American Underground/ Outsider Rock in the 1980s (Part 1): In Hindsight

Nirvana… (oh, well, whatever), Nevermind.

Twenty-some years ago, Nirvana released the Nevermind album. It went to the top of the charts and turned the band into global stars. In hindsight, it seems like a watershed moment in music, a point when the American Indy underground of the 1980s reached a pinnacle of celebrated awareness. The interest in Nirvana extended to their influences, and a substantial public grew to respect a certain way of doing things – sonically and attitudinally – which served to more/less kick-start a thousand cottage industries. Nirvana's roots were in a cultural oasis that acted fully-realized and decidedly apart from the dominant corporate schlock of the time. 

Nevermind might have been the last high water point for guitar music too. After Nirvana’s untimely demise, mass audiences for guitar rock shrank as general tastes moved towards Hip Hop, Dance, New Country and saccharine Pop music. Today’s stadium-sized Rock doesn’t pay tribute, or even call to mind a notable legacy of inspired forbearers. Outside of Green Day, most platinum Rock acts look contrived in Nirvana’s wake. Nirvana was the last of the big guitar bands to bring vision to long-standing musical traditions born in garages and basements.

The album Nevermind is gritty in tone and sonically plush; thematically a frank mishmash of rebel yell and everyman ethos set to killer hooks. It wasn’t a new formula; anyone with an ear to the ground knew it was born out of Punk Rock, an established culture – if liberally defined – long before Nirvana hit the scene. When Kurt Cobain screamed, it was as much a call for cultural and political awareness as it was self-expression. It was exciting, indefinable art, and disruptive of passive consumption. Punk rock bore low hanging fruit with the Nevermind album.

Nirvana were excellent ambassadors for the Indy underground, routinely praising other bands and lifting them up when possible, even though their operating budget had several more zeros than most of the groups they regarded as peers. Kurt Cobain told a certain truth about weaker artists looking to to cash in on a trend, but he had little interest in being King of the Hill in the music business. When it came to success, Nirvana almost apologized for it, as if a discussion about sales was in the way real talk.

Nirvana challenged the status quo, and for a minute they ruled the school. The safe and dull corporate shills went running to the hills with urgency to formulate the next mollifying Pop antiseptic. By the time the plastic people recovered, Nirvana had already rocked open a gate of culture, and from it escaped an influential rush of art and industry.  Nirvana’s mainstream success was a big moment for independent spirits, perhaps the pivotal hinge-point on way to the modern day life hack. 

 

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