Two 90s Kids on What Makes Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Outkast’s ‘Rosa Parks’ so Pivotal
Will Mann: Ah, the 90s. As we are both children of the last decade of the 20th century, Joel, I’m sure there are things that immediately spring to mind about it: Pogs, Beanie Babies, Bill Clinton, the return of disaster movies, Pokémon, Nintendo 64, a good economy, growing up in a pre-9/11 world where the Cold War was over, and the good guys seemed to have definitively won. But, obviously, one of the biggest things to define the decade was music.
It’s the only decade I can think of that featured a blues revival, a ska revival, a big band/swing revival, and a mambo revival. Like the decade that preceded it, it had its own fair share of one-hit wonders, as well as massive era-defining stars and hit records. But yet, I return to this question of what music from the 1990s feels the most quintessential. If space aliens landed and wanted to know about our culture, what would we play for them from this unique time period in both music and human history?
As an answer to that speculation, if every decade has the generalized sound that it is most associated with, be it the 60s with both the kind of rock that played at Woodstock, as well as the rise and ultimate downfall of the Beatles, the 70s had disco, the 80s had synth-pop, the genre most associated with being uniquely 90s would be, of course, grunge. It seems like practically overnight, everything everyone knew about rock music was turned on its head, and the culprits were three kids out of Washington State known as Nirvana and their album, Nevermind. Nirvana felt like the harbinger of what the decade was going to be, invoking punkish roots, and dismantling the late-80s trend of hair metal in the process.
However, even Kurt Cobain commonly cited the Beatles themselves as a major lyrical influence. As we’re about to talk about, the decade didn’t necessarily live up to those expectations, as towards the end of the decade, music seemed to be losing some of that edge and grittiness that Nirvana predicted in exchange for pop ballads and boy bands. What do you think of Nirvana’s output and how do you put it in the context of the decade in music as a whole?
Joel White: Will, I think you are absolutely right to start our discussion of 90s music with Nirvana’s Nevermind. I also think it’s very appropriate that you mention that album alongside a discussion of how very eclectic the genre we call “90s music” really was. I say this because, despite its reputation as the proto-grunge album, Nevermind is actually quite all over the place in terms of its sound. What’s more, many of the different styles showcased in that album squarely anticipate what the rest of the 90s ended up sounding like.
For example, consider “Polly,” the sixth track on Nevermind. “Polly” follows five songs that we should all recognize as boilerplate grunge today, but is itself a notable and sudden changeup in terms of tone and style. In stark contrast to the loud, manic sound of Cobain’s vocals rising over the signature Seattle power chords that we experience over those first five tracks, “Polly” is a measured acoustic meditation that might as well be a slowed-down Pearl Jam song. That parallel may have been just as obvious in 1991 as it is now, as both of those Seattle-based bands burst into the mainstream that year.
“Polly” is followed by another pleasant surprise in “Territorial Pissings,” a track that momentarily jettisons the grunge framework entirely for a decidedly pop-punk sound. If “Polly” anticipates Pearl Jam’s success, then “Territorial Pissings” undoubtedly heralds the arrival of Green Day, the band that would define the 90s punk sound with their major label debut three years later. Nevermind then veers back into more familiar grunge territory before taking one last unexpected turn with “Something in the Way,” which I can only describe as a dirge. But this might be a good chance for me to hand the reins back over to you because I seem to recall some discussions with you earlier this year about a certain Caped Crusader film that brought up some old feelings on your part about Nevermind in general and that song in particular…
Mann: It is true, when I walked into the latest Batman movie earlier this spring, I expected the World’s Greatest Detective’s theme to be a rousing march in the vein of Danny Elfman’s original theme, or an impactful score like Hans Zimmer’s. I didn’t expect that Batman’s theme would more or less be a Nirvana song. The use of “Something in the Way” in The Batman is interesting, as it is probably the most heartfelt and different song on Nevermind.
A dirge is a perfectly appropriate way of summing it up. And it’s the song that I’d relate to the most when listening to the album while driving every day on my way to school at the ripe age of seventeen at easily my most emo. Having it be so closely associated with Batman was jarring on my first viewing of the movie, but in subsequent screenings going in knowing what to expect, it works a little better. It still strikes me as ultimately a very bold choice, though I understand the rationale behind it better now: Batman is a character who is at his most vulnerable in the movie. He’s at his most emo if you will. He’s young and looking for an outlet for how he feels, much the same way I did when I first heard that song. All that to be said, I hope Matt Reeves & co. switch it up in the inevitable sequel when it comes to the music choices.
Another thing I think of when I think of Nevermind are those opening chords to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. We’ve all collectively heard them so many times in the past 30 years at this point that it’s hard to approach the music with a sense of newness. But I think those chords are memorable in that there’s something familiar about them, you could swear they’ve been utilized in some other song before. But then the rest of the song, with Cobain’s mumbled singing, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming, and a chorus that is somewhat nonsensical lures you in, it enchants you. And that goes for the rest of the first songs on the album: “In Bloom,” with its chorus about “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,” demonstrate Cobain struggling with wider, mainstream acceptance of Nirvana’s music. Heavier Than Heaven, a wonderfully written biography of Cobain by Charles R. Cross that I read over the summer, posits that it’s actually a thinly veiled criticism of one of Cobain’s friends who would frequently appear at their shows.
“Come As You Are” feels solemn in comparison to other tracks, a slower, more meditative song where Cobain repeats the line “no, I don’t have a gun” in an ironic twist of fate. “Lithium” starts off lighter before getting into a more guitar-heavy chorus, with an opening line of “I’m so happy/’Cause today I found my friends/They’re in my head,” that could be a manifesto for Generation X itself. I think that’s why Nirvana and Nevermind, even if I’m also a big fan of their third album In Utero and consider “Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” among their best songs, has resonated with teenagers in particular for three decades. It’s emotional, it’s all over the place, and it begs for and ultimately captures your attention. There are times the album wants to chill out, other times when it wants to scream, and other times when it wants to cry.
Cross’s biography informs me that for a large part of his tragically short life, Kurt Cobain was a disgruntled teenager in Aberdeen, Washington, trying to figure himself and his place in the world out. His music and Nirvana’s larger discography reflect that, as self-expression became a recurring trend for a variety of different musicians and communities in the 90s music scene.
White: Well, I’ll take that cue and veer our discussion into another one of the 90s best music scenes: hip-hop. Still, a relatively new genre in the early 90s, the hip-hop of that era wasn’t so much self-expressive as it was self-reflective. The artists that we all so closely associate with 90s rap—Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas—are probably best remembered for the more hardcore aspects of their lyrics, but their work tackled some heavy personal themes, too. Biggie in particular invested considerable time questioning whether the gangsta lifestyle was really the triumphant escape from abject poverty that everyone else was rapping about. He questioned himself with his lyrics, constantly hinting that even someone at the top of his game might struggle with depression, loneliness, and self-loathing. But, meaning no disrespect to the distinguished Mr. Smalls, I came here ready to talk about some transformative hip-hop that found its way into the mainstream in the late 90s and that didn’t come from either New York or L.A.
That’s right, I want to talk about Outkast. If there was any lingering doubt in 1998 about who was going to lead hip-hop out of its Golden Age and into the 21st century, it was dispelled with the release of Outkast’s third studio album, Aquemini, that year. The lead single, “Rosa Parks,” is a perfect case study of the radically different halves that make up what we know as Outkast and a blueprint for what we’d all recognize as a standard-format hip-hop earworm today. “Rosa Parks” utilizes a simple, moderately-paced beat that features acoustic guitar, hi-hat, and what I’d call a tasteful amount of bass. We’re treated to an easy-to-remember, easy-on-the-ears hook, plus one verse each from our good friends, Andre 3000 and Big Boi. To today’s ears, there isn’t anything exceptional about any of that, but I challenge you to find a contemporaneous hip-hop song that sounds anything like it.
But the absolute joy of listening to “Rosa Parks” (or really any Outkast song) is found in the vastly different approaches taken by the two lyricists. Big Boi opens the song by announcing Outkast’s arrival and their plans to dominate the rap scene with their innovative new sound, hard-hitting lyrics, and sex appeal. (Get it? That’s why everyone else has to “move to the back of the bus!”) Andre is, as always, the introspective Southern dandy who can’t help but describe his surroundings with a certain aloofness. While Big Boi is loudly proclaiming his dominance, Andre is recounting a conversation with a fortune teller who “activated his brain” with some sage advice: “Baby boy, you only funky as your last cut.” Luckily for us, “Rosa Parks” was far from Outkast’s last cut, as all that funk, cultural commentary, and suave swagger would do nothing but ramp up with the release of Stankonia in 2000. That’s the album that literally carried hip-hop into the next century, but I’m getting ahead of myself.