It is 20 years since the release of Nirvana's second album Nevermind which soon shot Michael Jackson down from the Number One spot and launched the band from relative obscurity into the mainstream. The band had clearly moved forward from the screeching anger and darkness, the almost metallic sound, of Bleach in 1989. Before the album came out Kurt Cobain filled in NME about his ideas for Nevermind. When asked to explain the title Kurt said "Most people would just as soon forget or say 'never mind' than to take a can of spray paint, or start a band. People just don't do things very often anymore. I'm kind of disturbed by it." This is a desperate complaint typical of Generation X, for whom all great ideas had been diminished in some way as the "End of History" was heralded and pop culture was reduced to just another market. The angst hangs in his words as he goes on to add "It'd be just as easy to spray paint 'Kill George Bush' over and over again. Whether that would have any impact on anything or not, it doesn't matter, it's still fun."
Bare this in mind when you hear the lines in Smells like Teen Spirit "Load up on guns, bring your friends" and "It's fun to lose and to pretend". Cobain later claimed it was a mockery of the thought of "having a revolution" (note not 'starting' a revolution) though it is a "nice thought" the song remains sarcastic. The song itself consists of contradictory sentiments which range from the restless calls "Hello, Hello, Hello..." to the passive demands for "entertainment". We might designate the song as rudderless, for it is without clear direction, but then we will have missed the point. Teen Spirit was an attempt to encapsulate the feeling of angst when confronted with the Absurd - the indifference of the universe - which entails contradictions and in turn can provoke a certain reaction. It is a work of subversion. In the interview with NME Cobain describes the song as "posing as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system, to slowly start its rot from the inside. It's an inside job, it starts with the custodians and the cheerleaders."
Before Kurt Cobain decided to give up the ghost, and suck on the end of a shotgun, Fred Pfeil noted the potential in the rock masculinity posited by Nirvana. In his preoccupation with white straight masculinity Pfeil contrasted it with the versions of rock masculinity that had come before in the music of Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses. For Pfeil there is a complex message of racial and sexual differentiation in both Bruce's and Axl's version of masculinity. Fred Pfeil argues Springsteen's moral authenticity is in part the nostalgia which contains it; the viciousness and instability of Axil are in bed together. The attitudes of Kurt Cobain might be described as individualist in the profoundly anarchic, anti-masculinist and anti-homophobic vein. It is not that Nirvana presented an alternative masculinity, at least coherently, though it did thoroughly reject and mock what had come before it. So the band goes to the gender breakdown from sexualisation. Rather than a simply refusal to be sexually fetishised (e.g. to cover up and avoid nudity) Nirvana looks to subvert the conventional equation between white male band and white male fan.
The example of choice is the music video of In Bloom in which the band are introduced on an Ed Sullivan-esque TV show as "three fine young men from Seattle" complete with combed hair and matching sports coats. The video is shot in grainy black-and-white to give it the feel of the early 60s, the days before there was such a thing as MTV, Heavy Metal or Punk Rock never mind Grunge. The effect is a Brechtian distance, the verfremdungseffekt, the point of which was to encourage the audience to take a critical view of the events on stage. So the trio bob about cheerfully as the crowd of pubescent girls get all hysterical as the quiet opening line stands incongruous to the scene "Sell kids for food, weather changes moods". The immediate subject of mockery is the "one" who "knows all our pretty songs", who likes to sing along and shoot his gun but "knows not what it means"; later adding "We can have some more, nature is a whore". The position to be ridiculed is that to comprehend these lyrics is to "shoot a gun", e.g. to possess a phallus.
Suddenly the video jumps to footage of the same band on the same show in quite a different get-up. The long ragged hair is back, the sports coats swapped for dresses. The leap away from the neat and clean-cut Americana which preceded such a wild lurching genderfuck of a performance. A mock duel follows only for Cobain to straddle Novoselic, soon the guitar is discarded by the lead singer as the stage is trashed and he makes it back to the microphone with his hands pressed into his groin as if from some great pain - a kick in the nuts or is it that time of the month? The audience remains enthralled, the screeching of the girls is incessant, as if they're watching a totally different show. As the show comes to a stop the host re-emerges to inform us that these fellows are going to be "really big stars." The break is made with the traditional rock masculinity with its populist appeal to the white working-class market, the hidden haunts of Eric Clapton's racism. Cobain refused to "be a man" in this sense, while Nirvana turned this into a collective refusal. Perhaps if Cobain had lived longer we would have more than just this blue-print that hints at a new masculinity.