Nirvana? Not really!

The inmates are running the asylum this week - once again. You'll remember I asked you to Right This Blog! With that in mind please welcome M0rph3us.

Well, this is fun. The opportunity to contribute once again to the famous (infamous?) Blog on the Tracks.  Thanks, punters and thanks, Simon.

Today's topic: "Nirvana is overrated".  Discuss, providing evidence and examples to support your argument.

(Is that even how essay questions look, in this era of NCEA? Do kids even sit exams anymore?)

If I'd actually had to write that in high school, say on a School Certificate exam in 1995, I probably would've said completely the opposite of what I'm about to say. Context is vital, I guess.

Context was vital for Nirvana, too. They were, undoubtedly, the biggest band on the planet for a brief period in the early 1990s. They were the sound of disenfranchised youth, of "Generation X"; the standard-bearers of so-called "alternative rock"; the reluctant heroes of a bold and different musical crusade, back when radio mattered and MTV actually played music.

This isn't to say, of course, that if you weren't there, then you couldn't possibly get it. If they were that good then Nirvana's legacy would surely stand the test of time, wouldn't it? And here is the problem with Nirvana - there is not much of a legacy to speak of.

The most regular reminder I have of Nirvana's legacy, these days, seems to be when I reluctantly venture to the mall, and see teenagers wearing RIP Kurt Cobain T-shirts.  In fact, said T-shirts are somewhat ubiquitous these days.  The first time I recall seeing one was at the Big Day Out in 2008, or 2009. The wearer was, in all likelihood, not even In Utero when In Utero was released.

This seems somewhat... insincere. It would be like me wearing an RIP Jimi Hendrix shirt. Hendrix was, unquestionably, brilliant - one of the true greats. But he was gone long before I was born, and even longer before I started listening to his phenomenal musical legacy. I cannot sensibly claim any sort of direct connection to the man that might justify me wearing an RIP Jimi Hendrix shirt decades after his passing.

(For the record, I would not wear an RIP Jimi Hendrix shirt even if I was a blood relative of his. That would be bizarre.  Which makes you wonder why complete unknowns do it with Cobain. Who I'm sure would probably hate it, as well. Anyway...)

Of course, it is wrong to hate bands because of bandwagon-jumpers. Simon blogged about this not so long ago, and the general consensus seemed to be along the lines of "well, who cares about hipsters as long as the music is actually good?"

And that's really what it comes down to with Nirvana - is the music actually that good? Is it so exceptional that it merits Cobain's name being mentioned in the same reverential tone as those of Joplin, Hendrix, Marley, and others who were gone too soon?

In my opinion, Nirvana - and Cobain - get more credit than they actually deserve. This is not to say that they were not important, that they did not produce anything of real note.  However, it is to say that they are overrated, that their musical legacy and influence is afforded greater weight than it really warrants.

Before one even gets to talking about Nirvana, one has to talk about Seattle. Because Nirvana were just one part of a wider Seattle scene which was unique in the way it fostered a healthy level of collaboration and mutual respect between bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and others.  It was a bit different to the LA scene of the 1980s where hair-metal bands competed to find out who could apply the most eyeliner. There was a lot of musical cross-pollination. Grunge was not the sound of Nirvana.  Grunge was the sound of Seattle.

But, on the back of Nevermind, in late 1991 and early 1992, Nirvana became the reluctant standard-bearers for that particular scene. Perhaps that is MTV's fault. Perhaps it was chance. Perhaps it was just the industry deciding that they were the Next Big Thing. But Nevermind is a classic album. Right from the opener, Smells Like Teen Spirit, it is obvious that Cobain is a skilled songwriter. Not a great singer, not a great guitarist, but a gifted songwriter. There are plenty of other memorable moments too: Lithium, Come As You Are, Drain You, In Bloom... a lot of great songs. It is, indisputably, a very good album - though I am not convinced it is better than Ten, or Dirt, or Superunknown.

And Nevermind is Nirvana's single biggest contribution to music. In Utero has its moments too, but in many ways it sounds like Kurt Cobain trying not to be famous, trying to actively not appeal to the masses in order to lose the spotlight. It's the sound of a reaction, rather than an action. Unplugged in New York also offers up some good moments, and some good reinterpretations - but Nirvana were not the only band to release memorable unplugged sets around this time. So did Alice in Chains. As for the rest, well there's nothing really worth a mention on Bleach or Incesticide.

And that's pretty much it for the Nirvana discography, really. Their musical legacy boils down to one very good album, one good album trying hard to be obscure, and an unplugged album. There are plenty of bands whose careers ended ahead of time that have a much bigger and more diverse legacy than that.

Speaking of bands, I've spent quite a lot of this blog (in fact, all of it) thus far not mentioning Dave Grohl or Krist Novoselic. The reality is that neither of them contributed all that much to Nirvana other than as a player. As early as 1992, Cobain thought he should get most of the royalties because he was doing most of the songwriting, and neither of them argued with that (well not initially). Novoselic has done nothing of note since Nirvana. Grohl has - but back in the days of Nirvana he was still in his infancy both as a drummer (compare his work on Songs for the Deaf with Nevermind...) and as a songwriter (his sole primary writing credit was a B-side).

Individual contributions aside, there's no doubting that Nirvana have been very influential - and you don't need a back catalogue of prolonged excellence to do that. But even so - that influence would be better attributed to the wider Seattle scene rather than Nirvana specifically. It's hardly as though Nirvana can lay sole credit to writing well-crafted catchy rock songs that hook into an undercurrent of teen angst. There's an argument that the pinnacle of that particular art was actually Siamese Dream.

Of course, we cannot forget the entourage. There is no doubt that Nirvana - and Cobain, in particular - get some posthumous mileage out of the fact that Courtney Love is so, well, Courtney Love. Everyone knows someone that unknowingly unites others via a shared dislike of that person; some horrible ex-girlfriend, or someone that just always rubs everyone up the wrong way. Courtney Love is that person on a much, much bigger scale. That says nothing about Nirvana's musical legacy and everything about Courtney Love, who is surely Generation X's equivalent of Yoko Ono, albeit completely without Ono's creative or political talents. Frankly I am surprised that reality-TV producers have yet to cotton on to the train-wreck television that I'm sure Love is capable of providing.

If ever there was a time that Nirvana deserved all the accolades that were thrown at them, it was back in 1994 when the shock and abruptness of Cobain's death made his family and friends, and music fans everywhere, feel as though something had been taken away long before its time. But no one is due credit for what might have been. Nirvana may have gone down the track of Radiohead, or Coldplay. Cobain famously quoted Neil Young in his suicide note: "It's better to burn out than fade away". Nirvana burned brightly for one, at best two, great albums - no more than any of their Seattle contemporaries, and no more than plenty of other bands who were never afforded a rough, vivid-embossed scrawl on a pencil case.

And no one goes around wearing RIP Layne Staley or Andrew Wood shirts, do they?

Anyway, that's my convoluted and overly long rant about why I consider Nirvana to be overrated. There's no disputing that they made a contribution, but I consider it to be somewhat smaller than it is generally made out to be. Maybe you agree. Or maybe you have a different view. Maybe you think Nevermind is the most important album of the past 25 years?

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