Sept. 24, 1991, a trio from Aberdeen, Washington releases their second album, titled “Nevermind.” Little did they know then, in the music market saturated by hair bands and glam rock, that their album would not only launch them into fame and fortune, but change the face of music for the 90s and beyond.
That band was Nirvana, headed by Kurt Cobain. The band had already released one album two years earlier under record label Sub Pop, titled “Bleach,” that had not been met with much success or recognition. Then, after signing on to a bigger record label, DGC Records, Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” and released the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is widely regarded as Nirvana’s most popular song of their entire career. This brought them to the forefront of music.
Their music was something different from anything heard before. Music, until that point, had been about being as flashy as possible. The concerts had grown massive, and the musicians rich, profiting off songs about drugs, women and being loud for the sake of loud. Nirvana, frustrated by this lack of accessibility to the ideas presented in mainstream music, popularized the idea and culture of grunge. Flannel shirts, beat-up jeans and work boots replaced capes, glitter, hairspray and platform shoes.
The idea of less is more became prevalent in a time famous for having an excess of everything from drugs, to women, to money. Nirvana concert venues were small, intimate even, compared to the mega-stadium concerts of the late 80s. The youth of the 90s thrived in this new culture, giving up on the idea of becoming a millionaire and embracing the middle class idea of working hard. Grunge made it okay, even cool, to wear old, secondhand clothing and to not be incredibly wealthy.
Nirvana members Dave Grohl, now the lead guitarist of Foo Fighters, Krist Novoselic and Cobain himself also had feminist and working class leanings. In 1992, one year after the release of “Nevermind,” they released a statement in an Oregon newspaper against a measure proposed by the state that would end protections for LGBT people. Cobain stated, “Measure 9 goes against American traditions of mutual respect and freedom, and Nirvana wants to do their part to end bigotry and narrow-mindedness everywhere.” Half of their proceeds from a concert against Measure 9 went to the “No on 9” campaign.
This was not the only time Nirvana had spoken up for equal rights. Their lyrics were littered with glances into the their politics. On the inside cover of “In Utero,” the last album they recorded before Cobain’s death, a message had been placed — “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe … don’t buy this CD.”
Nirvana, in the end, popularized grunge and shifted the music market away from the saturation of 80s metal. They made it cool to be working class, and to challenge the establishment. Their music was provocative without being overly sexualized, and their ideas were radical. They gave a voice to disenfranchised teens across America, and gave them a way to get their anger out in a productive, healthy fashion through the music they’d crafted. Nirvana was a voice of a generation that can be heard even today.