Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Curse of Nirvana

I think this blog has gotten pretty political lately. I don't want to keep boring all of you (the two people who might see this) with more soapboxing(although I could thanks to New York and its backward thinking on marriage rights, but I digress). Therefore, I would like to get back to the music. I recently picked up the new book by Chuck Klosterman, "Eating a Dinosaur". I did this despite kind of hating his last non-fiction book, and utterly ignoring his novel (pretentious much?). Anyway, the book is kind of written along the lines of "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" in that he writes essays about his personal insights about pop culture related things. Personally, despite the fact that I believe he is a gifted writer, I think his taste in pop culture is kind of limited. His knowledge of music is pretty limited to what Rolling Stone says is cool. But whatever. I'm getting away from my own topic. He has a chapter in the new book where he discusses Nirvana. It got me thinking a little bit about what happened to that band. I have liked Nirvana since I was too young to like anything. Especially, music like that. I am not going to get into the events surrounding Kurt Cobain's death. I am also not one of these fans that obsessively tries to find every B-side the band ever recorded. I have a theory about Nirvana that really doesn't have much to do with Nirvana. They are the band that accidentally cursed indie rock forever.

Everyone knows about Nirvana. They recorded one album on Sub Pop, then signed to Geffen, and released the only really good (except Weezer's Pinkerton) major label rock record in the whole decade. Nevermind was a monster of an album. Personally, I always liked the songs that didn't make MTV better than the singles. There were maybe 4 songs total that weren't singles. Yet, despite this huge success, Nirvana was not the band this should have happened to. Nirvana operated from a different barometer of what success in music was. They were a small market band that played huge arenas, and they were never ever comfortable with it. A lot of people will say, "what the fuck are they complaining about?". My answer to these people would be that not every band forms to make hit records. Nirvana was a band that accidentally had a mega hit record. The media latched on quickly, and only helped to make the band even more uneasy with their fame. It had to be a little tough to see meathead jock frat boys loving "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Makes your music a bit less than authentic. Nirvana was a band that struggled to find credibility in a corporate rock shithole world. They were a credible band, but not in their minds. They did everything they could to change this. I honestly believe that Kurt Cobain would have much preferred to play shitty dive clubs for the whole of his music career instead of the arenas.

They would play a ton of shows after Nevermind, put out a great album of B-sides called Incesticide, and then they began to plan what Klosterman calls, "their bad album". I disagree with Klosterman, and anyone else who thinks In Utero is a bad album. In Utero was a calculated move, a master plan of an album. Everything about the record suggests a band trying to regain some integrity they believed they lost after Nevermind. It seems like they were determined to piss off the same mindless audience that bought their last album by the truckload. Frat boys need not apply. It was going to be an album for the underground kids. They even had Steve Albini master (read produce) it. Albini's name was and still is synonymous with integrity and ethics in indie rock. It also means noise and heavy distortion. Not to mention the man produced some of the greatest indie rock records ever (Pixies "Doolittle" anyone?). So Albini was an obvious choice. It's still a pop rock record. There are hooks, loud quiet loud dynamics, but it's noisy, distorted and almost pissed. There really was only one song that could have been a single. The album just isn't accessible to most people. Yet as I write this I am reminded of a band that should not have been at all listenable to the mainstream public yet also sold a stupid amount of records. Coheed anyone? I'll get to them later. Anyway, Nirvana would not make anymore albums for reasons I think everyone knows. Thus bringing us to my theory. Nirvana was the first band from the underground music scene of the 80's to make it. I mean really make it. Husker Du may have signed to a major before breaking up but by and large people have no idea who they are. Nirvana was the first and therefore set the precedent. Labels are still combing the clubs looking for the next Nirvana. And they have signed anyone they think has any similarity, in attitude or influences. A solid majority of these bands end up in the bargain bin at your FYE, on drugs, or even dead. This is the curse.

If you listen to the radio these days, you will hear an awful lot of bands that have a somewhat punk rock sound. I won't get into why this is a shitty thing but you get the point. However, for every Green Day or Paramore there is a New Found Glory or an Alkaline Trio. For every Dashboard Confessional a Jawbreaker. Or a Samiam. Or a Jawbox. The list goes on. Bands that had their brief little moment on the radio and where promptly dropped the minute their label lost money on them. Nirvana should be a cautionary tale. A story older bands tell younger bands to scare them. This might happen if you sign to a major. Many bands that have come from the underground to the mainstream like to say that "we want to change the industry". Nirvana actually did this, but they weren't trying. Rise Against, Against Me!, take some notes. The Nirvana curse killed Jawbreaker and other bands because these bands weren't comfortable with success. Playing in front of thousands is not why these people picked up instruments. Your band will NOT change a fucking thing.

This brings us to the curious case of Coheed and Cambria. I can't think of any band in recent memory that the Nirvana curse has hit harder. It's almost a textbook case. A small band on a small label, Coheed brought some really original ideas to the table with their first album. First of all, it was (and every album since has been) a concept album. A dorky Sci-fi story I still don't really get. They sounded like Rush and Thursday had a malformed alien child with a story to tell. When I bought that first CD, I thought no person in the regular radio listening world would ever latch on to this. It was original and completely amazing. That's why the next album exploded. It shouldn't have. But it did. The second album was more prog, more metal, and completely weird. Yet I didn't turn on my television once that whole year without seeing their video. It still boggles my mind. How the fuck does a band with a chia pet haired falsetto singer sell millions of records? So what happened? They wrote a shitty follow up record, developed coke habits, and basically imploded. I don't know if this band wanted success, but they definitely could not handle it. I hear now that a new record is on its way (I didn't check out the last one) but I'm not sure many people still care.

There are exceptions of course. There are the bands that not only embrace success but seem to revel in it. These bands were not really independent to begin with. It's a mentality not just a record label. Blink-182 and Green Day wanted the success. That's why they are good at it. It wasn't a hard decision to jump either. Some bands manage to walk that fine line. Bridging success with DIY ethics. NOFX is the best example. Those guys are millionaires but I won't ever hear them on the radio. Maybe NOFX should set a new precedent. I do believe that there are more victims of the Nirvana curse just waiting to happen. Mastodon is an example, AFI as well. These bands will implode. It's just a matter of when.

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