AFTER 1989 is a series that reexamines the intersection of race and pop culture during the ’90s. The following is an excerpt from a longer essay.
This is a talk about the past, steeped in a willful nostalgia and in the disproportionate shadow an episode of a sitcom, a page of a magazine, or a music video may still cast, decades after its first viewing.
So allow me to be the one-hundred-millionth person to speak fondly of the band Nirvana.
We recently marked the eighteenth anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, the band’s charismatic lead singer. I was beginning high school when Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, came out, meaning I was fairly young, deeply idealistic, and still of the mind that one’s life could abide by a consistent set of values. Perhaps to those a bit older than me, Nirvana was a retread band who promised nothing new, and perhaps to those younger than me, they were merely another offering from the undifferentiated, unscrutinized field of MTV and radio-approved popular music. But I was precisely in the age group for whom Nirvana would, for better or worse, become a formative touchstone.
I don’t want to go on at length about Nirvana’s influence, for fear of this devolving into some low-stakes game of music criticism. For our purposes, it suffices to recall that Nirvana’s ascension represented a breaking point in the business of music. Suddenly, music that had once been relegated to college radio or independent record stores, the music that had once seemed too local, regional, impossibly weird for mass consumption—suddenly, major labels became interested in this music. This isn’t to say that Nirvana was the first band with an independent identity that had signed with a major label. But the sensation of Nevermind—it kicked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts in 1992, and it has sold 30 million copies total—was an unprecedented one. This was, to quote one knowing documentary, the year punk broke.
But the contradictions of projecting modest, backyard heroes into IMAX were rife. This was captured in their 1992 cover for Rolling Stone magazine, back when Rolling Stone and other magazines still mattered. The three members of the band were standing outside in a vaguely desertlike scene, marked by signs that seemed transgressive at the time—dyed hair, thrift-shop grandpa cardigans, beat-up sneakers. Cobain wore a shirt bearing words he had written himself: “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.”
Seeing this cover scrambled the moral compass I had carefully calibrated as a fourteen-year-old. It confused my sense of how things worked. Was there not something triumphant about Nirvana’s absorption into the mainstream pop economy? These were underdogs of the underclass, who had somehow made it. For those who bemoaned the manufactured quality of mainstream culture, wasn’t the success of Nirvana something to be celebrated? Wasn’t this a rare moment when the good guys had won, like when the plucky underdog wins the Oscar or Grammy, or the serious, uncompromising author sits atop the best-seller charts? Why did Cobain insist on refusing corporate culture? Why this act of resistance? Was he being ironic? Hadn’t he won? What was at the heart of this cry from within the system?
This fear of selling out, or appearing as though you’ve done so and somehow surrendered your selfhood for the proverbial Puma sweatsuit, seems, to me, a quintessentially ’90s question. And part of this is because it has been ages since I’ve heard anyone accused of being a sellout. When this anxiety does surface, as when Bon Iver won a Grammy back in February and mumbled about artistic integrity, it can seem quaint, an off-key hearkening-back to the time when people believed in a clear line between art and commerce, authenticity and mass society, acts of refusal and a culture of conformity. This was certainly the case in March when filmmaker Darren Aronofsky was accused by some of “selling out” for directing a humdrum commercial for the Kohl’s department store chain. Such compromises have attended art since the very beginning, Aronofsky’s defenders explained, offering a seemingly more enlightened view of post-sellout culture in which it was the fruits of such collaborations that should be assessed, rather than the quality of one’s bedfellows.
This ambivalence fascinates me, not because I think we should return to a time when the anxiety of selling out attended every gesture of public self-expression. Whether or not Kurt Cobain truly felt that corporate culture “sucked,” his joke pointed out the degree to which he might be perceived as being compromised. The sellout, then, becomes a shorthand for those who have somehow crossed over, and it helps clarify and index the lines we have at different times drawn between communities and commitment, individual choice and integrity. It is a tractor beam, keeping everything in its right place.
But is the notion of selling out still relevant? If not, how has its logic been rerouted, its energies diffused and redirected, absorbed as part of how we today understand culture, marginalization, and participation? And, lastly, how does this help us understand the cultural changes of the past twenty years?
As the Cold War drew to a close, people in the 1990s, particularly young people, began to participate in culture in two distinct new ways: as part of a movement to topple mainstream monoculture in favor of “alternative culture”; and as exemplars of a new, “multicultural” age in which diversity would be prized. The question of conformity took on new dimensions, now that the drab grays and olive greens of the iron curtain no longer felt like a viable alternative.
At first, it might seem strange to look at these two developments side-by-side: the emergence of the crossover culture embodied by, say, Nirvana, hip-hop, and Quentin Tarantino; and the multicultural debates of the 1990s, when cultural and political debates converged around things like educational curricula and canons, bilingual education and affirmative action, the discourse of colorblind politics, “ethnic” holidays, and the legacies of the civil rights movement. I’m interested in the similarities here, the ways in which patterns of behavior offered by these new social configurations might reinforce one another.
Within each of these loosely defined communities, a new set of questions and possibilities arose in the 1990s, chief among them, how you could negotiate and thrive within systems that had once prohibited your participation. One way of putting it would be this: what can we make of the 1990s’ embrace of diversity, whether of the pop charts or as a political ideal?