There is a segment of music fandom that say Nirvana is overrated. They’re probably not wrong. The band got catapulted into sainthood on the strength of a small catalog, albeit a pretty great one, and a metric ton of media hype. Their status as deities is perhaps overblown, even if they were briefly great.
Still, some among the naysayers also say they don’t get why people connected with Cobain. They say his lyrics were mostly strung together nonsense (true) and his songs were simple rips on Pixies and Beatles melodies (also true).
So why the hell did anyone connect with this junkie?
For me, I can point to two small music moments that exemplify what it was that bored under my skin.
The first was from a throwaway song not released until after Cobain’s death, a tune that may have gone nowhere if not for his suicide. The moment starts at about 1:55, and is attached to these lyrics: “Things have never been so swell / I have never failed to feel” (though I used to hear the second line as “I have never felt this well”). But it’s not what he is saying, it’s how he says it. Listen to the delivery:
The incongruity between the lyrics and the delivery, the unspoken yet completely realized cry for help, is something a lot of us felt during that time, especially if you were of a certain age range. He’s saying, “I’m pretending everything is fine and HOLY SHIT it hurts so damn bad to pretend everything is swell when it’s really NOT.”
Typical teenage shit? Perhaps. But it resonated. Though it was released after his death, that moment showcases the emotion a lot of us heard and felt in a much of Cobain’s music.
The other moment came from Nirvana’s stunning unplugged performance, a somber, meditative set that probably did more than anything else to solidify the band’s legend. Stripped down, you saw the songs as songs and his voice as a voice. No noise, no fire, just a guy and a guitar. And it was lovely. THE moment, though, starts at 3:44 in the below video and builds with wonderful emotion until the ugly, dirty, broken climax at 4:58, the vocal tear at 5:00, and especially the crazed look at 5:07, plus the long, slow wind down from that emotional high. Maybe more than anything, this captures what we were drawn to:
This is really, for me, THE Nirvana moment. You either get it or you don’t. Nothing I can say or write can make it click. That’s not a cop out, it’s the truth.
If you’ve ever wondered what the draw it, THAT is the draw. And if you still don’t understand, then all due respect, but you probably never will. Nothing wrong with that, either. Just sayin’.