Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1994

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. Click over yonder to review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Without a doubt, the biggest event in the Alternative Rock movement in 1994 was the suicide of Kurt Cobain. In the latest update of his retrospective, Hyden devotes the majority of his time to this event, starting off with a candid and self-deprecating explanation of how it went down for him. I hadn't realized it, but Cobain's demise certainly was a "where were you when" moment. We don't have so many of those our generation, and this one is easily more trivial than the Challenger explosion, Columbine High School, or 9/11. But I suppose I will always remember riding around in a girl's car on North Campus while my buddy Ken announced on the college radio station, "Kurt Cobian blew his brains to Brooklyn," before spinning "Rape Me." We turned up the volume and drove along. At that moment, Cobain's death clearly wasn't all that important to any of us. We weren't Nirvana fans. Beyond noting the significant newsworthiness of the event, we were unaffected. Or maybe it was Ken's fault for joking about it in the first place.

The only Nirvana album I've ever really cared about was Incesticide, which isn't an album. But it is easily the most interesting collection of songs they released. A recent review of their discography only confirmed this notion. Our flippant reaction perhaps wasn't warranted, but we were 18 years old and to us it was just another news item that had little bearing on our lives. All we knew was that Nirvana was about to see a spike in record sales. Sometimes, when you're in college, you can be surprising isolated from the rest of the world. Even Lewinskygate a few years later was not big news compared to things we were actually busy with. While this may have been an international event, to us, it was just one day's news, driving around.

Hyden took it far more personally, as did almost everybody else. He delivers an excellent piece of research, laying out all kinds of details and interpretation surrounding Cobain's tragic demise. Perhaps the most interesting (but also the most heavy-handed) is his interpretation of the band's famous Unplugged set as a self-thrown funeral for Cobain.
In light of Cobain’s suicide, MTV Unplugged In New York was commonly heard as the work of a man committed to the idea of being dead as soon as possible. I know I’m not the only one that hears Kurt Cobain performing his own burial rites whenever the record plays. It’s not just a matter of the music’s close proximity to Cobain’s death; the suicide simply brought what was already there into greater focus.
To be sure, his suicide was not a surprise at the time. Hence our lack of drama in hearing the news. And maybe Cobain planned the Unplugged performance that way, but only he really knows and he's not around to tell us. To me it's more of a Rorschach test. I see a guy in a lot of anguish, Hyden sees a guy who was deliberately tell us he was going to kill himself through song.

Hyden then steers the direction to Soundgarden's breakthrough album, "Superunknown." Had Chris Cornell died at the time, then I would have been a lot more affected. As they hit the big-time, I went through many of the same conflicts as I had with Smashing Pumpkins earlier, though with a few differences. At least with Smashing Pumpkins, the hit songs were good. Soundgarden's most successful tracks were also their worst. The first time I heard Black Hole Sun, I was overwhelmed by its banality. I couldn't believe this was the same band that had created Jesus Christ Pose on their previous record. That said, there were plenty of good songs on Superunknown, even if the band had backed away from the heaviness that had made their Badmotorfinger so successful (for me).

And with all this important news, there is no room for the other tragedy involving a Georgia band called Collective Soul. A band of mediocre talent and lesser songwriting was packaged as alternative and went platinum. Seriously, this was their hit single. It pointed alternative music in a new direction that soon became a tailspin from which the genre would never recover. At least Cobain wasn't around to see it.

In the end, Hyden's narrow take on the year leads him to make some conflicting conclusions:
Kurt Cobain was not a martyr, and I’m not going to dehumanize him by turning his life and death into a crushed velvet painting. But I’m also not going to let Nirvana be reduced to a load of hype signifying nothing. Yes, I was one of the mourners. Kurt Cobain's music made my life better, opening me up to new worlds that enriched my existence immensely. I’m extremely grateful that Nevermind came into my life when it did, because I was a lonely kid that really needed something to connect with. Just because I’m fortunate enough to no longer be 13 years old doesn’t mean I’ll ever set aside my gratitude for what Cobain once gave me, or my grief for where he ended up. I can only speak for; maybe you didn’t give a shit. But to me, you’re goddamn right Kurt Cobain fucking mattered.
In Nick Hornby's "About a Boy," he uses Cobain's impending suicide as a clumsy plot vehicle. It was wisely removed from the movie. I guess I feel similarly about Hyden's latest article. Of course he can't possibly have ignored Cobain's death. As I said, it was the biggest event that year. But in the end, did it really do anything to music? Nirvana would have had more albums, and so that's a loss. But the way things were moving, with the onslaught of more and more crappy, knockoff alternabands, what Nirvana stood for was doomed either way. Cobain could have been a dead martyr or a living one. He chose the way he had to. And we can have whatever opinion we want about it, but those opinions don't matter.

It's another solid output from Hyden, but one that I'm afraid doesn't move me quite as much. But his next post should be up tomorrow!

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