Review: Nirvana :: “Nevermind” – when the counterculture became mainstream

We write the story and we have decided: Nirvana belong in the pantheon of pop culture, and “Nevermind” is the best album of the nineties. We are the music listeners of the world, the fans, the journalists, the teenagers and everyone who was once teenagers and who are teenagers again when “Nevermind” is on. Like hardly any other band, Nirvana made music for sensitive adolescents, for pubescent confused people who were trapped in their bodies and their parents’ homes, their fears and aggressions and were able to surrender their demons to the painful screams of Kurt Cobain and his cryptic-gloomy lyrics, to the overwhelming power the electric guitars, Dave Grohl’s precisely rumbling drums.

All of these teenagers are all grown up now, and some of them work in the editorial offices of canon-building music magazines. The constant popularity and presence of Nirvana – Cobain died 22 years ago and would have turned 50 next year – is anything but puzzling: After a decade that stank of hairspray, “Nevermind” looked like the first breath of fresh air in a long time. Cobain retained the intoxicating, self-destructive nature of the well-known rock stars, but in contrast to, say, Robert Plant in the seventies or Eddie Van Halen in the eighties, Cobain did not put lust-driven masculinity at the center of his character, but rather self-doubt, self-loathing and existential Uncertainty.

The consensus album that Kurt never wanted

Others had done that before him, but in the musical mainstream it was only hinted at and mostly defused by the context of a failed romance. Cobain’s heroes were, along with the Beatles, the icons of hardcore punk of the early 80s; Characters pushed against their lockers at school by the cool athletes who thrived in their DIY subcultures and spat on anything the crowd liked.

And then with “Nevermind” the counterculture itself became mainstream. It’s no wonder, “Nevermind” combines previously irreconcilable binaries: on the one hand Butch Vig’s neatly ordered state-of-the-art production and Cobain’s basically poppy songwriting, on the other hand the manic energy of these three men, the abysmal Mind, the pain, the noise. “Nevermind” became a consensus album and made Cobain what he wanted to be at least: a public figure, an entertainer, a guiding star. A rock star.

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