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July 28, 2004

A Generation with Stuff to B**** About

I upset more than a few acquaintances, a while back, by voicing the theory that, as an underlying cause, Kurt Cobain killed himself because he realized that he didn't have the talent to make the kind of music that he wanted to make. I mention this less to evoke ire or agreement than to show that I'm not defending a personal hero when I suggest that Marc Comtois is a bit hard on Nirvana's deceased front man. In tandem, Marc is a bit hard on the generation in which we are both included (although I think I'm closer to its tail).

I recall that, even as a huge Beatles fan, I never really understood Sting's described experience of hearing "Love Me Do" for the first time. Sitting by the pool when the song came on the radio, he and his friends spontaneously began to dance, and they knew that something new had arrived. Although Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had paved the way for the Seattle bands, it was Nirvana that managed the big breakthrough, and I imagine the feeling of hearing the band for the first time was much the same — albeit expressed with moshing rather than dance.

I was sitting in my leather swivel chair, attempting to study for finals, chatting with my friend Rich on the telephone, when the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on the computer monitor that I had wired to receive cable TV. We both stopped talking. Something new had arrived.

Marc is entirely correct that Pearl Jam was a better band in just about every respect, but it is perhaps for that very reason that Nirvana claimed the movement. I've never taken the time to explore the specifics as a matter of music, but the aptly named "grunge music" caught something that other genres couldn't reach. It was full of angst, yes, but it was an angst in contrast to the direct aggression of other variations of hard rock. It was almost like '70s singer/songwriter meets heavy metal.

The added element, which Nirvana personified, might be as simply characterized as having to do with confusion. That's why it was such a big deal — a "cool" thing — that nobody could understand what Cobain was saying. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" centered around unintelligible vocals expressing indecipherable lyrics, over chords distorted beyond recognition. Even Cobain's hair, granting mere glimpses of his face, was part of the message.

So, certainly, both those who "got it" and those who didn't are justified in suggesting that the generational experience to which grunge was the soundtrack was frustration at having nothing to be angry about — adolescent energy without anything on which to focus. That analysis is justified, yes, but I'm not so sure it's accurate. Marc, for example, in listing some issues from which Gen X was free, overlooks the entire range of society from whence derived the angst:

This is especially because Cobain's fan base was mostly comprised of a generation that had nothing to REALLY get upset over (like in the past with "The Bomb" and "Vietnam" or now with "Terrorism") so they focused on those aspects of Pop culture that made them feel like part of a larger "movement." The cynicism and "reality" espoused by Cobain, et al spoke to a generation that really didn't have much to b-i-t-c-h about. The Berlin Wall had fallen down, Communism was kaput, Clinton was president and believed in a place called "Hope," etc. Self-righteous angst influenced by postmodern relativism became the new "it" thing.

The fact that the Boomer Generation still largely controls the public discussion is likely contributing to a lethargy of revelation, so our entire society is still a bit confused about the source of all of that angst. But I submit that its real — and legitimate — origin was precisely that area of revolution for which geopolitical turmoil offered cover.

My generation was the first to grow up in a culture in the process of dismantling itself. Divorce, abortion, an ever-increasing emphasis on sex coupled with an epidemic of a mysterious and deadly disease, relativism, ingrained opposition to organized religion and other sources of moral ballast, among many others across the spectrum of daily life. And yet, we were not offered the opportunity to be angry about the sources of our pain and confusion, because they continued to be promoted as good things. There was nowhere to turn for rebellion, because it was rebellion that ailed us, although we did not see it then, and many still do not see it now.

But I think the lengths to which Gen X collectively took its angst woke many of us up, and even here, Cobain played his destined role. He died at twenty-seven, like those Boomer martyrs Jim, Jimi, and Janis. As I recall, his mother lamented that her son had "gone and joined that stupid club." Much more profoundly than breaking the first-name pattern, Kurt claimed the list not through the symbolic excesses of the Sixties, but in a violent suicide... probably resulting from the drug culture that grew out of those excesses.

Moreover, if I may revive my theory, his limited talent furthers the shift. From the selfish point of view of the popular culture, his wasn't the death too soon of the guitar genius or the classic voice or the (debatable) poet rocker. He was spent — too much the personification of the zeitgeist to redefine himself.

The trend that he did die too soon to fulfill was the reclamation of those priorities that had been sold to his generation as inconsequential choices. He married young for a superstar. He had a daughter. Would the man who wrote "I wanted a father, but all I got was a dad" have failed to live up to his responsibilities? His suicide — the ultimate parental failure — provided one answer, cutting through the jumble of drives and desires in a final rejection of them all.

But his generation may yet provide another, more hopeful answer. Marc asks:

If the predominance of teen pop and rap are an indicator of what sells, could this mean people of my generation, the old looking-for-a-reason-to-be-angst-ridden Gen Xers are simply not paying attention? If not, what are we paying attention to?

In the sense that he means the questions, Marc's answer is, essentially, "the news." He answers in a slightly different sense, just before that, when he implies September 11 as our cause. These observations are probably correct, but for my part, I think it covers more of the truth to suggest that we're paying attention to growing up, to tracing our parents' path back toward home, picking up that which they discarded along the way so that we can stop feeling "stupid and contagious."

Posted by Justin Katz at July 28, 2004 2:02 AM

Some very good points, Justin. I'll tackle it in a post on my site.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at July 28, 2004 8:51 AM

Punk Rock was already old and tired when Nirvana burst onto the scene. Smells Like Teen Spirit was the first true hardcore anthem to go mainstream, and of course those of us who loved and lived that music were simply amazed to be hearing it on the radio. Finally, we felt like we had arrived -- and would be heard.

Which, in effect, was just the curse being realized. Punk rejected so much, but nothing more so than the commoditization and consumerization of angst and youth culture -- precisely what that song was about Kurt was bitten by his own pet snake, having become the very thing he he rejected all of his life -- a Product.

He should have heeded the words of his british forefathers: never trust a hippie.

Posted by: Marty at July 28, 2004 9:15 AM

Nirvana and other grunge groups were the first real demarkation of the end of the hair band era. Gone were the excessive male hair do's and the matching clothes.

The music itself also said fairwell the prissy poison style bands and while the lyrics were not literature they were at least a step up.

I also remember the first time I heard "Smells like teen spirit" and even though I have always been a fan of harder rock it is strange that I do remember this first time so exactly.

It is true that Peal Jam is the better band, but technical mastery alone is never what develops a cult-like fan base.

I had never considered the fact that Gen-X grew up at the end of the cold war but in the middle of family cold war as a significant influence on the groups and the fans, though I think the idea is valid.

Posted by: Jeff Miller at July 28, 2004 12:36 PM

Nirvana was ONE of the bands that ended the hair band genre, but let's not forget Guns -n- Roses, either. The difference is that Guns was much more angry than Nirvana. One could argue that, along with the Seattle bands that paved the way, Guns showed that no-frills rock could be legitimate again. (As did Metallica, btw).

Posted by: Marc Comtois at July 28, 2004 1:44 PM