American Icons: Nirvana's Nevermind


Friday, September 16, 2011

American Icons Nirvana's Nevermind

This is the last great invention of rock and roll.

Twenty years ago this month, a new sound blasted the cobwebs out of every radio station in America. It was angry and bracingly cynical; the album featured a naked baby swimming toward a dollar bill dangling on a fish hook, and it went #1 in the blink of an eye. 

In the words of Joshua Clover, a University of California at Davis professor who writes about music, “You take a guy who can write strangely articulate surrealist lyrics and screams in key and plays a guitar that sounds like it was strung with piano wire, and it’s either going to be an absolute disaster or the most fantastic thing that you’d ever heard.” 

It was the latter. 

Nevermind pushed Michael Jackson off the top spot on the charts and pulled mainstream rock deep into alternative territory. It became the defining record for members of Generation X (who got their name that same year), and the grunge uniform of flannel shirts was ubiquitous from dorm rooms to runways. 

But Nevermind didn’t signal a comeback for rock music as America’s most important cultural export. Quite the opposite. 

“If rock is the last great invention of industrial era in the United States,” Clover suggests, “Nirvana is the last great invention of rock and roll. So we can see it as really the final flower of that era of American power.”

As part of our series on American Icons, Studio 360’s Trey Kay investigates why Nevermind was never forgotten.


What other work of art from the 1990s do you consider an American Icon? Tell us in a comment below.


Video: "Smells Like Teen Spirit"


→ The Meat Puppets cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

    Music Playlist
  1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Lithium
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. In Bloom
    Artist: Nevermind
    Album: Nirvana
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. How to Survive in South Central
    Artist: Ice Cube
    Album: Death Certificate
    Label: Priority Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. My Generation
    Artist: The Who
    Album: My Generation
    Label: MCA
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. Sweet Emotion
    Artist: Aerosmith
    Album: Toy In the Attic
    Label: Sony Legacy
    Purchase: Amazon
  7. No. 13 Baby
    Artist: The Pixies
    Album: Doolittle
    Label: Elektra/Wea
    Purchase: Amazon
  8. On a Plain
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  9. Breed
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  10. Stay Away
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  11. Sugar Free
    Artist: Radish
    Album: Restraining bolt
    Label: Polygram Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  12. Come As You Are
    Artist: Templeton Kay

    Home recording

  13. Come As You Are
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Nevermind
    Label: Geffen Records
    Purchase: Amazon


Trey Kay

Comments [15]

Freakfase Presents from Terrell TX

At that stage living in Los Angeles you were a band who sounded like Guns and Roses or you where a band that sounded like UB40..and then all of a sudden NAMM hints about this band Nirvana and everyone started wearing flanel. Coinsidence >? But if you want the real vibe of Curdt that Movie Last Days is perfect. Enjoi it while it lasts even Nirvana became a joke on Family Guy eventually.

Jan. 01 2012 08:17 PM
Leticia Quezada from Cambridge, MA

I'm a college freshman and I've been listening to Nirvana since I was 13 years old. There is nothing I can say that can fully explain how much I love this band. I can very much relate to the feelings these people got from listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Sad thing is, I don't think another band will ever capture my attention the way Nirvana did. My point is that this is a timeless band, and I always get a little sad when I remember that they'll never make new music.

Dec. 05 2011 01:17 AM
Richard from NC

Most important album of the 90's My Bloody Valentine's Lovesless. Which was recognized by Brian Eno as the future of pop music. Unfortunately this album was mostly ignored due to the grunge explosion and the fact that the band is British. The influence of this album, directly or indirectly, can been seen to this day in just about any post-rock style band making music.

Sep. 25 2011 03:11 PM
Steen from NYC

It is interesting to hear Curt talk about how Nirvana redefined manhood. I am a woman and I remember going to punk/alternative shows where groping and sexual harassment were very common, but when I saw Nirvana they actually stopped their show, pointed out a man near the front who was groping women and had a bouncer climb down into the pit and escort him out. It was amazing, it made every woman there feel included and safe, and made me realize that I didn't have to put up with that harassment and, most importantly, that real men didn't put up with it either.

Sep. 23 2011 02:39 PM
jacseamit from Bsoton, MA

I was senior in high school when Nevermind hit. Like the boy in the story, I remember coming to a complete physical halt the first time I heard those strains. Listen, we were teenagers then, and we already knew we wouldn't do as well as our parents did, financially anyway. We already knew we were living in the ruins of the summer of love. This is what that sounded like. Welcome to what "Teen spirit" presaged.

Sep. 19 2011 09:52 AM
Tom from Lakeland, Florida

I was born in '95 but listen to Nirvana as well as Weird Al's parody. This story was interesting.

Sep. 18 2011 05:47 PM
Jason Clark from Vermont

I'd have to say, "Pulp Fiction" was the film of the nineties. We went and saw it at the theater 5 or six weekends in a row. And I think it influenced the rest of the decade.

Sep. 18 2011 05:00 PM
Jim from Cleveland

I would say that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the most important rock song of the last 20 years, and Nirvana's role in the evolution of rock music is huge.

In the late 1980s rock fans were stuck with stars like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Vanilla Ice, and Milly Vanilla. Michael Bolton dominated the charts in 1990/1991. There was a need for something new.

In 1990 Jane's Addiction edged open the door for alternative rock to enter the mainstream, but in 1991 Nirvana kicked the door open. Yes, Pearl Jam had a more enduring impact because Nirvana ended soon thereafter. But the entire turn of popular rock music towards edginess and alternative music can traced to Nevermind.

Sep. 18 2011 02:31 PM
Peter from New York,NY

Great Show!
I would add RHCP's "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" and Soundgarden's "Superunknown" to the list of iconic 90s rock albums

Sep. 18 2011 12:12 PM
Joe from Madison, WI

OK, now about the story. It's heartfelt, if a bit glossy.

When reviewing a piece of art and making that work your sole focus for 20 minutes, it's easy to place the subject on a higher plain (oh my dear puns!) than it may need.

You asked me if there's been a "bigger" rock record since "Nevermind." What's your definition? Sales? Sure. Many. Cultural impact? Sure. Several. Hell, Radiohead put out two of them ("OK Computer" and "Kid A.") As a matter of fact, I would argue that there was a rock record with nearly as much cultural impact that came out less than two months after "Nevermind": "Achtung Baby."

While it's no fault of the music contained on "Nevermind," its songs are still quite seismic, the movement it spawned, with it's Silverchairs, Candleboxes and Everclears, has caused the sound of the record to age somewhat oddly. "Nevermind" does feel entrenched in 1991 like no other record released that year.

But in the end, the flaw within this piece is the refusal to see the humor in Cobain's music. Maybe what happened next has obscured that "Territorial Pissings," "Breed" and "On A Plain" do have a subtle smirk to them that make me smile every time I rock them. Forget G-R-U-N-G-E and the generational hitches, this is a fun rock record if you allow it to be.

Sep. 16 2011 06:44 PM

Loved this show! I feel old.... Saw Nirvana live in '93 it was amazing.

Sep. 16 2011 05:56 PM
Joe from Madison, WI

Um, why did you take off the baby's wee-wee, WNYC? You have kids, right? It's just a wee-wee.

Sep. 16 2011 05:54 PM
terese from san Francisco

Trey Kay rocks!

Sep. 16 2011 05:48 PM
John from KCMO

Loved this story!

Sep. 15 2011 10:06 PM
gO from Philly PA

Excellent, Thank You.

Sep. 15 2011 07:34 PM

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