“The trickiest part of writing history is putting styles, trends, and social movements in proper perspective. Not everybody spent the ’60s making babies in the mud at Woodstock, or the ’70s doing blow with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. We dwell on these things because they’re easily recognizable signifiers of their respective eras, but a lot gets overlooked when you use the easy shorthand of Nehru jackets and Bee Gees songs. The spectrum of experiences in any era is simply too wide; it makes me wonder whether the so-called “monoculture” ever really existed, where “everybody agreed on” what was good on the radio and the three TV networks. Maybe we’ve just gotten better about recognizing that even really popular things are irrelevant to significant portions of the population. A band as seemingly all-encompassing as The Beatles were in the ’60s probably didn’t mean much to a black teenager living in inner-city Detroit, a truck driver from rural Texas, or the millions of decent, hard-working, square-as-hell middle Americans who impatiently waited for those tuneless long-hairs to finish their songs on Ed Sullivan so the jugglers and impressionists could come on.
There’s an oft-repeated anecdote about how Nevermind stormed to the top of the Billboard charts in the closing days of 1991 because kids returned their unwanted copies of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous for the Nirvana album they really wanted for Christmas. It’s a story rich with metaphorical significance, pitting the upstart punk-rock band against the gargantuan ’80s pop superstar, and ending with the new guys wresting away the cultural torch by bloody force. In the movie version, you’d see teenagers everywhere suddenly ditch their Day-Glo OP shirts and stone-washed jeans for flannel and Doc Martens, and hear them loudly pontificating about how parents, the school system, and the media were telling the younger generation what to care about, and how these things were complete and utter horseshit. It’s like we all decided to become Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, and it started with Nirvana dethroning the King Of Pop.
In reality, Dangerous ended up being arguably more popular than Nevermind, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide and spawning nine singles over the course of two years. The sixth song from Dangerous released to radio, “Heal the World,” would likely be recognized today by more casual music fans than any Nirvana song save possibly “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Dangerous only seems like a failure when compared with the three blockbusters—Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad—Jackson released before it. But there were still a lot of people who loved Dangerous; he might have lost the battle to Nevermind in the eyes of rock historians, but Michael Jackson still did okay in the war.
Nevermind had already been mythologized by the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994; afterward, it seemed Nevermind existed only as an historical turning point marking Cobain’s biggest triumph and his doom-laden introduction to the dark side of inescapable fame and adulation. It’s difficult to play Nevermind today without feeling the weight of history, or hearing the crash of foreboding thunder. But Nevermind’s entry into the canon of Important Rock Records did have some lag time. When it was released, it only got three stars and a genial review from Rolling Stone. According to Spin, Nirvana was good but not nearly as good as Teenage Fanclub, whose Bandwagonesque was named album of the year.
(Nevermind did top the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, ranking ahead of Public Enemy, R.E.M., U2, and P.M. Dawn. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” also took No. 1 on the singles list, ranking 19 spots above “Pop Goes The Weasel” by 3rd Bass, which, like Nirvana, was deadly serious about calling out “phony entertainers.”)
Like millions of other kids, I owned a copy of Nevermind by the end of 1991. But I didn’t rush out to buy it as soon as I heard “Smells like Teen Spirit.” I did, however, browbeat my mother into driving me to the mall so I could buy two albums that came out the week before Nevermind. I had waited three years for these records—my whole life as a music-buying consumer. For months, I had been swallowing up the hype promising that this music just might end up being the greatest thing to ever punish my eardrums. Clearly, I had to possess it as soon as it was available.
You know where you are? You’re in the jungle with Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, baby! And by the end of 1991, something that was once vital about the baddest band on the planet was gonna diiie!
1991 might be remembered as the year of Nevermind, but no band was bigger at the time than GN-effin-R, and no rock star had more power than Axl Rose, a man that made wearing a bandana and spandex biker shorts in public credible by sheer force of personality. Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction, ranked among the best-selling rock albums of all time, and it was the soundtrack for countless coming-of-age moments for teenagers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Kids everywhere were getting laid, drunk, and beat up for the first time to the sounds of “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City.” By 1991, Axl was so powerful that he was able to essentially coerce his record company, Geffen, into releasing two maniacally ambitious double-albums on the same day—Sept. 17, 1991—rather than a year or two apart, which is what the label wanted to do because it happened to make a lot more sense. The dual release of the Use Your Illusion albums was an act of hubris so brazen in its arrogance and yet strangely admirable in its artistic stubbornness that nobody had been fucking crazy enough to try anything like it before, or attempt to copy it in the nearly two decades since. (Yes, there was Bruce Springsteen’s little-loved Human Touch/Lucky Town experiment the following year, and Nelly’s Sweat/Suit dual-release in 2004, but at least those weren’t double albums.) We can debate about the greatness and importance of Nevermind—I’d rather we didn’t, but go ahead if you want—but there’s no arguing against the Use Your Illusion saga being a unique and historical event in rock history; in terms of excess, it planted a flag at the end of the world.”