American Icons

American Icons: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’

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The cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind.”

The cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind.”

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Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly 25 years ago, a new sound blasted the cobwebs out of every radio station in America. It was angry and bracingly cynical; the album featured a naked baby swimming toward a dollar bill dangling on a fish hook, and it went to number one 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 the industrial era in the United States,” Clover suggests, “Nirvana is the last great invention of rock and roll. So we can see it as really the final flower of that era of American power.”

As part of our series on American Icons, Studio 360’s Trey Kay investigates why “Nevermind” was never forgotten.

(Originally aired September 16, 2011)

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