Dreaming of Nirvana
It starts with a tapping black Chuck Taylor.
The scene is a high-school gym, shot in nostalgic sepia tones.
Kids sit on bleachers.
There are cheerleaders.
Right beneath the basketball hoop—the place of honor for athletes and visiting dignitaries—wobbles a dingy looking trio.
A few menacing power chords coming out of an amp that’s just slightly distorting.
The song is always slower than I remember—and that’s part of its pleasure: the singularity of the real.
You wait for something to happen, and it does. The drummer, all hair and arms and shins, beats out a savage pounding rhythm—snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick—while the high-school cheerleaders robotically pump and twirl their pom-poms in perfect mechanical time.
And then comes the roar.
Punk rock saved my life, I like to say, though it’s not really true, I suppose; but sometimes something comes along at a moment in your life when you feel like you’re desperate, or maybe dead, or maybe you’ve just been waiting for something to happen for what seems like a really long time, and then suddenly it does, something comes along and takes you by the hand and lets you know that you’re ok, it’s going to be ok, and it’s ok to be or feel whoever you are or whatever you feel: for me that was punk rock in seventh grade at a track meet when I first found the Sex Pistols.
In 2006 I discovered Youtube. I realize that might sound surprising in this digital age where everything—dating, reading, shopping, bullying, making friends, having sex—is mediated by a glowing screen; perhaps it’s stranger still that I’m a child of the nineties, iPad generation. But it’s true, I’m a late bloomer, and 2006, when I moved to Ithaca to start a graduate program in history at Cornell, was the first time since college that I had access to a fast internet connection; so, when I found myself burned out by academic reading and writing, I would navigate my way to Youtube and watch the music videos that I had missed as a teen.
Because I had grown up in the country—cable didn’t come up our road, and so I wasn’t raised on MTV like most of my peers. A college friend of mine credits the revolutionary 1986 video in which Run DMC and Aerosmith perform “Walk this Way” together with bringing down the Berlin Wall, but it wasn’t until grad school that I finally got to behold the thing for myself—and strange as it might seem, I can actually understand how that video showing somewhat over-the-hill hard-anthem-rockers and vitally fresh rappers happily collaborating, a sort of musical Détente, could have some sort of butterfly-wing-ripple-effect. Gimme a kiss, indeed.
But even us country kids couldn’t miss the digital revolution, and I did get to witness the explosion of the Internet: I remember clearly that fall day in 1995 when my family got its first computer and we all logged on for the first, fateful time. I remember the initial euphoria surrounding e-mail (no more stamps! It’s easy! And instant!) and instant messenger, (it’s more instant than e-mail! Easier, too!) cell phones (no more hassling with pay phones! instantly!) and, later iPods (massive amounts of low-quality mp3s easily available at your fingertips! instantly!), Facebook (stay in touch easily! instantly!), eBooks (no more cumbersome real books! Get instant access to thousand of titles, instantly!), on and on, a seemingly endless digitization and commodification of everything from writing to friendship. I’m of the age where I probably should be securely on this digital bandwagon, but I think it’s probably pretty clear that I’m not.
Nirvana was not a punk band, and they scared me, bad: songs with titles like “Rape Me”; lyrics that seemed like the very bleakness which punk promised to dispel; no, Nirvana was dangerous, not adventuresome dangerous, or vivacious dangerous, but deadly dangerous because they seemed to me to accept—though I’ve always loved their big song, the song of the 1990s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song you could not avoid because it blanketed the radio waves, the schools halls, the back of the bus; you could not miss the way that butchered power chords thundered their shaky way out of every room in which a kid sat with a guitar, hoping; hell, you couldn’t even miss it when you stepped out of the shower: Teen Spirit was one of the most popular deodorants in the early nineties, at least in my school, and I loved it.
You won’t hear it if your volume is anything but really, really loud, dirty-looks-from-your-neighbor-loud, but if you can crank it high enough, then you will hear it, unmistakably.
With the music like this, the on-screen action seems perfectly choreographed: measured shots from a horizontally moving camera of leaping verticality:
piston-like cheerleaders’ arms, the jackhammering drummer’s head, the flailing guitarist. Everyone—bass, drums, guitar—is playing the same rhythm, pounding it out as hard as they can, as if every instrument is percussive.
It’s glorious, ecstatic angst.
And then it goes soft.
This is the band’s signature sound: play really loud, and then really quiet, and then really loud.
Dynamically, in other words.
A minimalist guitar part, two notes, C and F, rings out, barely, above a guttural bass and gunshot snare.
It works, and as the lead singer/guitarist—scraggly, insecure, scared—sings into the camera, we’re drawn in.
A janitor, with mop and broom, a motif that will reappear throughout the video, makes his appearance, polishing his broom handle. Head banging.
The lyrics are bleak, a dull relentless blade in this quiet part, filled with desperation that fits well with the overexposed face of the washed out guitarist/singer.
But there’s movement: the tension twists tautly. The guitar coughs into its louder, hoarser voice, the lyrics repeat a desperate “Hello” (a question? a greeting?). The band is almost never shot as such—a band—but individually, the singer’s voice doubled over itself, Ramones-style, giving it a huge thickness unto its isolated itself.
The singer/guitarist jumps.
A wall of distortion thunders from the screen.
The kids in the stands, owners of all those Chuck Taylors, jump and leap and thrash.
The janitor rocks out.
Perhaps one of the key things American cultural historians will write about, one hundred years from now, is a Panglossian cultural attitude, one that rushes to embrace communication technologies that tend to render communication superficial, even as we paradoxically seem to have a desperate longing for real, substantive contact. Cell phones that are used to text because that way you don’t have to be burdened by conversation. Facebook so you don’t have to actually call your friends on your cell phone. Twitter for…I’m still not sure, but whatever it is it’s simple enough to be conveyed in 140 characters. One of the things that immediately, bitterly struck me when I came to Cornell was the phenomenon of the unhappily frowning student, walking around campus with his or her eyes glued to the phone held out in front, a talisman to ward off the unfamiliar, iPod EarPods stuffed into the ears, completely isolated from the here and now, desperately awaiting the promise of connection signaled by a vibrating plastic phone. Or walking into a classroom whose tomb-like silence is broken only by the clatter of many thumbs scuttling over the tiny text-sending keys of many cell phones. Isolation amidst a crowd. I love the promise of communication technology—who doesn’t want to have a tighter bond with their friends, their books, their music?—but I can’t avoid the melancholic conclusion that our deeply collective longing for real community has been cynically exploited, that our Orwellian devices mostly enhance our isolation.
Maybe in making communication easy (at least for those who can afford it) we’ve made it trivial.
I remember an early advertisement for the iPod showing dancing silhouettes, each person alone, in his, her own tiny box, barely big enough to contain the digitally-rendered human movements.
The thing that I loved about punk rock is that it let you know that you didn’t have to take it, and even if you didn’t know what you wanted there was always action: you could scream at the sky, and that was something that was yours that couldn’t be taken away—I heard something hopeful in punk, something full of life, a positive refusal that resonated deeply…but Nirvana was bleak: there was irony though it wasn’t funny or studied or knowing, not snide or snotty; it seemed to me to be utterly genuine not in its acceptance but in its hopelessness in the face of a culture fixated only on the commodity, on increasing consumption, on passive entertainment, the sound of no future in a minor key wheezed out by a singer who would kill himself at age 27.
The janitor in my school wore a Sex Pistols shirt.
My (not so) knee-jerk techno-crankiness gained some much-needed analytical legs when I recently cracked the covers of Jaron Lanier’s 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget; and I found especially thoughtful the way that he details a circle of simplification. Everything digital is a sampled simplification of the real. Digital culture gets played on simplified devices invented, marketed, and distributed by folks who celebrate quantity over quality (I can’t hear the difference between analog vinyl records and CDs. I can hear the difference between CDs and mp3s, even over my laptop. Mp3s are inferior, but they’re cheap and plentiful). This utopian faith in quantity has nicely enhanced an American cultural value of conspicuous consumption. Along the way, though, we’ve tacitly agreed to settle; we’ve come to, in Lanier’s words, an “apocalypse of abdication,” a classic sort of alienation where we divorce the best, most human parts of ourselves from ourselves—creativity, personality, intelligence—and cede them to our machines, leaving ourselves less-than-human.
Lanier is not the sort of crunchy green Luddite who we expect to make criticisms like these—he’s one of the founders and promoters of Virtual Reality. He’s worked for Microsoft and a whole host of Silicon Valley startups. He reveres the iPhone. But he’s also a humanist—he’s watched in dismay as people refer to themselves in computer-esque terms (think of the ways that verbs like “plug in,” “download,” “power down,” “network,” stud our speech. Or “to google”; or “to friend.”). At the same time we grant digital stuff, those vastly simplified renderings of the real, human, living agency: blogs and digital magazines “go live.” Phones are “smart.” The Internet “answers” when we “ask” it something. There’s the “app”—time is too important in the new digital culture to spell or say “application”—that can “tell” us where our favorite corporate coffee shop (whose head office are, ironically, in Seattle) is. And there’s something called Siri—not “a Siri,” but just “Siri,” like a person—a digitally feminine voice, an “intelligent personal assistant” that helps you to get the things done that the apparently unintelligent personal assistant we all are assumed to have, can’t. Things like “Tell my wife I’m running late.” (I’ll leave it to the reader to level the obvious critiques of gender and class at Apple.) When we grant these simplistic devices all the complicated attributes of humanity, Lanier explains, we at the same time revise our expectations of ourselves downward. And the world becomes a duller. The circle of simplicity, of dehumanization, has completed a circuit.
To give his critique teeth, Lanier, who is also an accomplished musician, explores what the culture of digitization has done to music, which, he argues, has been rendered bland. “Whenever I’m around ‘Facebook generation’ people,” he writes, “I ask them a simple question: Can you tell me in what decade the music that is playing right now was made. Even listeners who are not particularly music oriented can do pretty well with this question—but only for certain decades.” It’s a provocative thought experiment: I’m betting you know what an eighties hair-band sounds like; a fifties rockabilly group, a forties swing act. “A decade gets you from the reign of big bands to the reign of rock and roll. Approximately a decade separated the last Beatles record from the first big-time hip-hop records,” Lanier writes. But what sound distinguishes the music of the 2000s? Smug irony, nostalgia, and campy mashups are not sounds.
The song continues on like this: quiet, loud, quiet, the bleakest lyrics matched by the most ferocious distortion.
Intensity builds throughout the guitar solo—melodically lyrical—while the kids from the stands, sidelined freaks, pour out of the bleachers and take over the gym, thrashing, tearing off their clothes; and the cheerleaders, finally liberated from uniformity, grind and gyrate wildly, humanly, the scarlet-letter anarchy signs stitched over their breasts (oh, bestill my beating 14-year-old punk rock heart!) telling us for whom they cheer, while the singer, with that straw-bleached hair almost, but not totally obscuring his fever-bright eyes, screams with everything he’s got into the camera: “A denial,” nine times.
This is how it ends.
We see kids carrying off the drummer’s high hat, the bassist’s bass, the division between audience and performer closed.
We see the guitarist smash his guitar to pieces.
It’s not joy, but it is a sort of solidarity in mutual denial. Connection, despite.
If there’s a nineties sound, it’s that heavy roaring distortion, so different from that of the sixties classic and psychedelic rockers, the meaty crunch of seventies hard-rock bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith, and the exquisitely sculpted eighties sound of heavy metal. The nineties distortion—Dinosaur Jr., Weezer, The Smashing Pumpkins—is looser, bigger, wilder. It sparkles.
I think I was wrong, as a teenager, about Nirvana. They’re a bleak band, but I’m not so sure anymore that they were singing anthems of resignation. It’s that roaring distortion that has changed my mind, that sound that is the sound of someone desperately trying to avoid being sucked into the downward spiral, its abrasiveness paradoxically the thing that attracted many of us longing for our own real connection. There was something there, even if it was mediated through cassette, vinyl, or CD; there was something real and millions of us felt it.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been recently finding myself drawn to Youtube to watch “Smells Like Teen Spirit” every few weeks. Maybe in this age when we’re told that the world is at our fingertips, when convenience is king, when superficial flash is cherished over function and content—an age, it’s not doubt clear by now, that I feel profoundly isolated in—maybe now is when I need Nirvana more than ever.
But the band is gone, and all that’s left—as I quickly re-watch the Youtube clip, look up a small detail on Wikipedia, check my e-mail (ignoring for just a little bit longer all the old, yet-to-be-answered messages to see if there’s anything new, which I’ll no doubt put off responding to until tomorrow, maybe), and write these words for the blogosphere—all I’ve got left is the dying sound of angry guitars.
There’s the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that repeated part that always cut the deepest; and I recognize now, in 2013, that the band feared it as much as I did:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
and I recognize, now, in 2013, when entertainments-gone-viral are longed-for afflictions, I recognize and I fear that Nirvana, a band that still scares me, prophesied what our current digital culture would smell like.
-Daegan Miller, guest contributor