Who is Nirvana?
Nirvana were an American alternative rock group that revolutionized music by bringing alternative music and the grunge style into the mainstream world. With record sales of over 75 million worldwide, Nirvana is one of the best-selling bands of all time.
Active from 1987-1994, the most famous carnation of the band was with three members, singer-songwriter and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl. The band achieved mainstream success with their definitive studio album, Nevermind, which featured Nirvana’s biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In total, the band produced three studio albums before the death of Kurt Cobain in April of 1994.
Nirvana member Kurt Cobain struggled with drug addiction, depression, and chronic stomach pain throughout his life and career, which ultimately resulted in his death from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Following Cobain’s death, David Grohl went on to form the Foo Fighters that same year, and Novoselic focused on political activism and pursuing his own musical endeavors.
Their mixture of rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock, and abstract lyrics caught the attention of the youth at the time, and Nirvana’s music continues to shape and influence rock music today. Upon their first year of eligibility in 2014, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What is the Origin of Nirvana?
Nirvana formed in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987 with two high school friends, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. Together, they frequented the practices of a band called the Melvins, and Cobain desired to start a band of his own. Cobain gave Novoselic his first demo tape, titled Fecal Matter, and three years later they started a band.
Their first band was a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band called the Sellouts. The band continued to go through a series of names, including Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, and Ted Ed Fred. According to Kurt Cobain, they settled on Nirvana because he found it to be “nicer than a raunchy punk name”. The name Nirvana was inspired from the Buddhist concept, which Cobain described as “freedom from pain, suffering, and the external world.”
The first demos under the name Nirvana were recorded in 1988. The band frequently changed drummers at first and went through at least five drummers before finally recruiting their permanent drummer in 1990, Dave Grohl. Soon after, Nirvana signed with a major record company and achieved mainstream success with their second album release.
Band Members of Nirvana
- Lead singer-songwriter, guitar, frontman 1987-1994
- Died from suicide in 1994
- Net worth: $50 million at time of death, his estate is now worth around $450 million
- Bass 1987-1994
- 55 years old
- Net worth: $50 million
- Drums 1990-1994
- 52 years old
- Net worth: $320 million
- Drums 1987-1988
- 57 years old
- Net worth: $5 million
- Drums 1988, 1990
- 53 years old
- Net worth: $1.2 million
- Drums March-May, 1988
- Drums 1988-1990
- 54 years old
- Net worth: $5 million
Styles and Themes in the Music of Nirvana
The alternative rock style of Nirvana’s music encompassed various subgenres, including grunge, rock, punk, and pop. Their infusion of punk and indie rock along with loud, heavy choruses often balanced with quiet verses was a part of their core sound. Some of their music is described as being a fusion of pop and noise, and some is also considered more intricate and deep. A key component of his songwriting, Cobain’s guitar style highlighted power chords and low-note riffs.
The lyrical themes of Nirvana’s music centers around the perspective and feeling of being outsiders and are full of raw emotion and angst. Abjection, social alienation, repression, sexism, frustration, and religion are all topics explored in Nirvana’s music. Kurt Cobain has described his own lyrics as him being “such a nihilistic jerk half the time and the other times I’m so vulnerable and sincere…”
As the chief songwriter, Kurt Cobain wrote all of Nirvana’s lyrics, with many of them surrounding his personal thoughts, experiences, and emotions. The divorce of his parents was a contributor to Cobain’s social withdrawal. As a teenager, he was frequently troubled and angry and moved between various relatives’ and friends’ houses. When Nirvana achieved fame, he often felt persecuted by the media and resented those who misinterpreted his message and artistic vision. All of these events became a catalyst for Nirvana’s music.
Legacy and Influence of Nirvana
Incredibly important to the evolution of popular music, Nirvana introduced an entire new audience to a new style of music. The band were the leaders of grunge music and were credited for ending the dominance of hair metal from the 1980s. Massively influential on the Seattle grunge music scene and movement of the time, Nirvana has since achieved global popularity and are often referenced as the figurehead band of Generation X.
One of the band’s most famous recorded performances was in 1991 for Top Of the Pops, in which the band protested the program and its staff for ordering that the bass and drums mime along rather than play live. This irreverent humor is an example of what brought Nirvana favorability among the youth of the time.
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana promoted bands and musicians that were not acknowledged in the mainstream yet, and he was especially supportive of female bands. Kurt Cobain was ahead of his time with his support of women’s rights, people of color and the LGBTQ community, and the band were good friends and supporters of the famous drag queen, RuPaul.
The unfiltered vulnerability in Nirvana’s songs and how Cobain used his platform continues to resonate with people who feel isolated and misunderstood. Music of Nirvana is heard in various movies and television shows, such as American Horror Story: Freak Show and the iconic 90s show, Beavis and Butthead,
Bleach (June 15, 1989)
Released under the independent record label Sub Pop, Nirvana’s debut album was their emergence into the grunge scene. The single “Love Buzz” preceded the album in November of 1988, after which Sub Pop had requested an EP, but Nirvana recorded a full-length album. The release was delayed until Sub Pop could secure the funds to release it.
Influences of heavy-dirge rock, 1980s punk rock, and 1970s heavy metal are heard throughout the record. Kurt Cobain felt that he had to conform to the grunge genre endorsed by Sub Pop in order to build a fanbase. The songs were described as “one-dimensional”, bleak, and lyrically sparse.
Bleach frequented the air of college radio stations, and after its release, Nirvana embarked on their first national tour. Although it did not chart initially, the album was well-received by critics. Upon its reissue in 1992 by Geffen Records, it peaked at number 89 on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified platinum by the RIAA.
Nevermind (September 24, 1991)
The members of Nirvana felt that Sub Pop did not generate enough interest for their first album release, so they sought out a major record label for their next. Cobain and Novoselic consulted manager Susan Silver of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains for advice. She then introduced the members of Nirvana to an agent and attorney who helped them find and sign with DGC Records in 1990. They soon after released their second studio album, Nevermind.
Nevermind was considered to be a significant departure from Nirvana’s first album. It featured a more radio-friendly sound that led to Nirvana’s breakthrough success. According to Cobain, the songs were influenced by bands such as the Smithereens, the Melvins, Pixies, and R.E.M.
Sequences of power chords, pop hooks, and dissonant guitar riffs were used to craft the songs. A cornerstone of the grunge rock genre, the album is also considered to be musically diverse. The album cover is one of the most well-known in American popular music, and features a nude infant swimming toward a dollar bill on a fishing hook.
The album includes lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and successful singles “Come as You Are”, “Lithium”, and “In Bloom”. As an album, Nevermind reached number one on the US Billboard 200 in 1992. It is often credited with initiating the resurgence of punk culture at the time. In 2004, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
In Utero (September 21, 1993)
In 1992, Kurt Cobain married Courtney Love, who was then the leader of a band named Hole. That same year, they had a daughter.
In Utero was considered a departure from the polished sound of Nirvana’s previous album. Unlike Nevermind, this album intended to capture a more natural, visceralsound. Much of the album contains personal themes inspired by Kurt Cobain’s troubles, anger, and state of mind.
After the completion of the recording sessions, rumor circulated that DGC considered the album to not be commercially viable. The statements were denied, and after some remixing the album was released and met with major commercial success, reaching number one on the US Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart.
The singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” both reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart, and the album has been certified 5 times platinum by the RIAA. It was Nirvana’s final album before the band’s disbandment following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994.
Awards and Notable Nominations
- 1992 – MTV VMA for Best New Artist in a Video and Best Alternative Video with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
- 1992 – MTV VMA for Best Alternative Video with “In Bloom”
- 1993 – Brit Award for International Breakthrough Act
- 1994 – MTV VMA for Best Alternative Video and Best Art Direction in a Video with “Heart-Shaped Box”
- 1995 – American Music Awards for Favorite Heavy/Hard Rock Artist
- 1996 – Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance with MTV Unplugged in New York
- Grammy Awards: 7 Nominations, 1 win
Also an American alternative rock band, Hole was formed in 1989 with singer Courtney Love, who became Kurt Cobain’s wife later on.
- Alice in Chains
Formed in Seattle, Washington in 1987, Alice in Chains is an American rock band that is often associated with grunge music, incorporated with heavy metal elements.
An additional band in the Seattle scene, Soundgarden formed in 1984 and was a seminal creator of grunge rock and was the first of many grunge bands to sign with Nirvana’s first label, Sub Pop.
Grunge and alternative rock group Mudhoney was founded in 1988 and influential on the Seattle music scene.
- Pearl Jam
The American rock band Pearl Jam was formed in Seattle in 1990 and was one of the key bands in the grunge movement of the early part of the decade.