Music

What impact have Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had on music today?

This article was first published in April 2014 

Whether you like or not, Nirvana has influenced everyone from Creed to Miley Cyrus, Pussy Riot to Puddle Of Mudd. JAYMZ CLEMENTS ponders his impact on music today. 

My first memories of Nirvana are of a double-sided tape that my best friend Brian dubbed for me. It consisted of both of their first two albums: Bleach on Side A, Nevermind on Side B. I listened to that tape non-stop. On my crappy Walkman at home. While riding to school. On family road trips. Whenever I could feasibly have a set of earphones in, they were in. And I remember going to school one day and wondering why the cool girls were upset.

It was the morning of April 8, 1994, when the world learned of Kurt Cobain’s fate. The Nirvana frontman took his life with a shotgun in his sprawling Seattle home three days earlier on April 5. Even though it followed an overdose (slash alleged suicide attempt) in Rome a month earlier – where Kurt slipped into a coma – it still came as a shock. More than 20 years later, the idea of Kurt Cobain, the way we remember him, and the way his memory impacts music is more confusing than a conversation with Courtney Love.

“Through Cobain a generation learned that it was OK to be different, to be an outcast”

It seemed for a while there – from about 1994 through ‘til 2009 – that Kurt Cobain would be an unimpeachable, influential rock icon forevermore. Y’know, one of those that, through a combination of an infectious charisma, extreme talent and dying early, score an iconic, deity-like status with fans and music lovers. That is, until those fans grow up, settle down, have families, and stop drinking heroic amounts of booze while throwing themselves into moshpits with wild abandon.

Then priorities change. The thought that some punk junkie kid from Seattle who killed himself with a shotgun would continue to influence your creative output, let alone your life, seems faintly ridiculous – no matter how talented a poet you thought he was. To infer immortality once someone has faced and been emphatically trumped by their mortality starts to seem odd. Even if he did get Steve Albini to produce In Utero.

Now, as those who grew up with Nirvana shift their cultural priorities, the idea of “the mainstream” has expanded to be an all-enveloping cultural miasma. The past five years has seen the middle widen and flatten out to encompass just about everything. While Daft Punk, Lorde, Gotye, Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire were winning Grammys, alongside the pop and hip-hop heavyweights of the world, the fun AND challenging elements of music are pushed further to the edge, and it’s become increasingly difficult to argue what Cobain’s legacy is today.

The Good

Sure he launched a million garage bands, influenced innumerable other acts, helped foster a do-it-yourself ethos sorely needed in the early-’90s, and introduced legions of teens around the globe to heavy, alternative music.

Then there was the way he supported the riot grrrl movement – famously it was Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna that scrawled “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall – which gave one of most important movements of contemporary feminism exposure that the mainstream media wasn’t going to on its own. He was also staunchly anti-misogynistic in his lyrics in an era where boneheads like Guns N Roses and their ilk were doing the exact opposite. But, as Krist Novoselic’s eulogy in 1994 predicted, what lived on about Kurt the most was his music and his spirit.

That meant that through Cobain a generation learned that it was OK to be different, to be an outcast, to challenge what you were told, to challenge being sold. The way Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and others tagged with the “grunge” label succeeded was in carving out a viable “alternative” path for music and pop culture.

Outside of the dominant narrative of early-’90s culture, another path was opened. One where all the misfits and fuck-ups and people unhappy with being force-fed a culture they couldn’t relate to could bond, form communities and music scenes, and live at least part of their lives the way they wanted.

This is the one aspect that isn’t given enough stature: How Nirvana and co. helped reclaim the inclusiveness of music. Going to a show and being yourself, or realising you could start a band without having to wear a bandana and bike shorts, or dress in the wildest hair-metal way possible in order to “shock” people, Nirvana conferred a real sense of belonging.

It was probably a result of Cobain being as big a fan of music as anybody. His love for the Pixies, REM, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Beatles was well documented, but his love of Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening, the Melvins, the Boredoms, The Meat Puppets and The Raincoats and other then-obscure acts meant he wanted people to interact with music on a deep level. When they didn’t, that’s when he got frustrated. (One of the more overt instances? Just the opening lines of ‘All Apologies’: “I wish I was like you/Easily amused”).

That frustration likely never would’ve stopped, and for all the good Cobain did for music, there’s an unavoidable flipside. Because of the way we raised up his status and deified him – something he obviously hated – it also gave rise to some truly shitty experiences for music fans.

The Bad

Because eventually that “alternative path” was – just like punk, new wave, metal and eventually dance, indie and hip-hop – appropriated by and subsumed into the mainstream. What Nirvana’s success meant was that record companies would do anything to find the next big rock band, and major labels (and commercial radio) are conditioned to deliver to a new “big” commercial rock act every 18 months or so. So, even though it had nothing to do with Cobain, the public were punished by way of Creed, Puddle of Mudd and Chad Kroeger. Also … wow. Fuck Puddle of Mudd.

Cobain’s dreams of music as self-expression and artistic integrity – rather than paint-by-numbers commercial pap – are gradually pushed ever further away from view by the likes of Imagine Dragons, One Republic, The Fray, Daughtry, Avril Lavigne, Young the Giant and The 1975.

Nor did his “fuck you, you don’t know the real me” approach to lyrics help us identify how much attention we should’ve been paying to mid-’00s emo: which was roughly “none”. By the time Fall Out Boy released a record called Save Rock and Roll, self-expression felt less of an artistic outlet and more a selfish indulgence.

And without Cobain as a poster boy for disaffected youth, our relationship with Fred Durst would be a lot more healthy ie. non-existent. It’s a similar case with Eminem, who took the mantle of “messiah for angry white males” – and fucked everything up with his particular melange of misogyny and dipshitted-ness.

So what now?

With the disintegration of music and audiences into specialised niches, no single band will ever capture the public’s imagination and change the course of pop culture again the way Cobain and Nirvana did. Unless they’re, like, androids and make the world’s greatest album using Facebook algorithms or something. (Hey Anamanaguchi!)

Twenty years on, hip-hop and EDM have long replaced rock as the most rebellious – and commercial – forms of music, while we now argue if the navel-gazing platitudes of Bon Iver are important. Even then distinguishing between what’s cool and what’s commercial matters less and less. Now it’s clear Cobain’s continuing influence on music and culture isn’t as profound as we thought it would be in 1994.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A 16-year-old starting a garage band is now as likely – if not more so – to take their cues from Paramore as Nirvana. But it’s because of the steps Nirvana and the bands before them took that Paramore even exist.

You can see and hear Cobain’s influence everywhere in Violent Soho, Manchester Orchestra, Royal Headache, Japandroids, Wavves, Big Ups, Cloud Nothings, Amity Affliction, Royal Blood, Perfect Pussy and countless more. But what matters is that others made sure that we didn’t ever have to rely on one guy’s ideas of art and music to keep challenging people’s expectations.

Artists like Radiohead, Trent Reznor, Pussy Riot, Karen O, Jack White, Skrillex, Beth Ditto, Kanye West and even John Butler (calculating hippy businessman he may be) are among the many others who make art or operate in ways that challenge the norm. Twenty years on from Kurt Cobain’s death, while he and Nirvana were an important part of that tradition, no longer does their impact feel as singular as it did even 10 years ago.

So now Nirvana are a “classic” rock band who next week will be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, as Cobain and his generation-defining ethos dissolve into memory. But a memory as tactile as hearing ‘Aneurysm’ and losing your shit, or listening to Nevermind and still marvelling at those terrifyingly perfect riffs and hooks, or appreciating the intricacy of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’?

That’s a hell of a legacy.

Follow Jaymz on Twitter @jaymzclements.