On April 8, 1994, when the world found out a 27-year-old Kurt Cobain ate a shotgun at his Seattle home, me and my group of friends got the news from one of our crew’s older brother.
We didn’t believe him, because he had spent the previous month taunting us about our collective freakout over Cobain’s overdose in Rome. We were all caught up in that “Nirvana is our generation’s Stones” storyline. Our friend’s brother was kind of an asshole.
Over the years, Cobain would get the dead-rock-star hagiographical treatment. Nevermind, the band’s most accessible, but not best, album, nearly always tops those “best albums of the ’90s” lists. And it frequently checks in near the top of “greatest albums of all time” lists. (Typically ahead of Exile on Main Street, Elvis Presley and Pocket Full of Kryptonite, so take that for what it’s worth.)
When the story of Cobain’s death broke, though, the local news stations went into war-room mode. They dispatched camera crews to public hangout spots (read: anyplace more than three 15-year-olds were skateboarding) to see how the news was affecting teens.
Teens were a hot ticket back then. (This was when tweens were still just annoying younger sisters—in 25 years we’ll be taking the pulse of zeitgeist-setting toddlers.) It was probably the last time we’ll ever see an old-media mobilization over a youth-oriented pop culture figurehead. The media wouldn’t need to, now. All they’d have to do is pull a few tweets and a couple of sad selfies off Instagram and they’re off to the races.
(It helps if you read that previous paragraph in Grandpa Simpson “tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time” voice.)
Nevermind might be the last generation-defining album of the rock age, but all the qualities typically ascribed to it—that it was a scrappy upstart that turned rock upside down; that it was the champion of the punk/indie DIY ethos; and particularly the notion that it put the nail in hair metal’s coffin—could have applied to several other grunge records at the time.
Let’s not forget that the game was already rigged by then. Nirvana had already bolted Sub Pop Records to sign with David Geffen’s DGC label, and Butch Vig’s production sanded off all the rough edges of debut record Bleach. The Man got there before any of us did.
Nirvana did as much to single-handedly revolutionize the rock ’n’ roll landscape in 1991 as Metallica’s Black Album revolutionized metal earlier that year. It’s just that mystique of Cobain’s torment perfect stormed on up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit’s” status as a megahit. Admittedly, it probably was the first exposure a lot of kids had to harder music, and that does have to count for something.
But let’s not fall into that easy trap. It’s time for everyone to finally admit a hard truth we’ve been afraid to voice for these last 20 years: Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger rocked way, way harder.