The Ghost of Teen Spirit
Why we should let Kurt Cobain rest in peace.
What I'm suggesting is that an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media's and record industry's own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture. It was already crumbling in the early '90s, thanks to rap (the rebel music of black youth, obviously, but a lot of white kids had defected to hip-hop, too) and to the emergence of rave and electronic dance culture (in America destined always to be a minority subculture, but in Europe the dominant form of '90s pop). Grunge was the last blast of rock as a force at once central in popular culture yet also running counter to mainstream show biz values.
Not only did grunge give MTV a timely Botox session but it underwrote the heyday of Spin magazine, which this year noticeably jumped the gun on everybody else with its "What Nevermind Means Now" cover story (Kurt in a swimming pool recreating the album's iconic baby-swimming-underwater image) and accompanying tribute LP Newermind (covers of the LP's tracks by Kurt's heroes the Vaselines and Meat Puppets, among others). The Spin website's own staff-written blurb for August's "Special Issue: the 20th Anniversary of the Album That Changed Everything" wryly notes the "symbiotic, borderline codependent" relationship between the magazine and grunge, and admits that "back in 2001, when we published a tenth anniversary Nevermind issue, one letter-writing wag remarked, 'So, still pickin' those bones, huh?'"
If grunge was a last blast, the aftershocks carried on deep into the '90s. Spin and MTV both tried to repeat the grunge effect (an underground sound going overground, overnight) with electronica. By the time nu-metal hit at the turn of the millennium, MTV had shrewdly shed the M in its name and moved decisively toward round-the-clock reality. The heavily edited and contrived quasi-vérité version of young life offered by these programs eclipsed the gritty authenticity that grunge had represented.
Along with reality TV, something else had risen up during the '90s that was all set to radically transform music consumption, music fandom, and music industry alike. In my mind, if nobody else's, the death of Kurt Cobain is freakily intertwined with the rise of the Web. During 1994, I was back living in the United Kingdom and—here's where you really have to do a memory exercise, mentally re-create a sense of what life was like then in terms of access to information and news—the remarkable thing was how little coverage there was in the British media of Cobain's suicide. So that grim weekend, my wife—an early adopter of everything to do with computers—went online, where we found teeming communities of grief, speculation, rumor, and memorialization. It was mindblowing, actually: the moment at which I woke up to the potential of the Internet, from its leveling effects (in one forum, Buzzcock Pete Shelley, who'd toured with Nirvana, chatted with distraught Kurt fans) to the threat it posed to traditional media.
Cobain, arguably the last rebel-rocker-as-star, had owed his rise to the centralizing power of the old media; now in his death, he was entangled with the emerging new media disorder. The old media and entertainment channels (what I think of as the analog system) constructed the mainstream while simultaneously creating the possibility of that mainstream being breached and reinvigorated by forces "outside." In grunge's case, that meant the flannel-wearing, slacker-minded alt-rock underground that had developed during the '80s, fostered by a network of independent labels. This curious process of inversion—the underground becoming the overground—was how the analog system had worked repeatedly in the past. ('50s rock'n'roll came initially from the regional independent labels.) And with Nirvana and their fellow travelers, that's how it worked one last time.
But what is also true is that that the media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the "Epochal Self-Image": a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct "feel" and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to "define the times." If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It's not that nothing happened ... it's that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominant and define the era.
The failure is bound-up with the erosion of the filtering function of the media and its increasing inability to marshal and synchronize popular taste around particular artists or phenomena. The Internet works against convergence and consensus: the profusion of narrowcast media (blogs, netradio, innumerable outlets of analysis and opinion) and the accelerated way that news and buzz get disseminated, mean that it is harder and harder for a cultural phenomenon to achieve full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy. Now triumphant, the digital system has interfered with our very sense of culture-time.
That is why it is so hard to see what, from the last dozen years or so of rock, could be the focus for future commemorative or revivalist impulses. Can you envisage the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, or the White Stripes's breakthrough LP, White Blood Cells, being celebrated? Spin will not be able to put either group on the cover under the legend "The Album That Changed Everything," because neither record came close to Nevermind's paradigm-shift. (Remember the droves of grunge-lite copyists like Silverchair and Bush? The undignified way that even superestablished bands like Metallica tried to de-metallicize their sound and image? How Axl Rose disappeared into a bunker of botched self-reinvention for 15 years?) Even less epoch-defining clout could be claimed for those Pitchfork-anointed bands who've codified the post-indie sound of the 2000s such as Arcade Fire and Animal Collective.
Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.
Photograph of Kurt Cobain by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.