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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Nirvana and the Betrayal of Alternative Rock

20 years after rock'n' roll was re-ignited by "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Nevermind, Toby Creswell looks back atNirvana and hip capitalism's co-opting of Generation X--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

 

Nowadays everybodyascribes the collapse of the recording industry to illegal downloading. But asBob Dylan recently observed, "Remember when that Napster guy came upacross, it was like, 'Everybody's gettin' music for free.' I was like, 'Well,why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."' Precisely. The rot started yearsbefore...

The end of rock 'n'roll music began on September 10, 1991 with the release of the last trulyclassic rock 'n' roll single - 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana. 'TeenSpirit' was a hurricane of fresh air. Who among us knew that it was a lastgasp?

It's hard now torecall the tsunami that was 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Only two singles - theSex Pistols' 'Anarchy in the UK' and the Beatles 'Please Please Me' - haveruptured the airwaves with the same force. There we were, placidly listing tothe ersatz danger of Guns N' Roses or the vapid pop of Roxette, when out of theblue comes this massive reimagining of how rock 'n' roll could be: mysterious,contagious, dark but unmistakably fun.

Then, the album Nevermindbeat Michael Jackson to the top of the charts deposing the King of Pop.Something was happening here and nobody knew what it was. In the absence of anyother explanation the pop culture industry decided that this was the birth of anew generation. Somebody had read Douglas Coupland's novel Generation Xabout young people alienated by consumer culture. That fitted with 'Smells LikeTeen Spirit' and - without a trace of irony - Generation X was born.

That was a lot of funin the early '90s. One magazine reported of Generation X, "They sneer atRange Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders. What they hold dear are family life, localactivism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes". Timemagazine chimed in, "They would rather climb the Himalayas than thecorporate ladder." What Time didn't say was that, in fact theywould rather get wasted on cheap drugs and make a very loud noise than doeither of those things.

According to thesociologists and marketers, there was an "authenticity crisis" inpopular culture. What a great phrase! Certainly, the hardcore kids seemed moreauthentic than the big hair heavy metal bands or the post-Breakfast Clubnew wave kids. But that's because they were mostly broke and spent their sparecash on tattoos.

Supposedly the newgeneration saw through the false claims of advertisers. They were looking foran authentic experience.

As the editorialdirector of a Gen X magazine I went to a number of meetings with advertiserswanting new ways to reach the kids. More than one advertiser canvassed the ideaof advertising without mentioning the name of their company. This is true.

The corporations reallyneedn't have worried. Gen X loved consuming. The golden age of branding reachednew heights in the 1990s. Like the spawn of Imelda Marcos, Gen X definedthemselves by footwear. Overpriced, manufactured in third-world sweatshopsfootwear was the status currency of the era. Especially when accessorized witha wryly ironic T-shirt and slogan. Bands were similarly accessorized; the bandT-shirt was more important than the music because the T-shirt added to youridentity.

People started to usethe word "demo". Baby boomers understood this to involve a picketoutside the US Embassy. Nowadays a "demo" is a way of defining aperson by their age and interests. Somewhere in the '90s arose the idea thatsociety had fractured into different demographics like so many Sharks and Jets,each with its own tightly defined rules of authenticity.

Popular music is amass art form. The greatest moments in pop music have been those tunes thatreached out across boundaries. Pop music is about reaching out, it's aboutsmoothing social relations, and it's about a lingua franca. When 'Teen Spirit'arrived, everyone knew about it because everyone still paid attention to thehit parade. But not for much longer.

Nirvana came out ofthe sub-subculture known as "hardcore". This was an internationalnetwork of a few thousand disaffected youths thrashing out songs about how muchthey hated themselves/their parents/Korporate Amerika/Korporate Muzik. Thegroups would tour, staying on each other's couches - that's how popular it was.

Suddenly with Nirvanataking off, the spotlight was directed at the hardcore scene. "Alternative"became the new mainstream.

Record companiescreated fake "alternative" subsidiary companies to lure thedisaffected youth into a non-corporate corporation. The once independent labelsquickly sold out to the majors as soon as the price was right.

By about 1993 we werea long way down the rabbit hole. There were slackers and rrriot grrls andgrunge rap crossovers and all kinds of novelties on the airwaves. But whatthere weren't were strong and versatile talents. A steady stream of starsburned brightly for a single or an album - who recalls Marilyn Manson or theStone Temple Pilots or Nine Inch Nails? Bands formed instantly and were lumpedonto festival bills like Lollapalooza or the Big Day Out.

The rock festival is acommunal experience where the quality of the music is secondary. Each group ison stage just long enough to play their hits and for the kids to sample theband before moving on to the next thrill. Festivals became very popular in the'90s but they never launched careers in the way that Monterey Pop or Woodstockor Newport Jazz created singular moments that have lasted for decades andestablished real stars.

Indeed of the hundredbands that were launched on the leaky ship "Grunge", only the FooFighters and Pearl Jam lasted to make more than four studio albums.

Why was there such ahigh attrition rate? The answer is that 'Teen Spirit' was a fluke. It was thealternative record that crossed over.

Alternative rock isnot suited to a mainstream audience; at its best it is difficult music withcomplex ideas aimed at an insider audience in the same way that free jazz orperformance art are not aimed at your average, right-thinking, suburban,football-watching Channel 7 audience.

The real talents inthe alternative scene, like Nirvana or Sonic Youth, don't really belong in theTop 40 charts. Their music is genuinely unnerving, complex and often dark. Sowe get the alternative alternative bands who assumed the persona of troubledchildren from disturbed families - the dark mirror image of the baby boomers -and they developed their own heroin habits and made pretty awful records thatwere sometimes successful because of the publicity generated by heroin busts,nude photo shoots or elaborate tattoos.

The pop cultureindustry so desperately wanted a movement that - like the Nietzscheans they are- in the absence of a real one, they created one and it was hollow. In leavingit up to the kids, the A&R people, the producers, managers and artists wereso keen to pander to a new perceived reality that they lost the ability todevelop careers. It was all about getting the one-hit, which was often anovelty, and not investing in developing a body of work.

Almost all the majorartists of the rock 'n' roll era made their masterpieces three or four albums intotheir careers. Now, it's almost impossible to find an artist who has lastedthat long.

We live in an age ofnovelty, shock value and ersatz scandal and that has filled over to popularmusic. Acts are signed with a one or two year horizon and not with any sense oflong-term development.

Since 'Teen Spirit',the pop culture industry has been trying to second-guess itself, to manufactureanswers to needs that haven't existed, to appeal to demographic groups that aredefined by their marketing departments. This is in large part because therecord companies themselves are no longer run by music people but by theirfinancial departments.

And what of GenerationX, two decades on? There's no queue at the foot of the Himalayas, they don'tcare about national parks or political activism. In fact they care less aboutthese things than any generation before them. Politics has gone the way ofpopular music; it takes a back seat to shoes.

 

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