LaToya Peterson has a great piece in Spin's newest issue dedicated to Nirvana's Nevermind, which turns 20 next month, and a bunch of extra quotes she had to cut for length but she published here. Her piece is an examination of the social, political, and cultural context that turned what probably would have been a underground rock record turned mild breakout hit—think Jane's Addiction—into a megawatt blowout hit that actually did change the music industry for a few years, before they reverted to cranking out half-naked teenagers pretending to be virgins to get some easy hits. LaToya's argument, and I think it's well-founded, is that the early 90s were something of a Reagan hangover and my generation, which is really kind of a lost and abandoned one compared to the ones that flank it, was perfectly set up to relate to the angst and alienation that Nirvana was serving up on a platter. I think the proof's in the pudding on that one.
My relationship with Nirvana began and ended on the road, which isn't as strange as it sounds. I liked being on the road and concocted many reasons to not be stuck in my small town, feeling bored and frustrated, and especially feeling alienated from the hyper-conformist atmosphere at my tiny high school. Surprise! I was not very keen on the social climbing politics of a small town Texas high school, where the worst thing you could say about someone was that they were "different". So I took lots of trips. I visited my dad in El Paso a lot. I went on school trips, and enjoyed spending time around kids from other small towns, kids whose lack of knowledge of my official reputation as "ugly" meant they saw a perfectly normal-looking teenage girl and not the deformed monster the kids at my high school saw. Being not at home suited me really well.
Thus, I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in a hotel room. I was 14 years old and I do believe on the first trip I'd ever take with the speech/debate team. By the end of my high school career, I had gone on more of these trips than I could count; during the height of the season we were out of town nearly every weekend. I got into my room, and as was my habit, I flipped on the TV to MTV. It was night, and it was probably late 1991/early 1992. Anyway, the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was on, and like pretty much everyone else around that time, I was absolutely transfixed by it. I don't have to remind you of its power and its aggression and how it captured so perfectly the sense of alienation. For a kid like me, whose least favorite part of the week was being forced out of class to sit through the hell of pep rallies, watching a video based around a pep rally turning into a riot was like every fantasy I'd ever had rolled into one. I was particularly impressed by the anarchist cheerleaders—taking a piss all over the hallowed role of "cheerleader" was inconceivable in my world, and it delighted me.
It's not like it was my introduction to good music or anything, though it did have a large impact on my growth as a fan. I was already into REM and some other 80s-style indie rock music, and I think I may have already acquired a Sonic Youth CD by then, though I can't remember. I was in the process of converting myself from teeny bopper to glowering rock fan teenager. I knew where I was headed, but Nirvana really did help me get there.
A little over two years later—through the popular revival of Bleach, the release of In Utero, the "Sassy" cover, the horror as frat boys and rock stupid jocks got into the band and nearly ruined everything—the relationship as it was ended because Nirvana ended. And I was on the road again, this time at a week-long camp thing for kids interested in careers as journalists. I forget how I found out, but I ran into a room full of some of the kids I was finding simpatico and simply said, "Kurt Cobain's been found dead. He shot himself in the head." No one was surprised, I think. But it was still devastating news to us. That night they had a dance to wind up the week of camp, and my small group of camp buddies (including the inevitable making-out partner) and I asked the DJ to play some Nirvana. At first he refused, saying that the organizers specifically told him not to, because they were worried the kids would get out of control. It was a weird thing to think, but I suppose a little youthful alienation has always looked dangerous to the square side of adults, even when it's objectively not. When the DJ gave in—c'mon the guy had just died, how could you not?—we bounced around to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the spirit of camaraderie as fans, and no riots happened.
On the flight home, I put my copy of Nevermind, which was taped off the CD, into my Walkman. I played it from beginning to end twice, fingering the dirty, peeling tape on it between listens while I looked out of the window. I didn't look forward to going home and I didn't really think that we'd ever put Nevermind in the player again as we drove up and down the main drag in town, circling around looking for something to do or someone that was interesting, a something and someone that never materialized. When the second play-through ended, I fell asleep and slept all the rest of the flight from D.C. to El Paso, where my mom was picking me up for the four hour drive back home, so I could go back to school again on Monday, to drift through the next year of my life spending most of my days with people I didn't like who didn't like me. I've never been able to fall asleep on a plane since.