This is Nirvana Part 1: The Sound of the '90s | Fanboys Anonymous

This is Nirvana Part 1: The Sound of the '90s

Posted by Eddie Siqueira Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Welcome to early '90s music! Thus begins a four-part series in which I will display selected musical and cultural aspects of the last decade of the twentieth century, all orbiting around a three-piece band from Seattle. As we near Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a two-decade mark since the coming and going of grunge, there are important things to remember about this cultural phenomenon that came and went so fast that you had to have lived it to have noticed it at all. Who listened to the radio back then? It was quite unique.

Nirvana kurt cobain chris novoselic dave grohl guitar drums amps amp head drum kit bass
Nirvana in Sound City studios for the recording of Nevermind
It's easy to overlook the specifics of what creates a sound for a certain generation or period in modern music history. Although one aspect is usually enough to speak for several years' span, a varied collection of circumstances and artists have made each decade sound distinct from another since recording first began. The '50s had rock 'n' roll; the '60s had its wall of sound; the '70s had raw, hard rock, disco, and funk moments; the '80s saw the advancement of electronic music and effects flood the mainstream; and the '90s—well, what did the '90s do?

rem losing my religion out of time 1991 michael stipe
REM's Losing My Religion video:
perhaps the first genuinely 90's song
There are two separate halves to the 1990s. I want to speak of the first five years, 1990–1995 specifically. To make things even more accurate, I want to speak of Nirvana's influence. I won't go into the absolute cultural aspects of the grunge persuasion in that period; I'll save that for an upcoming article. Instead, I will focus solely on the music and sound.

butch vig 90s 1990s madison wisconsin nirvana nevermind garbage
Producer Butch Vig
One glance at the charts in the late '80s and early '90s would show that the vast majority of songs on the radio were love ballads, R&B, and the occasional odd song by rock or electronic bands. The sound was usually the reverb-heavy vocals, snare, and piano or guitar solos. Because the music industry is what it is, one-hit wonders of the time made sure to follow in the footsteps of what was "it" at the moment. Go ahead and check the songs that topped the radio in that period. Perhaps the most avant-garde is R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." The song was considered unconventional, and perhaps it displayed a taste of things to come for mass pop ear candy.

Nirvana's first album, Bleach, was a relative underground-debut success in 1989; it was only when they teamed up with producer Butch Vig in 1990 that they truly shaped the sound of that decade. The fortunate combination of pop-savvy songs with punk angst and a producer who put it all together into one hell of a treat brought us the 1991 album Nevermind.

grunge console volume level knob turn it to 11 db neve console
The first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was released on September 10th, 1991, and things began to change drastically. The success of the song was so great that all other things related to the band began to enter mainstream media popularity, including the way they dressed. The lyrics were cryptic and open to interpretation, and the band dismissed the idea of rock-star status despite standing in the spotlight. The album also revitalized the run-down studio Sound City in Van Nuys, CA, which went on to receive numerous bands who wanted to capture the feel and magic of Nevermind (this is showcased in the Dave Grohl-directed documentary Sound City).

Other Seattle-based bands also signed (through their own merit) with major labels and released milestone albums, thus creating the "grunge" era of 1992–1994. Each major band (Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden) had at least one hit single in this period. Yet it was the sound of Nirvana's Nevermind that dictated what would be the next radio hit. The music industry, in that frame of time, achieved what I personally consider to be the greatest moments in the history of pop-rock music production.

roxette crash boom bam crash! boom! bam! per gessle marie fredriksson 1993
Roxette's single from Crash! Boom! Bam!
was a gutsy ode to hard pop-rock
Many artists entered a streak of fortunate songwriting and recording. Some were one-hit wonders, and others just happened to have a natural thick, distorted electric guitar sound that, with the right production, could carry the "pop-iness" of Nirvana and appeal to what the "suits" of the music industry considered the biggest cash-cow at the time. Looking at the radio charts from 1992 through to 1995, we see a decline of love ballads and an increase in alternative rock. The arrangements in the music became very clever and didn't demand a lot of pyrotechnics from shredders and virtuoso show-offs. Note that even though grunge was a thing of the past by 1995, many of the production values remained for a few more years until electronic manipulation of music began to take shape in the mid- to late '90s. That, however, is a different tale.

Returning to our main event, Nirvana always remained on top, including the release of their last studio album, In Utero, in 1993. The sound provided in that album was a lot more raw and punk than that of its predecessor, but it stood strong. The production was rebellious and anti-pop yet still refined, heavily contrasting other rock releases from just four years earlier and confirming the sound of the 1990s.

4 non blondes 1994 linda perry whats up what's up shauna hall 90s 1990s mtv
4 Non Blondes: typical 90s look, that
phenomenal hit song, and curtains
Following the death of Nirvana's lead songwriter and singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain on April 5th, 1994 (a shady suicide that is still controversial), things took a while to switch over. Pop rock was still dominant in the charts but began to fade when boy bands, "gangsta" rap, and dominant male and female solo artists made their appearance in the mid- to late 90s. The negative side, in my opinion, was that the sound of pop music began to morph into a more heavily compressed and electronic pastiche than the come as you are (pun intended) aspect of the earlier years.

kurt cobain in utero guitar smoking cigarette live 1993 mtv
Guitar solo? Not today
Nirvana marked an era that found the most optimal sound for analog recording—not overcompressed or clipped yet big enough to catch the listener off guard. The most coherent mixes were heard in this time; even more experienced artists released albums that sounded far better than any they had ever released. Sting, Madonna, Aerosmith, The Pet Shop Boys, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more produced singles or albums during this time that summarized the delicate balance of performance and coherence versus loudness and appeal on a record. This is a very obvious notch in music history.

Even after all this time, Nirvana is the band that I watched turn the music world on its head in more ways than just socially and sonically. It's the band that made the guitar cool using a different perspective and made questioning "the system" an outdated bore if that's what you wanted to feel. No strings attached.

If you lived the early '90s, tell me about your favorite music and the aspects surrounding it. Wasn't MTV the best thing to entertain us? Uh huh huh. Uh huh huh huh. I said anus.

If you would like to join the team as a contributor or are interested in sponsoring a post on this site, purchasing an ad, becoming an affiliate, or taking part in any kind of promotional opportunities, please use this contact form to send us an email and we will get in touch as soon as possible with more information.