I finally tracked down a halfway decent copy of Nirvana’s previously unreleased single, “You Know You’re Right.” It’s ranking up there with my favorite Nirvana songs; it’s got some nice swells, twists, some variety, some darkness, some quiet, some loud. It does what it has to do and leaves — and does it with exactly as much energy, exactly as much noise as it needs. And Kurt’s voice? Scratchy, quiet, tired, but so purely scratchy and quiet and tired…
I think that’s what’s missing from today’s Nu Metal angstrock… simplicity. Nirvana worked because at the time we were being forcefed hairspray and spandex and glam. It felt fake, it felt stupid, maybe it rocked but it was something so alien and distant from reality that you just couldn’t connect to it beyond a fantasy level. When Nirvana came along it was something wildly different because it was so… straightforward. Three young guys wearing whatever the hell they pulled out of their dresser that morning, one guitar, one bass, one drumkit. No overproduced stuff, no smoothed out fluff, little modification from the raw output — even the more-produced Nevermind kept the core of the music alive without drowning it out with the kind of frills that get dumped on albums nowadays.
That’s what made it work. It was angsty, but a simple angst. The lyrics had a poetic value without screaming “I’M POETIC AND DEEP, DAMMIT!”. It was a pure sort of bitterness, a kind of realistic pain that teenagers of the time really wanted to express and couldn’t find the right filter to express it through. Turns out the right filter was no filter.
Once that was done, the floodgates were open. Pearl Jam. Soundgarden. The labels pilfering Seattle for all it was worth, seeing only money, but in their greedy frenzy they did actually introduce the whole grunge style in a proper way — they missed Sonic Youth, true, but they found some other gems in the process. And now it was okay to be unhappy, you didn’t have to thrill to the champaigne and blonde chicks rock star lifestyle of Poison and Whitesnake — ordinary people could rock too. Ordinary people rocked BETTER because of the honesty they had compared to the pop acts.
Well, it got ground into the dirt as the recording industry usually does, and when Kurt burned out and died, that was the tail end. Some acts spun into other directions or just spun out. The echoes remained; future acts would usually shun the now-considered-cheesy rock star image and go for something more meaningful, or at least superficially meaningful….
But where are we now? We’ve exhausted honesty. Now acts have to have a distinct look, a distinct pain, and be overproduced to the point where what’s on the album doesn’t sound a lot like the live show. The industry has siezed control once more and we’re back to the rock star motif, albeit modified for youth image and controlled wealth presentation. Let’s look at today’s rock stars — Limp Bizkit? 80’s throwback, living the glamorous lifestyle, mixed in with the hiphop mentality which is an absolute 80’s rock star throwback. Linkin Park? You can’t listen to In The End and not tell me it was polished and tuned and tweaked and perfected to have a smooth and hooky sound that will earn megabucks, using lyrics that are no more deep or poetic than the next guy’s — they just happen to flow better thanks to the rap infusion. We’re already seeing a return to 80’s glam via Orgy, Deadsy, and even Korn’s stage makeup and synth directions.
Maybe the time has passed for a simple band with three ordinary guys that have a decent sound, a lot of charisma, and something to say with their music. That describes tons of struggling indie bands, after all. The industry wants something MARKETABLE to a jaded audience. Just as they did when they snatched up every Nirvana-alike on the market…
So what’s it going to take? Not a reversion. Something new. Something that’s not a gimmick, just a new approach that resonates with people instead of simply perking their interest for a short while. Nirvana broke out DESPITE industry efforts; college radio stations played it, people heard it, they DEMANDED it, MTV aired the groundbreaking video, the mainstream radio stations were forced to play it and the rest is history. That could be what it takes again… something so pure and human that the audience goes against what they’re being told they must like, and say in unison “No, we want to hear this.” Then the money will bring it to the surface.
Of course, that just means it’s a cycle, doesn’t it?
Maybe MP3 will be the technology that eventually changes things; anything that moves more listening power into the hands of, well, listeners is good. At the time of Nirvana’s breakout we were limited to what we saw and heard from the mass media, since the Internet hadn’t broken out yet and word of mouth was the best you’d get. If something does catch fire now, the Internet provides the underground — word can spread instantly. Of course, the Internet is very transitory, so how much staying power would something new and wonderful have? Would it just be a meme of the week?
Okay, now I’m rambling. Still… food for thought. And this IS an excellent Nirvana song. Kind of makes me long for something we lost along the way.