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
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

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.