Last week, Rolling Stone released the results of a reader’s poll that asked “What are the worst bands of the nineties?”
For the most part, the voters’ dislikes were unsurprising. Creed topped the list. Nickelback, Limp Bizkit, Hootie and The Blowfish, and Ace of Base are all obvious short-listers for a dubious distinction such as this one. However, number five on this list is Nirvana. The Nirvana. In the editorializing that accompanied this crowd sourced compilation of contempt, Rolling Stone staffers were quick to unequivocally disagree with the voters, saying “What the f-ck happened here? ... Everyone who voted for [Nirvana] in this poll is wrong.”
RS stated their populist opinion, but they did not do much to unpack this unexpected hatred of one of the 90’s most "credible" bands. I would like to surrender my affections for Nirvana (which exist plainly, but are not overwhelming), and try to qualify this rather fascinating panning based on the my perceived flaws of the band.
Nirvana has the primary benefit of Kurt Cobain’s gift for songwriting, a gift that could give a little too much at time. In his formative years, the Washington state native experienced every negative stereotype that a child of divorce could: the abusive step-father, the multiple, dysfunctional living arrangements, the history of delinquent behavior, and what have you. Combine this background with a persistent fascination with Buddhism and Jainism, and you have the source material that would make up the cocktail of pseudo-macabre imagery, spiritual memoir, and general melancholy that make up the lyrics and ethos of Nirvana.
At times, this mixture is all too volatile, and the penchant for the over dramatic is at least a little ridiculous: “I sit and drink pennyroyal … tea-eeee,” Cobains confesses with a grungy moan, “distill the life that’s inside of…meeeeeee.” How did he get away with it? At a modern glance, the mood is either pre-emo, or just plain emo, the secret legacy of Nirvana. Suffice it to say, blaming emo on Nirvana is an unfair assessment with which to judge, but revisionist history can be cruel. Kobain himself knew that, he routinely embellished tales of his life to make his youth seem more cruel than it actually was, when he wasn’t admitting to “basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”
The melodies of Nirvana also draw quite a bit of polarized response. On one end, there are claims of genius in simplicity. Intrepid film composer and Kanye West collaborator Jon Brion once used the chord changes in “Lithium” to underscore the distinction of what makes a great song great, and he is correct. In many Nirvana songs, there is a bevy of subtle choices that subvert the old chords and percussive choices of post-punk and coax your basic, anti-establishment tone into much more than just instrument-lashing bombast.
On that same token, there is lack of musicianship plainly evident to anybody but the least perspicacious of onlookers. Cobain, like Bob Dylan, or John Lennon, was a brilliant songwriter, and a powerful front man, with only sufficient guitar playing abilities. Drummer Dave Grohl and Bassist Krist Novoselic, too possessed enough chops to record their music, and perform well, with the in-concert antics and all, but with music that simple, you could hardly call any Nirvana band member virtuosic. In the pantheon of genre-defining rock and roll stars, can you think of many artists who never really showed off with a salvo of notes?
Over the course of time, we could all fall prey to geeky nitpicking. Cobain and Co. knew all too well the sanctimoniousness that comes from treating something as if it is sacred. Thanks to the Rolling Stone readers, this is no longer the case. Still, the memory of Nirvana remains positive. Can Rolling Stone say the same thing about their publication?