Why Nirvana was a super important band even if you don’t like Nirvana

My 10th grade art teacher let students take turns bringing in music to play. It was 1990, so that meant Wilson Phillips, Michael Bolton and Garth Brooks. Maybe some MC Hammer or Bon Jovi.

One day, I brought in The Ramones’ punk classic Rocket to Russia. I was pretty proud of myself until the hottest girl in class declared to everyone that it was the worst thing she’d ever heard.

“Noise,” she called it. Most agreed.

A few years later, I saw the same girl, drunk, in a bar where Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was being played. She absolutely loved it. Couldn’t stop raving about it. I distinctly remember her asking me that night, “This is the kind of music you used to play, right?”

Right.

I don’t care if you do or don’t like the Nirvana. They’re not even close to being my favorite band. That’s beside the point.

The point is, before Nirvana most Americans simply didn’t want to listen to anything that sounded like Nirvana.

When the Nirvana-Sonic Youth-Dinosaur, Jr.-Ramones tour documentary “1991: The Year Punk Broke” came out in 1993, I knew exactly what they meant by that title.

Before Nevermind in 1991, American ears could not calculate, much less appreciate, the sound of open distorted power chords from an electric guitar coupled with ragged drums, bass and production—the classic punk sound. Metallica had enjoyed some mainstream success by 1991, but their metal was still tighter and more polished. Guns n’ Roses were huge and definitely edgy, but they still came out of the Los Angeles glam scene and Americans had already become accustomed to bands in that vein. Axl Rose and Slash were more Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, or Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, than they were Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious.

Fifteen years prior to Nirvana, England had experienced the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and perhaps even The Ramones on their radios and TVs. They had at least been introduced to that unique sound. It wasn’t something alien to them.

But no one had ever heard music that sounded like punk rock on mainstream radio or TV in the United States prior to 1991.

Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” in 1980 was probably the closest this ever came to happening, but it never reached above no. 51 on the Billboard singles chart. “I Love Rock n’ Roll” was far more radio friendly and by the mid-80’s, Jett would become more identified with the hard rock or metal scene. Billy Idol knew well enough to ditch his English punk sound for something more polished if he wanted to have success in the United States.

But after Nirvana, bands could sound as rough and ragged in the U.S. as any of those early English and American punk bands and have great commercial success—as Green Day, Weezer, The Offspring, Bad Religion, Rancid, Blink 182 and countless others can attest too.

Hardcore, emo, screamo (I’m too old to know any of the more current subgenres) and any other post-Nirvana, punk-based musical style would have never been able to achieve commercial success before Nevermind.

If Nirvana wasn’t the first band to break down this barrier, there would likely have been another. But still, Nirvana did it.

As we observe the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death and Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s worth remembering that 1991 really was the year punk broke in the United States thanks entirely to one album by one band.

In my 1990 art class, I remember a teenage me being pissed off that after everyone ridiculed The Ramones they replaced my cassette with Paula Abdul.

It was even that girl who did it.

A few years later, she just as easily would’ve replaced it with something even edgier than Nirvana and no one would’ve thought twice about it.

Today, thanks to Nirvana, she probably wouldn’t even have had a problem with The Ramones in the first place.


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