Tomorrow, September 24th, marks the 20th anniversary of rock band Nirvana’s release of Nevermind. Widely credited for bringing the Seattle grunge and music scene to the mainstream masses, the album has since sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. Kathryn Metz, education instructor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, recounts hearing songs from Nevermind for the first time and shares how the album continues to influence two decades later.
Let’s be clear: I was a band geek for a long time. In some senses, I’m still that gangly kid who is all too familiar with Sousa repertoire and Mozart sonatas; I played the flute for 20-plus years. Raised on “oldies” and musicals, my parents always had a Rolling Stones, Supremes or West Side Story song on the record player. I learned how to play “As Long as He Needs Me” and “When I’m 64” with equal fluency as a Hindemith or Telemann sonata. On my own time, I religiously listened to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 every Saturday morning, memorizing Janet Jackson and Kriss Kross songs. Occasionally, however, something else would bubble to the surface and pique my curiosity, tugging at another part of me, the part that relished a creepy tritone evident in Sondheim or later Beatles songs.
For instance, my cousin Tommy, a devoted Black Sabbath fan, introduced me to metal when I was 8 years old. I didn’t entirely understand it musically, but I liked what I knew of the culture of it: the makeup, the black pants, the shaggy hair. At 10, a babysitter brought Fugazi to our house and once again, the music didn’t get to me as much as the ripped T-shirts and homemade patches did. When middle school pal Cate played R.E.M. tapes at sleepovers, the complexity of their musicianship wasn’t lost on me, but I still gravitated more toward the culture surrounding these alternative kids. When I first heard Nirvana’s chart-topping single on Casey Kasum when I was 13, it was the seething gritty culture that sucked me in: the punk ethos devoured my Chicago suburban world, even at a Catholic school where some students “daringly” wore black nail polish and Chuck Taylors. I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for, but I knew that I would have to learn this music that so reminded me of Tommy’s record collection and that babysitter’s tape cassettes.
When I saved up to buy my own cassingle (remember those?) of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” I thought that maybe I should exchange my flute for the guitar but then again, the circulative licks that yanked me in reminded me a little bit of Bach. As I moved through the album, cassingle by cassingle (I had a small allowance), I was alternately thrilled and annoyed by the short, repetitive riffs, similar to the flute etudes (short, repetitive exercises meant to improve technique and tone) I practiced every day. The drums made me try my hand at headbanging in my room, moshing solo. I was one of those kids who donned her dad’s old flannel L.L. Bean shirts and sullenly walked around the neighborhood (on a Navy base nonetheless) grooving to my Walkman even though I wasn’t particularly depressed, marginalized or isolated, and I would come home to learn the melodies on my flute. But there was something about the dirty, messy music coupled with impossibly cryptic lyrics that came tumbling out of Cobain’s mouth in an angry, affected way that made me even more enamored of the punk style and floppy hair that must mean something. To someone, somewhere. I was desperate for it to mean something to me.
Nevermind didn’t change my life the way it did so many others’. But I was changed. It somehow made the fits and starts of non-Top 40 music that trickled my way more accessible, more relevant: I could finally hear Black Sabbath, Fugazi and R.E.M. in a way that made sense to me, and I could adopt that style that I craved. And that’s the important thing that I think Nirvana did with Nevermind: They brought everything else to the surface, drawing ears to the music that we missed from Top 40, the music that would soon shape lives (or at least my life). Patti Smith, the Pixies, the Smiths, Television – Nirvana opened doors and stretched ears, helping make connections across generations of vibrant, visceral music and musicians that changed my life for the better. Twenty years later, as the Education Instructor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I get to use rock and roll to teach kids about the importance of American popular music, and sharing this music with our students – many of whom are hearing some of these songs for the first time like I once did – thrills me to no end.
Related: Seattle scenes exhibit at the Rock Hall
WATCH: Nirvana – "Come As You Are"