Nirvana's "Nevermind" was angry and bracingly cynical -- the album featured a naked baby swimming toward a dollar bill dangling on a fish hook, and it went #1 in the blink of an eye.
In the words of Joshua Clover, a University of California at Davis professor who writes about music, "You take a guy who can write strangely articulate surrealist lyrics and screams in key and plays a guitar that sounds like it was strung with piano wire, and it’s either going to be an absolute disaster or the most fantastic thing that you’d ever heard."
It was the latter.
"Nevermind" pushed Michael Jackson off the top spot on the charts and pulled mainstream rock deep into alternative territory. It became the defining record for members of Generation X (who got their name that same year), and the grunge uniform of flannel shirts was ubiquitous from dorm rooms to runways.
But "Nevermind" didn't signal a comeback for rock music as America's most important cultural export. Quite the opposite.
"If rock is the last great invention of industrial era in the United States," Clover suggests, "Nirvana is the last great invention of rock 'n' roll. So we can see it as really the final flower of that era of American power."