It’s All (NOT) About the Music: Nirvana as Image

When chatting on in the pub I used to present the following theory; every successful musician exists only to write that one tune everyone agrees is a classic and they should give up there because they will write another song that everyone loves – no matter how many other good songs you write, no matter how long your career, there’ll be the one song that breaks into the popular imagination and then the moment is gone. That’s it, no more. That doesn’t mean that there an individual can’t like or even prefer other songs by that artist, but there’ll always be that one song everyone agrees is special and can compromise on.

As examples; Guns n’ Roses? Sweet Child of Mine. Nirvana? Smells Like Teen Spirit. Madonna? Like a Virgin. Queen? Bohemian Rhapsody. Pulp? Common People. Rolling Stones? Satisfaction. Aqua? Barbie Girl. Tchaikovsky? That one with the cannons.

Now, the best thing about saying something like that in the pub is that its always easy to identify a band’s peak moment – what’s harder to notice is I’m stating a self-fulfilling prophecy because what we’re discussing is not the quality of the music, nor the best representation of an artist’s aesthetic, nor their most personal, or meaningful work. All I’m stating is “everyone has one song that gains the greatest publicity and you can tell it’s ‘the one’ because all people know it or know of it.” Circular argument but good fun – the only band I’ve given up on trying this for is The Beatles.

Now, shifting direction, this article in The Economist points out that a lot of the judgement made on music, defining whether people think it’s a classic performance or not, comes not from the sounds created, not from the music, but from what wraps around the sounds. The article focuses just on one element, the movements an artist makes. The critical quotation is “what they seemed to be picking up on were gestures that they thought conveyed passion.” Music cannot be reduced down to sound and the impact and impression it makes comes from the human connection. A true artist is someone who can, like an actor, perform something over and over again and mimic endless emotion so that those watching can feel and share in some kind of internal response.

A comparison would be that, despite the existence of those ‘universal classics’, when we think of a band or a musician, what we would often describe if trying to explain the artist to someone else would be the image of the band, not the sounds they make. As an example, in the case of Nirvana, it was the goofing for the camera, the more active elements of their live performance (equipment smashing, guitar played lying on back, etc.), the persona of being a fun band. In the case of other artists its moments like The Who windmill action on the guitar, Hendrix setting it on fire, Johnny Rotten’s mad stare, Tupac’s middle digit…


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