— Kurt Cobain, quoting Neil Young, in his suicide note
A grunge band coming from Aberdeen, Washington — not Seattle, as is commonly assumed, though Seattle is where they first hit it big — up in the Pacific Northwest, Nirvana became the breakthrough in alternative rock with their smash hit album Nevermind in the early 1990s. The trio of guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and a revolving door of drummers until Chad Channing and subsequently Dave Grohl would become the face of the grunge movement of the '90s; the group is most well known for the songs "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Come As You Are", "Heart Shaped Box", and "You Know You're Right".Nirvana was one of the first bands many members of Generation Y got into, despite the band often being labelled a Generation X phenomenon (which is also inaccurate in the sense that a much larger number of Gen-X'ers grew up with the hair metal and flamboyant pop Nirvana ushered out in the early 90's - only the Gen-X'ers born from 1974 through 1979 would've likely been exposed to the band before reaching adulthood), and thus, their music is often considered to be in the upper echelons of influential rock music. Even after the death of Cobain, the band still continued to remain popular, releasing many compilation albums. After the group split up, drummer Dave Grohl formed the band known as the Foo Fighters, who have gone on to be one of the most respected and successful alternative rock bands in history.
Principal Members (Founding members in bold):
Aaron Burckhard - drums (1987–1988)
Chad Channing - drums, cymbals (1988–1990)
Kurt Cobain - lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums, percussion (1987–1994, died 1994)
Dale Crover - drums (1988–1990)
Jason Everman - guitar (1989)
Dave Foster - drums (1988)
Dave Grohl - drums, backing and lead vocals, guitar, bass (1990–1994, 2014)
Krist Novoselic - bass, vocals, guitar, accordion (1987–1994, 2014)
"He's the one Who likes all the pretty songs And he likes to sing along And he likes to shoot his gun."
Breakup Breakout: While Dave Grohl's next band Foo Fighters is generally acknowledged not to have had as much cultural impact as Nirvana, for him personally, it was a breakout from being virtually anonymous as "just the drummer" in the background to the leader and Face of the Band of one of the most popular, commercially successful and critically acclaimed rock bands of the late 90's and early 21st century.
Live guitarist Pat Smear got his Breakup Breakout in this band, (he was previously the guitarist of The Germs before their lead singer committed suicide via heroin overdose) until Cobain's death. Amazingly, he managed to get a second one when Dave Grohl brought him on to play with the Foo Fighters, whom he still plays with to this day.
Broken Record: A lot of songs feature repeating lyrics due to the band's focus on melody and energy over what was being sung.
From "Sliver": "Grandma take me home, grandma take me home..." (It repeats this forty-nine times to depict an annoyed/annoying child.)
From "Dumb", there's "I think I'm Dumb"
From "Breed", its "She said"
From "School", there's "You're in high school again"
That's all that "School" is. "Wouldn't you believe it? It's just like my luck. Wouldn't you believe it? It's just like my luck. Wouldn't you believe it? It's just like my luck. Wouldn't you believe it? It's just like my luck. No recess! No recess! No recess!"
You're in High School again...You're in High School again...You're in High School again...
From "All Apologies", there's "All in all is all we all are"
From "Smells Like Teen Spirit", there's "A denial" and "Hello, hello, hello, how low?"
From "Negative Creep", there's "Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more"
Celebrity Is Overrated: Kurt stated his daily life hadn't changed much with fame. Also, fame didn't help at all with mental issues.
Censored Title: On some copies of In Utero, "Rape Me" was titled "Waif Me".
Concept Album: While not an outright one, all the songs on Nevermind tend to follow the general themes of teenage sexuality, loneliness, the madness that results from rejection, or an obssesion over a girl
Again while not an outright one, In Utero is mostly about Cobain's Creator Breakdown and dealing with his new found fame.
MTV Unplugged in New York: "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" by the Vaselines; "Plateau", "Oh, Me", and "Lake of Fire" by Meat Puppets; "The Man Who Sold the World" by David Bowie; and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" by Leadbelly.
Besides the ones above, some others were recorded live (or as demos) and have surfaced on compilations, B-sides and EPs (mostly With the Lights Out) — "Heartbreaker" and "Moby Dick" by Led Zeppelin, "They Hung Him on a Cross", "Grey Goose" and "Ain't It a Shame" by Leadbelly, "Here She Comes Now" by The Velvet Underground, "D-7" and "Return of the Rat" by The Wipers, "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks, "Do You Love Me?" by KISS, "The Money Will Roll Right In" by Fang, and "The End" by The Doors.
Kurt has moments of this on MTV Unplugged in New York, crossed with Self-Deprecation. For example: before playing "The Man Who Sold the World", he says I guarantee you I will screw this song up. And I know exactly which part, to which someone in the background (probably Dave) snarks Yeah, like he only screws up one part. Then, at the end of the song, I didn't screw it up, did I? But here's another one I could screw up.
Also in the same album, before playing About A Girl, he states "This is off our first record; most people don't own it."
Even Krist has moments of this. When asked what is your favorite Nirvana song he replied something along the lines of Smells Like Teen Spirit, because "it bought my first house."
When Krist spends a bit too much time addressing a Brazilian festival crowd, Kurt snarks both: "I think 'oh oh oh' means 'Shut up, Krist'"
Downer Ending: Besides the band itself, both Nevermind and In Utero end with depressing songs.
"Verse Chorus Verse" was originally released as a hidden track on the benefit album No Alternative - Nirvana requested that the song go unlisted because they didn't want to overshadow the other artists on the album.
The liner notes of Incesticide have Kurt complaining that "Polly" was sung by actual rapists.
Likewise, "In Bloom" is about thugs who like Nirvana's music, but stand for everything Kurt hated. He also expressed a fear of the image of a yuppie singing along to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in his BMW.
Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Generally 5 to 7. Their softer songs, like "Something in the Way" and "Marigold", drop down to about 2 or 3, while "Endless, Nameless" is an 8, and might even go up to 9 if not for the quiet parts. A few In Utero songs ("Scentless Apprentice," "Tourette's," etc.) are also 8, as well a few songs from Bleach (most obviously "Negative Creep").
"Lounge Act": Is it "'til it's fucking gone"... or "jealous fucking God"?
Cobain had a habit of mushing his words together when he sang, lending himself easily to this trope. (It also inspired the Weird Al parody song "Smells Like Nirvana".)
Kurt once said on the topic of journalists interpreting his lyrics: "Why the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate Freudian evaluation of my lyrics when 90% of the time they transcribe them incorrectly?"
Another reason why it's hard to nail down the lyrics to Nirvana songs is that they tended to change from performance to performance. Cobain himself would change the lyrics to songs after they had been recorded, most notably Smells Like Teen Spirit. "Our little group" was changed to "our little tribe". Nearly every live performance of the song reflects this change.
New Sound Album: MTV Unplugged in New York is perhaps the most obvious example for being acoustic. It was also Nirvana's first live album, and nearly half of the songs performed during the show were covers. Their three main studio albums also have distinct, albeit slightly more subtle, differences.
Non-Appearing Title: Considering songs such as "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle", perfectly justifiable. The songs "Lithium", "Territorial Pissings", and 'Lounge Act" are under this trope also. In fact, none of those titles even make sense with their song. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" does not appear in the Farmer Francis lyrics either.
Interestingly, while "Verse, Chorus, Verse" does follow that format, the words themselves never appear in the song.
Kurt Cobain has been posthumously deemed a rock god: the house where he died in Seattle, as well as several other former residences throughout Washington, have come to be considered holy ground by his fans, and the main road leading into his hometown of Aberdeen bears a welcome sign reading "Come As You Are" (despite the fact Kurt hated the town).
Strongly related is fan reaction to a move Activision made with Guitar Hero 5, where you could play as Cobain and have him sing any song in the game. Not only did Courtney Love sue, and the surviving members of Nirvana declare they wouldn't work with Activision ever again, but the fans went nuts. This was in spite of Activision having done this numerous times before to no complaint from artists and — at best — mild grudging from fans.
Love lost the lawsuit because she gave Activision the go-ahead in the first place by signing the contract stating that they could use his image for the game (meaning the lawsuit was a lost cause from the beginning).
Kurt has also become canonized as a dour, tragic figure. He was, most of the time (especially when he wasn't smacked up on heroin), a smart, goofy music nerd with a wicked sense of humor.
This Is a Song: "On A Plain". To wit: "I'll start this off, without any words... What the hell am I trying to say, It is now time, to make it unclear, to write off lines that don't make sense... One more special message to go..." And in between are a bunch of Word Salad Lyrics.
Nirvana's performance on MTV Unplugged contains several of these. The Unplugged Version of "All Apologies" was a hit single.
Nevermind also has two unplugged songs, "Polly" (which, in an inversion, they also played electrically as "(New Wave) Polly") and "Something in the Way".
Wham Line: Kurt Cobain shows off his talents as a lyricist with the first two lines of "Polly".
Polly wants a cracker Think I should get off her first
Word Salad Lyrics: Kurt himself lampshaded this in "On a Plain", with the lines "What the hell am I trying to say?" and "It is now time to make it unclear / to write off lines that don't make sense". Then again, that is a song about writer's block...
Good luck with deciphering the lyrics of "Milk It".