Rock & Roll used to be about how lame your parents were -- now it's about how lame your kids are.
After several months of 20th anniversary chatter, this past weekend I gave my 19 year-old copy of Nirvana's Nevermind its first spin in about 10 years. My first thought was of the old Teen Spirit deodorant commercials, and how today's teenagers can't possibly understand the context from which Nirvana emerged...then it occurred to me that some odd soul might have uploaded those commercials to Youtube:
That ad campaign was the very picture of the era -- stupid shit was shoved down your throat day after day and if you didn't swallow you were cast out. Then one day in the fall of 1991 MTV aired an uproarious video by some new band that presented a crushing critique of that word. A month or two after that first airing, Nevermind unseated Michael Jackson's Dangerous as the #1 album in America.
So back in 1991, when I had just turned 13, the #1 album in the United States of America sounded like this:
Nevermind exploded for several reasons unrelated to the music itself: first, the title of the album's first single was a brilliant piece of guerilla marketing -- nowhere does the copped slogan "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appear in the track of the same name, but it was spectacularly appropriate. Second, the video was a call to action -- it operated quite explicitly as a pep rally to millions of youth who hated jocks -- jocks who would soon jump on the Nirvana bandwagon. Third, and most importantly, because Sub-Pop didn't expect Nevermind to sell more than 50,000 copies, and didn't have the infrastructure in place to fully capitalize on the band's sudden popularity, Nirvana's rise had an authenticity that hasn't happened since.
I vividly remember seeing the Smells Like Teen Spirit video for the first time -- I didn't know what, specifically, the guy was saying (in fact I didn't know most of the lyrics until I looked them up on the internet ten years after the fact), but I knew in my gut what the song and what his band was about.
Smells Like Teen Spirit was about total contempt for jocks, total contempt for teachers, total contempt for pop music, total contempt for Hollywood and celebrity worship, total contempt for college fraternities and sororities, total contempt for DARE and public service messages, total contempt for shopping malls and the era's status symbols, total contempt for Homecoming dances and phony charity balls, etc. It expressed total frustration that the symptoms of the mainstream's insecurity went unacknowledged and were even useful in establishing status within the mainstream, while people of high character were vilified -- often by parents, teachers, and others positioned as moral authorities.
So where are we 20 years later? Crank Nevermind for a room full of today's 8th graders, and they'll curl up and cry for all that noise to stop. Why? Because we're back to that cold-blooded world portrayed in the Teen Spirit ads.