BABY Boomers have earned themselves a rep for nostalgia, but Gen X began laying its own claim for wistfulness in late summer, as the 10th anniversary of the release of Nirvana's Nevermind approached. Spin, Rolling Stone, and others marked the Sept. 24 occasion with spreads assessing the disc's impact, as well they should. The album certainly warrants the perspective, just as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band deserved its 25th anniversary review. Nevermind changed things, for a while at least. It represented much more than the toppling of hair metal. Though its grooves are packed with downer hits like "Come as You Are," "Lithium," "In Bloom," and, of course, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," this album is no slacker's handbook. It jams a flag in the dirt and howls, "Our music matters!" on behalf of all the college DJs, label owners, club managers, and band members who for years labored for the love of outta-bounds music. It's no exaggeration to say Nirvana's success represented delayed accolades for Patti Smith and the Ramones.
Spin also noted that this summer marked the 10th anniversary of Pearl Jam's debut album Ten. From this side of 2000, though, that disc plays as something altogether different. Nevermind is a breakthrough bursting with promise. Ten is a popular anomaly for a band who took another five years or so to begin coming into their own. Ten years later, Pearl Jam's best work may still lie in wait. Nirvana, of course, went to the grave in 1994, along with Kurt Cobain's body.
The nostalgia that inevitably comes with anniversaries is often tied to a yearning for younger days. But the Nevermind celebrations carried other subtexts, too. To be sure, that album marked a sea change in popular music. But after a few years, the sea changed right back. Who from the era is still holding his or her own on the radio? Not Pearl Jam. It's Dr. Dre. Nevermind may well have been the best album of the 1990s, but 10 years on, it's not punk or grunge that kids are turning to as much as hip-hop. Looking back at Nirvana, we're forced to assess today's music as well. Who's carrying the rock torch today? U2? Sort of. System of a Down? Maybe. But there's a whole lotta Creed, Nickelback, and Staind out there watering down rock's whiskey glass. It's actually Bob Dylan's Love and Theft that put rock 'n' roll back in respectable stead this year. After all that Nirvana was supposed to have revolutionized, it took a comeback from 60-year-old Bob Dylan to kick rock's ass into gear? No wonder Gen Xers were pining for the past.