Nevermind was released twenty years ago this month. It’s almost strange to think, all this time later, how much that album changed rock.
At the time, the mainstream face of that there devil-music wore eye-shadow and a perm, and was every bit as sculpted-by-committee as any teen pop fare you could care to name. At the start of the ’90s, the hairbands had finally collapsed in on themselves. The showmanship of glam went from ridiculous to … well, slightly more ridiculous. The music wasn’t saying anything. Every album had its party anthem, every album had its power ballad named after a woman, and pretty much everyone looked exactly like this:
That’s Whitesnake. Or maybe Ratt. Nobody knows.
Of course, with any musical movement comes a counter-movement, and something other than $8 coffee was brewing in Seattle. The punks were unhappy – punks are never happy, the poor dears – with the musical status quo, and they made a lot of angry, ugly music. That, in turn, inspired the grunge kids to make a lot of angry, ugly music that kind of sounded like rock but didn’t really look like rock, and was about 340% more heroin-by-volume than what had come before. By the time Nirvana finally took the stage, Seattle had traded open leather vests in for flannel, and the feathery dinosaurs of hair metal faded into comedy.
Grunge was fated to die even before Kurt Cobain did. Nirvana wasn’t, as some like to think, its originator; if anything, they – alongside contemporaries Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots – were grunge’s last hurrah, its torchbearers in the spotlight of mass culture.
Nirvana weren’t just a good band. They were accessible.
Which is saying something for a band whose every song oozes crippling depression.
See, Nevermind was dark. And it wasn’t dark in the way of lipstick-and-hairspray bleached-blondes wailing about that time they totally killed a dude for Satan. Because that’s not dark. That’s hilarious. Nevermind was unhappy. It was uncomfortable in its own skin. It was an album with lyrics like these…
I’m so happy
Cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly
But that’s ok, ’cause so are you
We’ve broke our mirrors
Is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared
Light my candles
In a daze ’cause I’ve found god
… in a song about a painkiller, delivered in a pained, empty drawl. When Cobain finds god, he’s not singing about Zeus. Of course, as the political conservatives who like to bang out Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” every year demonstrate, we don’t do a great job of listening to the words between choruses. Nirvana didn’t make the mainstream uncomfortable. We shiny, happy people ate that shit up, which in turn made Nirvana uncomfortable. So it’s no surprise that on the very same album, Cobain gets in a dig at the listeners:
He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
Nirvana was bound to end in tears. I think, on some level, we all knew that.
‘Dark’ is a word that’s thrown around a lot. Sometimes, it’s an adjective well earned. A Game of Thrones is ‘dark’. The Wire is ‘dark’.
Sometimes, we can’t help but look a bit askance. Grand Theft Auto is ‘dark’.
Sometimes, we just have to wonder when words stopped meaning things. My Little Pony is ‘dark’.
When Axl Rose sings this…
Welcome to the jungle
It gets worse here everyday
You learn ta live like an animal
In the jungle where we play
If you got a hunger for what you see
You’ll take it eventually
You can have anything you want
But you better not take it from me
… he does not sound like an unhinged badass. He does not make us fear for the state of society. It’s hard to do that when you’re a walking punchline.
Dark is not a question of subject matter, it’s a question of presentation. Nobody will argue that Commando is a dark movie, despite the body count. Arnie doesn’t mow down people, he kills enemy guns shaped vaguely like people. The consequences of his actions are nonexistent. Arnie wears white hat. Faceless horde wears black hats. Good guy wins through the medium of clean, wholesome brutality.
Compare that to a death in a show like Dexter or The Wire, where people cry, and plead for mercy, and leave behind loved ones. Dark is about psychology. It’s about consequences. It’s about drawing attention to ugliness, rather than sweeping it under the rug, and making sure that ugliness means something.
Dark is well represented in the fantasy world. Most fantasy readers have picked up Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, where no good deed goes unpunished. Many soldier through it and love what it does. Many can’t take how grim it all is, and leave the books unfinished. Dark is divisive. Sometimes, we want Commando. Sometimes, we need a simple, uncomplicated heroic narrative with goodies and baddies and the triumph of what’s right and just.
And sometimes, we can get that – or something close to that – while dipping one big toe in the fetid old pool. The fantasy pulps often present a world that’s simply awful (“crapsack”, in the parlance of our time), but they give it to us in context of a heroic narrative. Sure, the tattooed cultists are chopping up some villagers to bring a Tentacled Monstrosity to life, but we only see them through the red-misted eyes of Conan come a-reavin’. His motives aren’t the purest – yes, he is only here because the sacrifice is a hot young thing – but they get the job done, and we have our moment of good-ish triumphing over bad with just a dash of grimdark for spice.
That’s not a bad way to go. Dark is divisive, but it can also be a thrill. Push it too far, and you can depress and alienate. Hide it, or take some of the bite from it, and you can entertain.
So, I hadn’t intended to spend so much of my blog time on a music history lesson, but here we are. It was a nice preamble.
If you’re so inclined, Spin Magazine is offering a free download (in return for Likes and all that jazz) of Newermind, a Nevermind tribute album, here. Like all tribute albums, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some real gems on there. The cover of “In Bloom” is fantastic, as are covers of “Polly” and “Lithium”.
How to Write Fantasy will continue on with Grimdark as we enter October – the monster-iest month of them all.