I had tickets to see Nirvana in concert when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I kid you not. My friend and I had been looking forward to the show for months–it had already been postponed once–so the news of his death threw me even more than it might have otherwise. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard: riding on a train in Germany, where my family was living at the time, and spying the headline in the newspaper of passenger sitting next to me. I remember being surprised at how physical the shock felt, a real punch in my teenage gut. Hard to believe that was almost 20 years ago, that last week marked a full two decades since In Utero entered our collective consciousness.
My Nirvana obsession coincided neatly with our family’s time abroad. This was not an arbitrary occurrence. Fourteen year-old boys are already pretty testy, but yank them not only out of their social circle and school but their country (and native language!), and sparks will fly. Mix in some hormonal confusion and delay their growth spurts by a few years (relative to their class- and teammates), and some adolescent rage is a foregone conclusion–regardless of how loving and supportive an environment they’ve been raised in. These days such a kid would probably gravitate toward a certain type of hip-hop; in 1993 it was grunge, and all the flannel trappings thereof. The six-CD changer in my stereo system soundtracked those years, and on any given day Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana occupied at least five of the trays, with the last one being reserved for either the suddenly unfashionable GNR or, curiously enough, U2’s Achtung Baby.
Yet then a funny thing happened. Cobain’s suicide happened in the Spring, just around the time I had finally adjusted to my new surroundings. Over the ensuing weeks, I found myself listening to less and less Nirvana, or grunge period. When the Unplugged in New York disc finally came out (we had been playing our VHS version ragged for months at that point), I much preferred the Bowie cover to the original material. It led me to Ziggy Stardust, which put me on a whole new tack. Seattle faded into the background and stayed there, give or take a few Pearl Jam concerts during college. In fact, I hadn’t listened to In Utero for almost 19 years when I queued it up last week and allowed the associations to wash back in. The record has aged surprisingly well. Next to Nevermind it sounds downright fresh.
We who considered ourselves the diehards adopted In Utero as an identity marker when it first came out. You could judge someone’s worth and value by whether or not they “got it.” The truer the fan, the more caustic their favorite track. I’m embarrassed to admit that I once claimed that “Milk It” was my favorite cut by a mile. (Note: “Milk It” is no one’s favorite cut). And the record was consciously set up that way. Just read Steve Albini’s unbearably idealistic manifesto that convinced the band to record with him. The “purity of purpose” behind the whole thing seems pretty at odds with Cobain’s sarcasm, but this was the 90s, and “selling out” was taken very seriously–an unforgivable sin if ever there was one.
What about the music, though, does it stand up? Well, yes. The songwriting is sharp and the performances explosive. As Josh Modell wrote for The AV Club recently, “[In Utero is] funny, ugly, and as near to perfect as a band that isn’t interested in perfection might want to get.” It’s nowhere near as “difficult” as I remember it being at the time. The melodicism may be a little obscured in places, but it’s still there. Cobain’s singing never had a chance to fall into self-parody; he lays it on the line in every single vocal. And for all Steve Albini’s self-importance and indie piety, the record remains his shining moment. This is producer (or “engineer”) as architect and svengali just as much as producer. Think Jim Dickinson on Big Star’s Third. Even the lyrics still strike a chord. “Heart-Shaped Box” remains one of the most misanthropic and conflicted love songs ever put to tape, and the resigned self-pity and anti-political correctness of “All Apologies” still rings true and maybe even a little prophetic.
That’s all well and good, but why write about this on Mockingbird? I’m glad you asked. The answer, like many others, has to do with the movie High Fidelity. That beloved film opens with the protagonist, Rob (John Cusack), asking the audience, “Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable? Or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?” Rob doesn’t understand why people worry so much about the effects of violent video games but not the potential damage of song after song on the radio about heartbreak and pain. It’s a profound question, and a far cry from the one I was asked most often during my years of youth ministry–earnest kids would always seek my input on what they should listen to. What should be embraced and what should be avoided? What’s “commendable” and what’s not? In pop culture, where is the line between appropriate and inappropriate?
Such curiosity is by and large a good thing. Most (youth) ministers have plenty of wisdom to share on the subject, and even if they don’t, it’s a good conversation starter. But it also belies a sad truth about how many religious people perceive culture. Culture, especially of the popular variety, has all too often been an area of life shrouded in words like “should” and “ought”, a place of guilt (and law) and therefore hiddenness—there’s what we are supposed to consume, what we may even say we consume, and then there’s what we actually consume. This is more than a “guilty pleasure” phenomenon; when we cast pop culture as forbidden fruit, we do ourselves and our children a disservice. The coming-of-age stories are well-worn: “I’ll never forget the day my parents found my stash of Metallica CDs.” “We were only ever allowed to listen to Christian music, so when my cousin’s friend played me that Eminem track in his car, I started counting the days until I could get my own place and blast hip-hop.”
The real issue, however, is not that we make a questionable movie or band that much more attractive with our restrictions, it’s that we miss out on an opportunity to ask a deeper and ultimately more biblical question–what is it inside of us that makes us want to consume what we actually want to consume? After all, the Bible is fairly unclear on the subject of appropriate television. We may be able to cobble together an answer, it may even make good sense, but it will inevitably differ from that of our neighbor. Fortunately, Jesus more or less directly addresses the High Fidelity quandary. He is recorded in Mark as saying that, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (Mark 14b-15). Sin flows inside-out rather than outside-in. It is inherited, not achieved, as the St. Paul writes in Romans 5.
In other words, for a piece of culture to gain emotional or spiritual traction in the viewer or consumer, it has to find an internal foothold first. Which is another way of saying that we listen to pop music because we are miserable, not the other way around. The enemy is not out there. Indeed, when we blame or scapegoat media for our problems with anger, or lust, or anxiety, we are more than likely ignoring the logs in our own eyes. This doesn’t mean that cultural artifacts are innocuous or have no power in and of themselves–thank God they do! But that power may look different than we often presume it does.
This brings me back to Nirvana. In the midst of a difficult and frustrating time, I gravitated toward music that resonated with and maybe even indulged my agitation. I don’t mean to imply that their work was emotionally monochrome; there’s a lot going on in it, especially on In Utero. But to my fourteen year-old ears, it was the disaffection that mattered most. It captured and expressed what was going on inside of me. When those feelings subsided, it was no coincidence that certain records began to gather dust. In fact, the very next year I checked the Good Vibrations boxed set out of my school library, and the rest is history. Not that I never felt aggression or frustration ever again, simply that my taste shifted significantly, and it wasn’t a conscious act of will.
I give my parents a lot of credit. I can only imagine how alienated they must have felt when they would come into my room on Heinlenstrasse and hear Rage Against the Machine blaring from the speakers. They were wise enough to know, or foolish enough to believe, that if they had forced the issue and made me throw out those abrasive CDs, the feelings wouldn’t have disappeared. In fact, they would have likely festered and grown—the forbiddance would have simply been another thing to be angry about! And what’s more, the real question might have been circumvented or suppressed. I needed to feel that anger and isolation, I needed to get to know it, let it run its course (in a fashion), if for no other reason than that’s the place where any message of hope and assurance would ultimately make sense.
I suppose you could say that teenage angst paid off well.