Fans of every stripe of rock music could probably tell you where they were the first time they heard Nirvana’s Nevermind. In a matter of a few minutes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned into the anthem of the alternative rock movement and blew every other hair metal band off the map within just a few weeks. Grunge was becoming the new dominant force in rock music, but that’s not really what Kurt Cobain had in mind when he was writing the songs.
Though Kurt always wanted to be famous, he was originally hesitant of becoming a rock star so fast after the record came out, becoming the next voice of a generation without really having any say in the matter. The critics may have eaten up Nevermind, but Kurt had some fairly harsh words for his masterpiece just a few months after he left the recording studio.
Even though Kurt had hired mixer Andy Wallace because of his work with Slayer, he later said that he was scared that the sound was may more polished and radio friendly than he would have liked, telling journalist Michael Azerrad in the book Come as You Are: “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it. It sounds closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is to a punk rock album.”
Album producer Butch Vig also recalled Kurt’s constant frustration with the sound, saying “I’d be balancing the drums and the guitar and Kurt would come and say ‘Turn all the treble off. I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath.’ It was kind of a pain in the ass.”
Cobain further elaborated on the polarizing sonics of the record in Azerrad’s Come as You Are book, saying “when I listen to Nevermind, I hate the production, but there’s something about it that almost makes me cry at times,” admitting an emotional affinity to the music despite clearly having conflicting feelings about its big polished arena-ready sound.
Friend and former manager Danny Goldberg would later give insight into how important Kurt’s punk roots were at the time, saying “I think that he had a balance of his relationship with the punk subculture, which had inspired him enormously in his teenage years.” Goldberg elaborated that:
“He [Cobain] recognized the outsiderness of it, the need for integrity, the emotions of that audience. Even though they were only a small percentage of the total audience of Nirvana, they were the original audience, and he always wanted to stay true to that part of himself.
So after ‘Nevermind’ was incredibly successful, he would sometimes say [disparaging] shit like that in interviews to try to recognize the difference between the pure punk fans, and this mass rock audience that also liked Nirvana.
However, the success of it turned it into another thing. It was separate from the work of art, it became this mass cultural statement, and he empathized with the [original] punk fans…
It’s just weird when the people that used to kick your ass in high school are now part of your audience.”
Nowhere was it more apparent than on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” though, with Kurt saying “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song.”
In time, Kurt would eventually come to grips with his newfound mainstream audience, telling Rolling Stone:
“I don’t have as many judgments about them [the new fans] as I used to. I’ve come to terms about why they’re there and why we’re here. It doesn’t bother me anymore to see this Neanderthal with a mustache, out of his mind, drunk, singing along to ‘Sliver.’ That blows my mind now.”
Kurt Cobain might not have the same kind of affection for the record as everyone else does, but without Nevermind leading the way, modern rock music would look and sound completely different.