"It's better to burn out than to fade away."
— 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
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 (19871988)
- Chad Channing - drums, cymbals (19881990)
- Kurt Cobain - lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums, percussion (19871994, died 1994)
- Dale Crover - drums (19881990)
- Jason Everman - guitar (1989)
- Dave Foster - drums (1988)
- Dave Grohl - drums, backing and lead vocals, guitar, bass (19901994, 2014)
- Krist Novoselic - bass, vocals, guitar, accordion (19871994, 2014)
- Dan Peters - drums (1990)
Studio and Live Discography:
Nirvana provides examples of:
- Album Title Drop:
- Alternative Rock
- Ambiguously Bi:
- Kurt said he was "gay in spirit" and "probably could be bisexual", and "If I wouldn't have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle."
- He once had a homosexual male friend who tried to kiss him but Kurt backed away and told his friend he was not gay but would still be friends with him.
- Anti-Love Song: "About a Girl".
- Audience Participation Song: As seen in this video, the audience would supply the shriek in "Milk It" if Kurt missed it.
- Bowdlerise: The version of In Utero sold in Walmart changes the title of "Rape Me" to "Waif Me" and alters the artwork on the back. It's still the same inside, though.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The chorus for "In Bloom":
"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 '90s 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", it's "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 "Aneurysm", there's "Beat me outta me".
- From "Rape Me", there's "I'm not the only one".
- From "Heart-Shaped Box", there's "Your advice".
- From "You Know You're Right", there's, well, "You know you're right".
- The whole of the lyrics of "Stain".
- 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 obsession 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.
- Contemptible Cover: Nevermind's classic "naked baby swimming after a dollar bill◊".
- Corpsing: You can hear Kurt struggling to avoid laughing right before "Milk It"'s final chorus.
- Cover Version:
- Bleach: "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue.
- 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.
- Cymbal-Banging Monkey: In the video for "Sliver".
- Darker and Edgier: In Utero compared to Nevermind.
- Dead Artists Are Better
- Deadpan Snarker:
- 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.
- Filk Song: "Scentless Apprentice" was based on the novel Perfume.
- "You can't fire me / 'cause I quit" ("Scentless Apprentice").
- "Married, buried" (from "All Apologies" Kurt would be both shortly).
- Four More Measures: "Sifting", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Aneurysm".
- After the second chorus of "Lounge Act," there's a four-measure break from the vocals probably so that Kurt could prepare for the glorious final verse.
- Garage Band: They started out this way.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: At rehearsals for the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, Nirvana announced to the MTV executives that they were going to play their brand new song; it just so happened that the song was "Rape Me". MTV refused to let them play the song, even threatening to throw Nirvana off the show if they so much as even tried to play the song on the air. What did Nirvana do? They played "Lithium" but not before Kurt played the opening riff of "Rape Me" at the start of their on-air performance.
- The Girl Who Fits This Slipper: "About a Girl" includes the line, "I do... think you fit this shoe."
- Grunge: The poster boys of it, but are generally considered to have transcended the genre due to their widespread influence in other areas of music.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Surprisingly for an early 90's band, but it pops up in "All Apologies":
What else should I say?
Everyone is gay.
- Though there are suggestions that Kurt meant to say the modern meaning of the word.
- Hidden Track:
- On some copies of Nevermind, "Endless, Nameless".
- "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 "Sliver" single included an unlisted recording of a short phone conversation, which basically consisted of Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman calling up a very hungover Krist Novoselic.
- I Don't Know Mortal Kombat: Krist fumbled when playing "In Bloom" on Rock Band 2.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: "Tourette's". And don't bother looking at the lyric sheet on In Utero for help, it just says "Cufk, Tish, Sips".
- Intentionally Awkward Title: "Rape Me", "Moist Vagina" and Incesticide.
- In the Style of...:
- Cobain once stated that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a deliberate attempt to write a Pixies song.
- "About a Girl" was his crack at an early era Beatles tune, and more generally, he wanted In Utero to be his Sergeant Pepper's.
- Loudness War:
- The remaster of Nevermind is completely ruined by this.
- As is the box set With The Lights Out. Luckily, most of the songs had previously been bootlegged and so the bootlegged versions don't suffer from this issue.
- Long Title: From In Utero, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle."
- "Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip".
- Lyrical Cold Open: "Drain You", "Pennyroyal Tea", "Sappy".
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Sliver", "Polly", and arguably "You Know You're Right".
- Metal Scream: The number of songs in which Cobain doesn't start yelling the lyrics (or just screams, such as "Love Buzz") is really small.
- Misaimed Fandom: .
- 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").
- Mondegreen: "RAIMI! RAIMI! RAIMI! RAIMI!" (from "Rape Me").
- "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:
- "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle", "Lithium", "Territorial Pissings", and 'Lounge Act".
- Played With in "Verse, Chorus, Verse", where the song does follow that format, but the words themselves never appear in the song.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Nirvana are much more popular and well-known than many bands who inspired them, e.g. Melvins, Black Flag, Celtic Frost and The Pixies.
- Precision F-Strike:
"'til it's fucking gone."
"Come on over and shoot the shit".
- Pun-Based Title:
- Hormoaning, Incesticide, Anorexorcist.
- Carrying the joke from Incesticide further, there's the compilation bootlegs collectively called Outcesticide.
- Kurt saw a poster aiming to prevent AIDS by advocating needle sterilization with the slogan "Bleach your works". Thus he decided to do that, naming his album Bleach.
- Rape as Drama: "Polly". They later did "Rape Me", which according to Kurt is about "sort of poetic justice, where a guy rapes a girl, ends up in jail, and gets raped there."
- Recurring Riff: The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff re-appears throughout Nevermind as a Running Gag of sorts.
- Refuge in Audacity: Cobain screams "God is gay" at the end of "Stay Away". They probably avoided controversy because nobody could understand what Cobain was screaming in fact, the lyric is pretty easily misheard as "gotta stay".
- Retraux: For the "In Bloom" video, the band dressed up as a 1960s pop group. The video was shot with old Kinescope cameras.
- Revolving Door Band: They had five drummers before Dave and also an extra guitarist, who even financed Bleach and appears on the cover but doesn't play there. Chad Channing was the only other drummer to play on a Nirvana studio album.
- Rock Trio: The best known lineup of Kurt, Krist and Dave.note
- Rockers Smash Guitars: Kurt loved doing this.
- "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" was supposed to mock Nirvana's depressing image.
- "I have... very... bad posture..." ("Pennyroyal Tea")
- Serious Business:
- 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.note
- 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.
- Smoking Is Cool
- Song Style Shift: "Aneurysm" goes from uptempo to a different slower groove, all before the first verse is even sung.
- Springtime for Hitler: In Utero was Kurt's attempt to alienate their newfound fandom by making a noisy rock record. It became another big hit, instead.
- Step Up to the Microphone: Dave Grohl on the B-Side "Marigold". Grohl wrote it and played guitar and drums, with Krist Novoselic on bass and Kurt Cobain not appearing on the song at all.
- Stylistic Suck: The crows in the video for "Heart-Shaped Box".
- 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.
- This Loser Is You: "In Bloom"... or the chorus, at least.
He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he... knows not what it means when I sing it.
- Three Chords and the Truth: Ran off this trope. Cobain himself said that all his songs follow the same format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Solo, Bad Solo, Verse, Chorus.
- Title Drop: "Paper Cuts" drops the band name in the lyrics.
- Title Only Chorus: "Something In The Way", "You Know You're Right" (if you don't count the "heyyyyyy").
- The Unintelligible: Kurt Cobain allowed "Weird Al" Yankovic to parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (as "Smells Like Nirvana") because it would be about the Indecipherable Lyrics due to Kurt's singing.
- Unplugged Version:
- 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".
Oh well, whatever, nevermind.