Lance LaSalle writes ...
It didn’t change music, it changed popular culture. Suddenly certain fashions and styles of music that were confined to rather limited social underground scenes became fashionable.
At the time, I was wearing a lot of hand-me-down flannel shirts; I had a pointy chin beard and I had questionable hygiene. I deliberately spent what little money I had on thrift store clothes that were ugly as all fuck. To me, if I couldn’t afford to be fashionable, I was going to be as unfashionable as possible. I was going to wear my low social status as badge of honor.
When Nirvana broke, within a few months, everybody started dressing like me, grew little goatees and suddenly girls — like good looking ones— were talking to me like I was this cool guy. Because I had become indistinguishable from the cool guys. Humor became ironic. Again, that was just natural to me, because I had grown up, like Kurt Cobain, as “white trash who pretended to be middle class” and irony is part of that world. But suddently dumb frat boys were laughing at irony. It was actually quite a weird head fuck, you didn’t know who to trust any more..
Earnest LA hair metal bands, who had ruled the airwaves in the late 80s suddenly found themselves playing bars while underground figures like Sonic Youth or Bob Mould suddenly became popular. At around the same time, I would say there was created a seismic rift between US and UK music: the rise of Brit-pop in the UK was definitely not mirrored in the US post-Nirvana. After that few rock bands would really make it huge in America, Radiohead aside, and even they needed lots of cheerleading from the likes of Michael Stipe. Bands like Stereolab or Belle and Sebastien or Spiritualized were known among my peers, but they were not really HUGE as many British bands had been in the previous few decades.
Most of the 90s sort of reeled from that cultural shift and it wasn’t really until the ‘98-’99 era that a certain post-ironic sort of conformity was able to assert itself again.
But musically, Nirvana didn’t change anything; they were just were part of a continuum that included punk and post-punk musics as well as what we used to call “Underground” music and 80s alternative music like the Pixies. LIke all such cultural landmarks, they were good but they were also in the right time and the right place.
When I first heard them, I didn’t think they sounded NEW; they sounded GOOD — but not like what was popular. (Which I didn’t like, anyway.) Six months later, I couldn’t have been more wrong. They turned the whole culture upside down and what had been thriving under the rock came out on top briefly and then got commodified with incredible swiftness.