Dissonant Notes

Saturday, September 24, 2011

We Don't Have To Breed - Nirvana, Masculinity, and Discovering Alternative Music

When Nevermind came out I was 15 years old, living in Falkirk, Scotland and I didn’t have the slightest idea who Nirvana were. At the time, I was still half in love with Top 40 pop while also listening to what I imagined was more grown-up music. Basically, my idea of alternative music was Inspiral Carpets. I watched Nirvana play 'Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Top Of The Pops and thought it was terrible. Why was this guy singing in such a ridiculous voice? Must be some silly American metal band. 1991 came and went, and by ’92 I had all but left the Top 40 behind. Fueled by my love of The Beatles and other ‘classic’ bands I imagined that the best guitar music was also the highest-selling. With my vague knowledge of the current music scene I made the leap that U2 and R.E.M. must then be the most important bands in the world! Yes, my then 16-year-old self was still ridiculously naïve when it came to music. What could possibly save me from my ignorance? Obviously, it was Canada. My parents had family in Newfoundland, and in 1992 my mum decided to leave the UK for the first time in her life and visit our Canadian relatives, with me and my dad in tow. It was the summer of ’92 and the house where I stayed had MuchMusic playing almost constantly. It was there that I first heard ‘Lithium’, and it was there that my love affair with Nirvana began.

In my mind, I always imagined that there were other contemporary bands who I loved just as much as Nirvana, but looking back it truly was a watershed moment. In ’92, before Nirvana, I was listening to The Beatles, The Jam, The Stone Roses, The Doors, U2 and R.E.M. Even if I wanted to think of U2 and R.E.M. as current, they had both existed for over 10 years. By ’94 I was listening to Pavement, Sebadoh and Teenage Fanclub, all because of Nirvana. Instead of looking to the past for inspiration, I began to take enjoyment in what was happening right now. Something about ‘Lithium’ hit me really hard. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the song contained the lines “I’m so ugly”, “I’m so lonely” and “I’m so horny“. It managed to sum up my feelings of confused masculinity, my sense of repulsion as teenage hormones flooded my body and seemed to insist that I objectify all the women around me, but I was not one of those guys. Stuck with powerful sexual impulses, I convinced myself that to act on them was disrespectful and cheap. The power dynamic behind male/female relations weighed heavily on me. How would I ever know if my impulses were going to push a girl into doing something that she ultimately did not want to do? My crippling self-consciousness and acne meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about the sexual act for a while, yet the nature of masculinity and male sexual urges still haunted me.

Upon returning to Scotland I picked up Nevermind and began devouring every Nirvana interview I could. His words seemed to confirm my suspicions that Kurt was what I thought of as an ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’. Basically he was just like me. Clearly I was projecting pretty heavily onto him, but there was enough in his lyrics to make it believable. When I listened to Nevermind I immediately recognised ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from Top Of The Pops, and without the silly vocals it made perfect sense. Soon enough I was obsessed, my heart all but leaping out of my chest throughout the album. ‘Breed’ played heavily into my ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’ theory, and then there was the line “As defence I’m neutered and spayed” from ‘On A Plain’. Overall there were too many highlights. Too melodic to be metal, too pop influenced to be straight ahead rock, too sensitive to be stadium, Nirvana were a dream and somehow they were everywhere, wielding their influence on radio stations, magazine editors, MTV executives, major label talent scouts and concert bookers. Still a relatively naïve 16-year-old, I saw the word grunge and imagined a music scene to match the magic of the 60s that existed in my mind. Pearl Jam’s name came up often in reference to this thing called grunge. I listened, and immediately felt a sense of crushing disappointment. If this was grunge, then grunge was awful. I bought a Sebadoh album, loved it, and wondered why nobody other than music writers seemed to know who Sebadoh were (granted, the only people I talked to was my family). The thought occurred to me that I was, dare I say it, ‘alternative’.

Yes, this is where all the trouble began. By embracing Nirvana I also embraced the idea that Nirvana stood for something, that there was a thread of rebellion running through music, and this was the latest incarnation. The idea that Nirvana were a compromised beast never occurred to me. My 60s dream of an important guitar band also being the highest-selling had become real, it had become contemporary and it filled my head with all sorts of outlandish notions. Looking back, it’s easy to see that the success of Nevermind was what made major labels see dollar signs dancing in front of every vaguely ‘alternative’ act. Yet without its success there’s a chance that I would have been forever stuck in a retro daydream, cut off from more knowledgeable friends who would have clued me in regardless. At age 16 I was truly friendless and Nirvana made it possible for me to read about completely obscure musical acts in magazines that I could buy in my local corner shop. Nevermind may have pointed major labels to the indie world as a source of revenue, but it also showed the way to those not savvy enough to know who Nirvana were in 1989. Every great thing casts a dark shadow and Nevermind was no different. To a whole generation it gave a glimpse of a world unknown, a world that would be destroyed by the very thing that, to people like me, first indicated that such a world existed.

By the time Kurt Cobain died by his own hand I had given up. The overdose a month before convinced me that he was doomed. My mum woke me up to tell me of his death and I felt nothing but numbness. It was a bad day all around due to some heavy-duty family unhappiness that was occurring at the time and, in a way, everything had become too much. Too much drama. Too much sadness. Just too much. My idea of the ‘embarrassed straight male sexual being’ passed on to Richey James of the Manic Street Preachers, then eventually to Elliott Smith (I know, I know). I began to have suspicions about the kind of music that I was drawn to, about whether my warped sense of masculinity would ever find a positive outlet. Yet, for all that, I do not look back on my Nirvana days with cynicism or shame. At the same time, I do not miss them. We live in an age when to look back is to be accused of nostalgia, the worst most pitiable crime of all, and so the anti-nostalgia essay is as common as the glassy-eyed remembrance. Our motives are explained and filed away before our minds have even formed coherent thoughts.

When I listen to Nirvana now, however, it is not to relive lost moments of my youth. It took me so long to play Nevermind again that its connection to my 16-year-old self had been severed. Purged of an emotional link there was only the music, and I was surprised to find that the music was still great. At times it was downright amazing. To the world at large, Kurt is either a ghostly phantom of the lost power of rock, a sacred cow that thousands will take glee in pissing all over, or another strung out casualty of fame. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t mean anything. He’s dead. The music is still good and maybe that’s the best we can hope for. It’s probably the only thing that Kurt really hoped for out of this whole affair.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)


  1. Всё правда. Так оно и есть. Живи быстро, умри молодым. Всё правда, но мы выросли. Теперь появились другие кумиры.

  2. All is true. So it is. Live fast, die young. All is true, but we have gron up. Now there are other idols to follow.