Finding Nirvana

Like every other 40-something I am looking back with nostalgia over the approaching 20 year anniversary of the release of Nevermind.  And as seemingly happens to everyone as they age, we wax misty over our youth.  I have no intention of going on about the music, as it has been done be many more people, far more eloquently than I could do. No, what I’m interested in is the tremendous cultural shift it signaled, like a the shot fired at the beginning of a race.  Because while Nirvana didn’t change the world and certainly wasn’t the first band to express the worldview and symbols of the counterculture scene (with it’s shifting labels from punk, to underground, to alternative, to name-of-the-moment), it was the band that shifted the trajectory of a culture.  Not just a shift in subculture, but a fundamental change the culture at large.  Understanding the impact of the band and their second album requires a cultural context to understand Nirvana, because Nirvana were primarily about cultural context. Because without this album you wouldn’t have FaceBook, you wouldn’t have Forever 21, you wouldn’t have Mini Cooper – at least not in the forms they taken on.

I remember my first hearing of the album and oddly enough, so do most people over 35. We can relate stories with precise detail.  I was a lowly cook at the time, working at The Free State Brewery in Lawrence, KS, one of any number of Midwest college towns to which punks, misfits and the eclectic gravitated. My friend Grant Fitch had been talking all night about how earth-shattering the new album was.  And of course my thoughts ran along the lines of “bullshit.”  That was what people said anytime a new album came out – it would change everything.  So once the place closed and we were having a beer while cleaning up I expected to like the album but not be blown away by it.  Grant popped the CD into the restaurant’s CD player, cranked up the volume and hit play.  And activity in the place stopped.  Grant was right.  We listened to the whole album, from beginning to end, at top volume and put clean up on hold.  What’s remarkable about it is how many people have similar stories.  But why does it matter?  It matters because it was a signal, a symbol embodied in sound that changed the reactions, realities and worldview of a generation.

Nevermind marked the emergence of a generation of music fans in their twenties and younger in a climate dominated by the musical tastes of the baby boomer generation that preceded them. Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.  It came along at a moment when counterculture had seemingly been permanently relegated to the outskirts of society or had become stale and the product of an earlier time, be it hippie or punk, that had little relevance.  This was something uniquely ours and it was a great big “fuck you” to the status quo.  And timing is everything.

I don’t remember when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on mainstream radio, but I know it wasn’t long after and I know my response went something along the lines of, “What the hell?” and wondered if I’d stumbled inadvertently onto the college radio station. It brought what was being termed “alternative rock” as a whole into the mainstream, establishing its cultural viability.

What Nevermind did, for better or for worse, was to legitimized counterculture as an expression of identity that had been dismissed to that point.  Punks, alternative snot whackers, hipsters, whatever you wanted to call them, represented a class of people that were inherently and forever outside the larger society.  Oh, they influenced it to be sure, but the idea of someone with pink hair and full tattoo sleeves being the face of a major business or as a top designer for Ralph Lauren would have been unthinkable.  They, we, were the fringe.  A fringe that had grown painfully stale.  A different way of embracing and interacting with the world was something you put aside upon graduation from college or it meant accepting your fate as part of a permanent, disenfranchised minority. So the album became a tangible anthem for a generation searching for its definition of counterculture.

Like I said, the album was like a shot in the night, a signal that said control was there to be taken and it was possible to navigate multiple worlds. Rather than being the perpetual Other, the postmodern search for individual identity and expression was now at the forefront of the social narrative, which meant merit, inventiveness and non-linear thinking could become more important in how we chose to interact with each other, be it in the workplace, the street, or the retail shop.  Until this point, you rarely saw a stockbroker, an ironworker and designer sitting having a beer together – these generally represented too clearly defined groups.  The divisions and social trajectories would have been established too early on to have even allowed a friendship between such seemingly disparate groups to begin.  The changes had begun, but Nevermind came along at a point of radical change in the social dynamic, signaling a shift from liminality into a new state of being.

Bricolage had been transformed into the norm.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a concept meant to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.  In anthropology bricolage is used to mean the processes by which people acquire objects from across social divisions to create new cultural identities. In particular, it is a feature of subcultures such as, for example, the punk movement out of which so many sub-groups emerged. Here, objects that possess one meaning (or no meaning) in the dominant culture are acquired and given a new, often subversive meaning. For example, the tattoo became a form of decoration in post-punk culture (until then it had been something bikers, dockworkers, and Marines had – note how few tattoos you see on musicians prior the 90s).  But being subversive no longer meant being limited in terms of work, profession or social mobility. Indeed, “Loser” had been co-opted and repurposed as a response to a society that saw those wearing the emblem as just that, losers. To be sure, the shift was underway, but the catalyst had yet to emerge until this moment. And it had yet to find a symbol to which it might cling.

That shift expressed a growing response to 12 years of conservatism and sparked innovation.  Everything from technology to science to art to advertising changed.  Without that sense of license and self-determination, many of the people who were responsible for the dotcom explosion and the technology that made it possible would have remained out the periphery.  There would be no ecommerce.  Without that expression of bricolage, there would be no guerilla marketing, no dada-esque Skittles ads, no multimillion dollar trade in skinny jeans.  The iPod would be just another gadget for techies and Pabst would never have become the beer to drink in hipster bars.  Symbols come in many forms and can change forever how the world works.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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