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Sometimes a song just gets inside you: A chord, a beat or a howl finds a root and digs deep. It knows you better than your best friend, and it can help and hurt as much as one, too. Nirvana's "Something in the Way" is that song for me — or at least one of many.
I first heard it in high school, maybe six or seven years after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, after I'd picked up Unplugged (my first Nirvana album) at a used CD store. The song ached and creaked like a weathered shack; even for a late-'90s emo kid like me, "Something in the Way" tugged at a troubled psyche that was all too real. Its plodding simplicity is underscored by desperate yearning and a chord progression similar to The Wipers' "D-7." And, for many years, often out of nowhere, "Something in the Way" becomes an obsession, played on repeat and wrung out until the next cycle.
As a result, I've collected numerous outtakes, demos, live versions and covers of "Something in the Way." And, while the scathing, feedback-driven version for a 1991 BBC Session is currently my most spun, it's the covers that peel back the song. In thinking about Nevermind's 20th anniversary this week, I'll publish interviews with two Seattle-ites — David Bazan and Damien Jurado, high-school buddies who saw Nirvana unfold in the early '90s — and with Bryan Funck of the Baton Rouge sludge-metal band Thou. In their own distinct ways, all three of these artists have covered "Something in the Way," telling a story not only about the song, but themselves.
At this point, the songs on Nevermind no longer belong to a year or a movement; these songs belong to us. "Something in the Way," "Come As You Are," "In Bloom," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — these works are cultural public domain. They have pervaded the public consciousness long enough to transcend time, yet we keep looking back, smothering fuzzy memories with the pillow of nostalgia.
Speaking for myself, I am not nostalgic, nor am I wistful that I wasn't culturally a part of 1991. I was certainly aware of Nirvana. My earliest memories of the band were of a friend playing "Rape Me" on a Walkman in the back of a church van and a chubby kid showing me a picture he drew of Kurt Cobain with his brains blown out in fourth-grade chorus class. (That image hasn't left my mind.) If anything, I idealize late '90s hardcore with an X-shaped lens — I never claimed to be "straight edge," but was by technicality. Other than that, I'm actually really happy where music's at right now.
Apparently, I'm not the only one thinking about the dangers of nostalgia. Simon Reynolds just published a book called Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past in an effort to "defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal." At Slate, he used a recent screening of Nirvana's legendary 1992 Reading Festival performance to look at media speculation over grunge and the '90s revival that's already in full swing:
The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots.
Perhaps reminding people who don't need to be reminded that Nirvana was/is awesome is boring and expected. I can accept that. But cultural events are conversations that continue for years — between media, between friends. Nevermind is no exception, even (especially) with expected cycles intact.
Over at the The A.V. Club, Marah Eakin has been brilliantly recapping The Adventures of Pete and Pete, the endlessly absurd yet genius television show that very much formed my childhood brain. The episode "Hard Day's Pete" inspired a deeper look about looking back that struck a chord: "[Nostalgia] puts this hazy veil over everything in the past, and all the time we spend thinking about those things, we're not making new things, pushing art and culture forward." Ironically, Eakin is doing just what she says not to do by recapping a '90s Nickelodeon show, but she owns up to it.
How does this affect the way music is made today? Recently, Josh Haun ably took down metal's "cult of regression" at That's How Kids Die. Not only is the metal community fetishizing "the old" by tracking down obscure '80s death- and trad-metal demos that never "made it" (for good reason) and giving them overpriced deluxe reissues, but many new, young bands are also stuck in a well-worn sound, an attitude, a hairstyle. If metal specifically doesn't move forward, especially at a time when it's so prominently in the media spotlight again, then it becomes novelty — something to toss away once the gag wears off.
I'm reminded of a story told by David Bates, former head of A&R at Fontana Records, in 30 Century Man, the documentary about the enigmatic Scott Walker. Upon walking into the studio to hear Walker's then-forthcoming album in 1995, Bates was assaulted by the uncompromising Tilt as it blared at full volume.
I turned and said, "Is there any chance we can put it on the small speakers and a little quieter? I'm just finding it a little too much to take in." So they agreed. But Scott stopped and said, "Dave, I hope you don't mind. I'd like to listen to it on the big speakers again, because when I make a record and I've finished, I don't really have any intention of listening to it again. So I'd just like to remember it this way, if that's all right with you."
Walker is an extreme case, but his commitment to always moving forward is admirable. Sometimes, it's the difference between musicians and listeners. Often, the reason your favorite band doesn't play its old songs at concerts is because it's moved on and we haven't. Granted, those songs are cultural markers in our lives — ways to connect the dots in our own histories. But if we spend all our time recycling memories and recycling melodies, where is the time to make something new? At the very least, if the past inspires, mold it and mangle it until it says something about the now.
Yes, 1991 was great year for music: Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, Sepultura's Arise, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the list goes on. But every year is a great year for music. And every year is bad for it, too. We tend to forget that when thinking fondly of years past. What was also released the same day as Nevermind? Kid 'n Play's third album, Face the Nation. Try to remember that one.
As Nevermind turns 20 this week, we should think about the songs as they speak to us now, not a year we grasp to relive. "Something in the Way" tells a story about a lost soul who lives under a bridge, pondering the feelings of fish. Somewhere in that song is the self — dig it out.