Million Dollar Baby: Nirvana's Explosive, Multiple - Platinum Album Nevermind, Released 20 Years Ago This Autumn, Is the Sound of Rock Music Curdled with Contempt for Its Own Culture

By Maconie, Stuart | New Statesman (1996), October 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

Million Dollar Baby: Nirvana's Explosive, Multiple - Platinum Album Nevermind, Released 20 Years Ago This Autumn, Is the Sound of Rock Music Curdled with Contempt for Its Own Culture


Maconie, Stuart, New Statesman (1996)


He was young. He was cute. He was vulnerable. An American boy-child caught in the hungry spotlight of the world's gaze; his lonely plight and precarious circumstances came to symbolise a new youth movement and a new aesthetic. But back then, in 1991, he was con-! fused, he was out of his depth and he was naked. Literally.

Spencer Elden never asked to become an icon for a generation. Even if he had been asked, it's unlikely he would have had any sensible response, being three months old when his dad volunteered him for the photo shoot that made him iconic. Elden is the naked baby, submerged in an azure swimming pool and clutching at that tantalising floating dollar, on the cover of Nirvana's Neuermind album. His dad was a pal of the photographer and, for 200 of those aforementioned dollars, he held little Spencer briefly beneath the surface of the pool for an image at once cute, breathtaking and very disturbing. It's bright with some kind of meaning, something suggestive of corrupted innocence, danger and venality, all of which preoccupied the short life of another modern American icon. Nirvana's creative leader, Kurt Cobain.

The band's second album. Nevermind, is 20 years old this autumn. And even in a rock entertainment sphere glutted with cheap and meaningless anniversaries, each one an excuse to flog "deluxe legacy-edition" CDs to the few who still buy such things, this one seems to have some weight, some ballast. Never mind changed the way rock music sounded in Middle America, changed the way Middle America's children looked and felt, filled its stadiums and set its cash registers ringing - much to the ambivalence of Cobain, a troubled kid from the a small Pacific north-western town of Aberdeen in Washington State.

Cobain's parents had divorced when he was a child, sending him into a faintly self-indulgent tailspin involving embracing and renouncing Christianity, vandalism, flirting with bisexuality and eventually, and most significantly, losing himself in the consoling noise of the Beatles, classic rock and US punk.

American punk, as played by artists such as Black Flag, Henry Rollins and Killdozer, came much later and was far more dourly ideological than its British forebear (Killdozer's best album is called Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite-you get the idea). Cobain loved the visceral tug of punk and hard rock, but his Beatles fixation also gave him a sweet tooth for a melody and an ear for the catchiness of AM radio pop. Merging the two proved a combustible proposition.

Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 with the bassist Krist Novoselic and a revolving door of drummers. "I started Nirvana because there was nothing else left to do," he said in an early interview. "I didn't like sports, so a band seemed to be the last resort for something to do socially ... I don't wanna have any other kind of job; I can't work among people. I may as well try and make a career out of this. All my life my dream has been to be a big rock star - just may as well abuse it while you can."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Their first album, Bleach, has its moments and its admirers but gives little idea of what was to come next. Some of the ingredients of the Nirvana sound are there - the dark kernel of restless adolescent rage, the bludgeoning riffs -but crucially the drummer, Dave Grohl, and the producer. Butch Vig, were not. Grohl had both the can-do personality and the drumming muscle. Vig (whose work with the aforementioned and defiantly non-teenybop Killdozer Cobain had liked) polished the spiteful, sludgy, stoned texture of Bleach and gave it a hard, glittering, ruthlessly commercial sheen.

To understand the seismic impact of Never-mind 3.nd of that incendiary first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", in particular, one has to hear it - metaphorically at least - through the cheap, fizzing foam headphones of late-1980s pop. Nirvana emerged, to paraphrase Auden, at "the fag end of a low, dishonest decade", at least as far as mass-market pop went. …

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