Whatever your personal opinion of Nevermind musically, its cultural significance is literally undeniable. Or rather, given that it sparked a cultural movement so huge it’s been used to define the generation around it ever since, to downplay its cultural importance because you think the music’s overrated would be truly churlish. Also, you’d be wrong. Because Nevermind is nothing short of brilliant, from its shimmering pop riffs to its gorgeously poetic lyrics to everything it, and Nirvana, stood for. It’s so brilliant that some random girl born a couple of years after Kurt Cobain’s death could pick it up 20 years later and feel as connected with it, and as completely understood, as if she were there. And hullo, she is here to youngsplain to you why.
First of all Nevermind is nothing short of pop magic. If nothing else, the influence of Pixies and The Beatles made sure of this. And while, as Everett True ignores here, the production was terrible (we’ll get onto that in a bit), he’s right to point out that Kurt loved pop as much as punk. Paul McCartney informed his songwriting as much as Buzz Osborne ever did, and the evidence is all over Nevermind (and on Bleach too if you know where to look - imagine if Butch Vig had got his hands on ‘School’ or ‘Blew’, never mind ‘About A Girl’). As a result, the melodies and the harmonies shine. It’s why, jarring and terrible though it sounds, that choir arrangement of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ works; translate that melody over that chord progression onto any type of music and, if you can forget the original, it works because they’re musically that strong. And having arranged Nirvana songs for a string quartet, I can confirm you can do this with almost all of the album.
What’s more, the lyrics are as “pop genius” as the music. Kurt was as good at writing about specific subjects as he was at writing about nothing in particular. His sense for the pure aesthetics of phrases (see ‘Smells’ and ‘Come As You Are’) are reminiscent of, and not remotely coincidentally either, William S Borroughs, while his dissection of his relationship with Tobi Vail on tracks like ‘Drain You’ and ‘Lounge Act’ were as keenly observed and relatable as they were powerful (Melissa Auf Der Maur having reported sobbing throughout the album due to its emotional intensity).
Kurt’s complex and varied sense of humour pervades Nevermind too, with a string of songs based on astute observations of modern life followed by a whole song of surrealness and cheesy old school meta jokes, its title ‘On A Plain’ a low key absurd pun. Because filled with cynicism and misery though it may have been, any discussion of either Nevermind or indeed Kurt’s life would be criminally incomplete without addressing his humour. He seemed to love the straightforwardly, smartly witty and the silly not just equally but inextricably. The dissonance of his silliness and his seriousness created an absurdity he was all too aware of, and it shows in the decision to include ‘On A Plain’ on Nevermind. Besides, you can’t call your album “Nevermind” and take yourself too seriously.
Yet the theme that feels most prevalent throughout Nevermind is alienation, of course, epitomised by the strongest song here, ‘Lithium’. Kurt felt outsiderism in his very soul, and he took it and captured it naturally, effortlessly, timelessly. And despite most of the other songs being about other things superficially, they are tangibly against a backdrop of the sense of this misfittery. And, hindered surprisingly little by his position of relative privilege (as a working class but white male person), Kurt wrote of alienation, resentment of society, and betrayal by it in a stunningly relatable way. How could this random man know and articulate so well what it felt like to be, to pick an example at random, an ugly teenage girl?
Welp, because feminism. Obviously. Having inspired many of the songs and accidentally written the title of the most famous one respectively, Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna’s importance in the creation of Nevermind cannot be overstated. With Kurt “May women rule the world” Cobain paving the way, singing a heart wrenching song about the abuse of a girl and openly telling misogynists, racists, and homophobes not to come to their concerts, popular rock largely by men took arguably the most unlikely turn it had taken yet. It started to care about women. With Riot Grrrl’s Third Wave Feminism blossoming in parallel, music made and consumed by men started to gently suggest that women might fucking matter. Kurt stepping into our dresses inspired Ian McKaye to step into our shoes. Eddie Vedder announced that “a woman has every right to choose for herself” on Saturday Night Live.
Maddeningly, what the overwhelmingly whiny male media criticised from Bikini Kill, they lapped up from Nirvana without even realising it: Kurt Cobain hated men. I’m not joking. His firm grasp on a lot of complex ideas in feminist thought allowed him to write such songs as ‘Been A Son’. He also spat out masculinity and washed his mouth out with soap. His life of betrayal by the concept of masculinity led him to resent not women, but masculinity (an idea still depressingly revolutionary), and on ‘In Bloom’, he mocked it. He uninvited misogynist men to their gigs, like he had in speech, and ripped the shit out of them for not getting their music, setting it over a heavy-handed parody of “heavy” rock for a punchline. And what did they do? They sang along to the line “Nature is a whore” as if Kurt was like them.
The production, of course, had a hand in this. Butch Vig’s work reveals tragically late his patronisation and dismissal of both Nirvana and his idea of their fans. To clarify, Everett True and others are right to point out that Kurt loved pop, and that a pop sound was what they were going for, but I don’t think his production was “pop” enough; with its heavy, cold drums and big beefy guitar sound, Vig’s production misses the point as laughably hard as anyone claiming they sound like a ripoff of Boston or Mudhoney. Central to Nirvana was their rejection of masculinity, and while they certainly wanted to sell records, they never wanted to change themselves to suit the ideals of men.
Its over simplicity also seems to have played a hand in the misconception of Nirvana as an apathetic band who “didn’t care about anything”. This was patently untrue; they cared deeply about many things, from the treatment of women by men both as individuals and a class, to the wellbeing of their families and loved ones. They just didn’t care about what boring masculine society thought of their ideas or wanted them to care about. Having no interest in whose dick was the biggest or who’d pulled which girls, their attitude to masculinity and indeed patriarchy was genuinely liberating to those of us who noticed it. But Kurt Cobain cared hugely about what people thought of him too, consciously in spite of himself (another aspect of Nevermind weirdly perfect to my teenage girlhood: it gifted me the start of liberation from mainstream ideals whilst acknowledging how much this path would hurt).
Nevermind then is vitally important culturally and personally and everywhere in between. And strangely, opening on an on-the-nose comment on its own zeitgeist, it knew it too, though it didn’t expect anyone else to listen. Yet ‘Lithium’ seems to epitomise Nevermind just as much as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, casually nailing a bunch of trains of thought stemming from alienation and loneliness and pretending not to have noticed. Perhaps the cleverest part is how the structure reflects this, creating the perfect sense of building and waning as if you were watching your own chest breathe, and then singing direct lines like “so are you”. Because its appeal, its relatability, its personal importance runs much deeper than, and yet finds itself reflected by, its shimmering pop music: if you’ve ever felt “wrong” in any way, Nevermind is here for you.