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Music / Nirvana

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The classic line-up of Nirvana. From left to right: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl.
I'm worse at what I do best,
and for this gift, I feel blessed.
Our little group has always been,
and always will until the end.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Nirvana was a grunge band formed in Aberdeen, Washington up in the Pacific Northwestnote , regularly considered among the upper echelons of modern rock music as a whole for their work in popularizing and influencing the grunge and alternative rock scenes of The '90s, most prominently with their smash hit 1991 album Nevermind.

The trio of guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and a revolving door of drummers (eventually settling on Dave Grohl) would become the face of the '90s grunge movement. 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".

Although the band disbanded following Cobain's death in April 1994, the band still remained popular, releasing many compilation and live albums, and Grohl would go on to form Foo Fighters, one of the most respected and successful alt-rock acts of the genre.

Principal Members (Founding members in bold):

  • Kurt Cobain - Lead vocals, guitar (198794, died 1994)
  • Dave Grohl - Drums, backing vocals, guitar (199094, 2014)
  • Krist Novoselic - Bass, accordion (198794, 2014)
  • Aaron Burckhard - Drums (198788)
  • Chad Channing - Drums, cymbals (198890)
  • Dale Crover - Drums (198890)
  • Jason Everman - Guitar (1989)
  • Pat Smear - Guitar (1993-94)
  • Dave Foster - Drums (1988)
  • Dan Peters - Drums (1990)

Studio and Live Discography:

  • 1989 - Bleach
  • 1990 - Blew
  • 1991 - Nevermind
  • 1992 - Incesticide note 
  • 1992 - Hormoaning note 
  • 1993 - In Utero
  • 1994 - MTV Unplugged in New York
  • 1996 - From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
  • 2009 - Live at Reading
  • 2011 - Live at the Paramount

Smells Like Trope Spirit:

  • Album Title Drop:
    • From "Smells Like Teen Spirit": The line "Oh well, whatever, Nevermind"
    • "Come as You Are", also on Nevermind, actually has the title drop from their previous album, Bleach:
      "Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach. As I want you to be."
  • 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."
  • 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": There's "Grandma take me home, grandma take me home..." (It repeats this 49 times to depict an annoyed/annoying child.)
    • From "Dumb": There's "I think I'm dumb".
    • From "Breed": There's "She said".
    • From "School": There's "You're in high school again", "No recess", and "Won't you believe it; it's just my luck", (in fact, pretty much all the lyrics of this song qualify).
    • From "All Apologies": There's "All in all is all we all are"
    • From "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "A denial" and "Hello, hello, hello, how low?"
    • From "Come As You Are": "Memoria" and "No, I don't have a gun"
    • From "Aneurysm": There's "Beat me outta me".
    • From "Rape Me": There's "I'm not the only one" and "Rape me".
    • From "Heart-Shaped Box": There's "Your advice".
    • From "Serve the Servants": There's "Serve the servants, oh no".
    • 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" and "I'm a negative creep, I'm a negative creep, I'm a negative creep and I'm stoned" (as with "School", most of the lyrics from this song qualify).
  • 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.
  • Cover Version:
    • Bleach: "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue.
    • Incesticide: "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun" by The Vaselines, and "Turn Around" by Devo.
    • MTV Unplugged in New York: "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" by The Vaselines, "Plateau", "Oh, Me", and "Lake of Fire" by the Meat Puppets; the title track of The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie; and the folk song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (a.k.a. "In the Pines"), which was famously recorded by Lead Belly.
    • 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.
  • 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 his 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: Both Nevermind and In Utero end with depressing songs.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The original 45" mix of "Oh the Guilt" uses lighter clicks for rhythmic effect.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • "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", and "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.
  • The Girl Who Fits This Slipper: "About a Girl" includes the line: "I do... Think you fit this shoe."
  • Gratuitous Spanish: In the chorus of "Come as You Are", Kurt recites the word "memoria", which means "memory".
  • Grunge: The poster boys, 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 '90s 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. Being well-read as he was, it's unlikely that he didn't know the double meaning, so he likely wanted to sneak in a pun here.
  • Hidden Track:
    • On some copies of Nevermind, "Endless, Nameless".
    • "Verse Chorus Verse" (better known to fans as "Sappy") 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 Am the Band: Kurt Cobain was the frontman, lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter of the band. It became a source of tension later on when Kurt wanted the majority of the publishing royalties.
  • 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."
    • Something Something Leonard Bernstein: Near the end you'll hear "cold heart!" after the incoherent babbling.
    • "Token Eastern Song" is one of several songs that were indecipherable due to being left unfinished. Notably, some early bootlegs labeled the song as "Junkyard" because fans tended to hear the chorus as "born in a junkyard" - it's officially "hold it in your gut".
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: "Rape Me", "Moist Vagina", and Incesticide.
    • They did tone it down for "Rape Me", which they renamed "Waif Me", when big box stores threatened to refuse to stock In Utero; this concession was made only because they didn't want kids to not be able to discover their music, since they were once in that position themselves. Thus, the "censored" version of this album - which didn't actually make any changes to "Rape Me" beyond how it was listed on the back - was born.
  • Intercourse with You: "Spank Thru", which is probably about a guy trying to get his girlfriend to do the nasty with him, trying to woo her poetically at first and then getting right to the point.
  • In the Style of:
    • Cobain once stated that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a deliberate attempt to write a song that sounded like The Pixies.
    • "About a Girl" was his crack at an early era Beatles tune, and more generally, he wanted In Utero to be his Sgt. Pepper's.
  • Loudness War:
    • The 2011 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: "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle", and "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip".
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Drain You", "Pennyroyal Tea", and "Sappy".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Lithium", "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: Invoked:
    • The liner notes of Incesticide have Kurt complaining that "Polly" was sung by actual rapists.
    • Likewise, "In Bloom", despite being allegedly inspired by Kurt's friend and fellow musician Dylan Carlson, is arguably more 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.
    • In general, this played a major role in Cobain becoming disillusioned with the public image and fame he received after the success of Nevermind. He strongly felt that he and his message had been misinterpreted and that a lot of his fans admired him for being somebody he wasn't. An example of this could be how the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" led to him being named the "spokesman of a generation", even though he put little thought into them and considered them to be meaningless blather. Thus why he recorded In Utero with the intention of driving all of these same people away.
  • 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.
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: This was Kurt's main singing style.
  • 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. Nearly every song they covered became a case of Covered Up, even if they were originally performed by well known artists like David Bowie.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "Lounge Act":
    "'til it's fucking gone."
    • "Aneurysm":
    "Come on over and shoot the shit."
  • Pun-Based Title:
    • Hormoaning, Incesticide, and "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.
  • Punk Rock:
    • All three members, were heavily influenced by punk rock.
    • "Breed", "Mr. Moustache" and "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" are some of their punkiest songs.
    • It's also noted that their touring guitar player, Pat Smear was a former member of the Hardcore Punk band, The Germs.
  • 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 1960's 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, 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 line-up of Kurt, Krist, and Dave. note 
  • Rockers Smash Guitars: Kurt loved doing this. At times extending to the drums or amps.
  • Self-Deprecation:
    • "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" was supposed to mock Nirvana's depressing image. It was even going to be the title for In Utero until he was persuaded to change it, fearing a potential lawsuit.
    • "I have... Very... Bad posture..." ("Pennyroyal Tea;" a Multiple Reference Pun, to either Kurt's bad attitude or his crooked, often hurting back)
  • Shout-Out:
  • Smoking Is Cool: Cobain was a smoker through and through, but he urged a young British fan to not pick up the habit as seen in the end of Live at Reading. As he gave an autograph, he happened to have a lit cigarette in one hand, and emphatically told the boy, "Don't smoke."
  • 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 noise rock record. It became another big hit, instead.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Dave Grohl on the B-Side "Marigold." Grohl wrote it, played guitar, and drums, with Krist Novoselic on bass, and Kurt Cobain not appearing on the song at all.
    • Krist occasionally sang live too, most memorably one time during "Scoff" when Kurt had to move to one side to fix his guitar mid song.
  • Stylistic Suck: The crows in the video for "Heart-Shaped Box".
    • The infamous Top Of The Tops performance. The band were expecting to perform live, but the show's producers told them that they'd be miming to a backing track - except for Kurt who was expected to sing live. In protest the band turned in a deliberately terrible performance, with Kurt singing Smells like Teen Spirit in the style of a bored lounge room singer and the rest of the band not even bothering to pretend to mime to the backing track.
  • Take That!: Apparently, Nirvana had been placed in the "Moderate Rock" genre by Geffen Records. They didn't seem to agree. note  Hence the song "Tourette's" opens with Kurt snorting the words "Moderate Rock" before launching into one of the albums fastest and noisiest songs.
  • 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" and "You Know You're Right" (if you don't count the "heyyyyyy").
  • The Unintelligible: When "Weird Al" Yankovic approached the band, about making a parody of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (as "Smells Like Nirvana"), Kurt Cobain inquired if it would be centered about food. When Weird Al answered that it would be about Kurt's Indecipherable Lyrics, due to his singing, he was immediately given the green-light.
  • Thrash Metal: "Negative Creep" and "Annorexorcist" has elements of the genre.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: A band influenced by punk hailing from an economically depressed (at the time) northern city, with a depressed lead singer who commits suicide, leaving behind a wife and a young daughter. The drummer forms a new band that turns out to be a Long Runner. We could easily be talking about Nirvana or Joy Division.
  • 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:
    • Their most famous song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", doesn't appear to be about anything. Even Kurt and Dave said that it doesn't mean anything.
    • 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.


Video Example(s):



[Trope Codifier] Nirvana, a grunge band formed in Aberdeen, Washington, was regularly considered as among the upper echelons of modern rock music for popularizing and influencing the Grunge and Alternative Rock scenes of the '90s, most prominently with their smash hit 1991 album Nevermind. The trio of guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and a revolving door of drummers (eventually settling on Dave Grohl) would become the face of the '90s Grunge movement. The group is most well known for songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Come as You Are", "Heart-Shaped Box", and "You Know You're Right". Although the band disbanded following Cobain's suicide in April 1994, Nirvana still remained popular, releasing many compilations and live albums, and Grohl would go on to form Foo Fighters, one of the most respected and successful Alternative Rock acts of the genre.

The song example used is "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

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