Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) in the New York Times: “When the Edge Moved to the Middle.” A practitioner’s view of the importance of Nirvana in shaping the music industry of the 90s, and Kurt Cobain’s refusal to be swept up in that massive change.
I didn’t write a “ten years after” post about Kurt’s suicide for precisely that reason. Kurt’s suicide, even then, was no surprise to anyone who could see the pain that Kurt’s fame caused him. I had no reason to want to remember the pain I felt that Saturday morning in April when I woke up at a college friend’s parents’ house in northern Virginia and saw the headlines. (Besides, Tony Pierce has, as always, said a lot of things that I wanted to say and some I didn’t think to say, far more eloquently than I would have.)
But Thurston’s point is well worth thinking about. I don’t know how much of the coarsening and cheapening of alternative rock you can pin on Nirvana’s influence—however misunderstood and misheard—but surely it is no coincidence that the rush to find angry young men with guitars started at this time. I’ve been looking over the past few days for music from some late-80s alternative artists. It’s stuff that’s a little hard to find on the online sources because the bands are gone, largely unlistened.
But how could the gentler REM-influenced sounds of the Connells, the Brandos, or Dreams So Real, or the more experimental and nuanced sounds of Art of Noise, PiL, Love and Rockets, or even the Pixies survive against the one two punch of the incredible bass and guitar work and angry lyrics of “Come As You Are”? But the kids only listened to the surface. I’m pretty sure that only a few heard the lyrics of “In Bloom”—He’s the one/he likes all our pretty songs/and he likes to sing along/and he loves to shoot his gun/but he don’t know what it means—and recognized themselves in Kurt’s acid portrait of his fair-weather fans. And what the music industry did was worse yet.
When Kurt died, a lot of the capitalized froth of alternative rock fizzled. Mainstream rock lost its kingpin group, an unlikely one imbued with avant-garde genius, and contemporary rock became harder and meaner, more aggressive and dumbed down and sexist. Rage and aggression were elements for Kurt to play with as an artist, but he was profoundly gentle and intelligent. He was sincere in his distaste for bullyboy music – always pronouncing his love for queer culture, feminism and the punk rock do-it-yourself ideal. Most people who adapt punk as a lifestyle represent these ideals, but with one of the finest rock voices ever heard, Kurt got to represent them to an attentive world. Whatever contact he made was really his most valued success.
Darwin is sometimes ugly, and it isn’t Kurt’s fault that his band was leading that sea change. Just once, though, it would be nice if the sea change allowed all the rich and strange things to thrive, rather than the plain and ugly ones.