Nirvana: “MTV Unplugged In New York” (1994)

Nirvana_mtv_unplugged_in_new_yorkI’ve fallen a bit behind in my reviews of classic albums, so for this piece I’ll be relying on some of my old writings. But before I crtl-v, I wanted to introduce this piece and discuss some of the back story behind my relationship with Unplugged. If you read the earlier pieces in this series, you can tell that Nirvana is a benchmark by which most of the music I listened to in the first half of the 1990s was judged by. Not without good cause, as this album was integral to one of the most important cultural events (I would argue) in 1994: Cobain’s death.

I lived in the sticks, far away from cable television (at least until I turned 16), so my first experience with this performance was listening to the album. Cobain was already long dead by the time the album was released in late 1994, and I don’t think I actually listened to it earlier than December 1994. I don’t know if I ever said this, but my town did not have a music store. Both the long lag time in finding out about new music and the fact that I didn’t have any access to purchasing music beyond driving half an hour to a Best Buy store strike me as queer realities of coming of age in the 1990s. It’s so strange that there was no network available to us for the sharing of music or watching live performances, but it was the reality. Even when internet access became a reality when I was around 15 (I got free internet because I worked at a curious ISP in someone’s basement), there was no system for viewing videos of live performances.

When I first listened to the album, I had what one might call the realization that I was hearing a masterpiece. There are only maybe three other albums that I can say the same thing about (Kid A [Radiohead], Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Wilco], and The Suburbs [Arcade Fire]). In my youth, I probably listened to Unplugged about a thousand times. Although the filmed performance is full of iconic images in it’s own right (Cobain in his green sweater, hair in his face, eyes closed as he sings; Grohl delicately tapping symbols with brushes [as opposed to his usual pounding intensity]), sonically the music provides so many moments that it erases the need for images.

The opening notes of “The Man Who Sold The World” (electric no less) with Grohl’s tight drumwork leading in to Cobain’s raspy vocals. Ever the master of taking the explosion of emotion and intensity in the loud songs and packing that into the desperate sounding vocals in the quite songs, Cobain’s vocals here sound like a desperate plea. The guitar solo paired with the cello sound good only on the album (the mix on the film doesn’t do it justice), and they embody the desperate plea of the narrator in the song.

The bridge in “Dumb” is particularly moving, and once again the strings provide the added punch to Cobain’s melancholy vocals. Hearing most of these songs without the feedback and noise must have appealed to a large group of Nirvana fans, but for me it was really the first major introduction to these songs. They come off as refined, well constructed rock songs, yet folksy at the same time. Cobain must have realized the connection and was clearly influenced by his guests, the Meat Puppets. His performance of folk and standard songs is unique and powerful, despite detractors who (wrongly) saw this as a lack of originality or a failure to translate Nirvana’s biggest hits into acoustic arrangements. Particularly successful is the album’s final track, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an american folk song transformed into the Nirvana style. Slow, brooding, and climaxing with a blood curdling scream from Cobain, the song channels the creepiness of the Leadbelly arrangement while at the same time expressing Cobain’s deep personal discontentment with the music industry (he finds time to toss in a jab at David Geffin before the track) and his own personal anguish, which many people of the early 90s shared in earnest.

The songs that the band selects are appropriate, and unlike other bands trying to shoehorn in incompatible tracks into this format, Nirvana succeeds in effectively mastering the “stripped down” performance. Sadly, time does not always reward bold moves, especially in the consumerism of major-label music where the vast majority of the public expects bands to remake their most popular album ad infinitum.

Fourteen years later I took a course on celebrity at DePaul university, and I laughed to see literary critics trying to interpret Cobain and Nirvana as damaged, decomposing, and culturally irrelevant. I happened to be sick when I was reading his journals and watching the performances when I wrote a required response paper. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little pissed off when writing it, and I churned it out “punk rock style” (as much as getting an M.A. in Lit can be punk rock) in about ten minutes. It’s full of vitriol (and spelling errors) but I present it as I wrote it. I can’t even remember the shitty arguments presented by the literary “scholars” I quoted, but rereading it reminded me of why I am leaving the domain of literature studies behind me. Here it is, as I wrote it in 2008.

15 May 2008

Perpetual Dispossession: Cobain and the Self

At the conclusion of Mark Mazullo’s article, he surmises that “In the end, the idea of cultural authenticity stifled and devoured Kurt Cobain” (742). The authenticity that the celebrity consumer claims is ultimately self-defeating, since as Mazullo states the self of the celebrity is damaged or destroyed; he goes so far as to state that “we cannot know to what extent Cobain’s self or identity was ‘his own’” (738). If that is the case, then one seriously must question the motives behind reading his journals (although the term journal must be used loosely, since many half torn-up scraps and bits of writings and letters are casually and seemingly carelessly edited into the journals). The existence of writing to be published, while partially validated by some of Cobain’s remarks, only serves to extend the ability of the consumer to appropriate additional material from an artist who, according to Time Appelo, possessed only a “denial, repeated ad infinitum”; the current critical approach seems to validate a close reading of his journals and remove much of his voice trough posthumous destruction of his sense of self and reappropriation of his lyrics and image to generation x as a whole.

Marketing and capitalism seems to dominate the critical lens by which critics evaluate Cobain today. In stark opposition to the title page of the journals inviting readers to “please read my diary” (a statement that appears rich with sarcasm but devoid of any context), a note scribbled in two colors of ink laments the theft of his journals by obsessive fans and dissolves into exclamations of “Fuck you!” (263). It is clear that Cobain felt a deep sense of personal loss through the relentless (misguided) admiration of his persona and work. Mazullo envisions the 1993 Unplugged performance as a capitalistic snare set by MTV to entrap Nirvana and Cobain in their “corporate pretensions to art,” portraying Cobain as “lonely, angry, confused, and perhaps not quite as talented a musician as he had been made out to be” (716). Despite the authors obvious infatuation with David Bowie’s sound, the adjectives are surprisingly accurate to Cobain’s own representations of himself in his journal pages.

Tim Appelo argues that Cobain “often invited people to read his journals” and instructs the reader to not feel guilty about the act, but the highly questionable practice of reassembling excerpts from multiple sources in a juxtaposition of semi-chronological and sometimes completely irrelevant pieces (set lists written in blue ink on plain white paper) does not seem to portent the conditions that Cobain would have released his life and letters under. If anything, the most absent element of the journals is Cobain and his artistic intentions, which undoubtedly amounted to little if we are to believe that his voice and opinions were an amalgamation of a generation. The dispossession of Cobain’s self is continued by the poorly edited journals long after his body is gone.

OK, gotcha, next please:

I think at this point that I’m done with the early 90s (despite leaving out many good albums), so I’m moving on to around 95-98: my middle school and early high school years.

Beck – Odelay (1996)
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)