Oh Well. Whatever. Nevermind.

Somehow it seems very appropriate that these were the only intelligible lyrics from the breakout hit song of the spokesperson of our generation, the so-called Meh Generation. And more than twenty years later, my word processor is still giving me the red-underline for Nevermind.

Sometime last summer, I saw this website about a college student inviting Nirvana to perform at their homecoming football game. On one hand it might seem a bit hilarious that someone could be so stupid. But then I realized this wasn’t the first time that something like that has happened.

A few months prior, I was in the company of a number of people in their early twenties. I don’t remember the entire conversation, but at one point a girl asked “Who is Kurt Cobain?” I rubbernecked from whatever I was doing with a look of complete incredulity on my face. “Who is Kurt Cobain?” I wanted to shake her and say “Kurt Cobain is the reason why you have purple hair right now!” She wasn’t just any 20-something, she was the only one within a hundred mile radius who could show up at a Siousxie and the Banshees concert and not look out of place. At least that I’d met. She was that one person in a Midwestern rural town who dressed like a freak. And experience had told me that if you ever meet that person they pretty much know their shit. But she didn’t. Unless those rules had somehow changed in the past 20 years. Or unless Kurt Cobain wasn’t actually the shit.

When he died twenty years ago, it certainly seemed like he was the shit. At least that’s what Kurt Loder and all the other Boomer music journalists were saying at the time. There were comparisons to John Lennon.

For today’s young adults, maybe not so much. That girl who didn’t know who he was did know who John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were. Our music is overshadowed by music even older than it is. I wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, anything that matters came from our musical heritage. Manic Panic can sell hair dye in rural America now? So what?

But I think there is something significant to come of it: diversity. How did we get from a place where rock stars can wear T shirts that say “AIDS kills fags dead” to a time when they get boycotted for opposing gay rights laws? Partly by Kurt Cobain kissing his bass player on live TV. And maybe Manic Panic doesn’t seem like such a big deal these days, but there was a time when the freedom to express yourself in the way you dressed was a pretty freakin’ big deal.

The year before Nirvana broke out, we had to listen to some guys list of 40 songs on Sunday afternoons to know which music we were supposed to like. High school class presidents were elected based on if they were cool enough to walk on stage to give their speech while a boombox played Vanilla Ice music. Everything was about being cool enough, measuring up to some standard of 80s bling. Nirvana released us from the tyranny of manufactured happiness. It wasn’t even necessarily about whether or not you liked Nirvana specifically: after their unprecedented, unpredictable success, anything seemed possible. Nirvana opened the door to bands like Primus, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead, and even the Meat Puppets and the Vaselines if you really wanted to go deep. If “I’m so happy ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head” wasn’t your particular cup of gloom, you could always choose from “My Name is Mud”, “Now I’m down in it,” or “I don’t belong here.” Remember, this was in the days before internet was much more than a gimmick: certainly not a tool for finding music. Sure, there were alternative record stores, ‘zines, and even 120 Minutes for those of us a little more industrious and finicky in our musical tastes. But most of us, myself included, had to rely on the radio. Nirvana put a wrinkle in what radios were doing long enough for the internet to give us things like Napster. And the rest is history: media gatekeepers collapsed as everything became about “alternatives” and “choices” in the mid to late 90s. And perhaps on some primal level we knew that was what would happen as those punk rock cheerleaders on nonstop rotation on MTV cheered Nirvana all the way to the top of the Billboards in 1992:an indie band who wasn’t even expected to make a gold record replacing the King of Pop whose music videos always debuted at prime time on network television. The gatekeepers had lost, and for a few brief and glorious years the inmates got to run the asylum.

History might not remember how these changes occurred. But hopefully those of us who lived through them will.

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