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Nirvana, Nevermind 

Twenty years ago, on September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind.  Butch Vig produced Nevermind and fascinatingly reminisced about its creation on an episode of Sound Opinions earlier this year.

“I got a call from Jonathan at Sub Pop [a record label], and he called and said, ‘You’ve got to work with this band, Nirvana. They could be the next Beatles.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before.'”

The record label representative was no false prophet.  Nirvana became the most important rock band since the Beatles.  Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl seemed aware of the importance of their cultural moment.  They even poked fun at the Beatles comparison in the music video for the song, “In Bloom.”          

Nirvana staged a Seattle invasion and popularized alternative rock.  In January of 1992, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the ascendency of the Billboard 200, eventually abdicating the top spot for Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind.  That’s a testimony to the band’s cultural influence:  Nirvana made the music of miscreant youth competitive with mainstream commercial acts like Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. 

Two years later, Nirvana’s cultural moment was punctuated with the most significant music tragedy since John Lennon’s assassination in 1980:  on April 8, 1994, an electrician found Kurt Cobain dead of a self-inflicted wound.  If Nirvana was a reincarnation of the Beatles, Courtney Love, Cobain’s inimical spouse, seemed destined to play the role of Yoko Ono.  Yet, it was Cobain–his own Mark David Chapman–who destroyed Nirvana.    

So, Nirvana never really became the next Beatles; who could achieve that accolade, anyway?  The band can be credited, however, with setting the agenda for alternative rock for the next twenty years.  An indicator of Nirvana’s creativity and influence is its continued radio play.  Scan through the stations on your FM dial until you find a Nirvana song.  You will most probably end up on either a modern rock station or a classic rock station.  If you stay on the classic rock station, you will wonder, “How does Nirvana belong on this station?”  If you stay on the modern rock station, the Nirvana song will seem quite at home with the other entries on the playlist.  The explanation for these phenomena is that Nirvana innovated a genre that hasn’t changed much in twenty years. 

The Strokes, Is This It  

It’s an anniversary of sorts for the debut album of the New York City band The Strokes.  Technically, Is This It debuted in the United Kingdom on August 22, 2001, and in the United States on October 9, 2001.  The US debut of the album, however, was originally scheduled for release on September 25, 2001.  The 9/11 attacks forced a delay in the album’s release.  

The UK version of Is This It featured the cheeky track, “New York City Cops.”  The song’s refrain contains these lines:  “New York City cops / They ain’t too smart.”  The song is not a diatribe against New York’s finest; yet, The Strokes, probably wisely, decided to replace the song on their debut album with “When It Started.”    

The band’s publicist released this statement:  “The band stands by ‘New York City Cops,’ but feels after witnessing the valiant response of the [NYPD] during last week’s tragedy, that timing was wrong to release it during these highly sensitive times.” 

Reviewing the release of the band’s fourth album earlier this year, Jack Hamilton wrote, “The Strokes were supposed to change everything, until they didn’t, until they kind of did, by which point nobody was expecting it.”  He is exactly right. 

The originally scheduled US release date for Is This It coincided with the ten year anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  (In the popular music industry albums are customarily released on Tuesdays; so, Is This It would have to settle for the day after Nevermind’s tenth anniversary.)  The Strokes were the new Nirvana.  However, just as Nirvana could not live up to Beatles-esque comparisons, The Strokes were lessor heirs to Nirvana.  The Strokes’ garage rock revival never gained the traction or the cultural relevance of grunge.  

Whereas Nirvana wanted to challenge the sonic preconceptions of its audience—for instance, in the track “Radio Friendly Unit-Shifter”—The Strokes embraced an easily accessible format.  None of the tracks on Is This It—or their second album, Room on Fire—exceeds four minutes.  Nirvana’s lyrics were intellectually meaningful, whether they critiqued generational stereotypes, as in Smells Like Teen Spirit, or struggled with concept of authority and dependence, as in Heart Shaped Box.  On the other hand, the vast majority of The Strokes’ lyrics—almost exclusively written by lead singer Julian Casablancas—depict the privileged and decadent social scene enjoyed by the son of a business tycoon and international model. 

Though less enterprising and influential than Nevermind, Is This It is fine rock art.  The rhythm and lead guitar partnership between Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi is nonpareil in modern rock.  Casablancas’ voice—which is filtered on The Strokes’ early albums—does not impressively span octaves, but has an intriguing range of intensities. 

It only takes 35 minutes to listen Is This It, and I must have made that half-hour round trip hundreds of times.  For several months after discovering the album, I listened to it every unoccupied moment at my disposal.  It was the soundtrack of my commutes, yard work, and household chores.  The album’s most popular tracks “Someday” (see clip below) and “Last Nite” are hardly its best, a fact which gives my favorite songs on the album the appeal of an intimate secret.    

The Strokes did not live up to the Nirvana hype, just as Nirvana did not live up to the Beatles hype, but that won’t stop me from savoring Is This It.  It deserves to share an (approximate) anniversary with Nevermind.  I refuse to let any terrorist—or even the actual facts—take that away from me.

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[This post appeared originally on the blog, Standing on Shoulders, and inspired The Persistence of Song project.]

Undertaking a history of anything contemporary often is an exercise in futility.  The events of tomorrow could easily render this undertaking irrelevant.  Recently, though, I was reflecting on the state contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I realized what this music says about the art evangelical Christians are creating and consuming these days.  The state of CCM is a reflection of two trends, which may have evolved from consumer-driven trends to consumer-shaping trends.

Baptizing the Mainstream

In 1995, DC Talk released its Jesus Freak album, and the album met much commercial success.  Jesus Freak climbed to 16 on the Billboard 200, which was the highest initial debut for a “Christian” album, and eventually sold two million copies. 

If you asked a twenty-something or thirty-something CCM-listener to identify a favorite CCM song, the odds are pretty good that the album’s title track would be the reply.

However, for every Jesus Freak album purchased, ForeFront Records should cut a royalty check to the estate of Kurt Cobain.  His band, Nirvana, created the market for Jesus Freak, and DC Talk essentially pirated the sounds and themes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”    

Undoubtedly, Nirvana was the most influential rock band since the British invasion.  If not for Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, we would all still be listening to big-hair 80s rock bands.  The band’s biggest commercial success, the album Nevermind, toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the peak of the Billboard 200 in 1992. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the Seattle sound commercial.  Distortion, screaming vocals, and the mosh pit—all distinctive of “grunge”—were now here to stay.  DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” capitalized on the popularity of Seattle rock.  However much the trio tried to infuse its hip-hop stylings into the track, “Jesus Freak” was artistically indebted to Nirvana.

Probably what’s more interesting is that the two songs are so thematically similar.  Both tracks touch heavily upon the idea of identity.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” critiques the features of late 80s and early 90s young adults:  violence (“load up on guns”), apathy (“here we are now, entertain us”), and independence (“our little group has always been”). 

“Jesus Freak,” though less sarcastic, is no less fascinated with identity.  The title is a moniker wielded by the world, but gladly embraced by the song’s speaker.  “Jesus Freak” identity is largely understood by the way of negation.  Repentance (“all the me I’ve divorced”) and resolve (“I won’t live and die for the power they seek”) are key elements of this identify.  The street preacher and John the Baptist serve as emblems of this identity. 

The more immediate observation from the DC Talk and Nirvana parallels concerns the CCM industry.  DC Talk and ForeFront records showed that Christian musicians could peddle rock and pop trends to Christian audiences with Christian themes and produce commercial success. 

Jesus Freak debuted approximately four years after Nevermind debuted and three years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached number one.  This scenario should sound all too familiar to anyone who has listened to a Christian music radio station in the last ten years. 

CCM record labels have since improved how quickly they respond to secular radio success.  A good example is Evanescence (2003) and BarlowGirl (2004). 

The resultant state of CCM has been something very similar to the 80s hair-band trend.  Record labels and producers imposed certain musical and cultural norms on rock bands:  hair styles, wardrobes, ballads with predicable harmonies, synthesizers.  Instead of big hair and ballads, the CCM labels are selling whatever was big last year in secular markets. 

The Worship Music Movement

One movement has enervated this trend in CCM:  the worship music movement.  Labels realized an even more profitable angle:  have famous artists sing worship songs that Passion and other movements popularized.  The audience will attach to these songs as spiritually beneficial and fork over big dollars. 

The early 2000s were inundated with commercially successful worship albums.  Third Day’s Offerings (2000) and Michael W. Smith’s Worship (2001) both sold over 1,000,000 copies.  Smith went on to release Worship Again (2002), which sold an additional 500,000 copies. 

Commercially Successful Worship Albums

What’s interesting about Smith’s worship albums is that, although he is an acclaimed songwriter, he wrote so few of the tracks.  Christian radio was peddling “new” Michael W. Smith material that youth groups and contemporary-oriented churches had been singing for years.  Now, the worship cover has become all too common.

After the commercial success of Offerings, Worship, and Worship Again, the commercial worship music movement soon followed.  Caedmon’s Call (2001, 2006), Rebecca St. James (2002), and Newsboys (2003) entered the foray.

The commercial success of worship music generated a new genre of CCM artists.  Worship artists and bands such as Sonicflood, MercyMe, Jeremy Camp, Big Daddy Weave, and Todd Agnew kept the CCM airways humming with new worship material.  MercyMe, in particular, dominated the industry by selling 2,000,000 copies of Almost There

CCM radio stations, in the 2000s, have largely moved toward continuous rotations of worship music.  The dramatic shift of the market has not necessarily been a positive development for the genre of worship music.  Radio-friendly unit-shifters are becoming a-theological, non-confessional love songs, of which the listener’s romantic interest could very well be the subject.  (See the Girl of God? series for some examples.) 

The Art of Evangelicals

Musician Derek Webb has described the relationship between art, commerce, and religion as a dysfunctional marriage.  The CCM industry has emphasized business in its approach.  As secular music trends fluctuate, CCM responds with its “Christian versions.”  When contemporary worship music had become deeply entrenched in the youth, college, and contemporary scene, CCM responded with a myriad of worship-oriented artists and albums.

As creators of art, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, creativity and innovation.  CCM sounds increasingly aged, either imitating the sounds of secular radio from yesteryear or the praise songs of conferences from yesteryear.

As confessors of truth, many CCM artists have lost, or perhaps simply stymied, regard for doctrine.  CCM sounds increasingly hallow, speaking to God as lover, rather than lord. 

The most damaging analysis of these trends is the influence CCM exerts upon contemporary church life.  While CCM’s worship music movement may have been consumer initiated, the movement is deeply impacting the worship of the church.  Now, church “worship leaders” strive to be current and “fresh,” which entails imitating the newest praise chorus peddled by CCM radio.

We must be on our guard, even in the midst of music labeled “Christian.”  Remember that the industry is not only offering its listeners “family-friendly,” “upbeat,” “encouraging” music; it’s selling records, as well.  And when zeroes and ones are as important as chapter and verse, we might be better off sounding like the nineteenth century than worshipping like its 1999.

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