In a culture that venerates success, there’s a tendency to underrate the destruction it wreaks upon the victor. Similarly, the fact that a victory does not halt time at the pristine pinnacle of success — that life goes on — leads to disillusionment and disparagement when ongoing reality refuses to stay still. 1989-1991 was an era of victory and all the consequent worries, woes and uncertainties that comes with it — a powerful sense of “what next?”
The Sex Pistols had certainly dug a hole in the U.K.’s consensus — exposing and parodying its vile edge in which there’s nothing more than what you can grab from those who will buy — but only in the context of a wider economic malaise and the ongoing decline of Britain from an imperial peak which now made the U.S. the self-confident and true home of rock. While the U.S. embraced some fragments of punk squalor it was primarily theatrical and integrated well into the existing superhero template — Motley Crue, Ted Nugent, Guns n’ Roses; these were the nearest the mainstream came to punk until Nirvana.
The U.K. and Europe similarly possessed genuine socialist parties which acted as strong forces with an influence on the direction of national politics. In the U.S. this simply didn’t exist; open espousal of socialism let alone communism was a severely suppressed thread in politics. While in the U.K. and Europe feminism, gay rights, vegetarianism, anti-war protests and so forth were part of both the mainstream political mix and popular mass causes — in the U.S. these were viewed as left-wing, politically suspect and only of interest to non-mainstream activists and extremists.
The impact of this exclusion was to add these causes to the realm of deviance and non-mainstream interests in which U.S. punk fermented; all were minority activities focused around tiny self-defined communities of ‘outcasts’ and increasingly, as the Eighties went on, the punk scene fused with a strong political edge whether openly critical of the current political mainstream, or of law enforcement, or in favour of pro-gay rights, or of feminist politics. It was the same rooting around in the underground that led some to latch onto extreme racist nationalism, the other side of the coin to punk’s quest for rebel yells outside the vision presented by militaristic, flag-waving, ‘us uber alles’ supermen who infested the mainstream.
Nirvana’s rise didn’t take place in a vacuum; it coincided with the entire political order of the West shifting. Nirvana’s first European tour coincided with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact with the Berlin Wall commencing its fall on November 9, 1989 and Nirvana arriving in the city two days later as people continued tearing at the symbol of the entire post-war reality. Finally, following the attempted coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist on December 26, 1991 — just as Nirvana was exploding into mass consciousness.
The colossal weight of what was occurring was amplified and enhanced by the reality that this was the first global shift of the mass media era. The absence of the unifying enemy who had tethered U.S. culture for decades was a grave concern among governing circles after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the last substantial external threat to capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and The Last Man expanded was built on a 1989 article and essentially suggested that progress and time had now halted — that’s how deeply the narrative of Cold War had infected perceptions of reality and how hard it was to envisage a life without it. Fukuyama’s book has been long-criticised but its key point that the last fully functioning alternative to capitalism (in whatever gradation) had ceased and a single economic system now ruled almost the entire dialogue of world civilisation.
The shock of Nirvana’s emergence was so powerful within the U.S. not because of the music itself — debates over its originality and universal popularity are missing the point. Nirvana were the crest of a wave that had travelled far and was now breaking in so many directions. On the one hand, the extreme solipsism and air of defensiveness, indifference, negativity that many saw in Nirvana was an articulation of a new insecurity, a new vulnerability that arose because no one now knew who or where the enemy was. Simultaneously, the music acknowledged and empowered feelings that hadn’t been permitted under the old regime governed by the indestructible ‘rock star’; the need for the strong had gone away and Nirvana helped make it look ridiculous. Instead the marginalised could emerge blinking into daylight and with them all the causes that had been bred into the underground’s rising stars during the previous decade.
The switch in the music culture had been prefaced by an expanding roster of alternative bands on major labels prior to Nirvana’s emergence, there had been bands originating in the indie scene who had made the jump to major label record deals — but success was varied. Among the mainstream survivors, Metallica incorporated a touch more brooding into their major crossover success, Guns n’ Roses acknowledged the turn away from chest-thumping rock only in Axl Rose’s more solitary and sombre meditations, Nine Inch Nails were still to push the dial all the way to The Downward Spiral — while the move toward Cobain’s insularity had been foreshadowed by all this activity, there still wasn’t a superstar until his arrival who looked so firmly inward.
A similar explosion at that time was the twisted tale of the Black Metal scene in Scandinavia and particularly in Norway. Between 1991 and 1995, with a very young coterie of individuals egging each other on to ever more extreme and grim acts, the early scene erupted with over twenty churches burned, suicide, murder, general mayhem. In the book ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness” there’s a quotation from one figure in the scene stating “it is interesting that Black Metal exploded in Norway immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the final demise of the idea that fighting against the bourgeoisie and capitalist conservatives, including Christianity, could be defeated by revolutionary socialism…It’s all part of an escape from reality.”
The Norwegian scene couldn’t follow the U.S. simply because Norway was never as fully integrated into the confrontational West versus East face-off. Socialism was a well-represented presence and a successful component of the governing mix within Norwegian politics bringing with it the kinds of policies that the U.S. alternative scene was then busy trying to articulate. The Black Metal scene was forced into a different reaction of similar extremity to the Nirvana effect. A core of individuals substituted a new overarching narrative and competition, one pitching Nordic (white) paganism against other races which were deemed to be diluting strong blood and simultaneously against Christianity on the basis that it had feminised national cultures, another reason why the scene was also homophobic, a further effeminate weakening influence.
Of course it was nonsense, but no more nonsensical than Ted Nugent, AC/DC or the trappings of cock rock that had achieved two decades of dominance in the U.S. It took the world to change for the rock star to die whether in Nirvana’s rain of sardonic laughter (“hi Axl! Hi Axl!”) or Norway’s reign of blood and fire.