Lessons from the grunge generation

What my brother taught me about Nirvana and craftsmanship

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Maeve Quinn is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Bella Bean | Cavalier Daily

My little brother and I have disagreed on a number of topics, but chief among them was the artistic merit of the band Nirvana. To my brother, its music was gospel. To me, it was just loud.

I didn’t get the hype. The iconic “Nevermind” poster that hung on my brother’s bedroom wall confused me, and the defining chords of the “In Utero” classics distracted me as they floated through the wall separating our bedrooms while I struggled to finish my homework. Gradually, I grew resentful of the melodies my brother cherished, dismissing his devotion to the band as a symptom of some counter-culture phase in late puberty that I must have missed out on.

Of course, Nirvana is an impartially impressive band. Their discography has withstood the test of time, scaling the ebbs and flows of the dynamic music industry and continuing to flourish over 25 years after the band’s dissolution. Whether by accident or objective, they defined grunge, and in doing so, they inspired an anti-status quo culture around which fans could identify and rally themselves. 

Nirvana’s longevity shines through in the endurance of their iconography which manifests itself in the fact that Urban Outfitters is currently selling five different Nirvana T-shirts — each for $34 or more. What I’m saying is that my initial dislike functioned not to discredit the band’s influence. I knew that Nirvana was legitimate. I just didn’t get what was so compelling about their music in and of itself. 

One day in the car, my brother played a Nirvana song which consisted solely of Kurt Cobain yelling to the forceful rhythms of an overdriven guitar and a heavy drumbeat. I later learned it was entitled “Tourettes.”

“They all sound so angry,” I commented.

“Depends on how you’re hearing it,” my brother answered.

“His voice sounds like shards of glass,” I observed.

As my brother informed me, this was precisely the point.

There were a few significant lessons learned in my pseudo-enlightenment phase. First of all, loud doesn’t necessarily equal angry. What I heard as anger in Nirvana was more aptly –– and also pridefully identified by my brother as –– a kind of “uninhibited euphoria.” This new understanding has served me well in my engagement with newer subgenres of rock, among other art forms. 

To broaden the analysis, music isn’t meant to be heard in a vacuum. You can’t strip the meaning from the sound and expect its sum to equal the whole. For example, you would totally lose the effect of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” if you just listened to the song without considering the lyrics — what is supposed to offer a glimpse into one’s slippery descent into addiction would simply be reduced to a ditzy, upbeat ‘90s single. 

The truth is that art succeeds in the pockets of expression where it can conjure or convey emotion, and it can be beautiful even despite its vulgarity. Sometimes, the vulgarity is what makes it artistic. Nirvana gets its following because of its raw unfiltered-ness, not in spite of it. The cacophony serves as both an escapist vehicle for the listener and a force of gravity to draw them closer in harmony with their own sentiments and frustrations. 

Basically, art, or more specifically, music, is more than a feat of craft. It’s an expressive outlet, a unifying cultural currency and a force of mobilization. Traditional conceptualizations of what qualifies as “art” are too narrow to encompass the scope of human expression that we see across various platforms today. No longer is polished refinement a prerequisite for effectiveness. Nirvana’s “Tourette’s” is a conceptual art piece just as much as one’s most beloved sonnets, pieces in the Met and even “Rick and Morty” screenplays. What may have always been obvious to some about the nature of artistry took me the help of my brother to figure out.

All this to say, I listen to Nirvana now.

Maeve Quinn is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

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