The 20th Anniversary Reissue of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” Makes Me Slightly Uncomfortable

Comments (2) Music

This is purely sentimental, I know, but I couldn’t help but cringe when I heard that Nirvana’s Nevermind, a towering record in the history of American rock and roll, was “re-released” in deluxe and super-deluxe editions to “celebrate” the album’s 20th anniversary.

History views Kurt Cobain through a curious lens. The man died in 1994, but was probably the biggest rock star of the 90s. You might be able to make an argument for Kurt Cobain as the biggest rock star of the last decade, too, as the Nirvana greatest hits album unearthed “You Know You’re Right,” the last song of Cobain’s that was near completion, and it was better, more staggering, than anything being released by the clone factory that was erected to create and market the next Kurt Cobain.

His death was an odd sort of sainthood, allowing him to compete with the deaths of Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac on VH1 countdowns of music’s most shocking moments, allowing music critics combing through the contents of Nevermind‘s deluxe and super-deluxe editions to label his death as “shotgun-assisted” rather than “suicide.”

This is a curious detail to me. There are no “shocking moments” lists for authors and artists. A literary critic wouldn’t describe Virginia Woolf’s suicide as “rock-and-jacket-and-river-assisted.” Heck, I highly doubt that a reviewer, given an Elliot Smith retrospective to listen to, would say his end was “steak-knife-assisted.”

But Cobain towers above other individuals in the popular
(likely white) consciousness, is treated differently. That’s why Universal Music Group released the deluxe and super-deluxe versions of Nevermind last week–in 2011, the promise of unheard Cobain music, of previously unknown, rough-hewn gems, may be enough for a Gen-Xer to darken the doors of his or her local Best Buy, ready to sacrifice a small portion of their craft beer and gourmet hot dog budget for two lesser mixes of the album they loved 20 years ago, lovingly packaged with a conert that, per most reports, isn’t as good as the other Nirvana shows already given a retail release. We’re meant to ignore that anniversary reissues of albums–“deluxe,” “super-deluxe” and otherwise–tend to be the exclusive province of 40th-anniversary super-deluxe reissues of Boston’s Boston. The bottom-line-minded Dr. Frankensteins of the music industry have a corpse to reanimate, and no, nothing is sacred these days.

But I’d like to believe that they are, that music can still mean something. I want to believe this despite the fact that I mentioned Tupac in a class that I teach last week and was met with blank stares, despite the fact that most people younger than me will not remember the Walkman, the Discman or a time when Mp3 players held only 16 songs. I know the words to Loverboy’s “Loving Every Minute of It” and half the Spice Girl’s catalog and a good chunk of terrible music (and, despite Nirvana, plenty of 90s music was absolutely dreadful) because listening to music you actually wanted to listen to was less convenient than it is now, was subjected the tape unspooling, the CD getting scratched, the radio bleeping out all the swear words or Clearchannel deciding that the kind of music you wanted to listen to wasn’t the kind of music they wanted to play. It was much easier to feel alienated in the 90s. Now there are stores in malls that make their money selling alienation…or at least a corporation’s idea of it.

Though Nirvana was in regular rotation on the Canadian alt-rock station across the Detroit River, I didn’t listen to Nevermind in its entirety until 1999, when I traded my uncensored copy of Korn’s Follow the Leader for it and MTV Unplugged (uncensored records were worth two regular albums in trade). Suddenly, rap-rock didn’t seem so cool. Pop-punk was right out. Still, I haven’t listened to Nevermind in full for close to five years, and the deluxe and super-deluxe reissues haven’t compelled me to. I have no sense of duty or nostalgia or curiosity about the album, though it and A Hard Day’s Night were the backbone of my pop music education. The singles, of course, are well-worn and don’t need further airplay. Our children are born smelling of teen spirit.

Twelve years ago, the later half of the album was nigh unlistenable. My problems were two-fold. First, my copy was heavily scratched, repeatedly dropped, skipped constantly after “Polly.” Second, I’m not sure I quite understood the point of songs like “Lounge Act” and “Territorial Pissings.” After a few years of Limp Bizkit and Korn, Creed and late-model Pearl Jam, it became easy to lose sight of nuance. I didn’t know what nuance was. I preferred my music nuance free. Gimme convenience or gimme death was my motto, until I figured out what the Dead Kennedy’s actually meant by the phrase.

But now, I’m afraid. I’m convinced that the “Territorial Pissings” of my mind sounds better than the “Territorial Pissings” of the regular, deluxe, or super-deluxe issues of Nevermind, and I suppose I’ll be just as happy not pulling my shopworn copy out and playing it on my next car trip as I’d be with navigating the riffs and gouges I memorized ten years ago.

Oddly, I’d rather not go along with the faux-cannonization of Kurt Cobain, baptized by shotgun fire.

I already know his presence is the difference between Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Creed, Nirvana and Nickelback. I know his music. It is written on my bones. It was my punk rock, once, and I don’t need no corporate suit puppeting its corpse for my benefit. Is this not the sort of attention Cobain was averse to? Wasn’t Nevermind supposed to be the final nail in the super-deluxe coffin for bloat of this nature?

Nevermind Nevermind. I think I’ll listen to In Utero, instead.