The Ghost of Teen Spirit
Why we should let Kurt Cobain rest in peace.
For the final night of Britain's Reading Festival on Aug. 28, the promoters have something unusual lined up to entertain the 80,000-plus rock fans who congregate there annually. On the alternative stage there will be a screening of Nirvana's legendary performance at Reading in 1992, when Cobain and his bandmates triumphantly headlined a bill of grunge and alternative rock groups they'd personally selected. In an interview earlier this summer, festival booker Tania Harrison declared, "It was such a legendary performance that so many people haven't seen ... one of those seminal moments that changed everything, which is what Reading's all about."
This decision is perplexing on a number of levels. First, there's the obvious oddness of interrupting the schedule of live groups in favor of a dead group. Then there's the curious fact that Reading's promoters, aiming to capitalize on 2011's status as the Official Anniversary of Grunge, are showing the footage of the gig on its 19th anniversary, a year ahead of customary schedule. (Nirvana did actually appear at Reading in August 1991 but were still relatively unknown and played midway through the bill.) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this exercise in time travel, though, is how it isn't really that surprising. It's exactly the sort of thing that you'd kinda expect from a pop culture increasingly characterized by a compulsion to revisit and reconsume its own past.
One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it.
Nirvana's ghostly reappearance at Reading is the first course of a banquet of grunge retrospection this fall. Early September sees the publication of Everybody Loves Our Town, a 555-page oral history of the Seattle grunge scene by Mark Yarm (a name freakily close to Mark Arm, Mudhoney's singer). On Sept. 20, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's documentary about the band's career, is released to theaters in tandem with the PJ20 soundtrack, a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks plus a 36-page hardcover book written by the director. A week later Geffen will roll out the deluxe expanded reissue of Nevermind, which in its most extravagant form presents four CDs and one DVD and gathers up every last alternative mix, B-side, demo version, and boombox-recorded rehearsal take of the songs. More laudably, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is staging a "whole album" rendition of Nevermind at Seattle's rock museum, Experience Music Project, to raise money for the band's former publicist, who is battling cancer.
All this grunge retro-action takes place amid chatter about a '90s revival already in full swing and encompassing everything from tours by alt-rock stalwarts like Pavement, Soundgarden, and the Lemonheads, the return of Beavis and Butt-Head and 120 Minutes to MTV, and Nickelodeon's recent bout of '90s-nostalgia programming. The latter garnered good viewing figures, but what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots. Everybody benefits: Magazines generate content to fill their pages, record companies can bolster their ailing bottom line by rereleasing archival material (guaranteed profits, since the original recordings were already paid for long ago) in spiffy, bulked-up form, and the commentariat gets something to reassess and pontificate about. Yet the intervals—always measured in decades, the 10th or 20th birthday of whatever-it-may-be—are arbitrary, governed by a calendrical metric that has little to do with whether there's any actual yearning out there to relive the event/artist/era in question.
Not strictly '90s but closely related to this wave of pseudo-nostalgia is the forthcoming oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. The book ends in 1992, when The Real World debuted, prefiguring MTV's abandonment of music in favor of reality TV. As a Brit who in 1990-92 was spending something like 50 percent of my time in New York and therefore witnessed grunge's MTV breakthrough, it struck me that the music channel had become what America had always lacked before: a nationwide forum for pop music that played the same role that the state-owned pop station Radio One andBBC's weekly chart show Top of the Pops had done in the United Kingdom.
American radio had always been vastly more diverse and regionally scattered than the near-monopoly that was Radio One, while American Bandstand never loomed as large as Top of the Pops, a program watched by one-fifth of the British population. MTV was what made grunge's rapid crossover possible. At the same time, grunge confirmed MTV's gatekeeping power while giving it a dose of credibility sorely needed after the hair-metal years of Poison and Warrant. The channel's combination of flexing its power while also being musically and stylistically rejuvenated went to MTV's head: Remember the slogan "the revolution will be televised," the "Rock the Vote" campaign, and MTV's somewhat unseemly pride in supposedly having rallied the youth vote behind Bill Clinton?
Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.
Photograph of Kurt Cobain by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.