If you started out the ’90s playing in a scuzzy stomp-rock band, there’s a decent chance that you became a millionaire at some point during the decade. If you were a parent of teenagers, you may have, at some point, worn Doc Martens or stripey multicolor stocking caps in a lame attempt to impress your kids. If you worked in an ad agency, you may have pitched a TV commercial in which a Volkswagen crowd-surfs. These things were happening everywhere during that decade, and in a lot of ways, they were happening as a direct result of Nevermind. In some other ways, the death, less than three years later, of that album’s creator was also a result of the album and its hugeness. So is the fact that this creator, one Kurt Cobain, recently surpassed Elvis Presley to top Forbes’ morbid list of the top-earning dead celebrities. Twenty years after its release, Nevermind is still making somebody rich.
Saturday marked the exact 20th anniversary of Nevermind’s release, and that anniversary is loudly being celebrated all over the media. Among the fireworks: A huge box-set reissue of the album, a tribute LP by Spin, a Jon Stewart SiriusXM Q&A with Grohl/Novoselic/Vig, a Seattle all-stars tribute concert, the blog post you’re reading right now. Much of the noise is about the album’s massive and unexpected commercial success, an out-of-nowhere game-changer that nobody expected, least of all the members of the band themselves. 20th anniversaries are usually nice times to take nostalgic looks at certain artifacts and to gauge their after-effects. But you can’t quite do that with Nevermind because those ripples are still rippling. Generations of kids have been brought up with the idea that music can be immediate and personal and weird and loud and deeply felt and also hugely popular. That’s part of the reason we have phenomena like Arcade Fire today. They’re hugely popular because they’re a good band and people like them, but also because people are willing a band like this to be huge, to help validate the precedent that Nevermind set. The hugeness is part of the point. And so is the excitement. When Odd Future played a series of livewire shows at this year’s SXSW, plenty of pundits immediately reached for the Nirvana parallel. Hell, I immediately thought of Nirvana too, and the closest thing I ever saw to a Nirvana show was a 1996 Foo Fighters headlining set at a radio-station festival in a football stadium. The only reason I didn’t say the N-word out loud is that I didn’t want to sound like a lame.
It’s fun to talk about that cultural impact because we still don’t know what the hell happened that made this record so popular. It’s hard to talk about the music. It’s especially hard for me to talk about the music because I simply can’t hear the album as music anymore. The album came out a few weeks after my 12th birthday, and I was just getting to be the perfect age to get really excited about this album and everything it represented. I bought magazines with Nirvana on the cover, I cut out pictures of them and put them on my wall, I developed opinions about their various different producers before I had any idea what a producer did. And I listened to the album over and over, so many times that it immediately becomes background nothingness when I listen to it now. It’s like rewatching Star Wars; once you’ve experienced something often enough, at a young enough age, that you learn every second of it, there’s nothing left to learn of it. Actually, its omnipresence is even more than that of Star Wars. It’s not like I see 10-minute scenes from Star Wars every time I turn on the TV, but this side-A tracks from Nevermind are always on the radio.
I don’t have this problem with Bleach or In Utero or MTV Unplugged In New York. I don’t have it with Ten or Achtung Baby or The Chronic or Faith No More’s The Real Thing or DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s …And In This Corner or the Judgement Night soundtrack or any of the other albums I listened to way too often as a kid. I can hear and enjoy all these records as music just fine. They sound good. They bring back memories. Nevermind just is. It’s like the Monolith in 2001: A giant slab of meaning that we may never disentangle.
Anyway, that’s my overly pretentious take on the album and what it means now. But what about you, the readers? To commemorate the occasion, we’re giving away one of the $109.99 Super Deluxe Limited Edition Nevermind box sets that come out tomorrow (exclusive to Best Buy through 10/24). To enter to win, all you have to do is (1) be a fan of Stereogum on Facebook and (2) comment by telling us your favorite Nevermind-associated memory. You’ll have to comment via Facebook Connect — not your ‘Gum user account on this post — since we’ll have to be able to check if you are a fan of Stereogum on FB when the sweepstakes ends. The prize will go to the author of our favorite comment posted below (that’s right, we’re not picking randomly this time so make ‘em count). Deadline to enter is 10/10 at 5:30PM EST. Have your comment logged by then, and you’re in. (Of course you can also comment below with your ‘Gum profile, but you won’t be eligible to win this sweeps.)