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Nirvana: The Timeless Indie Band

Why dedicate a whole blog to Nirvana? Well, we don’t think you’ll find an answer if you have to ask that question. Ever. But for those of you that have jumped out of your seats simply because of the title, we know you’re probably aware of the same questions: Is Nirvana considered grunge? Is Nirvana post-punk?

And, no, this blog intends not to answer these questions because we know that the whole point of genres is to make it easier for us to categorize songs. We’re here to offer different and new ways to listen to music. And that’s what indie music is all about, writing and creating songs outside of the norm.

So, is Nirvana an indie? Well, it shouldn’t come as a shock to you that Nirvana was in fact considered indie music at once. That is before it was caught in the whole grunge-pop-rock debate. Let’s start from the beginning, as it should be.

Nirvana as Indie

Well, they didn’t remain anonymous for too long, but if we’re looking back at their first official release it would be “Love Buzz” (1988). It was only a year after, that they released their first album, Bleach (1989), with Sub Pop Records.

“Love Buzz” (1988)

“Love Buzz” is a song written by Robbie van Leeuwen, a member of the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue, and released in 1969 as part of their album At Home. That’s right, Nirvana’s first song was a cover that went something like this:

“Would you believe me when I tell you

You’re the queen of my heart

Please don’t deceive me when I hurt you

Just ain’t the way it seems”

When you compare it with the original, you’ll definitely be able to hear that distortion of sound and that growling so characteristic of Nirvana. But those are two key elements that we’ll talk about next.

Nirvana as Grunge

Without starting to sound like a dictionary, we simply want to clarify the meaning of grunge as an informal noun, “grime; dirt”. This is exactly why it was used to describe this subgenre of rock “characterized by a raucous guitar sound and lazy vocal delivery” (See Oxford Languages).

It’s said that it was Bruce Pavitt, the co-founder of the indie record label Sub Pop, who first applied this term to the music industry. Although he specifically used it for distorted music that was created in the area of Seattle on a very low budget, unlike the clean sound of tracks recorded in super posh studios of L.A. or New York.

If we consider the time in which this term emerged and when Nirvana came to the music scene, it’s no wonder that they were quickly labeled as grunge. But, as we know today and will hopefully show in this blog, they didn’t fit easily into any one box. Like most indie music.

The Bleach Album (1989)

Well, if you’re thinking sludgy electric guitar, four- and six-piece drum kits, growls, and dark lyrics, the Bleach Album would definitely tick all the boxes, especially songs like “Big Cheese”:

“Big cheese, make me

Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me

Mine says, one that stays”

This was a wink (not to say punch) at their former records label, Sub Pop. Although they helped release their album, they always underestimated Nirvana’s potential in the music scene. “Paper Cuts” brings about those growling and intense vocals:

“I, I said so

I said so

I said so”

As for the dark lyrics, well, you be the judge:

“The lady whom I feel maternal love for

Cannot look me in the eyes

But I see hers and they are blue

And they cock and twist and masturbate”

We dare you to finish the album without attempting to growl yourself.

Nirvana as Pop

Although it’s true that for many fans Nevermind (1991) was the living example of grunge music, songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rocketed to the very top of the 1992 charts, leaving pop artists like Michael Jackson behind. This meant a before and after in the pop scene, which is what has led some to categorize these as pop music. 

Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

The only pop style that you’ll hear is the fact that, no matter which genre you prefer listening to, you’ll automatically recognize this song. Especially, when we get to:

“Hello, hello, hello, how low

Hello, hello, hello, how low

Hello, hello, hello, how low

Hello, hello, hello”

If we go deeper into the lyrics, we go deeper into Cobain’s inner conflict and self-loathing approach:

“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

A mulatto, an albino

A mosquito, my libido”

These two last verses would be frowned upon in so many ways. But, at the time, it perfectly depicts that inner struggle and feeling of not belonging. So, how did it make it to mainstream music? Well, in Cobain’s own words, this song combined the “soft and quiet, then loud and hard” dynamics of the Pixies, and although we do hear distorted guitar tones, we also hear clean and chorused effects.

Come As You Are (1991)

Also released in the same album as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nevermind (1991), this song was thought-out as the single. It was a surprise that it was actually the other song that became their signature song, and not just of this album. In Cobain’s own words, “The lines in the song are really contradictory. […] It’s just about people and what they are expected to act like.”

And, right from the start, this is exactly what we get:

“Come as you are, as you were

As I want you to be

As a friend, as a friend

As an old enemy”

Once again, anyone that’s attempting to play the guitar with Nirvana songs, will start with these. Not that it’s easy, but there’s more structure or at least more predictable: a clean verse and then a distorted chorus. Throughout the song, a guitar riff that seems a bit warmer than the previous song.

We could have approached this by highlighting Nirvana as the best indie rock song or indie rock artist. We could have focused on the songs purely based on the lyrics and how they were telling the story of a troubled artist who had a sad ending. So, if you’re still asking yourself “What genre is Nirvana?”, then we didn’t do our job. We can only recommend that you keep listening to the songs until you stop caring about the answer.

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