The Nirvana Effect

In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, Mr Irwin tells his Oxbridge hopefuls that, in the world of historical scholarship, ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’.

For me, this makes music written and released in the 1990s extremely remote. Especially music from the early '90s. And particularly grunge music.

It's the blind spot in the wing mirror of my life - it’s at an awkward adjacent just too close and yet just too far from my teenage years of musical discovery (circa 2001-8) to really exist for me.

I have a nothing to say about Pearl Jam: I don’t know who they are and I don’t know what they do. I’ve never knowingly heard a record by Alice in Chains. I have no time for the Stone Temple Pilots.

Nirvana were different though. Nirvana were too culturally unavoidable to ignore entirely, so I just decided I didn't like them and got on with it.

To me, Kurt Cobain was like an angel of death, ushering in the age of Korn, Limp Biscuit and Rage Against the Machine - an anti-melodic, colourless explosion of furious nothing. The band sounded like the aural equivalent of getting drilled by an aggressive tattoo artist in the dark. I didn’t understand why anyone would, or could, ever write a song called ‘Rape Me’.

I saw Nirvana as the band that brought the ragged curtain down on the lush synth-pop of the 80s, the Laurel Canyoneers of 70s and the Liverpudlian psychedelia of the 60s that I was falling so deeply in love with.

Which is why it’s come as a surprise that my YouTube feed - that insidious, thumbnailed reflection of myself -  has now been invaded by them; interviews, analysis, biographies, live bootlegs, music videos - the works.

And the band are different now, though, of course, they haven’t changed at all.

Kurt Cobain, it turns out, was a genius. Who knew? His voice is timelessly distinctive, powerful and expressive, and there’s more melody in Nirvana than I can handle; you just have to work a little harder for it.

I now understand that defining yourself in opposition to everything else around you isn't always just a desperate plea for attention: it can also be a gloriously painful revolution; a swollen fracture that has to happen before the bone can properly heal. Because things can’t stay the same. Nothing, however great, can escape entropy and ossification. Left unchecked, The Beatles become The Monkees. Guns ’n Roses become Poison. U2 become Coldplay (or just more recent U2).

Like in primitive agriculture, things need slashing and burning every now and then if you want to keep the landscape alive.

It does seem odd to me, though, that I’ve developed a new-found respect for Nirvana in my thirties, having hated them throughout my teens and twenties. I don’t necessarily think ‘In Utero’ was aimed at 32 year men who shop around for car insurance and read the reviews of coffee percolators on Amazon.

I’ve come to think of phenomenon as the ‘Nirvana Effect’ - and it returns me to Alan Bennett’s metaphor every time I encounter it.

Looking back at the recent past is like standing too close to an impressionist painting. You’re lost amongst the splashes and fragments of colour, unable to make sense of what you’re seeing until you take a few steps back.

Like looking through a pair of binoculars, our understanding of the past shifts and blurs until, when we are the perfect distance from the object of our voyeurism, we find the balance between lens and fovea and the universe clicks into sharp focus.

It occurs to me that the phases of our lives are a lot like this. It’s tough to get a grip on who you were in your early twenties until you're standing safely on the observation deck of your early thirties.

I tend to live my life in cycles and patterns that only make sense once I have chronologically zoomed out; gotten off the rollercoaster long enough to gather my senses, overcome the nausea and can appreciate where the corners and cliff-edges were.

I only have the vaguest sense of who I am now.

Who knows how ridiculous, charming, or tragic this will all seem once the Nirvana Effect kicks in at 40 and I can see myself in rounded context for the first time.

Until then, the only thing we can do about the recent past is to keep creating it.

There’ll be plenty of time when we can all sit about making sense of it, someday.

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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