Archive for the ‘Trends – Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative’ Category

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jul/04/sub-pop-25-years-underground-rock

Quite a decent essay over at The Guardian detailing the ongoing history of Sub Pop. Rather like it for paying more attention to the post-Nirvana era and what happened next given how much work has been lavished on the pre-1990 history of Sub Pop’s first flourishing.

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One of the tragic findings of market research firms and sociologists is that when enough people are lined up under an overall guidance, personality makes surprisingly little difference. Individual morality and beliefs fade, not because the group imposes will on the individual, but because the individual and the group work together to find the point of agreement at which they can coexist while the central decision of the group remains unchanged. It’s simply a case that there are significant boundaries to how exceptional an individual can be – on multiple levels the choices available are constrained by social norms, educational structures, physical requirements, the need to exchange/interact. We’re only exceptional by comparison to a norm, the depth of our exceptionalism relies on what the norm is and can stretch to. It’s why a modern western society can be so accepting of a diversity of life choices and still pull toward an imaginary centre, even without laws mandating a set social reality, and simultaneously why most “alternative lifestyles” aren’t more than a few steps from the norm, they’re expressions of an accepted consensus. That doesn’t mean individuals disappear, it just means the overall significance of individuals fades within wider moments.

That’s where the purveyors of the idea of an ‘alternative nation’ and Kurt Cobain, with his oft-expressed annoyance at the nature of his audiences, both proved tragically deceived. What they were, in fact, doing was observing an overall cultural moment then trying to claim that the music should mean the audience was a specific and unified phenomenon. This meant attempting to place a box round an amorphous and ill-defined component of the whole of late Eighties-early Nineties youth then painting music over the top of them as if music was so clearly decisive in defining social values. Too much energy was invested in setting up an imaginary conflict between those listening to heavy metal, who as a consequence were supposedly macho and sexist; versus those who listened to the next fashion trend in music who were apparently purveyors of enlightenment. Essentially distinguishing aspects of the front-men, characteristics of the band identities, were observed and then assigned uncritically to the audience as if one was a standardised reflection of the other. It produced a simplistic vision in which you, individual music consumer, were not simply listening to Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain, you were a mere blank template on which the media-distorted and accentuated aspects of their personas were projected.

As an aside, the false nature of the ‘alternative nation’ hypothesis set up a moment in which Axl Rose, as a huge fan of Nirvana’s music and of up-and-coming currents of alternative music such as industrial, was fundamentally precisely the alternative consumer being tagged as the ‘alternative nation’ at the same time as being held up as the pantomime villain the ‘alternative nation’ was attempting to topple. The ‘alternative nation’ was a ragged tarpaulin hung over a very broad tent of people and saying nothing about those within its confines. Instead of seeing the gap with reality and then reacting by halting the lazy attempt to read the characteristics of the audience from the item hung over their heads, the challenge was resolved by an appeal to invisible enemies; the claim that some parts of the audience were illegitimate, unworthy, untrue. Of course, as usual with these kinds of witch-hunts, no one actually believed that they could possibly be the person being targeted. It would have been a lot more true to simply recognise that whatever comments could be made about the actions and beliefs of Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, those actions and beliefs belonged to those individuals and were true or untrue of most of either audience because those two individuals were inherently just part of the generation making up the audience rather than superior to it.

The idea of an ‘alternative nation’ fundamentally undervalued the audiences. The bands tagged as the representative voices of a new generation didn’t arise and then create the audience; those bands arose because that audience was already in existence – the fact it took the means of music production, distribution and promotion time to recognise that there was a music consuming audience, with liberal social values, that would be interested in listening to something more than Genesis, is the crux of the issue. The audience itself was already there and consisted, like any audience, of those who can critically listen and distinguish between fact and fiction and who do think about the perspectives the bands are relaying; plus those who critically listen but primarily to the music rather than the lyrical philosophies and intent; plus those who could give a darn either way. The idea of ‘alternative nation’ was essentially an elitist view in which the masses slavishly follow the ‘great men of history’ and therefore are defined as a single bloc, with a single intent – rather than a temporary accretion of a range of individuals with a range of reasons for listening. It suggested that you, as a member of that audience, regardless of whether you were in a music venue or listening in a public or private location, were indistinguishable from someone in a completely different location.

To reemphasise, it relied on overrating the unified nature of music audiences; a few thousand people in a room pledged to deliver a particular social/political change is a movement, a few thousand people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night and a desire to pump fist/head is just a crowd. Consequently, whether that audience listened to Guns n’ Roses or to Nirvana was a foolish distinction to make; the audience listening to either band didn’t base their views on gender, race or sexual orientation wholesale on the politics of the band they were observing.

The belief that there was ever one single audience for grunge, or more specifically for the music of Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains et al., and that it wasn’t, at least from 1991 onward, primarily a mainstream rock audience, relied on an overestimation of the difference between rock music and this particular sub-category. The music had fed – just as Guns n’ Roses, Poison, Whitesnake did – on Led Zeppelin, on the Beatles, on Black Sabbath, on punk and emerged with a different sound but a vast range of shared characteristics that made them close brethren. If you wanted to state that those specifically pledged to the K Records DIY scene, or those ascribing to Riot Grrl principles, or who were living within one of the small local scenes of any music subgenre that defined itself not by sound but by a particular methodology or philosophy, therefore derived actions or behaviour or opinions from the music – you’d have a case. But within the melting pot of the mainstream, a non-‘scene’ with no core pledge or commitment, trying to distinguish the fans was ridiculous…

…Except it did serve a purpose. Kurt Cobain felt at times he had been rejected and spurned as a sell-out by those who remained in the K Records circle; to what extent this was true versus being representative of his own inner conflicts is hard to say but I’ve yet to see any comments attributed to any of the key figures in the underground scene doing anything other than celebrating Nirvana. From mid-1992 Nirvana’s sound was refocused, attempting to push away from the mainstream tone into which the band had dived. In the background, launching attacks on both Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam simultaneously set up a distinction between a supposed ‘past’ generation, represented by Guns n’ Roses who were busy selling seven million of each volume of Use Your Illusion at precisely the same time Nirvana was declaring them irrelevant, and a ‘false’ generation of fans who preferred Pearl Jam and therefore weren’t real fans. The fact that Nevermind (and In Utero) were selling to precisely the same hard rock audience as Use Your Illusion I and II or Ten or Vs was the background reality; the fact that listening to a record isn’t the same as endorsing all its views was reality; the fact that Kurt Cobain despised the sexist, homophobic, racist and macho element of his audience; none of these made the existence of a cohesive or coherent ‘alternative nation’ a reality.

It also makes explicit how silly it is to accept ‘music journalist reality’. That’s not meant to be derogatory, each group of commentators in society formulates a vision of life in which their particular priority is at the centre whether that places economic uber alles, or politics, etc. Kurt Cobain himself was someone for whom music was of vast importance and who explicitly seemed to define friend or foe through their musical choices and tastes. The result was he was extremely open to a vision of the world in which the young were not individual personalities with a vast range of drivers, motivations, views and visions but could instead be defined according to their music tastes.

Instead, that idea rests in the realms of utopia, like the Leninist idea that a bourgeois vanguard could spark the ‘natural proletariat’ to rise up and take over the revolution; or that anyone and everyone will become an entrepreneur if they’re simply encouraged by changes to the tax system; or that creating a monotone nation with a unifying strand of race, religion or creed will miraculously remove all social tension. Kurt Cobain’s demand in the original liner notes for fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” was always a hopeless request for people to deselect themselves and felt more like a sop to the conscience of the writer than a genuine avenue of progress. The myth of the ‘alternative nation’, unlocatable, hidden, impossible to distinguish from simply ‘the young’ laid a heavy burden on Kurt’s shoulders at the same time as fuelling a good many playground battles but it was always destined for disappointment as reality warmed the Earth and the idea evaporated.

Over this past week of holiday the crucial theme has been electricide; I’ve set fire to the toaster twice, I made an attempt to burn out the blender while squeezing oranges (which is how I annihilated my parents last one too), today I yanked the wiring out of an extension cable. As an aside, my mum was bemused that rather than rescuing her toast I simply poured the whole lot out onto the terrace balcony upstairs; she was even more amused when I swept up the crumbs and burnt toast dust and proceeded to dump the entire mound of debris off the top balcony and instead of hitting the flower beds I deluged my parent’s bedroom balcony instead. Brilliant. So, please offer kind thoughts and prayers to my dear (and long-suffering) parents and if this laptop blows part way through this communiqué don’t be surpri

In 1989 a lady called Lisa Orth was engaged by Nirvana’s label, Sub Pop, to do the graphic design work for the cover of the album Bleach. Reasonably enough not wishing to pump excessive work into an unknown band, on a nowhere label that apparently still owed her money for previous work, she paid a typesetter, Grant Alden, the princely sum of $15 U.S. dollars and he, in turn, whacked out the band’s name in a font known as Onyx, a proprietary font installed on his Compugraphic typesetter. I’ve not noted any great commentary on the band’s own feelings about the font but, to be fair, it’s the one they used for Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero; for the Blew EP and the Hormoaning EP; all singles on Geffen plus the Oh the Guilt single. The only exceptions are the Love Buzz/Big Cheese single released prior to Bleach; the split single with The Fluid released on Sub Pop as Nirvana were leaving the label; the Here She Comes Now split single with the Melvins released on another label and the Incesticide compilation. More fool me spending a whole book (Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide) arguing the unity of Incesticide with Nirvana’s catalogue when the font on the front declares that the compilation is something different!

Anyways, the logo has become part of the band’s identity. A brand is something beyond who someone is or what someone is. My comrades more deeply involved in branding work will be able to supply far more sophisticated definitions of the purpose, function and definition of a brand so in advance I’ll admit I’m just making an argument here not a technical dissertation. Leaving to one side the infinitely irksome ownership of the brand concept by the world of business and it’s vomitorious and nausea-invoking bleed into other areas of human life (“be your own brand!” “Think about your personal brand!” Please hit anyone who ascribes to these views…) there’s something here that seems very simple at root. A brand is a rapid-fire statement of identity that goes beyond a recognised visual symbol to link the mind of the onlooker, in an instant, to a list of associated individuals or products and, in turn to that amorphous but no less real set of values, declared moral allegiances and/or deeper purposes that the company, or object, or band attach themselves. It’s a mental shortcut.

The element that most organisations are seeking to establish, when they speak of their brand, is a positive shortcut. On a daily basis an individual is beset by thousands of barely noted collisions with products, or people, or companies – the brain is sifting data in vast quantities and deciding what to look at, what to choice, what to ignore, or even just filing away the items that would be competing if a decision did have to be made at some point versus those items that wouldn’t even compete hypothetically. Yes, decisions are complex involving personality, quality, price (whether monetary or via some other means such as time and effort), loyalty, group opinion as well as recognition – but the brand is an attempt to cut through those factors and often it succeeds in being associated in a human mind with certain qualities, with a dependable outcome, with a particularly desirable level of result.

Doing precisely what I criticised earlier in this piece (that bit about nausea…) certain reports now state that evolutionary markers used to try and ensure maximum breeding potential (http://www.economist.com/node/4455484) are now, in humans, being transferred to brands. With a vast number of potential mates to choose from individuals use pointers provided by the presence of a brand as a first-sight shorthand way of indicating the qualities, values, class, status and power of a potential partner. Thank God, for most of us, then that it’s an infinitely more complex process with other psychological and physical factors coming into play but still, the adoption, by an individual, of a trusted symbol, can provide a message to an onlooker.

Looking past the well-known logo of Nirvana, past the smiley face symbol that apocryphal tales state was based on the logo of a strip club in Seattle. Nirvana benefitted from a variety of personal indicators of quality. Firstly, it was Jack Endino’s recognition of Dale Crover’s name that led him to accept a studio booking from a young band he’d never heard of until then. Dale Crover, as drummer in the Melvins, had built up credibility that Nirvana benefitted from. Jack Endino’s personal credibility in Seattle music circles meant Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop were willing to have a look at this band at a time when Nirvana’s recorded music alone was getting tossed in the trash at indie labels across the U.S. In both cases, it wasn’t the music that opened the door. At a later stage, the move to DGC was greased by the way label executives respected the taste and recommendations of Sonic Youth’s power-couple, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; again, the personal connection brought Nirvana their new home.

The Sub Pop label itself was a hive of brand-orientated thinking:
http://www.fastcocreate.com/1681976/punk-rock-branding-how-bruce-pavitt-built-sub-pop-in-an-anti-corporate-nirvana#1
Everything from the Singles Club idea, the use of Reciprocal Recordings as the ‘house studio’ in the early days, the commissioning of photography from Charles Peterson with a very specific style and look, the Sub Pop Sunday shows, the Lamefest events in U.S. and U.K., the decision to lure journalist Everett True over to create a buzz in the British media – the entire label was built around the idea that they had the music, that their product was good, but what would elevate them above the hundred other indie labels with decent bands was how they staged events and managed appearances.

One of the tragic findings of market research firms and sociologists is that when enough people are lined up under an overall guidance, personality makes surprisingly little difference. Individual morality and beliefs fade, not because the group imposes will on the individual, but because the individual and the group work together to find the point of agreement at which they can coexist while the central decision of the group remains unchanged. It’s simply a case that there are significant boundaries to how exceptional an individual can be – on multiple levels the choices available are constrained by social norms, educational structures, physical requirements, the need to exchange/interact. We’re only exceptional by comparison to a norm, the depth of our exceptionalism relies on what the norm is and can stretch to. It’s why a modern western society can be so accepting of a diversity of life choices and still pull toward an imaginary centre, even without laws mandating a set social reality, and simultaneously why most “alternative lifestyles” aren’t more than a few steps from the norm, they’re expressions of an accepted consensus. That doesn’t mean individuals disappear, it just means the overall movement continues regardless.

That’s where the purveyors of the idea of an ‘alternative nation’ and Kurt Cobain, with his oft-expressed annoyance at the nature of his audiences, both proved tragically deceived. What they were, in fact, doing was observing an overall cultural moment then trying to claim that the music should mean the audience was a specific and unified phenomenon. This meant attempting to place a box round an amorphous and ill-defined component of the whole of late Eighties-early Nineties youth then painting music over the top of them as if music was so clearly decisive in defining social values. Too much energy was invested in setting up an imaginary conflict between those listening to heavy metal, who as a consequence were supposedly macho and sexist; versus those who listened to the next fashion trend in music who were apparently purveyors of enlightenment. Essentially distinguishing aspects of the front-men, characteristics of the band identities, were observed and then assigned uncritically to the audience as if one was a simple reflection of the other. It produced a simplistic vision in which you, individual music consumer, were not simply listening to Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain, you were merely a blank template through which the media-distorted and accentuated aspects of their personas were projected.

As an aside, the false nature of the ‘alternative nation’ hypothesis set up a moment in which Axl Rose, as a huge fan of Nirvana’s music and of up-and-coming currents of alternative music such as industrial, was fundamentally precisely the alternative consumer being tagged as the ‘alternative nation’ at the same time as being held up as the pantomime villain the ‘alternative nation’ was attempting to topple. The ‘alternative nation’ was a ragged tarpaulin hung over a very broad tent of people and saying nothing about those within its confines. Instead of seeing the gap with reality and then reacting by halting the lazy attempt to read the characteristics of the audience from the item hung over their heads, the challenge was resolved by an appeal to invisible enemies; the claim that some parts of the audience were illegitimate, unworthy, untrue. Of course, as usual with these kinds of witch-hunts, no one actually believed that they could possibly be the person being targeted. It would have been a lot more true to simply recognise that whatever comments could be made about the actions and beliefs of Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, those actions and beliefs belonged to those individuals and were true or untrue of most of either audience because those two individuals were inherently just part of the generation making up the audience rather than superior to it.

The idea of an ‘alternative nation’ fundamentally undervalued the audiences. The bands tagged as the representative voices of a new generation didn’t arise and then create the audience; those bands arose because that audience was already in existence – the fact it took the means of music production, distribution and promotion time to recognise that there was a music consuming audience, with liberal social values, that would be interested in listening to something more than Genesis, is the crux of the issue. The audience itself was already there and consisted, like any audience, of those who can critically listen and distinguish between fact and fiction and who do think about the perspectives the bands are relaying; plus those who critically listen but primarily to the music rather than the lyrical philosophies and intent; plus those who could give a darn either way. The idea of ‘alternative nation’ was essentially an elitist view in which the masses slavishly follow the ‘great men of history’ and therefore are defined as a single bloc, with a single intent – rather than a temporary accretion of range of individuals with a range of reasons for listening. It suggested that you, as a member of that audience, regardless of whether you were in a music venue or listening in a public or private location, were indistinguishable from someone in a completely different location.

To reemphasise, it relied on overrating the unified nature of music audiences; a few thousand people in a room pledged to deliver a particular social/political change is a movement, a few thousand people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night and a desire to pump fist/head is just a crowd. Consequently, whether that audience listened to Guns n’ Roses or to Nirvana was a foolish distinction to make; the audience listening to either band didn’t base their views on gender, race or sexual orientation wholesale on the politics of the band they were observing.

The belief that there was ever one single audience for grunge, or more specifically for the music of Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains et al., and that it wasn’t, at least from 1991 onward, primarily a mainstream rock audience, relied on an overestimation of the difference between rock music and this particular sub-category. The music had fed – just as Guns n’ Roses, Poison, Whitesnake did – on Led Zeppelin, on the Beatles, on Black Sabbath, on punk and emerged with a different sound but a vast range of shared characteristics that made them close brethren. If you wanted to state that those specifically pledged to the K Records DIY scene, or those ascribing to Riot Grrl, or a living within one of the small local scenes of any music subgenre that defined itself not be sound but by a particular methodology or philosophy, therefore derived actions or behaviour or opinions from the music – you’d have a case. But within the melting pot of the mainstream, a non-‘scene’ with no core pledge or commitment, trying to distinguish the fans was ridiculous…

…Except it did serve a purpose. Kurt Cobain felt at times he had been rejected and spurned as a sell-out by those who remained in the K Records circle; to what extent this was true versus being representative of his own inner conflicts is hard to say but I’ve yet to see any comments attributed to any of the key figures in the underground scene doing anything other than celebrating Nirvana. From mid-1992 Nirvana’s sound was refocused, attempting to push away from the mainstream tone into which the band had dived. In the background, launching attacks on both Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam simultaneously set up a distinction between a supposed ‘past’ generation, represented by Guns n’ Roses who were busy selling seven million of each volume of Use Your Illusion at precisely the same time Nirvana was declaring them irrelevant, and a ‘false’ generation of fans who preferred Pearl Jam and therefore weren’t real fans. The fact that Nevermind (and In Utero) were selling to precisely the same hard rock audience as Use Your Illusion I and II or Ten or Vs was the background reality; the fact that listening to a record isn’t the same as endorsing all its views was reality; the fact that Kurt Cobain despised the sexist, homophobic, racist and macho element of his audience; none of these made the existence of a cohesive or coherent ‘alternative nation’ a reality.

Instead, that idea rests in the realms of utopia, like the Leninist idea that a bourgeois vanguard could spark the ‘natural proletariat’ to rise up and take over the revolution; or that anyone and everyone will become an entrepreneur if they’re simply encouraged by changes to the tax system; or that creating a monotone nation with a unifying strand of race, religion or creed will miraculously remove all social tension. Kurt Cobain’s demand in the original liner notes for fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” was always a hopeless request for people to deselect themselves and felt more like a sop to the conscience of the writer than a genuine avenue of progress. The myth of the ‘alternative nation’, unlocatable, hidden, impossible to distinguish from simply ‘the young’ laid a heavy burden on Kurt’s shoulders at the same time as fuelling a good many playground battles but it was always destined for disappointment as reality warmed the Earth and the idea evaporated.

Grunge, as a coherent scene, peaked in the late Eighties and was long gone by the time Nevermind put the word into popular parlance. Most grunge bands barely sold, only the crossovers who had either left grunge behind or barely connected to it in the first place, so basically Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam made it out. Even by 1991, Nirvana’s name was tied to a ghost and they have remained, in the popular view, the key exemplar of something that was already dead. It’s extraordinary in fact that such a minor scene should receive coverage at all.

The survivability of grunge as a form recognised and acknowledged in popular musical history was based on two, separate, but connected, events. The first was the power of the British music press and Sub Pop’s work in cracking open coverage thousands of kilometres away from the epicentre of the scene. With the best will in the world, alas, it’s reportage and repetition that creates perceived importance — in 1989-1990 the world was primed and waiting for something to come out of the Seattle scene thanks to the hammering of the topic by the music press. The second factor, the one that elevated grunge to a hallowed status, was its perceived role as the incubator for the band that breached the alternative/mainstream divide; Nirvana.

The two elements, grunge and Nirvana, are so intertwined that amidst the flurry of books on grunge that emerged between 2007-2011, virtually all featured Kurt Cobain on the cover. On Facebook there’s a similar sampling of the popular mind; dozens of memorial sites to grunge, hundreds to Nirvana, hundreds more to Kurt Cobain — the grunge sites are barely distinguishable from the Nirvana/Kurt Cobain tributes. Without Nirvana’s success pushing the origin myth of their emergence from grunge, without Nirvana’s success forcing the word grunge into every account of punk, alternative, rock, metal and post-1980 guitar music, grunge wouldn’t be mentioned as a scene anymore than a dozen other localised punk scenes of the 1980s. It’s similar to the way No-Wave has achieved some underground recognition on the back of the stature of Sonic Youth, Swans and, for a time, Lydia Lunch — a scene barely bigger than four bands is now a regular fixture in accounts of music.

The ‘icon’ mantle Kurt Cobain inherited has been hung over grunge also. The fact that grunge had disintegrated long before Nevermind made it out is barely registered; the arm’s length relationship between Nirvana and the grunge scene is only commented on among fanatics; the names and stories of the true grunge bands (Green River, Melvins, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, Mudhoney) something for music trivia fetishists. The immortal bonding between Kurt Cobain and grunge has created a mourning of the grunge scene. The difference was that while grunge was a very local, barely registering scene, Nirvana had a chance to connect in some way with the huge audiences who still exist for them whether on record or on MTV or as live event. Fans have been smothered ever since in memorabilia whether aural, literary, visual or tactile (*shudder* Kurt Cobain action figures…) The ‘big bang’ of Kurt Cobain’s suicide also created an emotional trauma of vast scale for fans setting a standard of significance that makes it impossible for another band to match.

Grunge, by contrast, melted away without any such mass audience, without MTV coverage, with records sold in such low amounts that Sub Pop was going to go bust before the Nirvana money flowed in; there was no mass connection. Grunge has gained its significance purely as a synonym for Nirvana. This means the harking back to a supposed golden age in Seattle is such an unusual mental phenomenon; it’s a desire to return to something that very few people saw, or heard, or had any part in — it’s completely divorced from any personal connection.

The amorphous identity of grunge also assists its assimilation into the music-based world views of fans the world over. It’s become a cliché of the Sixties generation to claim that you had to ‘be there’, a way of keeping out newcomers and preserving a sense of exclusivity around a set archetype to which followers must adhere despite lip-service to anti-authoritarianism; the result is that very few people hark back to the hippy era or ethos, few mimic or enthuse about it. The original wave of punk had a similarly strict mission statement and presentation, again, the rigidity of the identity created a limited life-span and shelf-life. Grunge, by contrast, had no vision for life, no projected purpose behind it. The result is that it can be used to cover a wide span of lifestyles and attitudes — it’s an appealingly broad church in which anyone can find what they wish. The pretence was that this fuzziness meant that Generation X had no commitment to anything at all, but that’s untrue. It was a generation that permitted individuals their own choice of ambition without imposing or demanding a single unified identity of its adherents.

The appeal of the grunge era only exists as a comparison, a longing for fresh possibilities that most of those who wish they had been there can never confirm even existed. The idea of the alternative nation, in reality little different from the pre or post-generations, appeals in the same way that the hippy or punk did — as something to hark back to when seeking something to put in opposition to whatever exists in the present day — without the weakness caused by a too uniform and defined presentation.

In actual fact, while the participants in the original scene wax lyrical about how enjoyable it was for them, the sense of open possibility and no responsibilities unburdened fun; it’s those components — youth in other words — not the scene itself that is being memorialised. Grunge consisted of extremely poor people, playing to limited appreciation, with limited futures visible, increasingly saturated with drug casualties and with a time-limit after which the usual college or steady job paths beckoned. What those people are eulogising and memorialising is the wild years of their youth when they didn’t know what they were doing perhaps but it felt good just doing it. What the fans of grunge are enthralled and inspired by is a wish that they had experienced their own mad years, or a wish that they could recapture that same directionless but ecstatic freedom.

Grunge, Seattle, the North-West scene…It’s so perfect because it’s no more real than the British tabloid vision of a mythical England of cricket, warm beer, social deferment, local employment, temperance — a world also, quietly, devoid of immigration, in which the working classes are invisible, where women keep their traps shut, where discomfort is locked away. It’s a different form of the golden era myth, the comforting kneejerk belief that “things were better” once upon a time whereas appreciating the beauties of the here-and-now, the conquered travesties of the past, or working/fighting to make this present era closer to what one wishes for — it’s all too much work. Easier to claim the fight is lost than to go for it.

Presence and absence are permanently intertwined. The appearance or discovery of a new shred of unheard Nirvana music, or a new piece of information, doesn’t salve the absence or make it go away, it emphasizes it — reminds one of the gap where something once lived. Grunge has a similar ghostly quality; it was absent long before 1991 but resurrected as, first, a genre label and explanation for Nirvana; secondly, as a tombstone for rock music or for the Eighties underground; thirdly, and presently, as a vision of dead desire, something that can’t be attained and therefore seems more appealing than what we actively possess.

This might seem an unusual topic but it does have a tangential relevance to Nirvana. Essentially music is motivated not just by twists in the tide of taste, nor only by specific outpourings of creativity, but by shifts in technology and economics. Examining music one hundred and fifty years ago, reproduction was purely via live performance meaning monetisation of music was channelled via the same route though printed scores and sheet music indeed turned a profit. The introduction of the means of recording and playing back music ushered in the modern age in two ways; firstly, the advance in technology created a different (and desirable) experience, secondly, it made music a different (and even more desirable) business opportunity. Instead of being bound by the limited capacity of a venue and by often, and where, an artist was willing to perform, the duplication and subsequent sale of a performance was a product limited by availability of raw materials, the outlets through which the product could be sold and the willingness of the public to pay. The move to digital in recent years has reduced (not eliminated) the importance of raw materials while expanding the accessibility of retail outlets, but also reduced the willingness of the public to pay — paying for a performance or paying for the recording medium possessed a tangible value beyond the music that digital reproduction doesn’t match.

Reproduction of classical performances, the sophisticated music of the elites, disguised and obscured the importance of self-taught musicians, amateur home performance or semi-professional/professional public performers in dancehalls, drinking establishments, street corners…Heck, Louis Armstrong started out in a brothel. Over the past hundred years the cost of recording music and reproducing it has declined significantly; its required significantly less complex equipment and manufacturing capacity; think of the shift from wax cylinder, to shellac, to vinyl, to eight tracks, cassettes and CDs — eight tracks were potentially a superior medium to cassettes in terms of lifespan and sound quality but they cost more and were less adaptable; eight tracks died, same as mini-discs which offered just as few advantages over a CD. This push has allowed more and more recordings of more and more artists, a vast democratisation. The simultaneous development allowing the capturing of performances in ever higher quality using ever less bulky and expensive equipment has run alongside the change in the recording medium.

Anyways, the previous paragraphs are almost a side-issue. At the core, music relies on the deliberate performance and labelling of sound. Two developments have taken place, one fairly linear, the other non-linear. Starting with the former, the cost of instruments declined as enterprising individuals found ways to manufacturer more of them at less cost. Trumpets, saxophones, drums, double-bass — these were dominant instruments for 30-40 years, essentially the jazz era’s peak was as long as that of rock and roll. The drive was still toward more, cheaper, easier; the guitar won out. In essence a guitar is a fairly simple instrument to get a tune from, to manipulate, easily electrified, readily replaceable, robust.

The other development has been generally a move toward smaller groupings of musicians. Remember the giant orchestras being the most respected form in classical music, then moving down to the big band era of swing jazz, then the standard guitar-led unit generally of three to five individuals. Solo artists have, of course, been woven in and out of that pattern.

Here’s the dilemma. Even in a stripped down format like a three piece rock band, there are still costs imposed by the format. These costs range from the transportation of equipment — the drum kit was possibly the most stable element of line-ups across the past hundred years — to the transportation of musicians, to the delays caused by health and personal matters increasing simply by the reality of dealing with three instead of one; it all adds up. When it comes to music as a business, the desire is to sell product; a group scenario requires the inspiration of three people to come together in a social musical setting — it doesn’t always happen and it does take time to create good group music, each element has to gel and there’s deeper criticism and disagreement with the positives and negatives that brings.

Hip hop was the obvious successor to rock because it chimed most fundamentally with the technological and the business trends of the past one hundred years. At its origins it featured the most simplistic instrumental set-up available; a record deck, drum machine and vocal. The equipment is low maintenance so long as it’s looked after, there’s no lengthy training required to create at least a basic arrangement. While synthesisers created new sounds, they also tried to mimic and reproduce old ones; drum machines developed similarly — in each case the desire with the technology was to package, as simply as possible, as many sounds and instruments and capabilities as possible. Suddenly the instrumental set-up didn’t rely on multiple people or coordination; the equipment existed to create without others. The guitar was already a compact robust instrument, the only place to go next was to merge many instruments into a single unit — a convergence made possible via technology. The move to computers has pushed this even further, ever more convenience at lowest cost required to produce the broadest range of sounds alongside other functions. For a commercial business this is a boon; ever more people able to do ever more things without being reliant on other people doing things — more product, more product.

Guitar music had already been following similar trajectories in terms of sound; the percussive qualities of the guitar won out over the variety offered by wind instruments, electrification deepened the sound that could be created, rhythm became the dominant element within music — guitar music moved ever more in tune with dance music. Hip hop took the trend to its logical conclusion but it wasn’t a vast step in terms of emphasis. The vocal performance mimicked that motion too; while usually far more densely worded, hip hop has a highly simplified mode of expression — this isn’t a criticism — far closer to spoken word, far more within the reach of the masses, reliant simply on a basic grasp of rhythm. Again, more people can master it, quicker, meaning there’s a deeper pool of talent from which to select — it’s a perfect commercial move.

The same motion occurred in terms of content too. Hip hop devolved into hash-tag rap in which entire songs are made up of thoughts lasting no longer than a line, an entire verse, let alone an entire song on a single theme or idea is increasingly hard to come by in the mainstream. The soul of pop music has always been about finding new ways of stating universals, hip hop is nothing but universal statements around a reduced set of topics — a trend accelerated by Southern hip hop and trap-rap in recent years. Again, it’s an efficiency measure within the means of production; it’s easier to write a lot of rhyming couplets that can be pieced together than a whole song, it’s easier to write variations on (a) sexual boasting (b) insults (c) financial/material boasting (d) brand names (e) empowerment slogans (f) realness (g) death wish — all highly sellable across demographics — than to weave an entire song as coherent (if not intelligent) as Lil Wayne’s Georgia Bush.

In the Eighties hip hop groups were a dominant force — Run-DMC, NWA, Public Enemy and so forth — while solo stars existed, a lot of attention still focused on the idea of a group. But, as the elements within a group like Public Enemy do not have such a high degree of synchronicity, unlike a guitar-drums-bass-vocals live rock band set-up, the music is more tolerant of error and the different individuals can be separated. That’s been the trend in hip hop, and in a very short space of time. The nineties saw the heyday of record label based identities — Death Row Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, No Limits — under which multiple artists shared a ‘stable’ of producers meaning that, so long as people were writing, the quantity of product that could be created was vast. It was an updating of the pop model developed by Motown or Phil Spektor in the Sixties and as a concept it still worked perfectly. Sub Pop had a similar ‘stable’ concept; shared tours, shared studio and producer, shared visual aesthetic — it worked for grunge same as it did for Motown or for gangsta rap.

The recording technology also meant that collaborations were simpler to arrange, the discreet elements could be brought together without the individuals involved needing to be there at the same time. This still meant there was a certain creativity co-dependency between those artists on the label though which could interrupt the flow of product to market. If a producer dropped out, relationships with colleagues collapsed, personal problems prevented an individual from performing, those around them on the label had to either do more work to continue to pump out manufactured articles, or the label simply released less, or had to rely more on archive material that was behind the cutting edge.

The result was readily found as the competition created by the mass availability of synthesisers and drum machines made reliance on an in-house provider of music unnecessary. As you no longer needed a group, you could retain the identity, shared credibility, shared audiences, resulting from some kind of united presence (Brick Squad, Young Money, Def Jux) without any artist on the label or within the scene being dependent on another. The price of producing music was now so low, the number of producers so high, that it was now relatively simple for artists to buy one another’s product — whether musical or vocal. The business change has been helped by the reality of a musical form that has become so reduced that, so long as there’s a beat, any artist can rap over a piece, or any producer can lay a song under a vocal; the elements share only the rhythmic component and that limitation increases the ease of reproduction.

The other piece that the new model provides is that the reduced investment needed to launch an artist or producer also translates to a reduced loss on investment if that artist or producer fails or declines. By comparison to the endless flogging of aging rock stars, hip hop drops stars all the time — the business model had made individuals increasingly expendable. Again, just like mass production made the role of individual artisans less and less significant when it came to the creation of product, the arrival of the equivalent of mass production in music makes the identity and talent of the creator less relevant within it. That means fans can develop an allegiance to a particular individual, no problem, follow their work, but the overall market can keep moving, finding new buzzes, the ‘cult of the new’ rolls on with the next novelty arising and then the consolidation phase, genre tag, then on.

By the time of Nirvana’s rise, the background wasn’t so much the decline of rock as it was the rising dominance of hip hop artists. The success of Nirvana relied on their merging the last fresh outburst in rock, punk, with the already accepted modes of mainstream rock. This had to occur because the wild activity occurring in the increasingly sub-divided and stratified rock community meant that despite a lot of creativity going on, rock was losing the mass audience. Jazz did the same thing; the acceptable core of jazz became fossilised while the creativity, fresh, new ideas were hard to incorporate into the original mass conceptualisation of what jazz was. Hip hop, however, has the virtue that it can change its sound to keep up with technology in a way that music dependent on particular instrumental tones cannot. As the only core feature of hip hop is rhythm, everything else can be altered while remaining acceptable — rock and jazz were both fixated on a particular set-up of instruments and specific sounds in a way that this new music is not.

The ability of hip hop to change faster, to incorporate more elements without losing its identity or becoming ‘something else’; these give it a survivability lacking in rock. Rock musicians can only incorporate so many other musical genres before becoming that genre or having to accept a change to the instrumental line-up that pushes the guitar off centre stage and morphs the music into another genre. Hip hop doesn’t do that. Hip hop has changed repeatedly; it adapted quickly to the emergence of indigestible 70 minute CD length albums, it was able to merge with modern R n’B to create a hybrid more marketable across genders with the result that most essential hip hop artists are now also dance artists, pop artists, gangstas, romantics, all at once — the individuals have fragmented their identities to match market niches…Or they stay on the margins and let the mainstream play.

The mixtape was the next level, prior to electronic distribution; an opportunity to build an audience without being reliant on physical performance — again, a business advantage over a rock band. Hip hop increasingly doesn’t ‘live’ in a corporeal, real world, sense; it was built initially on manipulation of the medium of reproduction and increasingly lives only within the modern media outside of the smallest micro-communities. Hip hop as a mass market phenomenon is a music of files, recordings, webcasts, downloads, CD-Rs, vinyl with only token gestures in the live touring arena. While rock artists are ever more dependent on live touring (live shows are the rock mixtape) hip hop artists are ever more dependent on building and then maintaining a core audience with an endless sea of downloaded or on disc product, free or otherwise, so there’s never a gap in service, unlike the few years that could elapse between rock band forays.

Mixtapes don’t really work in the world of rock; firstly street-level music distribution isn’t an accepted channel (for a comparison mixtapes never really took off in the U.K., there isn’t a big enough audience to make standing on a street corner or at a market justifiable), secondly the effort required to create the music is too heavy (the combined effort of X people working simultaneously) to sustain substantial give-aways, thirdly the ability to drag in up-and-coming performers to fill space cheaply is much lower. A band with an archive as deep as Sonic Youth can run short mixtapes via their website but they’re reliant on old demos and old live performances — the creation of high quality output cheaply at high speed isn’t an option.

Hip hop was, therefore, the end result of a thinning of performance ensembles across a lengthy period of time; the result of a musical reductionism that led to rhythm becoming the dominant feature which allowed a musical form to evolve that floated free of any particular instrumental line-up, tone or timbre with a vocal style that similarly devolved down to rhythm uber alles; the result of technological evolutions that created instruments ever more cheaply then merged the number of potential ‘instruments’ available into smaller, portable converged tools; the result of good quality recording technology and manufacturing technology being ever easier to access meaning more people could create quicker; an economic model in which people understandably wanted to sell more cheaper and easier; a market in which tastes do change rapidly therefore a music form in which investments can be more readily deleted is desirable. The world’s first million selling music release was Enrico Caruso’s Vesti La Giubba in 1907. In the one hundred years since, we’ve come a long way.

Rap is essentially musical capitalism, an omnivorous force able to ingest whatever it touches, incorporate it and churn it back out in a marketable form for whichever audience demographic they wish to target with it. A lot of capitalists like to claim that capitalism is a representation of nature, a Darwinian force ruined only by the interventions of outside forces that prevent it working smoothly and create the conditions under which corruption and inefficiency occurs. I’d argue that being a human being means imposing self-analysis and self-will on the Darwinian animal component of a person — that what distinguishes us from animals is standing above the pure force of nature. That’s my main objection to untrammelled capitalism; the economic system should serve the vision we have, we should reduce our vision and bring it down and down until it aligns with base functioning. What makes us human, higher beings, is choice and striving to rise above. Don’t mistake nature for a moral good or righteousness.

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When Public Enemy were nominated last year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum they explained that the band had “brought a new level of conceptual sophistication to the hip-hop album, and a new level of intensity and power to live hip-hop, inspiring fans from Jay-Z to Rage Against the Machine to Kurt Cobain.”

Beyond the desire to name-drop a still iconic superstar, the reference does display the one real indication that Kurt Cobain acknowledged the world outside guitar-based music. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back featured on the list of Top 50 albums in his Journals as a sole representative from hip hop. It’s an easy album for non-hip-hop punk rock-orientated music lovers to like given the extreme sonics, the densely layered sound and the talented polemical vocals on display; it even earned Chuck D a Sonic Youth cameo. Cobain went so far as to state that “rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk rock,” which acknowledged its impact accurately, yet there was no cross-pollination — Nirvana’s music existed in a solidly guitar-based milieu with nothing bar that nod of respect.

On the other hand, however, acknowledgement of Kurt Cobain has become a relative commonplace within hip hop. Previous articles and online discussions have documented his presence within lyrics, in the past twelve months I’ve noted “you a broke N****, kill yo’self Kurt Cobain” from Waka Flocka Flame on Gucci Mane’s Trap God mixtape; Kayne West opting for “rocking flannels all summer like Kurt Cobain,” on the song White Dress (from The Man With the Iron Fists soundtrack); while The Game opted for “so strange had to blow they mind, Cobain” on the title track of Jesus Piece; the up-to-the-minute burst of “Kurt Cobain even died because you scrutinise” from A$AP Rocky song Phoenix released earlier this year. What’s immediately obvious is that these aren’t precisely highly inspiring lines. Hip hop’s level of engagement with Kurt Cobain hasn’t moved on at all since Eminem rapped “my favourite colour is red, like the blood shed from Kurt Cobain’s head” a full decade ago (Cum on Everybody.)

The references are far wider than the lyrics too; Tyler the Creator, almost tragically, displayed the deepest Cobain knowledge on display for referencing Kurt Cobain’s baiting of Rolling Stone. Tinie Tempah shows he’s taken his view of the world from PR-puff-piece reporting with the following January 2013 facile comments:
http://www.contactmusic.com/news/tinie-tempah-waiting-for-new-kurt-cobain_3437647

While Jaz-Z barely rose above that level in November 2012 with this snippet:
http://www.stereoboard.com/content/view/175763/9

The other week, in a comment on Nirvana-Legacy.com someone asked about the impact death has on the ‘love’ for a person; the presence of Kurt Cobain as a meme with hip hop is one of the consequences. No other figure from the world of rock music has even a fraction of this pull. His death, a cultural news event that was inescapable anywhere in the United States, was large enough to cross the musical boundary in a way that the mere success of a band like Guns n’ Roses, or the outrageousness of their frontman Axl Rose, was unable to. Timing is also crucial; John Lennon was the previous music world event of this weight but it took place before most of the hip hop stars of the past ten years were even born; this leaves Cobain as the reference.

Yet, despite having been allowed to penetrate the world of quips and quick studies that constitutes modern hip hop lyricism, it’s very clear that there’s no point taking seriously the depth of consideration given within any of the songs discussed here. There’s no piece of art here that has spent more than blinking time on their Cobain reference. What we’re witnessing is a consequence of the commercial nature of present hip hop which values the ability to pump out product at high-speed and therefore favours those able to slap together endless rhyming couplets over song-long (or frankly even verse-long) meditations on a topic. It’s not worth wasting emotion being worried about the depth of these song references when none of them constitute more than single bar of punch-line thought on any theme.

What we’re witnessing though does have interest. Firstly, we’re witnessing the impact of death on an individual. What occurs, and this is not a characteristic specific only to hip hop, is that they’re reduced to snapshots in a process of reduction and simplification. A non-musical example would be the way that Winston Churchill (at least in Britain) is barely more than a gruff-voiced metaphor for stubbornness and patriotism. An individual becomes a short-hand reference, a meme that everyone knows even if they know nothing else about the person being referenced. In the case of Kurt Cobain, the lyrics quoted summarise him as, primarily, suicide via a gunshot wound to the head. There are some that dredge up drug references, not even, necessarily, heroin. Kurt has simply become another all-purpose image, likely to die out inside of a decade as a generation for whom Kurt Cobain is distant past take the pop mantle, but serving, for the time, being as an easy rhyme and a quick way of saying blood and mess.

Slightly more disturbing is the way in which PR stories substitute for any contact with reality at all. Kayne West’s grunge-wear reference (*shudder*) doesn’t make it any deeper than a scan of glossy women’s magazines circa-1992-1993. The connection between Kurt Cobain and flannel is…A load of old flannel. What Kayne has absorbed is the sillier manifestations of the grunge explosion with Cobain having to wear all its results given he was held to be its figurehead. Similarly, Tinie Tempah’s, quite charming, desire for an individual to ignite and unite the world of music has absolutely no basis in reality. Cobain never ‘spoke for a generation’, he was never the voice of an identifiable and unified group, let alone for the full diversity of youth c1991-94. Again, the desire at the time to explain Nirvana’s rise by a reference to some brand-new social grouping, was an oversimplification used by the media and that has now been repeated so often that a man who was a mere nine years old at the time of Cobain’s death has totally absorbed it.

Jaz-Z’s curtailed history of hip hop’s rise in the early nineties has, initially, an appeal. Yet it too, ultimately, has no substance. He’s unable to equate a broad culture with anything other than chart success and PR-presence in the pop world. He can’t see that hip hop didn’t ‘pause’ in the slightest just because a few rock bands took a large share of a declining rock audience. A$AP Rocky, unusually given he’s the youngest of all the individuals mentioned, is at least closer to the truth with his one-liner implying that the loss of privacy was a factor in Kurt’s death.

I’d love to point to Kurt Cobain’s ‘realness’ — his absence of career-motivated fakery, his unwillingness to bow to the demands of PR — and make a link to hip hop’s fetishisation of that concept as a reason why he should be so acceptable to hip hop’s stars such as Lil Wayne. And certainly the musically omnivorous nature of hip hop means it’s no surprise a few of its denizens appreciate the music of Nirvana. But there’s not much depth to the connection, no more than there was when pop music went through its brief spell of ‘rock star’ catchphrase worship a few years back. It’s good Kurt Cobain meant something to them, but in terms of it translating into a genuinely imbuing of his anti-commercial spirit into the modern pop world…No. Hip hop, in its mainstream manifestations, increasingly speaks for a triumphant few who wish to parade their wealth; misogyny; aggressive self-centredness. While enjoying some of the music I often feel I’m the equivalent of people buying books by the CEOs who have just put them out of work just to learn the awe-inspiring truth that those bosses see themselves as unique individual successes based wholly on their own genius. Kurt Cobain never led the indulgent lifestyle of conspicuous consumption; never willingly exposed his whole life for PR benefit; ensured his political values (anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia) were declared loud n’ proud on multiple levels and never wrapped his arms around business.

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