(Photo: Charles Peterson)
“Load up on guns. Bring your friends.”
If you were a kid who grew up on rock-and-roll, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was the musical equivalent of the JFK assassination: you know exactly where you were when you heard it for the first time.
I was in Los Angeles, with a group of friends at a hard rock and heavy metal convention we’d been invited to because we ran a radio show in Miami. It was 1991, which was a strange time for rock-and-roll. It was that space between the ridiculous hair band dominance of the 80s and whatever you were sure would come next — and already the tremors of that impending seismic shift were being felt. There was still a lot of big hair out there, but make-up and dumb-ass party songs had given way to the sleaze of Guns-N-Roses, which had begun to give way to the indescribable metal-alt hybrid of Jane’s Addiction, the hip-hop infused lunacy of Faith No More, the old school Zeppelin scream of Soundgarden, and the visceral punch of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. There was funk metal and death metal. There was Enter Sandman suddenly making Metallica one of the biggest bands in the world. There was the technicolor influence of Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood on fashion. It was an eclectic clash of styles and sounds, but the pervasive tone was still the familiar belief that metal was on top. It was the sound of the rock scene in America.
And then it happened. My friends and I were driving around Hollywood in a rented convertible —- that little slice of Southern California still holding a firm grip on the national musical imagination — when KROQ played the new song from Nirvana. I remember our reaction. We were, to put it mildly, blown away. Smells Like Teen Spirit was confrontational and ironic, like everything I’d listened to as a young wanna-be punk; it was disaffected and angst-ridden, the way every teenager approaching adulthood (or adult not yet ready to commit to his or her life) could understand; on top of all of that it was so catchy that you couldn’t stop singing it in your head. It was without a doubt the sound of a new generation — it was the My Generation for my generation. All of this was obvious right from the very beginning. From the very first time you heard the song. When we returned to the hotel where the convention was being held a couple of hours later, everything looked different. It was as if the whole place were being roamed by dinosaurs who had no idea a meteor had just hit the earth and would consume them all in a giant ball of fire.
The next age in pop music had dawned.
“Here we are now. Entertain us.”
From 33-years-old onward, you can kiss new music goodbye. This is what a new online study culled from the habits of Spotify users supposedly reveals. Maybe you read about it given that it was all over social media a couple of weeks ago.
According to the survey, which, as the AV Club points out, may represent the inevitable final result of our relentlessly curated environment’s ability to catalog everything we see and hear, people’s tastes in music mature rapidly through their 20s before finally peaking at 33. After that, for the most part, no one bothers going looking for new music anymore. The study claims that in our teen years, we tend to listen almost exclusively to the songs that make up Billboard hits lists, but once we leave those years our tastes branch out as we experiment with new sounds and artists, with that experimentation finally ending by our early 30s as our tastes become set in stone. Parents, supposedly, peak even earlier, as they cede their musical tastes to their children’s wishes and become mired in songs and artists aimed at children and the dreaded ‘tween demographic. Aside from this last point, which we saw pretty damning evidence of throughout most of the 2000s, most of this survey, needless to say, sounds like horseshit. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that the site that ran the study is nothing more than a blog run by a consultant who’s worked with the sources used to gather the data.
I admit that I’ve never been your average music fan, but by the same token there’s almost no one I’m close to who wouldn’t laugh at the “33” survey. I’m not sure what this says about the trustworthiness of it, given that most of my friends are people for whom music is a huge part of their lives and always was. There’s never been a moment in my life — teen years or otherwise — that I’ve listened exclusively to what’s in Billboard, choosing at an early age to branch out of my comfort zone thanks to the influence of a few people to whom I still feel like I owe a debt I’ll never repay. In fifth grade, it was one stoner kid who got me hooked on AC/DC and Sabbath, then in my pre-teens it was a skate punk friend who led me to Black Flag, the Ramones and the Pistols. From there, everything from Iron Maiden to the Cure to the Replacements to Killing Joke just seemed to come naturally. My mom loved Burt Bacharach and Earth Wind & Fire and my dad loved Basie and Coltrane. Relatives from Kentucky worshiped Waylon Jennings and Glen Campbell. I ate it all up, refusing to allow labels to stand in the way of the music I loved and that affected me. I had a soundtrack for my youth, a song to fit every moment of my teenage melodrama. If you grew up in Miami in the 80s, you drove to Phil Collins and moved to Prince and Duran Duran.
I have to give the 33 study one bit of credit in that it’s the only thing I’ve seen that seems to quantify the notion that the teens aren’t necessarily your formative years for musical tastes. If you ask me to name the music I hold in the highest regard and with the most amount of nostalgia — and like it or not, nostalgia is always a factor in what we listen to as adults — I’ll never say my teens. I fully accept that a lot of what was released in the 80s was crap — another new study of homogeny in music seems to confirm that — and maybe that’s why I still hold wholeheartedly to what was being done artistically and sonically in the early 90s. In ’92, you had a dozen different styles of music either coming into their own or reaching what felt at the time like an artistic peak. It was an exhilarating time to be immersed in music. You had the Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill, Tool and Dre, U2’s breathtaking reinvention with Achtung Baby and Tribe’s damn-near perfect Low End Theory, Massive Attack and Stone Roses, Matthew Sweet and Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy. And of course, you had Seattle: Mother Love Bone gave way to Temple of the Dog which gave way to Pearl Jam; Alice in Chains and Soundgarden broke huge. Nirvana ruled the world.
Alternative had finally become mainstream. The weirdoes and misfits took over and experimenting was suddenly something everyone was doing.
“Our little group has always been and always will until the end.”
A couple of days ago, I watch the HBO documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck, which illustrates both figuratively and literally the life of Kurt Cobain and his growth to become one of the most important artists in rock-and-roll history. The film was made with the cooperation of both Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s widow and daughter, respectively, and reveals so much about the doomed Nirvana frontman — through his own recordings, drawings and writings — that it’s at times genuinely painful to sit through. Kurt was tortured both psychologically and physically, the latter in the form of debilitating stomach pain that plagued him throughout his life. Once you come to understand this, it’s easy to imagine why he turned to heroin and why he could never lead what many would consider a normal life. Given the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of Nirvana’s short, meteoric career, you can’t help but wonder as you give yourself over to Montage of Heck not only what might have come from them had Kurt survived but also whether their mystique as a band would be as profound were it not for his death. Nevermind truly was a once-in-a-generation album; that’s indisputable. But would Kurt have simply lived long enough to “see himself become the villain” — or at least become a washed-up has-been — and would Nirvana’s potential fade have tarnished the reputation and memory of Nevermind and the time the band shook the world?
Not only do I still, at the age of 45, seek out new music, I sometimes lament the state of it. I get that that’s the lot in life of anybody after a certain point: to finally feel like you’re losing touch with whatever the next generation is enjoying. But while I can tell you that I’m bored of every fucking alternative song currently being played on KROQ — the station that once introduced me to Nirvana — employing the tired “Whooooaaa–ooooooh!” chorus that’s so huge right now, it doesn’t mean I’ve resigned myself only to nostalgia. Music should always be about discovery rather than simply a reminder of days past, good or melancholy (although it’s most certainly that). There’s still a lot of great stuff out there and it’s impossible to ever imagine just giving up and sticking with what I’ve already got. If I had cut myself off in my early 30s, as the 33 study asserts is what most people do, I never would’ve fallen in love with My Chemical Romance and felt like a kid again precisely because there was that thrill of discovery and obsession. There would’ve been no Outkast or LCD Soundsystem, no TV on the Radio or Silversun Pickups or Arcade Fire, no EDM or Brooklyn Indie or Chillwave. Maybe you can make the argument that most sounds have already been done, but how would you know that if you weren’t still looking to try out new things?
I’m still looking for new bands and sounds. Always. It’s because of this that I know that there’s a movement underway that’s slowly swinging the pendulum back toward guitar-based alternative. Watch Montage of Heck, or Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam 20 documentary, and you start to wonder what the new generation turns to when it wants to rebel or express its angst. God bless EDM, but that stuff has maybe two speeds at best. It’s not the kind of thing that can get you through the kind of crises that music with heart and soul can, as much as I love it and as much as it’s playing the role rock once did in the cultural imagination. Bands like Wolf Alice,Superheaven and Speedy Ortiz seem to be returning us to something with a little more power, and that’s a good thing since alternative had moved away from that over the years. And the best part is that thanks to the proliferation of media and the on-demand nature of taste satisfaction these days, it can occupy the same cultural space as EDM or anything else. Kids now have been brought up with more music in their lives — more different kinds of music at their fingertips — than ever before. Pick a genre — somebody thinks it’s cool.
Maybe there will never be another musical shot-heard-round-the-world like Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, something that immediately signals a shift in what everyone is listening to. We may simply be too diversified and niched now for anything like that to happen again. But what’s around now isn’t bad at all — as long as you know where to look. And as long as you keep on looking and listening. New technology has assured that there’s more out there than ever before. No matter your age, you’d be a fool to cut yourself off from any of it.
Editor’s Note: This will be the final piece published in the “Members Section” as we begin the Banter Weekly Digital Magazine next week.