 1992 debut Rolling Stone cover shot (seen as a career pinnacle by many an aspiring artist), Cobain offered his gratitude by sporting a T-shirt that he had inscribed with the words corporate magazines still suck, alluding to the “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” indie slogan of the time. A year later, the band would turn the sartorial satire back on themselves, recognizing their newfound fame by wearing formal Brooks Brothers suits for the same magazine’s follow-up band cover shot.

Want to read more about what Ellis says about Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and other seriously funny people in pop music? See Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.

Television

Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.

Music

LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.

Books

'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.

Music

Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.

Music

Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.

Music

Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.

Music

Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.

Music

Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.

Music

DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.

Music

The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.

Music

Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.