NFC Nirvana Information Articles and Interviews Success Sucks

Success Sucks

Village Voice: November 26, 1991.

Nirvana's on MTV and frontman Kurt Cobain's wearing a dress, a floor-length yellow organza number

By Daina Darzin


"It's Headbanger's Ball, so I thought I'd wear a gown," he explains gleefully to tattoo-bedecked host Riki Rachtman. "You didn't get me a corsage," he adds, glaring at his fellow guest, bassist Chris Novoselic.

In rec rooms across America, Wayne's World dudes are watching, amused and confused. This is Nirvana's idea of a display of power. In the land of metal, where macho is everything, Nirvana's the band of the year, No. 4-with-a-bullet on the Billboard chart, gold in five weeks, whee! On CD covers stacked deep at a K mart near you, the Nevermind (DGC) poster child floats in a pool, reaching for a dollar bill on a fishing hook, innocent, curious, unaware he's about to buy into the Root of All Evil. We can do what we want now, Nirvana are saying, and we're gonna fuck with you, starting with your concept of manliness.

If the album cover is Nirvana's warning to themselves - a baby band leaving the indie womb for the commercial upper echelons of the music biz - they needn't have worried. Soundgarden's opening for Lawyers, Guns N' Money, and grunge-come-latelies Alice in Chains have gone straight to MTV without passing Go and collecting their Sub Pop single - but it's Nirvana who provide the purest bridge between Seattle's rain-soaked underground and that great big platinum alternative-metal thang. They may play reverb-laden heavy rock for Prozac candidates, but Soundgarden and Alice are detached enough that they come off as smart people who've discovered the joy of grunge and depression. For Nirvana, it’s heartfelt, even when they’re being sarcastic about their own sincerity. They’re both a warning against the American Dream and the dream itself—the quintessential sensitive weird kids who, brutally rejected in high school, come back for their 10th reunion having invented some science geek holographic video game, suddenly the envied rich guys among a classful of trailer park loners.

Ironically, some of the zillions of Neverminds sold were purchased by just the sort of teenage-wasteland dwellers who made Nirvana’s life such a living hell to begin with (in the redneck Twin Peaks environs of Aberdeen, Washington, no less). Truth is, macho, insensitive metal dudes often feel like misfits, too, denied, misunderstood, tortured. It’s a stance Ozzy Osbourne’s been working with considerable success for years. Do those kids listen to "In Bloom" ("He’s the one who likes all the pretty songs/He likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means") and relate? Or understand that it’s a put-down? Probably not. It’s that violin-meets-Uzi, dive-bombing fuzz-explosion guitar lead that gets ‘em. And no doubt it’s the undulating, strident hooks of the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and not the audience baiting ("Here we are now, entertain us") that keeps them coming back to the K mart. This is the catchiest chock-full-o-anthems record since Slippery When Wet, without ever resorting to Bon Jovi’s oil-slick clichés and connect-the-dots musicality.

Nirvana doesn’t bash you over the head with lyrics, anyway. They imply, they suggest, leave it open to interpretation. "Territorial Pissings" equates animals marking their territory with those despised macho guys who treat everything, including women, as possessions. At least that’s what they say in interviews; the lyrics go, "When I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions." "People get together gotta loove one another right now," Kurt [sic] snarls off-key at the beginning, making fun of the Youngbloods and himself at the same time, like he knows she "gotta find a better way" hook at the end is pretty much rooting for a lost cause.

Since 1990’s Bleach, Nirvana have learned to blend that indigenous-to-Seattle cement-mixer grunge with a spare acoustic lilt. They know how to use space and breathing room better than the competition. "Drain You" manages to come off both gentle and intense, a wall of sound that contains not a single extra note. "Stay Away," on the other hand, explodes out of a "Wipeout"-goes-to-hell intro into the perfect bang-your-head-and-slam fest, especially live. In concert, all the restraint and prettiness goes out the window. Nirvana’s heart belongs to punk—old punk from the ‘70s, when it was a decadent, nefarious critter, brandishing a nasty guitar sound and snarling vocals, promoting a we’re-all-gonna-die-from-nukes-anyway-so-let’s-take-drugs-and-dye-our- hair-weird-colors worldview. Give that sound a social conscience, it’s a veritable A-bomb. Possessed by all the right spirits, caught up in reckless abandon, Nirvana are so sincerely passionate they can even make that old encore chestnut, trashing your instruments, seem like an act of evangelism.

Had they stayed on Sub Pop, their K mart presence would have been nil. As it is, they're on their way to becoming icons of the more thoughtful Nintendo generation, right alongside fellow subversive Bart Simpson. But they’re also alongside fellow pop stars Garth Brooks and Hammer. Nirvana would look at that juxtaposition and just puke. They’re punks, after all, and punks know success sucks.