Nirvana - Pioneers of Modern Rock, or Another Over Commercialized Pop Act?

author: Jacques Nel date: 03/12/2014 category: artists' discussions

Sign up to get weekly digest with top stories from UG. Ads free, only news.

Thanks for subscribing! Check your email soon for some great stories from UG

I like this
votes: 21
views: 3,772
Nirvana - Pioneers of Modern Rock, or Another Over Commercialized Pop Act?
The music industry today is without a doubt dominated by artists that are marketed so much that there are few teens out there not owning either a backpack, a pair of shoes, a t-shirt or some other random article of clothing or apparel that bears the face of their favorite pop icons. Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, One Direction all are splattered across television, news papers and tabloids the world over and every single move they make documented.

Taking a trip back to the late '80s and early '90s you are greeted with a sight you may find familiar. Although many big names were flying around back then, one of the biggest at the time was definitely Nirvana and controversial front man Kurt Cobain.

Nirvana shot to fame after their debut album "Bleach" landed them a record deal with DGC records to record "Nevermind" with now renowned producer Butch Vig. The first single of which became one of the most critically acclaimed songs in history, earning the number 1 spot in VH1's 100 best songs of the '90s countdowns and more recently, it was named best song of all time by NME magazine. Of course I'm speaking of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

But despite revolutionizing the grunge genre and giving most legendary and modern artists a nice old b-tchslap in the face by having "Smells Like Teen Spirit" overshadow them all, the mere mention of Nirvana nowadays sets forums and discussions alight with blazing arguments over their musicianship and the legendary status this band enjoys. 

And so the question is asked whether Nirvana deserves their spot as one of the greatest bands to ever step onstage.

But when answering this question, you need to ask yourself what really makes a great band, and what really sets legendary musicians apart from the others? Is it record sales? Is it fame? Is it fortune?

The story of Nirvana and its front man Kurt Cobain, runs like a fairy tale rock and roll story. It's widely chronicled that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic formed Nirvana. Later, Dave Grohl joined them on drums replacing their original drummer. Kurt was a struggling musician, with little or no money and came from what can be described as a broken home. They landed a record deal with Sub Pop to record "Bleach" which first made them popular on the music scene. But when "Nevermind" landed, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain became household names. 

Everybody wanted a piece of the Nirvana pie. From there on, Kurt kept on struggling with drug abuse and the demands of being the most famous musician at the time. In 1994, after releasing a few more albums that were not really as successful as "Nevermind," and in the midst of marital problems to his wife Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain committed suicide in his Lake Washington home. 

Many attribute the band's legendary status to Kurt's suicide.

But how does this relate to whether Nirvana was actually great musicians or not?

Music in itself is something that can not be measured in any type of unit. There is no solid way to take any music and scientifically or logically put a value on it to justify why it's good, or why it's bad. The only way in which music can really be measured is the way in which it is enjoyed.

From a purely technical viewpoint Nirvana's music was never something that can be considered "complicated." Most of the songs, and especially "Smells Like Teen Spirit," are built from a power chord based melody. From his writings and notebooks, it would seem as though this was mainly what Kurt Cobain had always focused on anyway. They never relied much on solos, and many songs never had any solos. It can be argued that many bands today, and even bands who never make it in the music industry can write much more sophisticated music which is also much more technically sound. 

Maybe one of the biggest parts of Nirvana's music, was the lyrical content. In most of the popular and more commercialized songs, lyrics are repetitive. This has been used in many cases by many artists as a "pull" of sorts. Having a phrase that is repeated in a "catchy" manner has become the focus of a lot of successful artists both in history and today. "Won't you believe it, it's just my luck" is used as the sole line in the song "School" by Nirvana and repeated four times per verse. Makes one think of modern artists, with examples like "Baby baby baby oh" or "p-p-p-poker face p-p-poker face." Was Nirvana's success attributable to catchy repetitive lines? 

Another big aspect of any successful artist would be marketing. As we see most popular modern day artists splashed over TV-screens daily, their every waking move monitored day and night, as was the case with Nirvana, and more specifically Kurt Cobain. From watching the DVD "Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!," one can make the assumption that the band was all over the news, all over MTV, interviewed extensively and from all the books and notes released and published it is clear that Kurt's life has been studied more times than can be counted. With this it can be said that Nirvana was a well marketed and very commercialized group. 

Another school of thought contributes Nirvana's success to the mistaken belief that Nirvana "invented" grunge music. While it is loosely true that the group popularized the term and the genre, grunge has been in existence for quite a while before Nirvana hit the scene, as the origin of the term is traced back to Mark Arm of the band Mudhoney who started using the word back in the early '80s in more of a descriptive manner than anything else it would seem. It holds true that Nirvana, together with a few other popular bands at the time, especially Pearl Jam, made the term a widely known one. On a related note, the use of the word "grunge" as a genre is still a widely debated issue as many still consider it merely a description of a particular style of alternative rock. 

Nirvana has been described as pioneers of rock music, but can we consider them pioneers? Have they made a contribution to the genre which is more than just the success story they lived? While many modern day artists have cited Nirvana as an influence on their own music (Seether springs to mind), it can be argued that Nirvana did not bring as much to the table in the line of "innovation" as perhaps The Beatles, or The White Stripes, or even Metallica.

Nirvana has also been credited with being the voice of the troubled youth at the time. Many described the music as having spoken to them on a deeper level and addressing issues they experience themselves, or helping them feel like they are not alone in the way they feel. So could this have been the reason for the demand for their music? Was it the fact that Kurt managed to connect to his listeners on a deeper level?

So the question remains, is Nirvana the Lady Gaga, the One Direction, or the Rihanna of the '80s/'90s turn of the decade or are they true rock legends? Was the world swallowed by catchy lyrics and melodies, as one fan stated, like "children's songs when you were little," or was there more depth to their music than we could imagine? Did the image that was portrayed by the media hype of a troubled singer and a group of misfits keep everyone interested and asking for more? 

In the end it comes down to what good music is to you as the listener. Whether the only song you know is "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or whether you like very song they recorded, it depends on what your ears want to hear. Whether Nirvana deserves to be praised with the titles they receive today, and whether they deserve to be inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame should not be of relevance to anyone who is not a fan of the band or even those who are, because let's face it, in the day and age we live in, an artist will never be appreciated by the media and the critics for their musical value, but rather for their commercial value. 

Together with the media, many have lost their ability to enjoy music for what it is and not give in to the hype and the image or the gimmicks. In considering whether a band or an artist is good or bad, it comes down to every single move they make nowadays. The day is long gone where all we had was the music and not the life story that comes with it.

By the media and the critics, Nirvana is praised for their record sales, and for the success of a single song "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The story of Kurt Cobain is one that will be milked for generations to come and every aspect of his life imposed upon to be published and sold to the world. But to their fans, the music will always mean so much more than any number of records sold or any single song. 

To those that are not fans, well none of this should really be of any value. It may seem unfair to some that Nirvana are being honored in so many ways and 20 years after the band ended their run, they are still being splashed all over the media.

Me personally? I went through a phase of enjoying and appreciating Nirvana. When I moved away from taking all the surrounding hype into consideration and just considering the music I still enjoyed them, but as my musical abilities and interest has grown, so has my taste for more sophisticated music and in all honesty I have lost much of my interest in Nirvana's music at this point.

But I come back to what I said at the very beginning of this article: Whether music is good or bad can not be quantified in any measurable unit. The only thing that determines the worth of any single song is the enjoyment it brings.

Thank you.
More Jacques Nel columns:
+ Evolving as an Artist Artists' Discussions 05/22/2014
+ Rocksmith, Powerful Training Tool or Just Another 'Guitar Hero'? Features 03/18/2014
+ How Players Lose Interest General Music 02/07/2014
Only "https" links are allowed for pictures,
otherwise they won't appear