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The lasting cultural and musical impact of Nirvana album 'Nevermind'

Very few albums make a truly era-defining impact and have such a significant effect that they totally shift the musical and cultural landscape from one era to the next, changing the zeitgeist across their duration and leaving a historical society in their wake. When you stop to ponder about this category, it’s tough to place albums totally in it. Instead, there exist many records that have helped in part to fuel a subculture or genre, or bands that have managed to do so over the course of their careers, but in terms of one singular unit, one LP’s worth of instant, significant impact, they’re few and far between.

There’s only really two that instantly spring to mind; they are Sex Pistols debut and only studio album, 1977’s Never Mind The Bollocks and Nirvana’s sophomore album, 1991’s NevermindOne would argue that it is the grunge album that sits atop the throne of culturally significant and musically impactful records if only for its global appeal.

Yes, The Beatles’ Revolver, MBV’s Loveless and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton all made massive, unmistakable imprints on the cultural and creative fabric, but they were within the context of the time. Of course, Nevermind came as part of the context of the era, but it totally and utterly destroyed the status quo in a way that had never really been done before, and probably never will be again, owing to the time in which it was released. 

A controversial album for many reasons, the brilliance of Nevermind cannot be understated. Musically, it took the dynamically fluid style of Pixies, with their characteristic loud-quiet-loud song structures, and infused them with music that contained as many flecks of The Beatles and The Bay City Rollers as it did Black Flag and Hüsker Dü

Via the complex brain of chief songwriter and frontman Kurt Cobain, this was Nevermind‘s true brilliance — it straddled the anger of Generation X’s premier guitar bands with the sugary pop melodies of the bands that Cobain and Co. grew up listening to in the 1960s and ’70s. This instilled the album with a crossover appeal that was quite frankly astounding. Kids and adults loved it alike, and quickly it also became hailed as a sonic Bible concerning the messed-up ideation of Generation X.

The strange thing about Nevermind is that it is a contradiction. At its core, it was – and remains – a punk record, made by a DIY band who found themselves with the backing of a major label, DGC, and boy did they reap the rewards. Gone were the discomforts that the band had become increasingly accustomed to with their first label, the independent heroes Sub Pop, and instead, they felt the real might of the established music industry, something you could posit the band would never recover from on what is an awfully ironic point. The backing from DGC made Nirvana overnight heroes. They were plastered all over MTV, the mainstream music media’s weapon of choice, something which must have been anathema to the band members. As much as MTV created Nirvana with the release of the record, the culture it stemmed from also signalled their end. 

For the meantime, though, that was it. Nirvana kicked off the Big Bang of grunge music that also thrust their Seattle peers such as Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam all into the limelight, crystallising the scene as it had now come to be known as one of the biggest musical and cultural groundswells in music history, a decade-defining movement.

To heed Nevermind‘s true cultural impact is a dizzying experience. Without it, it is likely grunge wouldn’t have exploded in the way it did, and subsequently, the wave of guitar music in the ’90s and beyond would not have either. Even the likes of Oasis and Suede, who cut completely different figures to that of Nirvana, wouldn’t have had the platform they did to thrive without Nevermind‘s impact. Let that sink in.

Nirvana changed the world of music with Nevermind. (Credit: Alamy)

D.C. art-punk legends Fugazi, a band Nirvana were huge fans of, released Steady Diet of Nothing that same year. A classic in its own right, the band and their contemporaries felt the spectre of Nevermind hanging over them. Speaking about that period of innovation, Fugazi co-frontman Guy Picciotto once said: “It was like our record could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had… It felt like we were playing ukuleles all of a sudden because of the disparity of the impact of what they did.” Picciotto’s assessment speaks volumes. Usually, an album’s cultural impact takes a while to permeate and take a foothold, but Nevermind‘s effect was instant. It was as if as soon as people had consumed it, they were bleaching their hair, adopting the grunge garb and starting budget imitations of Nirvana and their contemporaries.

Whilst we can hail the record for giving us some of the best guitar bands of all time that spawned in its wake, it also gave us some of the worst. The bands now defined under the loose umbrella term of “butt rock”, Nickleback, Creed, Bush et al., can all trace their success in one way or another back to Nevermind. The movement kicked off a musical arms race, a race by the majors to find the next big guitar band. In fact, Stone Temple Pilots and Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love and her band Hole, were two of the big names helped by its release. The album helped to kick-start a movement that became the beating heart of the semi-nihilist, fast-fashion culture of Generation X, Hot Topic and all. Teen spirit indeed.

Plaid shirts became the nouvelle vogue, as did blue Levi 501’s. In a tale so familiar these days, it kicked off an aesthetic that quickly became a laughable pastiche of the one that Cobain and Nirvana had been donning for years, owing to their humble socio-economic backgrounds. Today’s ubiquity of the plaid shirt and unironic airheads wearing Nirvana T-shirts, we can also trace back to Nevermind — another almost sickening reality.

In 1992, Jon Pareles of The New York Times provided a brilliant reading of the situation: “Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions.” Similar to the rock and roll explosion of the 1950s that had characterised Generation X’s parents day, the epochal shift that Nevermind marked signified that it was now the children of the baby boomers who dictated the cultural norms and not their parents. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of technology, a new dawn was rising.

The boom of grunge galvanised whole nations of teenagers and young adults, packaging their anger against the neoliberal world order into a collection of twelve iconic songs. Speaking again of its internal contradictions, it was punk but pop, angry but mellow, and it spoke directly to the confused soul of Generation X.

After the album’s release, Cobain quickly became their self-appointed spokesmen, a status he rejected. We could spend all day discussing the effect of fame on Cobain, but the story has been told a million times, and it’s not a nice one. In 1993, Gary Gersh, who signed the trio to DGC, stated: “There is a pre-Nirvana and post-Nirvana record business… Nevermind showed that this wasn’t some alternative thing happening off in a corner, and then back to reality. This is reality.” This clearly reflects its game-changing effect on the musical and cultural landscape. Similar to a year zero, 0 AD, Nevermind was the album that plunged the stake into the heart of the deeply awful hair metal that had reigned supreme at the end of the ’80s and hailed the arrival of the future.

The cultural and musical impact of Nevermind was quite frankly on a different level than anything that has ever been put out. You still see its effects today. Just like the first wave of punk that now permeates our culture in calligraphy, aesthetic and musical styles, Nevermind also carries on existing, just in a different iteration to its original self. Not only did it re-write the musical handbook entirely for alternative bands, but it also had an attitude and contained messages that still continue to be heard. Although their fans certainly aren’t aware of it, the likes of Yungblud and Olivia Rodrigo would not exist today without it. This god-awful take on grunge and alternative that we see in mainstream pop acts today, with the likes of Machine Gun Kelly and problematic Soundcloud rappers, would not exist. Like anything that is good, it gets taken by those of questionable artistic intentions and is turned into a ghastly caricature.

On the other hand, though, the positives Nevermind enacted were mammoth. We’ve already mentioned the fact that we wouldn’t have many of our favourite guitar bands of the ’90s without it, but looking into the future, we wouldn’t have had the early ’00s indie explosion of The Strokes, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys et al. or even modern barrier-breakers such as Aphex Twin, Yves Tumor and Tyler, the Creator. This, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of Nevermind; it set a precedent in music, style and attitude, that when appropriated rightly, is nothing short of incredible.

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