Column: The Critical Curmudgeon
Kurt Cobain? Smells Like '90s Spirit
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 22:02
Yesterday, Feb. 20, marked the birthday of the late Kurt Cobain, who would have been 46 this week. Can you imagine? The Nirvana front-man and pioneer of grunge was considered by many to be the voice of his generation by the time he was 24. In just a couple years, the group went from a Seattle garage band struggling to find a steady drummer to a creative powerhouse launching their genre into the mainstream with Nevermind, which sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Even after his tragic suicide, his all-too-short life continued to have a chilling effect on the youth of the nation. He’s been immortalized, not just by his participation in the notorious 27 Club, but by an explosive, brief, and revolutionary career that helped to shift what people were listening to, coloring “’90s Music” an entirely different hue from the prior decade.
So now, on the day after Cobain’s hypothetical 46th birthday … I still can’t get over that. Seriously, Cobain has a daughter as old as I am. Kurt Cobain would be almost as old as my dad.
Man. Well, anyway, on the day after Cobain’s 46th, let’s take a moment to talk about the ’90s and the eclectic musical legacy surrounding our most impressionable years. Wouldn’t you like to know why you’re so screwed up? Surprise! It’s because the girl from across the street who babysat you when you were five had the radio on full blast playing Beck’s “Loser” on repeat. The anthems of the decade were frequently rather dark: a new interpretation of punk had dawned, and Cobain was neither the first nor last to bend the rules on what a distorted guitar could do. The Pixies, Pearl Jam, and a number of other Seattle groups under the prolific Sub Pop label were churning out grunge even truer to its type than Nevermind, which was more experimental in twisting alternative and pop tropes. Also, the nebulous category of Alt. Rock was surging into the limelight at around the same time, with bands like Weezer, R.E.M., and the aforementioned Beck putting some truly wild material into that catch-all. That’s all not to mention the hip-hop/rap scene, which was a different matter altogether. It was at the turn of that decade that the hardcore stuff originally classified as New School finally broke out of its cage with Public Enemy, Eminem, and N.W.A. hitting their stride. At first glance, it’s a big ol’ mish-mosh of anger and casual-chic trainers. But looks can be deceiving.
What was actually happening for music in the ’90s was deeper than it is often given credit. The unifying theme is a chronic rebelliousness, young musicians tearing away at the junk rock and disco cluttering up the mainstream ’80s. The rampant successfulness of Nirvana signaled a new, engaging sound for young people to hang on to, certainly, but it also meant something far more important: hair metal and all of its spawn, the flashy, demographic-less dingbats churning out softcore pop-rock and “rock-ballads” (whatever that even means) were finally through. The young people with a message to get out were back, love ‘em or leave ‘em. What the artists of the ’90s were really doing, genre-tagging aside, was redefining the Hell-if-I-care mantra, which had been rendered phony and glittering by ’80s rock for so long, into an attitude they could call their own.
And here’s where I have to admit: ’90s music is not necessarily always my favorite sort of thing to rock out to. For instance, groups like The Offspring and Bare Naked Ladies are a ton of fun, but when punk-pop gets boiled down to Blink-182 and Smashmouth, the fun gets seriously called into question. Still, at the end of the day, even if I might think Radiohead gets a bit pretentious at times, I have to say they have a tone and style that was utterly and admirably novel. Sure, Green Day made a lot of Baby’s-First-Punk stuff, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been lumped into Classic Rock by know-nothing DJs tired of playing the same 20 Doors songs all day. But you’ve got to admit that the ’90s had a unique, standout sound, even if it isn’t your personal fave.
Cobain and his contemporaries had their own idea of what great music sounded like, and they overthrew a generic norm to get it there. That’s a class-act movement, right there. Makes you wonder if we aren’t just about due for a movement like that ourselves.