Just watched the excellent Kurt Cobain documentary: “Montage of Heck” and started to revisit some of Nirvana’s great music. I may write a review on that film soon, but first I’m looking back and wondering: when did pop music go from grunge to garbage?
I still feel the last time pop music and artists had something serious to say was when Nirvana broke through with their video for Smells Like Teen Spirit. It’s been over twenty years since its release, and YouTube and many other streaming video sites have replaced MTV as the platform for discovering the next big thing. Instead of flipping through TV channels, most of us comb the internet to learn how pop artists like Miley Cyrus grew out and dyed her armpit and vaginal hair, or how Ariana Grande taste-tested a donut in public with her tongue. Recently the July 16th issue of Rolling Stone had Kim Kardashian on its cover: maybe the final nail in the pop music coffin.
But back to the 90s when things felt a bit more real. Before satellite TV, the choice of hundreds of cable channels, before the popularity of the internet and the personal computer, the stage was set for a new type of rock music to crash into our living rooms in the form of a ground-breaking music video. By 1992, with the help of MTV and the introduction of the music video, Nirvana became a household name with their video for Smells Like Teen Spirit. The sound was revolutionary. “Grunge,” as it came to be known, combined the raw emotion and stripped-down arrangements of punk rock, the distorted guitars of heavy metal, and melody with just enough pop sensibility.
The now historic video for Teen Spirit featured a disheveled band, student body, zombie-like cheerleaders, and a creepy janitor all slam-dancing, mostly in slow motion. The sound was raunchy and the band’s look unpolished. Like most music videos, the song is not an actual live performance. Instead, the band plays along to their own recording while we listen to the album track. For the most part the band reenacted their parts until we get to the guitar solo. While the other band members continued to match their movements to the original audio track, Kurt Cobain did something else. On the album, Cobain’s solo basically retraces the melody of the verse, keeping things pretty simple. In the video however, instead of acting out his part, he pretends to be hammering away a more intricate guitar solo in the style of an Eddie Van Halen.
Ask any fair guitar player and they’ll tell you his fingering does not match what was actually being played on the record. In a very profound way, Cobain’s own version of air-guitar during the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit was an early sign of his contempt for the very business through which he was hoping to succeed. While a younger Cobain must have dreamed of such a platform, he was already displaying to his audience that there was something very phony about becoming a modern-day rock star. In other words: his choice to almost mock his own performance seemed to say that it was no longer cool to be cool. His faking was unexpected and unprecedented by most previous players; but more importantly Kurt Cobain introduced irony to the rock star identity. Oddly enough, we all know the song and video became huge hits, as Nirvana went on to become one of the most iconic bands in recent history. But during a brief moment in a progressive band’s career-launching and debut video, one sweep of the hand both catapulted their career and foretold the shallow edge that would plague pop music and other trends to come.
Throughout his short life Cobain unfortunately delt with depression, a lingering stomach ailment and heroin use. Ultimately, his early disenchantment with rock stardom became his greatest statement. For the bands that followed Nirvana it would then be too hard to live up (or down) to the standard that a musician full of angst had set in choosing to end his own life. Once Cobain pulled the trigger, grunge seemed to fade as quickly as it came, leaving a trail of sound-a-likes that lacked the dark, self-loathing edge of Nirvana and their complicated front-man. After Nirvana, it now seemed impossible for any performer to be taken too seriously, since Cobain took his misery to such an extreme. In the years to come, bands like Creed, Candlebox, Knickleback, Puddle of Mud and Soul Asylum were fronted by lead singers whose vocals sounded like a weak version of Cobain’s twangy and sometimes ear-shattering scream. It was clear the more authentic grunge movement had died, as these would-be gritty rock bands sounded less serious and their feel much lighter. Instead, lead singers once again seemed to embrace their pop-star status. (Until the tragic death of Amy Winehouse in 2011) none of these guys were going to endanger their position as the then new rock gods by becoming another martyr for suicide.
By 1994 Cobain was gone, and the corporate recreations of grunge music now ruled radio. And as we waited for someone else to carry the musical torch, “the grunge look” became the next commodity to be sold to the public. Stores like Hot Topic popped up in most shopping malls, selling finely tailored goth clothing, jewelry, music and more. This one-stop mecca for anything grunge or goth seemed to be selling the idea that darkness and angst were now cool and acceptable.
In fact, most mainstream department stores started carrying similar clothing covered with the phrase “Rock Star” for kids and adults. But beyond telling us what to wear, places like Kmart and Wal-Mart also began selling cheap microphones, guitars, and other instruments. Interactive computer games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band replaced real guitars and drums with stringless, skinless plastic replicas. “Playing” guitar was now simplified through large color-coded buttons on a small guitar-shaped piece of plastic that plugged into a game console and played through your television.
Soon the wave of music-themed game shows (as the great Tom Petty regarded them) like American Idol and The Voice also took over television. The popularity of these shows along with the thriving new past-time, karaoke, meant the time was ripe again for a different movement: the every-day rock star. With the exception of artists like the first Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, (who wrote much of her own material), the public’s focus was more on the instantaneous image and grandiosity. In other words, TV stardom began to overshadow the importance of atistry. Winning rock stardom was now more the focus rather than earning it through years of writing, playing dives and touring in broken down vans. The dumming down of what it takes to be a rock star gave fans and any novice performer a way to prepare for rock stardom at home or in the bar.
Then, maybe the most fatal blow came with the introduction of auto-tuning, a device that prevents anyone from singing out of key. To go along with the public’s changing taste and our reliance on computer technology, companies were now sending a message that anyone could be a rock star regardless of talent, hard-work or owning a real instrument.
The above toy microphone uses auto-tuning to ensure “perfect pitch” for the user to “sing like a rock star.”
In fact, throughout popular culture even the term “rock star” became part of the mainstream. Social media, magazines, and schoolyard conversations mention people handling things like a rock star while performing ordinary tasks. The phrase has since come to describe anyone who shows flair or a playful sense of rebellion in anything they do.
The 80s and 90s are gone, and MTV’s credibility faded through a new marriage with reality TV. In 1979, just before the start of a new decade, pop group The Buggles sang that “video killed the radio star.” A decade or so later Kurt Cobain and Nirvana made some powerful statements of their own. While the integrity of their music captivated and changed a culture, the message portrayed through Nirvana’s video performance exposed and foretold the frivolous identity of rock stardom. Ironically, maybe a fake guitar solo may have been the last real thing pop music had to offer.
(Part of an on-going study of trends in popular culture, this piece is to be continued.)
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