The Over/Under: Nirvana


It was less than three years between the release of Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In that short span of time, Nirvana managed to become one of the most popular and important alternative bands in the world, and after Cobain’s death, praise for the band was used as a salve by critics to heal the pain and signify the loss. But maybe a new rule should be made: No legacy assertions about a recently departed musician until that legacy has at least had a chance to show some signs of being real. If you just went by the “rock history books,” you’d think it was Nirvana that awakened the mainstream to alternative music, that radio today was ruled by Nirvana copycat bands and that Cobain was actually the spokesperson for a generation. But none of that’s true. We’ve had alternative bands crossing over into the mainstream pretty much constantly since the Beatles. Corporate radio has been more influenced by Pearl Jam than anyone else in the years since, and Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted (released six months later) sold about 100th of what Nevermind did and probably had a greater impact on indie/alternative music than anything Nirvana ever recorded. With a straight face, Nirvana was called the most influential musical group since the Beatles, but will anyone make that assertion in 2010? The whole notion of Nirvana bringing anything to the mainstream or being innovative in any way is simply false: a result of the blind beatification of the shocked and grieving. People were aware of punk rock, even if they weren’t seeing it on MTV all the time. But that’s OK. Cobain himself admitted his band was nothing new and was always quick to promote the groups that influenced him. You certainly can’t hold it against him. I think he would have laughed at the thought of being Guitar World magazine’s “guitarist of the ’90s.” Nirvana was an extremely talented group, one of my favorites, certainly, but as it stands now, Cobain and Co. were an anomaly and never should have been in the running for World’s Biggest Band. (Which in 1994, you could probably argue, it was.) At this point, it’s tempting to lump Nirvana’s entire catalog into the overrated category, but obviously we can’t do that. Besides, with the massive popularity of only a handful of the band’s singles, there are some truly great tracks that fell by the wayside. Here are Nirvana’s five most overrated and five most underrated songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Nirvana Songs
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

I know, I know. Typical. But what am I supposed to do here? It’s a great song—especially live—and it was the band’s biggest hit, but the whole thing was built around a riff that even Cobain admitted was cheesy. And who hasn’t heard it a million times? I used to think “Brown Eyed Girl” was the song I had unintentionally heard more than any other in my life, but I just realized it’s probably this one. It’s been overplayed everywhere, made so many best-of all-time lists and been referenced in pop-culture commentary so much that there is no way it can’t be overrated. Part of this song’s magic is that it has real “pop” power: It’s catchy, and it can be interpreted as being about the song, the band, the crowd and/or the performance itself all at once. It’s meta, making it instantly relatable for nearly everyone. The other part of the magic is David Geffen and the influence of MTV. Without them, Nevermind never sells 10 million records. If Nirvana had never signed to Geffen, would Cobain still be alive?

2. “Sliver” (1990)
This was originally released as a Sub Pop single but later appeared on odds-and-sods comp Incesticide. “Mom and dad went to a show/Dropped me off at Grandpa Joe’s/I kicked and screamed said please don’t go/Gramma take me home.” The mood of the song and the way Cobain sings it give the impression that it could be about an abusive grandfather, but the lyrics don’t really suggest it—aside from the kid not wanting to hang with his grandparents for the night. So it’s open to interpretation. Could be about an abusive grandfather, could be about a kid not wanting to be ditched by his parents. Bob Pollard says, “You gotta write songs for the kids.” If you think about this song as Cobain writing for the kids, it’s great. If it’s about molestation, can we listen to something else?

3. “Polly” (1991)
This Nevermind track actually dates back to 1988 and went through a few transformations and title changes before appearing on the album. Based on a true story of the abduction, rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl—told from the perspective of the kidnapper—it’s heavy stuff and deftly written, as the song still manages to not sound cheesy or too “on the nose” almost 20 years later. “Polly” was a live favorite and appeared in its MTV Unplugged performance, but considering the usual fan reaction to the song, the meaning and real-life tragedy was probably lost on a lot of people. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone liked to sing along with it or be reminded of such a horrible act, but I guess it’s pretty catchy.

4. “Come As You Are” (1991)
The lazy, watery intro to this second single from Nevermind was the first riff I ever learned to play on guitar. Listening to it now, especially in the context of the rest of the album and what came before, it sounds so different than everything else. Maybe it’s just the phaser effect, but it’s like the song had been sprinkled with some of the Geffen company’s “radio hit single” magic dust. Cobain’s vocals are so clear and upfront, and the fact that the song doesn’t really get loud makes it sound like a different band. I could almost hear Pearl Jam doing this song. Nevermind track “Drain You” is catchier and more propulsive, and with its Sonic Youth-esque jammy bridge, it’s just better all around, but it didn’t get the same attention.

5. “All Apologies” (1993)
The In Utero version of this song was over-produced. (Strings, anyone?) The Unplugged version was overplayed. And Nirvana had better songs. “What else should I write? I don’t have the right.”

In Utero Version:

Unplugged Version:

:: The Five Most Underrated Nirvana Songs
1. “Serve The Servants” (1993)

Probably one of Cobain’s most autobiographical songs, this starts with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” then finds the narrator forgiving his father for divorcing his mother: “That legendary divorce is such a bore … I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad/I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore.” It’s one Nirvana’s most melodically complex songs, and it bears some significant emotional weight. In high school, my friends and I liked this song so much we named our band Servant’s Servant. With all of the standouts on In Utero, this opening number usually goes forgotten.

2. “Sappy” (1993)
An outtake from In Utero, this song appeared as an unlisted, hidden track on the No Alternative benefit compilation. Hearing it for the first time was akin to finding buried treasure. Rarely played live and not properly released until the With The Lights Out boxed set, “Sappy” could have easily been a radio single.

3. “Lounge Act” (1991)
One of the catchiest and most rocking songs on Nevermind, this is yet another tune that was overlooked when it came to the selection of singles. Supposedly the reason the song was so neglected was that it was about one of Cobain’s ex-girlfriends, Bikini Kill singer Tobi Vail; after he became involved with Courtney Love, he didn’t want to play the song around her.

4. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” (1993)
This was inspired by a fictionalized biography Cobain read of the rebellious, alcoholic Frances Farmer, a Seattle-born actress who was institutionalized for part of her adult life and was the rumored victim of an involuntary lobotomy. The story behind this song is tragic and fascinating, but it’s Cobain’s pleading for a woman who can no longer feel (“I miss the comfort in being sad”) that really stabs you in the heart.

5. “Marigold” (1993)
With vocals by Dave Grohl, “Marigold” is the only song in Nirvana’s catalog to have had no contribution from Cobain. It originally appeared on the cassette-only Pocketwatch as a release under Grohl’s pseudonym, Late!. Obviously a sign of things to come for Grohl, it was later released on Foo Fighters live album Skin And Bones. What would have happened if Cobain had stayed with us and Nirvana had stayed together? Would the band dynamic have gradually shifted to include more Grohl songs like this one and those that later came from Foo Fighters? Maybe Nirvana actually would have been the next Beatles.

—Edward Fairchild

24 replies on “The Over/Under: Nirvana”

I agree with most of this BUT

Sliver is not about abusive grandparents. They were in fact the closest thing Kurt had to “loving parents”. The song is about feeling abandoned etc.

Well the under-rated ones I agree with pretty much. I don’t think Marigold should have been included here- as it is a song by Grohl (with Krist on bass.) and it should be considered a Foo Fighters song. Put ‘Drain You’ at 4 dropping Frances Farmer to 5. place and you got my list 😉

ummm, why is Scentless Apprentice not #1 in the Underrated section? Or not there at all, for that matter?

“If Nirvana had never signed to Geffen, would Cobain still be alive?”

I’m always surprised at how much grief “The Man” gets in hacky (i.e. “really stabs you in the heart) and sometimes water-eyed tomes to Nirvana and their catalog.

Click “Edit” and “Find” and search for “heroin” or “drugs” in this article – you’ll that both are mentioned zero times. Cobain was superbly talented and no doubt self-critical enough (despite his self engendered “laziness” front) to have ventured into many different areas of music making had he lived beyond that tenderly cliched age of twenty-seven. (Collect all nine t-shirts.)

But we shouldn’t forget that David Geffen and the music industry didn’t murder Cobain and leave a wife and daughter. He was a drug addict who opted to ignore repeated pleading from friends and family, forgo treatment and do himself in.

Nirvana was never about the music. It was simple, clean and easy to play. It was the first time that punk rock was let out of the box to play with the rest of the kids in the mainstream. It was selling flannels at Macy’s, it was made into muzak. It made Doctor Martins a household name.

It may not have been the best sounding thing out of Seattle but it was sure the most noticeable. Nirvana was never in competition with anything. It was just Kurt, Krist and in the end Dave rocking the hell out. They were a three piece. They were a mess. They were f**cking loud. They knocked the king of pop off the charts. Nirvana reminded us that rock n’ roll always prevails and will never go away.

And seriously, Marigold? Give me a break. That song was terrible. Why not pick some other totally obscure song that no one ever heard unless you were me at age 16 buying bootlegs for $49.00 from the local head shop.

Nirvana unfortunately was labeled the greatest rock band of the 90’s because they were put out there by the big media. They sold a gazillion albums. Kurt killed himself. Kurt was a drug addict. Dave moved on. You can’t make this s$$t up. It was gold and its “YOU” media that keeps it that way.

It could be worse…. Candlebox could have been labeled best band of the 90’s.

Scentless apprentice is the worst geffen era nirvana song.

Sliver is about being babysat by your grandparents, nothing abusive.

Heart shaped box is woefully underrated.

Marigold is pretty awful.

Best band of the 90’s, Guided by Voices (Sprout, Mitchell era especially!). I’m sure Pollard fawning Magnet writers will agree! Nirvana was OK I guess. Dare I say a tad “overrated”!!

Kurt Cobain sometimes wrote some catchy stuff. All Apologies was a really pleasant song. Definitely not overrated. The other ones may be.

In spite of the entire catalog being hyper scrutinized and wrung out like a dead animal for profit since Cobain’s suicide, (ala Jimi Hendrix model) let’s be real. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” WAS the best song of that year and for no other reason than that it was everything a rock song should be: Brutal, mysterious, sarcastic and centered around a riff that you could not get out of your head ….even if it was lifted from Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla”. Overplayed and over hyped? Definitely. Over rated? Absolutely not.

Whereas I agree with Howie Lord, one of the few bands that this much-maligned exercise would make sense for, would be the Beatles. At least it would be interesting to see the absolute hammering you guys would get from readers.

Pretty good picks for the underrated 5 and overrated 5. I always felt “Come As You Are” was overrated because it was just the Damned’s “Life Goes On”.

Every time I hear the version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — the one that mixing engineer Andy Wallace *didn’t* trick out eight ways to Sunday with silly panning, etc. — on the With the Lights Out set, I swear it’s like I’m hearing the song for the first time. Or at least the second. If the Nevermind version hasn’t moved you since the winter of ’92 for all its inarguable overexposure, give this other version a spin. Same goes for ‘Breed’ on the boxed set.

I hope for Nevermind’s 20th anniversary next year, DGC releases a similarly no-nonsense mix of the whole record.

‘Marigold’ is rad. Nice call there.

Aneurysm is perpetually underrated by fans more than critics, mainly because fans haven’t heard Incesticide as often.

Didn’t know that about Tobi Vail and “Lounge Act,” though I’m worried about mentioning it to meathead Courtney Love haters. I have a hard enough time convincing them that Kathleen Hanna inspired Teen Spirit, despite that being well-documented.

The interesting thing about Nirvana, at least for me, is that unlike some other bands that were big at the same time, they haven’t really aged well for me. They’re “of the time” and don’t really work well for me anymore.

And of course I just couldn’t pass up mentioning that I was never a big fan of “Come as You Are” with the bass line copied almost note for note from Killing Joke’s “Eighties”. 😉

Easily dismissed as an embryonic dirge-rock predecessor to “Nevermind”, “Bleach” is actually a great in-your-face heavy (downtuned guitars, yeah!) album and therefore underrated. Same goes for the track ‘Blandest’, even relegated to B-side status, which featured some of the most awesome maniacal screaming of Cobain. Picking ‘Marigold’ here as an underrated track is total BS. Seems like a forced move to include the Foo Fighters in this article.
Yeah, ofcourse it’s tempting to lump Nirvana’s entire catalog into the overrated category, as a natural response to the hype that came along. Fact remains that Cobain wrote some pretty infectious poppy rock-stuff and above all made music transpired with EMOTION. You could feel his anger and frustration. Personally, I don’t get really turned on by Eddie Vedder and Stephen Malkmus.

Jonc, Good call on the Killing Joke riff! I’m gonna tell all my “Stuck in the 90’s” friends!!

Five Underated:

“Drain You”
“Even In His Youth”
“Oh, The Guilt”
“I Hate Myself and I Want To Die”

I always thought you could tell Nirvana was a truly great band by the quality of the B-sides.

Another sometimes overlooked thiing about NIrvana and why they were so popular is they played a more “inclusive” (for lack of a better word) form punk rock. It appealed more to the masses than the 70’s and 80’s stuff because Nirvana brought more “classic rock” influence into it. It was more familiar to them than, say the Sex Pistols or Husker Du. Cobain always talked about Kiss and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC being big influences on him as a kid…as well as the Beatles of course.

When Nevermind first broke, I was a freshman in college and I recall rock fans of all stripes – metalheads, punks, indie rockers, etc, all digging it. Pearl Jam accomplished the same feat to a degree. And that along with the tragic end of his life and the band is why (arguably too soon), the band and that album were immediately awarded voice of a generation and album/artist of the decade status.

With the music industry so split by niches and genres now and with so many different ways to discover new music now compared to 1991 (basically just commercial radio, MTV, a few cool indie rock kids you might have known at school), Nirvana will be the last band to break like that and have that kind of impact on a generation of kids ever again….or at least for awhile anyway.

Come on, man. “Sliver” is brilliant- so honest and clearly autobiographical. A moment of pure youthful fagility, set to metalliic death ray guitar. The very definition of irony. Great example of Kurt’s genius as a songwriter.

Agree with Ethan, “Aneurysm” is underrated- one of my favorites.

I’d add to “Milk It” to the underrated. Some of Kurt’s best lyrics, one of the heaviest.songs.ever.

“marigold-” meh. This is from someone who never says meh.

“Nirvana was called the most influential musical group since the Beatles, but will anyone make that assertion in 2010?”

People still are. Even to this day KROQ 106.7, the biggest alternative/metal rock radio station in southern california (which is overall the biggest radio market in the world, just in case anyone thinks what I’m saying doesn’t matter) holds an annual event titled: “106.7 biggest KROQ bands of all time” and all patrons vote on KROQ’s website. Just from my experience, Nirvana was picked the #1 biggest KROQ band in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005. I cannot recall 06′-08′ but Last year in 2009 Nirvana had dropped a single slot to #2 while the Red Hot Chili Peppers upsurped the #1 slot.

As time goes on, people love to go back and question the integrity and lasting status of everything. Whether it be films, videogames, music, what have you. These types of articles are much of a cliche’-form of journalism that always draws on heat from the loyalists, which is always great for web hits and, to a lesser extent, magazine sales.

I agree, Nirvana tossed off some great songs. Here is my under-rated list of non-album tracks (although some did appear later on Incesticide.)

Spank Thru
Been A Son

I pride myself in being one of the biggest Nirvana fans around and I can seriously say I would not be the person I am today without their music. With that said, I think they are the most overrated band to ever exist. Nearly everything that the media portrays them as is total bullshit. It was all just cooked up to sell more records (and everything else) since the Hair Metal scene was starting to get very, very played out. But on to the list. With the exception of “Teen Spirit” and “Polly” (to the extent that the story is very sad and that it should be treated with more respect and should never be sung along with by an entire Reading Festival crowd.) the overrated list is horridly wrong. Each of those songs garner a great amount of the praise they have been given, especially “Sliver.” On the other hand, the underrated is pretty spot on. The only thing I would change is replace “Marigold” with “Sifting” or “Downer” or maybe even a bit of a stretch and say “Mollys Lips.”

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