No other artist and no other album dominated the 90’s in America like Nirvana and Nevermind. This was especially true after Kurt Cobain’s death, for Americans, along with all their other notable traits, are quite ghoulish creatures at heart.
To begin to understand how an under-publicized record stuffed with songs containing perfectly meaningless lyrics played by a band with little musical range could have achieved such a lofty position in musical history, you have to understand the differences between The Baby Boomers and Generation X.
Baby Boomers believed they were special; they thought of themselves as people on a mission. For many of them, the mission didn’t matter so much as the feeling of being on a mission, which is why they were able to morph from anti-capitalist peaceniks in the 60’s to greedy fucking bastards in the 80’s. Even if they were unable to articulate life’s purpose beyond a few slogans, they believed and generally still believe that life has a purpose.
Their children did not share their views. Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.
But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.
It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have. Dave Grohl observed that Cobain would often dash out the lyrics to a song five minutes before recording, and that’s about all the time and energy that his co-generationists desired to put into the apparently hopeless quest for human understanding.
This is the key to grasping the significance, if not the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song unwittingly named after a deodorant. The confused and meandering lyrics of the song reflect the confused and meandering soul, searching without aim for God knows what. Far more important than the lyrics is the timbre of Kurt Cobain’s voice, one of the greatest rock voices of all time, combining elements of shyness, angst and bottled-up fury. During the verses here his voice sounds like it’s drifting, like a compass needle unable to find the magnetic pole. But when he gets to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he comes at you full force with that incredible growl, exploding with all the power of a broken dam:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
Even with the comparatively professional production of Nevermind (a classic tempest in a teapot debate), the power of that voice singes the soul. I can’t explain why in words; it just does.
More accessible to the literate listener, “In Bloom” describes the wannabes out of the scene descending on Nirvana concerts after their maiden release, Bleach:
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Ah, that voice again. I love the way Cobain extends the syllable on “he’s” at the start of each chorus, holding that sandpapery voice to the note an impossibly long time without losing a single watt of power. On the downside, the song reflects a formula that dominates much of Nevermind and gets boring after a while: quiet verses followed by loud choruses. Straight from Pixies.