Some bands posses a legacy so great it becomes difficult to quantify their place in music history. The challenge with defining bands that fit this description is that their legacy often transcends music and actually helps define a specific time in popular culture as a whole.
Nirvana is one of those bands.
Partly due to his tragic suicide and partly due to his incredible musical and artistic talent, Kurt Cobain stands as the single most influential icon of 90s grunge music, arguably the most important music movement in rock since the late 60s. The grunge movement, emanating in Seattle, birthed the type of superstar rock bands that have not been rivaled since, and possibly never will. Grunge was the last period in rock that demanded the attention of global pop culture, influencing all aspects from music to youth culture to fashion and beyond.
Trying to find the defining moment in this cultural movement is a fool’s errand, but Nirvana’s breakthrough record Nevermind and the massive lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is as good a point as any to focus on.
Despite low commercial expectations by the band and its record label, Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991 largely due to the popularity of its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Looking back, Nevermind was responsible for bringing both alternative rock and grunge to a mainstream audience.
Prior to its release, the group dropped their debut album Bleach in 1989, but Kurt Cobain had issues with it. While creating the record, Cobain had suppressed his own creativity to fit the expectations of their record label Sub Pop, to match the Seattle grunge sound and to build a fanbase.
Prior to the Nevermind sessions, Cobain began writing more melodic songs that were inspired by his own musical influences. Bands like The Melvins, R.E.M., The Smithereens, and the Pixies were major influences. They released their next single “Sliver” in 1990.
Cobain described the first single as a transition to set audience expectations: “[Sliver] was like a statement in a way. I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that.”
Nirvana eventually began working with producer Butch Vig, recording demos for the songs that would end up on Nevermind. They used that demo to shop for a new label, and they quickly left Sub Pop to make their major label signing with Geffen Records.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write “the ultimate pop song” and was modeled after the style of the Pixies. Nirvana borrowed their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
When Cobain first presented the song to his bandmates, bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed it, and called it “ridiculous.” Cobain responded by making the band play the riff for an hour and a half.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as the album’s lead single in August of 1991. The song did not initially chart, but it wasn’t expected to. The band originally planned on having “Come As You Are” be the mainstream crossover hit. But campus radio and modern rock stations began placing the song on heavy rotation and the response was enormous.
The song was dubbed an “anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X, but the band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention it received as a result
The unexpected success of the song propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts, an event often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream.
By January 1992, it had replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart. It charted again at #1 on February 1st 1992. The band was relatively uninterested in the achievement. Novoselic recalled, “Yeah I was happy about it. It was pretty cool. It was kind of neat. But I don’t give a shit about some kind of achievement like that. It’s cool—I guess.” To this day, Nevermind has sold at least 30 million copies worldwide.
The album has spent 335 total weeks on the Billboard 200 (and counting.)