Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Nirvana: did they really "change music for ever?"

Lauren Spencer's article on Nirvana in The Observer is quite interesting, and reasonably entertaining to read. It is also incredibly frustrating.

2011 is the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind, Nirvana's most famous album, and as such there have been many articles written about Nirvana, the album, and 'grunge,' the genre they helped spawn. Obviously I don't mind people writing articles on Nirvana, and the twentieth anniversary of one of their albums is a good point in time to do so. What I do mind is the kind of lazy generalisations that are nearly always used in articles like this (this article is an example, and not the worst I've seen, like I say it was quite interesting).

Firstly, I contest the assertion that "Nirvana's legacy had lodged deeply in the public's consciousness and changed music for ever." This seems to me to be one of many strange ways the modern world has of looking at history. Other examples are: "we've just seen ... make history," "this is history in the making," and "this will go down in history as the day....." One of the most important things to understand about history is that it is not absolute fact, it is not a science, and always involves interpretation at the most basic level - that of turning historical data (in a perfect world, the knowledge of every single person's actions at every moment), into historical fact (which generally consists of larger scale events and trends). I would agree that Nirvana have been very influential over the last twenty years (largely due to Kurt Cobain's death), but that is a long way from having been influential forever. 'Nevermind' and Kurt Cobain's death were both important moments in pop music history as we currently see it, but that does not mean that it will always be that way. Schubert was relatively unknown in his day, but he is now firmly established as one of the central composers of the canon of western art music.

Secondly, and more generally, rock music has a very strange relationship with money and employment, something that Lauren Spencer doesn't question. Her article is full of statements such as "once Cobain was dead, commerce trumped art," "the radio stations were not really passionate about the music, they were passionate about making a buck," and "musicians... found themselves... having to choose between... a job at either Starbucks, Kinkos or Home Depot." There is a sense in rock music that good music cannot exist alongside work of any other kind, and that it is somehow shameful to make money from another job, which actually grants greater financial independence. This is something worth investigating, but the article does not delve any deeper.

I find it very frustrating that articles on music and musicians (as well as actors and writers) very rarely dig any deeper than what is immediately offered, unlike in politics where answers aren't taken for granted. Again, this article is an example of that: every artist quoted essentially agrees with the main element of the article (that Nirvana changed music for ever, and were absolutely amazing) - why not go out and interview some people who disagree, who contradict the other formulaic, practiced replies?

Sadly I fear this is an unlikely development. As cultural interviews only really occur when the artist in question has something to promote, and we now live in an age of PR minders, there is very little incentive for a journalist to push further - after all, the articles still sell.

I like 'Nevermind,' but although its release currently seems like a crucial moment in 1990s music history, this will not necessarily be the case forever. It is an event that changed the course of music for the next twenty years, but whether we will still give Nirvana the same importance in one hundred years time remains to be seen.


In search of Nirvana | Music | The Observer

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