Nirvana shirts can still be seen walking around. The infamous poster of Kurt Cobain playing his guitar with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth is hung in almost every house, dorm and apartment on campuses nationwide. “Black Hole Sun” has made many appearances on different playlists and was also covered very recently on The Voice. Nevermind and Badmotorfinger have even shaped Gen Zers born several years after their releases, along with the millennials who loved and accepted them.
30 years ago, the sound of explosive riffs, relentless guitar squeals and edgy lyrics sang by gravely voices that were smooth and emotional filled the air. Big hair, tight pants and excessive leather were replaced with ripped jeans and ragged clothes. Nirvana and Soundgarden helped create what we came to consider the sound of Seattle. A generation filled with alienation, frustration and anger was finally heard by Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell.
Unfortunately, those same feelings are what Gen Z is feeling now. The year that both albums came out, pessimism and anxiety surrounded the state of the world, just like they do now. Depression and addiction resonate with young people today the way they did with the millennials. They were angry about the “greatest” Generation and Boomers leaving them a crappy job market to graduate into. Racial strife, police brutality (Rodney King) and an unresolved AIDS epidemic loomed over their college years, just like COVID and so many police killings are looming now.
An Underground Rebellious Movement
In 1991, Nevermind and Badmotorfinger were released, forever influencing rock and what it meant to be a young music enthusiast in the ’90s. Nevermind’s poetic lyrics and Badmotorfinger’s mesmerizing fits of guitar pinch harmonics both create different but familiar atmospheres. Atmospheres that shaped what was expected from the grunge rock ‘n’ roll genre forever.
Nirvana and Soundgarden progressed away from sexually based lyrics. Their writing techniques reflected their nonchalant but gloomy personalities. It was suddenly acceptable to talk about emotional pain and be rebellious. Seattle allowed artists to congregate and create an irreplaceable genre. Without these bands and albums, who knows what alternative music would be today. They allowed a dissident sound to sit on the throne of music not only in the United States but across the world.
This article pays tribute to these two iconic albums that changed music, youth culture and our awareness of mental health and societal authoritarianism forever.
It’s no secret that Nirvana’s Nevermind wanted to be a little pop or that Cobain’s lyrics reverberated with the masses. It addresses sexism, racism and homophobia. Cobain liked to spread his message through his songs. “Territorial Pissings” and “Polly” are just two examples of this. He wanted to express that sexism and rape are not cool and need to be addressed. “Stay Away” is an unsparing song addressing homophobia, popularity and people’s unoriginality. Even though saying “God is gay” may seem like a dig at religion, it is really more about gay rights than hating God. The way he can connect to an audience is even more apparent when listening to his MTV Unplugged recording where Cobain plays “Come as You Are,” “Polly,” “On A Plain” and “Something in the Way” acoustically. Bob Dylan even acknowledged the song “Polly” by saying, “That kid has heart.” This heart is what catapulted Nevermind to the top of the charts.
The lead of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an iconic intro that grunge lovers across the world can recognize in the first two chords. It is an anthem for ’90s friend groups to sit back and let the music speak. The song helped to lift the band out of the underground realm and into the mainstream. The juxtaposition of the lyrics resembles the confusion of being a teen in a time where mainstream music was surrounded by people with no relation to the “alternative.” “Come as You Are” is similar in the sense that its lyrics are confusing and conflicting. It is a sound rollercoaster with lyrics such as, “Take your time, hurry up/ Choice is yours, don’t be late” and “As a friend, as a friend/ As an old enemy.” It expresses nonconforming acceptance and understanding. This song also has one of Cobain’s lengthiest guitar solos, a treasure that he left for all of his fans.
We all know people who listen to artists just because they are big and want to fit in. Cobain apparently addresses this in his song “In Bloom.” A commanding riff introduces the song, then gives way to Cobain singing in his low voice that overshadows the instruments, and then goes right back to the hard-hitting style of the genre. The added guitar slides and squeals make the listener want to burst out in headbanging and play the air guitar. While he wanted to separate Nirvana from all the other bands coming out of the Northwest at the time, “In Bloom” captured the hearts of the people who would eventually lump them all together.
If “Breed” doesn’t make one feel alive and full of energy, not sure what will. Mocking the culture around the nuclear family may not seem like a big deal now, but back in the ’90s, buying a house, planting a tree and having kids was what was expected. It beautifully displays Cobain’s talent of writing lyrics that made no sense but cut so deep you knew exactly what they meant.
One of the most common medications prescribed for bipolar disorder is lithium, so naming a song after the drug that is about turning to religion after a breakup to avoid suicide seems fitting. “Lithium” is also one of the few songs that Cobain completed while sitting down to write it, versus pulling inspiration from various poems he had written. Michael Azerrad, author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana , said that inspiration for the title came from Karl Marx’s idea that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” Cobain might have made up the story for the song, but he did pull from past experiences of heartbreak. This song is also another representation of the style that Cobain established while recording Nevermind, switching from quiet to loud. The last song of the album, “Endless, Nameless,” leads with the unforgiving guitar squeal and screams that Nirvana does stunningly. It also shows the pattern of his new adapted style of playing because it quickly switches to melodically peaceful, and of course, then back to the grunge style we all listen to them for.
“Drain You” was one of Cobain’s favorite songs, and he liked it more than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but that could be because of his disdain for the popularity surrounding “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This more poppy love song preaches the purity that love can bring to people. One would really have to love someone to chew their meat and pass it back and forth with a kiss. This kind of innocent love is then contrasted with the next song, “Lounge Act,” which is about his ex-girlfriend and their malignant relationship. The title came along because the bass solo resembles what would be played at a tacky lounge.
“On A Plain” is an example of how Cobain could pick pieces of his poetry and string them cohesively together. The song features an intro of guitar noise that is so fitting of the randomness that Cobain displays in his lyrics. The band then joins with the first line saying, “I’ll start this off without any words,” and continues to be one of the cleanest songs Cobain recorded.
Cobain did run away from home and was homeless for about four months, but his situation may not have been as bad as it is portrayed in “Something in the Way.” The lyrics describe what one associates with being homeless. Living under a bridge, springing leaks, living off of grass and drippings from the ceiling all scream homeless life and the desperation to keep living. The pain-filled voice that Cobain sings in creates a sadness that is allied with this kind of lifestyle. It’s a strikingly slow song for Nirvana that makes one want to find Cobain and offer at least a tent in their backyard.
When Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, they were already a reputable band. A change for them was the loss of Hiro Yamamoto and the introduction of Ben Shepherd. The new member helped the band reestablish their idiosyncrasy and gloomy psychedelia in a perfect display of solidity. Shepherd’s ability to give the band a breath of fresh air while helping them return to their original quirkiness helped set their albums apart from other grunge records that came out the same year. It lends itself to the type of styles emanated by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Badmotorfinger gave their fans a real test because of its drop tuned guitars, different than usual time signatures, vague but menacing lyrics and shameless thicker sound. The band may not have allowed itself to be overtaken by its listeners like Nirvana, but that’s okay. Kim Thayil said that Badmotorfinger was the “heavy metal White Album,” and that encapsulates it very well.
Cornell’s voice is disturbing but in the best way. His range is exceptional and filled with tenacity. This is debuted on the first song of the album, “Rusty Cage.” Complementing this element is Thayil’s guitar playing ability. His stimulating riffs in this song set a perfect foundation for what to expect from the rest of the album. Alternative tunings, even if they were accidental, were utilized for this song. A wah pedal was used as an audio filter, and this created an uncommon guitar sound. This distinctive sound is what sets this album apart from others. Allowing this song to be heavy but slower at some parts lets Cornell’s voice shine.
Everybody goes through days where they’re “looking like California and feeling Minnesota.” The lead of “Outshined” creates such an attractive atmosphere that relays going from extreme highs of self-confidence to plummeting in the completely opposite direction without even using words. One can almost feel the pain and vulnerability in his voice, and it lets listeners connect to something intangible but at the same time is so palpable. People get to see a part of his soul.
“Slaves & Bulldozers” tricks people at first with its bluesy intro. Don’t be fooled, it goes into a fit of climatic guitar energy that can be felt in your bones. Thayil is said to be “strangulating his guitar” for most of the song. It is full of slides, squeals and screaming but also so much patience and skill. Cornell holds his voice back for the bluesy sections that make you sway, then lets it all go, and one suddenly find themselves full of energy and wanting to headbang.
“Jesus Christ Pose” has an almost two-minute lead that is full of compelling riffs that it is never boring or make one want to skip to when Cornell starts singing. It is the core of Soundgarden and is the best slap in the face one could ask for. Cameron’s fast but so controlled and articulate drumming hits every note. It is an impressive disaster that only Soundgarden could achieve. It contains the message of how wrong it is for someone to exploit religion for their own personal benefit, one they even got death threats about.
The angst and frustration of different generations can be felt in “Face Pollution” when Cornell sings, “I don’t feel like feeling.” This should be the soundtrack for any kind of brawl that breaks out and may make one’s heart beat faster than what is considered healthy. “Face Pollution” is followed by “Somewhere” and was written by Shepherd. This addition may disrupt the idea of ambiguous lyrics because it does lean towards being a love song, but it can also be applied to many other situations in life.
“Searching With My Good Eye Closed” takes one on a vibrant psychedelic journey. They replicated this ethereal experience by starting the song off quietly and gradually allowing it to naturally get louder and is met with animal noises. The song has a bluesy feel but still showcases trippy riffs with lyrics that beautifully replicate the lightness but seriousness of this kind of experience. Cornell’s voice almost unknowingly fades out at the end of this song that transitions right to “Room a Thousand Years Wide,” which has an explosive lead that is not overwhelming with lyrics written by Thayil, who said it is just about experience in general. In a less fiery but still incredibly effective introduction to a song, Soundgarden starts off measured, and the hurt in Cornell’s voice in “Mind Riot” creates emotional chills. It showcases a different side of the band that is worthy of as much praise as every other song.
The ghastly lyrics of “Drawing Flies” are accompanied by thrashing instrumentals along with a jazzy feel created by a trumpet and saxophone. Who could have thought that a trumpet and saxophone could add so much to a grunge song full of guitar screeches and human shrieks that also contains relatable lyrics that seem to refer to a creativity block. This block is clearly gone once the album transitions into “Holy Water.” If you have ever seen someone screaming into a microphone with the list of sins on a sign, then you can relate to this song dedicated to the people who force their beliefs onto others.
The last song of the album, “New Damage,” also contains a message, simply put in the phrase “a new world order.” Just googling the phrase can tell you exactly what Cornell wants to get across. He does it in a moody way that can almost be disheartening, but yet again complimented with plenty of guitar slides and a voice that makes the message cut deep. It may be a little alarming and a frightening way to end an album, but there is no denying what was going on at the time of this album. If only Cornell was alive today and could be astonished that 30 years later, the same fear that this song came from is an all too familiar one right now.
The legacy that both of these albums have left on music is undeniable. Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain left their footprint in the world with their music by displaying their vulnerability. They allowed a whole generation, and the ones to follow, to acknowledge that everyone has issues. Their ability to help create a genre of music that is still thriving today is true, original artistry. Mental health disorders, addiction and doubt filled the air 30 years ago just like it does today, but music will always be a medium for understanding and acceptance.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat