Slate, August 23, 2011
by Simon Reynolds
For the final night of Britain's Reading Festival on Aug. 28, the promoters have something unusual lined up to entertain the 80,000-plus rock fans who congregate there annually. On the alternative stage there will be a screening of Nirvana's legendary performance at Reading in 1992, when Cobain and his bandmates triumphantly headlined a bill of grunge and alternative rock groups they'd personally selected. In an interview earlier this summer, festival booker Tania Harrison declared, "It was such a legendary performance that so many people haven't seen ... one of those seminal moments that changed everything, which is what Reading's all about."
This decision is perplexing on a number of levels. First, there's the obvious oddness of interrupting the schedule of live groups in favor of a dead group. Then there's the curious fact that Reading's promoters, aiming to capitalize on 2011's status as the Official Anniversary of Grunge, are showing the footage of the gig on its 19th anniversary, a year ahead of customary schedule. (Nirvana did actually appear at Reading in August 1991 but were still relatively unknown and played midway through the bill.) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this exercise in time travel, though, is how it isn't really that surprising. It's exactly the sort of thing that you'd kinda expect from a pop culture increasingly characterized by a compulsion to revisit and reconsume its own past.
One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it.
Nirvana's ghostly reappearance at Reading is the first course of a banquet of grunge retrospection this fall. Early September sees the publication of Everybody Loves Our Town, a 555-page oral history of the Seattle grunge scene by Mark Yarm (a name freakily close to Mark Arm, Mudhoney's singer). On Sept. 20, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's documentary about the band's career, is released to theaters in tandem with the PJ20 soundtrack, a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks plus a 36-page hardcover book written by the director. A week later Geffen will roll out the deluxe expanded reissue of Nevermind, which in its most extravagant form presents four CDs and one DVD and gathers up every last alternative mix, B-side, demo version, and boombox-recorded rehearsal take of the songs. More laudably, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is staging a "whole album" rendition of Nevermind at Seattle's rock museum, Experience Music Project, to raise money for the band's former publicist, who is battling cancer.
All this grunge retro-action takes place amid chatter about a '90s revival already in full swing and encompassing everything from tours by alt-rock stalwarts like Pavement, Soundgarden, and the Lemonheads, the return of Beavis and Butt-Head and 120 Minutes to MTV, and Nickelodeon's recent bout of '90s-nostalgia programming. The latter garnered good viewing figures, but what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots. Everybody benefits: Magazines generate content to fill their pages, record companies can bolster their ailing bottom line by rereleasing archival material (guaranteed profits, since the original recordings were already paid for long ago) in spiffy, bulked-up form, and the commentariat gets something to reassess and pontificate about. Yet the intervals—always measured in decades, the 10th or 20th birthday of whatever-it-may-be—are arbitrary, governed by a calendrical metric that has little to do with whether there's any actual yearning out there to relive the event/artist/era in question.
Not strictly '90s but closely related to this wave of pseudo-nostalgia is the forthcoming oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. The book ends in 1992, when The Real World debuted, prefiguring MTV's abandonment of music in favor of reality TV. As a Brit who in 1990-92 was spending something like 50 percent of my time in New York and therefore witnessed grunge's MTV breakthrough, it struck me that the music channel had become what America had always lacked before: a nationwide forum for pop music that played the same role that the state-owned pop station Radio One and BBC's weekly chart show Top of the Pops had done in the United Kingdom.
American radio had always been vastly more diverse and regionally scattered than the near-monopoly that was Radio One, while American Bandstand never loomed as large as Top of the Pops, a program watched by one-fifth of the British population. MTV was what made grunge's rapid crossover possible. At the same time, grunge confirmed MTV's gatekeeping power while giving it a dose of credibility sorely needed after the hair-metal years of Poison and Warrant. The channel's combination of flexing its power while also being musically and stylistically rejuvenated went to MTV's head: Remember the slogan "the revolution will be televised," the "Rock the Vote" campaign, and MTV's somewhat unseemly pride in supposedly having rallied the youth vote behind Bill Clinton?
What I'm suggesting is that an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media's and record industry's own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture. It was already crumbling in the early '90s, thanks to rap (the rebel music of black youth, obviously, but a lot of white kids had defected to hip-hop, too) and to the emergence of rave and electronic dance culture (in America destined always to be a minority subculture, but in Europe the dominant form of '90s pop). Grunge was the last blast of rock as a force at once central in popular culture yet also running counter to mainstream show biz values.
Not only did grunge give MTV a timely Botox session but it underwrote the heyday of Spin magazine, which this year noticeably jumped the gun on everybody else with its "What Nevermind Means Now" cover story (Kurt in a swimming pool recreating the album's iconic baby-swimming-underwater image) and accompanying tribute LP Newermind (covers of the LP's tracks by Kurt's heroes the Vaselines and Meat Puppets, among others). The Spin website's own staff-written blurb for August's "Special Issue: the 20th Anniversary of the Album That Changed Everything" wryly notes the "symbiotic, borderline codependent" relationship between the magazine and grunge, and admits that "back in 2001, when we published a tenth anniversary Nevermind issue, one letter-writing wag remarked, 'So, still pickin' those bones, huh?'"
If grunge was a last blast, the aftershocks carried on deep into the '90s. Spin and MTV both tried to repeat the grunge effect (an underground sound going overground, overnight) with electronica. By the time nu-metal hit at the turn of the millennium, MTV had shrewdly shed the M in its name and moved decisively toward round-the-clock reality. The heavily edited and contrived quasi-vérité version of young life offered by these programs eclipsed the gritty authenticity that grunge had represented.
Along with reality TV, something else had risen up during the '90s that was all set to radically transform music consumption, music fandom, and music industry alike. In my mind, if nobody else's, the death of Kurt Cobain is freakily intertwined with the rise of the Web. During 1994, I was back living in the United Kingdom and—here's where you really have to do a memory exercise, mentally re-create a sense of what life was like then in terms of access to information and news—the remarkable thing was how little coverage there was in the British media of Cobain's suicide. So that grim weekend, my wife—an early adopter of everything to do with computers—went online, where we found teeming communities of grief, speculation, rumor, and memorialization. It was mindblowing, actually: the moment at which I woke up to the potential of the Internet, from its leveling effects (in one forum, Buzzcock Pete Shelley, who'd toured with Nirvana, chatted with distraught Kurt fans) to the threat it posed to traditional media.
Cobain, arguably the last rebel-rocker-as-star, had owed his rise to the centralizing power of the old media; now in his death, he was entangled with the emerging new media disorder. The old media and entertainment channels (what I think of as the analog system) constructed the mainstream while simultaneously creating the possibility of that mainstream being breached and reinvigorated by forces "outside." In grunge's case, that meant the flannel-wearing, slacker-minded alt-rock underground that had developed during the '80s, fostered by a network of independent labels. This curious process of inversion—the underground becoming the overground—was how the analog system had worked repeatedly in the past. ('50s rock'n'roll came initially from the regional independent labels.) And with Nirvana and their fellow travelers, that's how it worked one last time.
But what is also true is that that the media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the "Epochal Self-Image": a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct "feel" and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to "define the times." If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It's not that nothing happened ... it's that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominant and define the era.
The failure is bound-up with the erosion of the filtering function of the media and its increasing inability to marshal and synchronize popular taste around particular artists or phenomena. The Internet works against convergence and consensus: the profusion of narrowcast media (blogs, netradio, innumerable outlets of analysis and opinion) and the accelerated way that news and buzz get disseminated, mean that it is harder and harder for a cultural phenomenon to achieve full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy. Now triumphant, the digital system has interfered with our very sense of culture-time.
That is why it is so hard to see what, from the last dozen years or so of rock, could be the focus for future commemorative or revivalist impulses. Can you envisage the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, or the White Stripes's breakthrough LP, White Blood Cells, being celebrated? Spin will not be able to put either group on the cover under the legend "The Album That Changed Everything," because neither record came close to Nevermind's paradigm-shift. (Remember the droves of grunge-lite copyists like Silverchair and Bush? The undignified way that even superestablished bands like Metallica tried to de-metallicize their sound and image? How Axl Rose disappeared into a bunker of botched self-reinvention for 15 years?) Even less epoch-defining clout could be claimed for those Pitchfork-anointed bands who've codified the post-indie sound of the 2000s such as Arcade Fire and Animal Collective.
When people—fans, critics, industry, whoever—look back to grunge, then, what they feel wistful for is not just the particulars of that moment (flannel, shaggy hair, down-tuned guitar sounds, Tabitha Soren) or even qualities that music seemed to have then and since lost (anger, rebellion, spontaneity, anti-gloss realness, etc). It is for the concept of period vibe in itself, for "aura of era" in the abstract. It is a nostalgia for a time when the Zeit actually possessed a Geist.
"Geist" means spirit or ghost. Which brings us back to this year's Reading Festival and the spectral reappearance of Nirvana on its stage, in the form of that one-year-premature showing of the 1992 performance. A show that British rockmag Kerrang! ranked at No. 1 in their list of 100 Gigs That Shook The World ... and that turned out to be Nirvana's last-ever U.K. concert.
The Nirvana "repeat" derives its meaning and value from something historic that happened two decades earlier. But its presence in the present—its re-present-ation—works against anything equally world-shaking happening again. For sure, the chances are remote that something as momentous as the Nirvana show would have occurred during the hour or so that the old concert footage takes up in the schedule, should some contemporary band have played during that precise time slot instead. But we'll never know, and the more that the present is taken up with reunion tours, re-enactments, and contemporary revivalist groups umbilically bound by ties of reference and deference to rock's glory days, the smaller the chances are that history will be made today.
One thing we can definitively say is that the screening of the classic Nirvana gig is an anti-event, a black hole in history. That hour in which young and old alike gawp at a world-shaking performance from 1992, is dead time: the time of repetition and simulation. Another, harsher way of putting it: The dead man on that screen is more alive than the people watching him.