Nirvana: Debunking the Myth
After the 20th anniversaries of Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind passed, this brought back the debate: Pearl Jam or Nirvana? For me, this is an easy question – Pearl Jam, without question. I listened to seemingly endless arguments both in person and on the radio and I was frustrated to hear those that preferred Nirvana speak so passionately and yet say little besides, “Kurt Cobain was a visionary” or “innovative” and not really speak to the overall quality (or, in my view, lack there of) concerning Nirvana’s catalog of songs. (I particularly get frustrated when Cobain would play a guitar solo simply using the melody from the verse… see “Teen Spirit” and just about every other Nirvana song that features a guitar solo except “In Bloom.”)
The more I studied up on Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the more I realized that the question itself was fundamentally flawed: we shouldn’t be asking ourselves who we prefer between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but instead, who we prefer between Nirvana and Green Day. These two groups have much more in common musically than either of them has with Pearl Jam, including their lineup construction, song lengths and musical styles. After all, the observation that Nirvana is some strange combination of The Ramones style and Metallica’s sound thrown in a blender is the most astute description I’ve ever heard of the band. All Nirvana and Pearl Jam really have in common is origin of location, but their sounds couldn’t be any more different. Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” is way more similar to Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise” than it is to any Pearl Jam song.
I started thinking about Nirvana again after I saw The Muppets new movie – I loved the barbershop quartet’s interpretation of “Teen Spirit” and Jack Black’s frustration that they were “ruining one of the greatest songs of all time,” which I hope was meant in jest as that’s what made it so funny. To me, the scene perfectly encapsulated the obsession we have with Nirvana and all its morbid glory.
Which brings me to the Deification and Nostalgic Value of Kurt Cobain. I don’t think Generation X and Y folks like myself are quite old enough to shout at the kids, “In my day, we didn’t have no Gagas or Timberlakes – we listened to Nirvana and it was revolutionary!” but there is certainly some nostalgic value to be had with Nirvana – it’s really the only thing that keeps me going back, as opposed to Pearl Jam songs from that era (or any era), which I genuinely enjoy listening to on multiple levels. And, of course, Kurt Cobain’s death turned him into a deity of sorts; after his passing, the accolades and the awards flowed. (My personal favorite was Rolling Stone ranking him as the 12th Greatest Guitarist of All Time. It’s not like the guy invented root 5 barre cords or distortion or something, and since that’s pretty much all he had in his arsenal, it’s hard to consider a guitar playing award for someone who barely played guitar seriously.)
When it comes to Nirvana albums, I remember a few songs, not albums as collections that captured the group during that moment in time, because basically, all their albums sound the same. I really like “Heart Shaped Box” on In Utero and “All Apologies” is the best take away from Nevermind, but I find the albums forgettable – a few good tunes, but nothing that grabs me from beginning to end. (I can’t remember any songs from Bleach off the top of my head.) It’s no wonder that their unplugged concert was so popular – they played covers like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” or The Meat Puppets “Plateau,” which were, for me, the highlights of the show.
I always hear people talk about how ‘raw’ Nirvana’s sound was, but when you listen to their albums, they’re very produced – in fact, I think Nirvana was often produced to a fault. Take a song like “In Bloom.”
Everything is so repetitious and precise – if Dave Grohl does that drum fill at the end of the chorus one more time I’m going to loose my mind!
I’ll defend Pearl Jam to the grave, but if someone of a different geneartion came along and said, “All the music from when you were a kid sucks. Nirvana blows!” I would point out one or two songs but basically agree. When I compare them to their peers, I just don’t feel that Nirvana’s best album is as good as the worst album by Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam – of course, I’ll take anything over American Idiot. These are much better bands with much better songs on much better albums.
And speaking of STP, that’s a much better comparison to Pearl Jam than Nirvana.
Bud don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate Nirvana, I just think they get undue praise. And check out this video – this is one of the worst things to ever happen to a song ever. Talk about rolling over in your grave.
You have to go to YouTube to watch this, and it’s almost worth it. Look how she’s dancing… what… what is that? And she’s a woman and she’s singing it in the same key as Kobain… is this to show us her range or because she has nothing new to offer? Different topic for a different day…
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