Nirvana (illustration by Andy Friedman)
It's been 25 years since Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" erupted with volcanic rage on radios and MTV in the prehistoric, pre-internet Nineties, altering the trajectory of American music. The lead single from the band's second album, Nevermind, which was released on September 24, 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the mainstream manifesto of grunge, Seattle's fiery, flannel-cloaked scene of rock 'n' roll angst, anger, isolation, and too many drugs.
After a series of early lineup changes for this Aberdeen, Washington-born band, the core trio of singer, songwriter and vocalist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (the last to join Nirvana and the future leader of Foo Fighters), not only found artistry in that inner tempest, but gave voice to Cobain's cryptic angle on life. He was a reluctant rock hero, thrust into the music industry spotlight and given the awkward responsibility of being a "spokesman of his generation." But he unraveled in public view, becoming as much a specter as spokesman. The depths of Cobain's rage and pain, as reflected in songs like "All Apologies," "Lithium," "Heart-Shaped Box," or "Dumb," were as brilliant as they were devastating.
Over the course of just three official studio albums— 1989's Bleach, Nevermind, 1993's In Utero — and three live albums, including 1994's posthumously-released MTV Unplugged in New York, and early compilations like 1992's Insecticide, Nirvana became the most important band in the States for a supernova span of just a few years. At the very pinnacle of the the trio's success, Cobain — conflicted by fame, his depression, personal demons, and the relentless throes of heroin addiction — committed suicide on April 8, 1994.
Twenty-five years on, since Nirvana first gazed from a 1992 Rolling Stone cover (a sullen Cobain in a "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" T-shirt), the immediacy of the band's magnetic force is more muted. If alive, Cobain would be turning 50 next February. Truthfully, an entire generation is far more familiar with Grohl's Foo Fighters afterlife (a band which, after all, gave David Letterman the glorious sendoff he deserved). But Nirvana's influence and now middle-aged spirit thrives on in so many bands, from peers like Green Day or Sleater-Kinney to younger groups like The Wytches, Sunflower Bean or Girl Band. The impact of Nirvana — the band's luminous highs and tragic lows — is invaluable, a catalyst for American rock music.
Nirvana is absolutely one of our FUV Essentials.