Grammys Preview: Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and the Death of Guy Rock

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Just about every graying, fading member of my generation has a similar story: I was on a bus with about 60 other kids from a New Jersey Catholic church youth group heading up to Lake Placid for a field trip with my Kmart off-brand Walkman in my lap when I first heard it. It was on a pop station such as Z-100 or 95.5 WPLJ where it didn't belong, but Kurt Cobain's call-to-arms opening riff and Dave Grohl's rolling intro didn't seem to belong anywhere.

Altogether too many trees were felled to give writers enough space to tell the world how Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was supposed to change music forever. It got me listening to a copy of Nevermind on repeat for days on end, but that song never quite had the effect that the bunch of guys -- and they were almost always guys -- sitting behind typewriters in black shirts had in mind. It never brought on that metal/punk hybrid of pure, adrenalized guy rock that would kick the longhairs to the curb and make all those rock-god groupies accessible to any nerd with a distortion pedal.

If anything, it helped swing the pendulum the other way, as Bon Jovi can attest. As we head into yet another Grammy Awards ceremony, the slate is once again clean of soaring guitar, macho bravado and dated notions of cool that were once codified as "rock." Cobain's death in 1994 coincided with the start of the Nielsen/Soundscan era of music industry tracking and, each year, Nielsen and Billboard give us an update on just how music industry buying patterns have evolved during that time.

This year, Garth Brooks topped the list of best-selling artists since 1993, followed by the Beatles, Mariah Carey, Metallica, Celine Dion, George Strait, Eminem, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Pink Floyd. The best-selling albums during that span? Metallica's Black Album (released 1991, sold 15.8 million copies), Shania Twain's Come On Over (1997, 15.5 million), Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (1995, 14.8 million), The Backstreet Boys' Millennium (1999, 12.2 million) and The Beatles' greatest hits release Beatles 1 (2000, 12.1 million).

That's a decided lack of "rock" in that mix and a whole lot of catalog releases from the days when people actually bought CDs. In fact, people who bought albums last year bought 10.2% fewer new releases than they did in 2011, while spending 2.5% more on old albums and 3.3% more on dusty "deep catalog" artifacts that require some digging in the crates. Though overall album sales once again declined 4.4% last year, digital album sales jumped 14.1%, digital track sales edged up 5.1% and vinyl album sales soared 17.7%.

So where does Nirvana fit into all of this? Well, the familiar narrative says they did the world a big, huge favor by ridding it of hair bands and arena rock and making it safe for garage bands again. That's not quite how it played out. The grunge and post-grunge era music world was filled with as much belabored growling, on-stage preening and aggro nonsense as ever, as evidenced by the lineup, fires and ensuing rioting and rapes that engulfed the ill-fated Woodstock '99.

What Kurt Cobain and, later, Dave Grohl taught and most folks didn't hear until Napster gave away much of the music and Woodstock '99 made it very clear was that "rock" and, more importantly, pop music can't be an exclusionary club filled with angry boys. Cobain pointed to classic rock bombast such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith as influences, but he also loved Freddy Mercury's voice and some of the more nuanced touches of Queen. He got into the rougher portions of punk and followed Black Flag, Bad Brains and the Sex Pistols, but Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne also turned him on to Joe Strummer and The Clash. Perhaps most importantly, his tendencies toward big buzzing guitar and guttural noise were tempered by the melody and writing of David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Daniel Johnston and other indie and art-rock acts.

Cobain wasn't going to write a dance or electropop record in the days before his death, but he also didn't seem into sewing new patches on heshers' jean jackets and having piles of testosterone fling themselves at him from the mosh pit for the rest of his life. He was earnest in a way current acts just are and tend to take for granted. His song Sliver, which never made it to a full Nirvana album and was instead released on the compilation album Incesticide back in 1992, was basically just a story about about a trip to his grandparents' when he was a kid that was set to an extremely danceable bassline. Were it released today, it would be iTunes gold. Son Of A Gun off the same album was not only a cover by Scottish guy/girl duo The Vaselines, but may be the bounciest song of the grunge era.

Without making a concerted effort to do so, Cobain was being as inclusionary as he could within the confines of his genre. It's something you hear echoes of in Jack White's work and in his previous albums with the White Stripes and it's something the Black Keys have reached for in their own blues-based fuzz rock and their collaborations with artists from various genres.

Inclusion is the common thread. It's what our Rocco Pendola hinted at when discussing how Pandora ( P) could further bridge the divide between artists and fans. It's what our Carlton Wilkinson is hinting at when he suggests that music is now less of a commodity and more of a collective social experience.

More importantly, it was what Judd Apatow was getting at in his film This Is 40. At one point, the head of a nostalgia record label played by Paul Rudd hears his wife and kids listening to Nicki Minaj and counters by playing Alice In Chains' Rooster, a song about a marginalized, PTSD-addled Vietnam vet. His wife, Leslie Mann, responds by noting "You're the only one in this room that's happy," leaving Rudd to lament being the only male in the family.

Music's role isn't limited to that of a mood enhancer. Morrissey wouldn't have a career and Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine wouldn't exist if that were the case. But neither the stadium-sized posturing of low-grade lechers dreaming of being the next Robert Plant nor the backwards-capped growling of Fred Dursts in training have broad-reaching appeal these days. Even would-be Mick Jaggers tend to sound more like Adam Levine of Maroon 5.

That's ultimately the key lesson from Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit: It changed music and, more specifically, rock music by making "rock" sound nothing like Nirvana. The music industry has long since rid itself of its sour post-grunge aftertaste and made a very poppy world amenable to rock again. According to Nielsen, rock was the leading genre last year, with 324 million tracks sold, more than the 303 million pop tracks sold during the same span.

Adele's 21 may be the closest the digital music world got to a consensus in 2012, but the fact that roots-rock acts such as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and Of Monsters And Men accounted for four of the Top 10 downloaded albums last year is proof rock isn't out of the mix. It's just mellowed out a little bit and let more people into the show.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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