By: Austin Woods
Ask any self-respecting music fan what qualities made Nirvana such a timeless, ubiquitously great band, and you’re likely going to hear something about their originality.
Whether your descriptor of choice is “honest,” “real,” “genuine,” or “sincere,” it seems that audiences champion Nirvana’s authenticity above all else. Listeners frequently cite Cobain’s lyricism, imbued with highly personal, autobiographical details. His acute existential suffering was reflected not only by his words, but by the brutality and power of the accompanying music as well.
Nirvana has been praised for this realness time and time again. In his review of MTV Unplugged in New York, Robert Christgau stated “[Cobain’s] secret is his sincerity.” In a review of the same album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine praised the performance for its “fearlessly confessional” nature.
These are the qualities that enabled Nirvana to spearhead the alt-rock revolution which an entire generation of music fans were ripe for. Disaffected by the artifice of genres like hair metal, they craved something fresh, something real. Cobain gave them just that: fearless originality, perhaps his greatest artistic strength.
There’s certainly a great deal of truth to this mythos, but I find it extremely myopic. This is only one side of Nirvana’s artistry— the far less interesting side, in my opinion. In lauding Cobain for his originality and willingness to be himself, listeners frequently miss out on another, seemingly contradictory detail: his penchant for copying the music of his forerunners.
Make no mistake, Cobain’s key artistic strength was his knack for plagiarism. Track after track, he demonstrated a keen ability to closely observe and emulate the aesthetics of the countless DIY underground bands that made his success possible. This wasn’t a mere channeling of one’s influences; this was often straight-up imitation.
This approach is all over the band’s discography. Their output, for all its fearless individualism and nakedly personal qualities, often resembles a broad pastiche of punk rock stylings. One track might evoke the militant hardcore of M.D.C. while the next betrays pop-minded songcraft worthy of Hüsker Dü. Sounds from no-wave giants like Swans and Sonic Youth at their dirgiest exist alongside shades of Beat Happening and The Shaggs. On my personal favorite record of theirs, Incesticide, a Gang of Four carbon copy is immediately followed by a send-up of ‘70s cock rock.
If this doesn’t convince you, consider all the music they directly lifted from other groups. The chorus on “Negative Creep” recalls Mudhoney’s “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More.” The drums on “Scoff” share the same pattern as “My Sharona.” “Come As You Are” famously apes a Killing Joke riff. “Heart Shaped Box” sounds suspiciously similar to the Butthole Surfers’ “Bar-B-Q Pope.” The very title of their album Nevermind evokes the Sex Pistols’ seminal Nevermind The Bollocks. There’s even an entire Reddit thread documenting their many rip-offs (like I said, this wasn’t just a band channeling their influences).
Cobain was an early hipster; the man lived and breathed underground music, back when doing so actually meant something. With skill and, most importantly, shamelessness, he drew from these little-heard sources, selected the best of punk, proto-punk, post-punk, hardcore and indie, tossed it all into his musical meat grinder, and came out with a comprehensive pastiche called Nirvana.
Still not buying it? Don’t take my word for it— just hear it from the man himself. In a 1991 interview with New Musical Express, Cobain said the following:
“If we’re anything, we’re nothing more than a plagiaristic professional bar band. We could copy anything, practically, besides white boy metal funk— we’re not that good musicians, thank God!”
So there you have it. Straight from the death rocker’s mouth.
When I first got into Nirvana in high school, this quote bothered me. I felt Cobain was disparaging the beautiful thing he’d created, dismissing himself as little more than punk rock’s equivalent of an Elvis impersonator.
But now I realize that Cobain was right the entire time. He was a plagiarist, and that’s not a bad thing. Pastiche, after all, celebrates the work it imitates. It does not mock or dilute. Cobain may have ripped everyone off, but he did so with immense skill and reverence through which he avoided being hackneyed or trite. Instead, his music functioned as a worthy, loving paean to the punk rock underground.
This is the essence of Nirvana’s artistry. However, some historical context is needed to fully understand it. As Michael Azerrad explores in the fantastic Our Band Could Be Your Life, the vast underground DIY network of the ‘80s was, after a certain point, bound to implode. As more and more independent bands began signing to majors, it became obvious that a pop crossover was imminent.
Cobain provided the impetus for this crossover, to which his usage of pastiche was inextricably tied. Nirvana was the perfect band to kill the underground and cap off the decades of punk and indie music that preceded them, because they literally embodied all of it, documenting its many styles and attitudes in a four-album swan song.
Contrary to popular belief, Cobain did not bring about the revolution. He created an afterword for the revolution, giving us an overview of the whole thing as it inevitably burnt out, providing us with the summation of all its power, aggression, vulnerability and soul. This was punk’s logical endpoint. Its culmination. In one word: Nirvana.