Someone recently lifted up Nirvana before me as the group that changed the way a generation looked at rock music. Here’s how I respond to that point, with text reproduced from an article originally published around 1995.
The key phrase in what you wrote there is “changed the way people looked at rock music” (with emphasis on the look): the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was extraordinary when MTV had nothing hard except hair metal bands, no doubt about that, and it was certainly attention getting. But the music? I dunno. Sure, it may have gotten rock back onto the radio, but it wasn’t new in any particular sense of the word, and I can’t see how it changed the way people listened to music, which would seem to be what counts.
I mean, for people who had been listening to rock music since the ’70s, Nirvana didn’t really change anything for us: they seemed like Husker Du or Soul Asylum with better videos and cuter band members, basically.
If you want to have a revelation on their sound, listen to Killdozer’s key ’80s albums Twelve Point Buck and Li’l Baby Buntin’.” Nevermind (Nirvana’s breakthrough album) was produced by Butch Vig, who had honed his skills on half-a-dozen Killdozer records in the ’80s, and they were the products of huge and kickass rock and rock music made by guys wearing flannel shirts and worshiping Black Sabbath long before Nirvana broke big. If Killdozer had had a more emo/tortured artiste singer like Kurt Cobain (rather than the cookie-monster sounding Michael Gerald), they’da been bigger than Jesus five years before Nevermind became a hit. Gerald also wrote far better lyrics than Cobain ever did, just for the record.
As another key data point, listen to Scream, Dave Grohl’s pre-Nirvana band. I think it’s crucial to note that Nirvana had been kicking around for a while before Grohl and Vig joined their camp, and that it was those guys who put ’em over the top. Cobain and Novoselic never woulda made it outta the Great Northwest without them.
Having listened to folks like Killdozer and Scream and the Butthole Surfers and others in the ’80s, it was hard to get much excited about Nirvana or any of the other grunge/Seattle bands. The way I saw it (then and now) Nirvana’s was the first modern “music revolution” (as declared by the media) that felt like it was backward looking, based on recycling old ’70s metal moves, and I think it was ultimately stillborn because of that.
What influence does Nirvana/grunge have on the state of pop culture today? I can cite the legacies of real revolutionaries like Elvis Presley or the Beatles or the Ramones easily in today’s popular culture, but not Nirvana.
Frankly, I think the real revolution that was happening in those days of the early ’90s, from a pop culture standpoint, was more along the lines of Public Enemy and Anthrax getting together to re-record “Bring Tha’ Noise.” There are more descendents of rap-metal in the charts today than there are descendants of grunge, and a rap-metal duet was a helluva lot more original and shocking at the time than the music of Nirvana ever was, though damned if that “Teen Spirit” video didn’t kick ass visually, largely because of those big-boobed cheerleaders and their tattoos, as much as nobody wants to admit that.