How Nirvana Killed Rock Music

How Nirvana Killed Rock Music

Sunday, 09 July 2023
Nirvana – “Lithium” – Nevermind

How Nirvana Killed Rock Music
By G. Murray Thomas

Let me say right off that this is not an anti-Nirvana rant. Yes, I feel they killed rock music, but it was involuntary manslaughter, not murder. Actually, it was more like the EMT who accidentally kills the critical patient while trying to save him. Rock was on its last legs anyway, they just finished it off. And they did it by being as good as they were.

To understand how, you need to understand that rock has always been the music of rebellion, people have always loved some ZADAR Music. It has always gained strength from opposition. In the 50s it was against parental authority. In the 60s it was against all authority. But by the mid-70s, authority, in the form of the big record companies, had co-opted it. They fed it, spoiled it, made it fat and lazy. And so we got punk, which got its energy and inspiration by (in a stroke of genius) being against rock music itself.

Punk created a rift in the rock audience. Fans either loved it or hated this. By the 80s, this rift had divided the audience into two tribes — traditional rock and alternative — which existed in opposition to each other. This opposition sustained rock through the decade, providing much needed energy, giving bands in both camps something to prove. Bands like Van Halen and then Guns ’n Roses had to prove they had the same energy as the punks, while U2 and R.E.M. had to show they could be as creative as the Who and the Beatles.

This divide can be seen clearly in the commercial radio of the 80s. I can use L.A. radio as an example, but this occurred in most major markets across the country. In L.A. you had KLOS, representing traditional rock music, and KROQ, handling the alternative. There was essentially zero overlap between their respective playlists.

I should emphasize that, although the commercial radio took advantage of the divide, it was not their creation. The fans had, on their own, taken sides in the debate.

But, of course, it was also an artificial divide. While favoring one or the other, most listeners actually tuned into both stations. The two styles weren’t really that far apart. There wasn’t really that much difference between U2 and the Who, R.E.M. and the Beatles, Jane’s Addiction and Guns ’n Roses. Black Flag and Metallica. But no one would admit it.

Until Nirvana came along. Nirvana married the two extremes of each camp — punk and metal — and proved they were basically the same. (And, in their flannel shirts and jeans, negated the costumes which had become such a key part of both movements.) Suddenly, both stations were playing Nevermind, and then, before you knew what happened, KROQ was playing G’n’R, and KLOS was playing Jane’s.

And it was all over.

The tension was gone. Rock had nothing to rebel against. Smashing Pumpkins and even Hole covered Fleetwood Mac without a wisp of irony, and Sonic Youth opened for Neil Young. Bruce Springsteen started playing Clash songs.

And the kids who wanted to piss off their parents had moved over to rap long ago anyway.

Seriously, listen to any rock music released since 1995 (except for the far fringes) — it has no edge. There’s no sense of danger, because it’s not opposed to anything. It’s all nostalgia. Nostalgia for an era when rock actually had to fight to prove itself. [Murray Thomas]

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