The Ties That Bind

Kurt Cobain’s devotion to fan integrity and purity shouldn’t be admired.

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 10, 2011

Do you belong to a song?
Does it drag you along by your tongue, at the top of your lungs?

-The Matches

I’m consistently confused by the discussion of “real” fandom in music. I have no idea what it means, who decides it, or why it matters.

It usually breaks down like this: A band’s “true” fans are the ones who have been there since the beginning, who cherish the band’s early work and who have stuck by them through thick and thin; these are the “core” fans, the ones for whom the band is really “in it.” [Lots of words in quotes when you talk about this stuff.] There are many variations of this narrative, of course—it would be impossible for a band to build a large following if they could only cater to their local music scene. Real fans who don’t come from the band’s hometown (or state, country, or hemisphere) are at least required to do their homework and consume every second of every recording in said band’s catalog, lest they lose credibility among the Real fans.

Completely removed, this construct looks totally absurd. Why should a band care who’s attending its concert, as long as they’re paying customers who are willing to buy merch? In fact, the entirety of pop culture history teaches that the biggest social phenomena evolve by appealing to the indifferent (Which is why the Super Bowl continues to get bigger and bigger every year, because it is able to appeal to the non-sports fans, essentially selling the message, “Hey, look at us. We’re huge.”). So if the goal of music is to reach the widest audience, how do you explain this stigma of the “casual fan”?

We have to unpack this, the Sellout Phenomenon, a little, and the best place to start is 1991. That was the year when two bands with large underground followings crossed over into the mainstream within a few months of each other, and handled the inevitable backlash in markedly different ways.

Metallica released its fifth album, the eponymous Metallica (a.k.a., The Black Album), in April of 1991, and on the heels of lead single “Enter Sandman” finally experienced some popular success after a tumultuous decade of being the most popular band in the critically-ignored thrash metal subculture. The album would go on to sell more than 15 million copies and solidified the band as one of the most popular in the world for the next 20 years.

Later that year, Nirvana released Nevermind, its second album. Much like Metallica, this album (and especially the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) catapulted Nirvana to tremendous heights. Unlike Metallica, however, the album came just a few years into Nirvana’s career. Nirvana had highlighted Seattle’s grunge scene briefly toward the end of the 1980’s, and then quickly crossed over into the mainstream.

So perhaps it’s understandable the difference in these two bands’ reactions to their respective success. Metallica—especially drummer Lars UlrichI)By the way, Lars Ulrich: Biggest douchebag in music history? It’s definitely possible. I’ll never forget when I watched him introduce the closing act of the MTV Video Music Awards back in 2000. The band was Blink-182, and Ulrich said, “We wanted to get somebody special to close tonight’s show. And since Metallica was unavailable, instead we have… Blink-182.” No seriously. Totally cool guy.—felt they’d paid their dues for long enough, and so they defiantly embraced popular success (Taking it to cartoonish heights in the coming years, when they alienated many of the same fans who accused them of selling out and cutting their hair by suing and ultimately shutting down Napster.). Nirvana instead tried to distance themselves from their success, thinking it had come too quickly and that they weren’t necessarily deserving of it. Kurt Cobain was always overly concerned with how fans viewed him post-fame. He was hyper aware of his Real fansII)”In Bloom” was a song that openly mocked a fan who just didn’t “get it”: “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means.” and the way they viewed him; he took special care to drive the same crappy car he drove when he was poor, and his ratty thrift store clothing became a stylish trademark for the era.

Now, I love Nirvana—they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, even though I hardly ever listen to them anymore—and I’ve never been very into Metallica, but here’s the thing: Metallica got it right.

Nirvana, or Cobain at least, wasted way too much energy caring about appeasing the core fans. And I know this is an essential part of the band’s legacy, and a huge reason for the cult that surrounds Kurt Cobain; he was a tortured soul who actually had the strength of his convictions, and this is one of the reasons he’s so beloved. But had he been more discerning, had he not put so much stock into an idea (the Real fan) that in the end doesn’t amount to much, maybe he would have, you know, taken some chances?III)If you’re gonna argue that Nirvana took a big chance in following up Nevermind with the more challenging In Utero, I would argue that that is actually the most conventional move of all: As a sequel to your huge pop hit make a deliberately non-poppy album, and bring in Steve Albini to produce it. It’s textbook. [Unless it was Nirvana who started this trend, and now it’s been so copied it seems cliche? Maybe.] At the very least, he would have released some more music.

I’ve been thinking more and more that rock music is in a crisis. A crisis of dullness.

Musicians are boring. That doesn’t mean the music itself isn’t good, just that the artists who make the music aren’t compelling. For years now, the music press has been trying to sell us on the Kings of Leon as modern-day Led Zeppelin-like rock gods, but nobody’s fooled. I read several thousand words about Rihanna recently in a Rolling Stone cover story, and learned only one thing: Rihanna is the most boring person in the history of forever.

Music consumption has changed so drastically because of the internet, and the “cool” changes so rapidly that no artist has any staying power. The criteria for evaluating an artist’s greatness has become formula: Are you Real? I’m getting fed up.

Here is the narrative of the last decade, according to the music media: The 2000s started with The Strokes; raw, back-to-basics rock n’ roll… these guys were authentic. They were the sound of New York City, of cocaine, of debauchery and the post-9/11 malaise. You had to be there, you see. It’s the sound of something Real. And so, for the next couple of years, stripped-down guitar-based rock was in, and bands like The White Stripes and The Hives thrived. And then that got old so 12-member bands that embraced huge orchestral arrangements and big-arena sounds like The Arcade Fire were the new darlings; this fit right in with the twin crazes of emo and indie that were also in full swing at the time. And then we got sick of that, so we were right back to embracing back-to-basics pop music (but now with a nod toward the classic Britpop of the mid-90’s), and suddenly some band called the Arctic Monkeys or some shit was the biggest band in the world (for about five months), and they were immediately followed by other British bands like The Fratellis and The Kooks… and then, WHAT?, we got sick of all that? What are the chances?? So now The Arcade Fire is back for more, and that’s how you can explain a band like The Decemberists being able to debut an album at NUMBER ONE on the Billboard Charts (The Decemberists!).

Or at least that’s what they try to sell you. But it’s against what I love about music, which is to say: I love that music can’t be quantified. We think we can explain why a song is great and why so many people love it… but ask somebody why they love a particular song, and you know the kind of answer you typically get: Some variation of, “Well, it reminds me of when I was (insert age) and I was (insert location) with (insert important person).”

But then we try to package music into a tidy narrative about its cultural significance. Nirvana and Nevermind hit the way they did because they reflected the apathy and disenchantment of Generation X. It was about alternative culture, Douglas Coupland, a rejection of the Greed is Good decade. You can hear this in the big choruses, angsty lyrics, and raw guitar solos, you see.

But… No. That’s too easy. The real answer is: Nobody knows. Why people get attached to certain songs, why certain cultural events resonate and some don’t… these things can’t be predicted. And yet we try to make some sense of them after the fact. I think people gravitate to Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was the genuine article—a truly tortured man who walked the walk, so to speak. It wasn’t what he was saying—like “A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido/Yeah!” means anything anyway—but how he was saying it. [Check out this clip, skip ahead to 3:50, listen to Kurt’s voice, and then watch what he does with his beady eyes right at the end. You’ll see what I’m talking about.]

TOP-FIVE NIRVANA SONGS (according to me)

 

  1. Sliver
  2. Lithium
  3. Scentless Apprentice
  4. On a Plain
  5. In Bloom

And when we try to quantify this, and recreate it, we cheapen it. The truth is both simpler and more complicated. We’re struck at a particular time and place, usually when we’re most vulnerable. And our brains are firing neurons in such a way that we just feel drawn to a particular note, a word, an experience, a person. Make that connection with somebody, even for a second, and that person’s enough of a fan, and there are no “wrong reasons.” Just beautiful organized chaos.

That’s real to me. I love what I love because… I love it. That should be enough, right? It’s why I never feel the need to defend the bands I listen to, even if it’s a band some people might think I’d be embarrassed by. And it’s why I’ll never judge anybody for what they like. Unless it’s Nickelback. Nickelback sucks.

Quote from “Salty Eyes” by a wonderful band called The Matches.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. By the way, Lars Ulrich: Biggest douchebag in music history? It’s definitely possible. I’ll never forget when I watched him introduce the closing act of the MTV Video Music Awards back in 2000. The band was Blink-182, and Ulrich said, “We wanted to get somebody special to close tonight’s show. And since Metallica was unavailable, instead we have… Blink-182.” No seriously. Totally cool guy.
II. ”In Bloom” was a song that openly mocked a fan who just didn’t “get it”: “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means.”
III. If you’re gonna argue that Nirvana took a big chance in following up Nevermind with the more challenging In Utero, I would argue that that is actually the most conventional move of all: As a sequel to your huge pop hit make a deliberately non-poppy album, and bring in Steve Albini to produce it. It’s textbook. [Unless it was Nirvana who started this trend, and now it’s been so copied it seems cliche? Maybe.]