When we was grunge

Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” of course, was released twenty years ago today. This is a fact that makes me feel old. But also reflective.

I was a 14-year old kid living in the Seattle area at the time, and, not to spout cliches, but, like a lot of people, I had my life changed by that record.

I’ve read a bunch of Nirvana tributes, some interesting and some not, but I think my story is a little different from any of them.

Amanda Marcotte wrote an excellent piece about Kurt as a feminist–and he totally was, especially compared to the meatheaded sexism of the bands that grunge displaced, like Warrant or Poison.

Amanda, who is roughly the same age as me, writes about what Nirvana meant to young women–the fact that Kurt openly viewed women as human beings, was very supportive of female artists, spoke out against things like rape.

That was what drew me to the man, too, but in a different way. Nirvana convinced girls like Amanda that they could be badasses. But they were the first ones ever to say to me that I could be feminine. Unapologetically, outrageously feminine.

Kurt would say things like I definitely have a problem with the average macho man, because they have always been a threat to me. I’ve had to deal with them most of my life -being taunted and beaten up by them in school. I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male.”

Prior to that, the whole culture just seemed so sexist to me. I always felt more female than male, even before I was ready to deal with the implications of that, and sexism just made me feel unbelievably lonely and isolated. I never had any use for the image of masculinity that mainstream rock in the 80s was selling me (or, for that matter, the other side of that coin, the image of femininity that mostly seemed to be about breasts and being submissive to men).

Popular culture before Nirvana, as embraced by my peers, made me feel like a space alien.

But then there was Kurt. Openly proclaiming his femininity, wearing dresses onstage, declaring that women were people and femininity in men was acceptable, even admirable. I hadn’t imagined anyone thought that. Almost overnight Nirvana became my favorite band, and Kurt my philosophical role model.

In the liner notes to the compilation Incesticide, Kurt wrote “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do us this one favor–leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” He wrote lyrics like “never met a wise man / if so it’s a woman.” I always imagined that the song “Been A Son,” with its refrain of “she should have been a son,” was about me.

I never thought of Kurt as the “voice of my generation” or anything. How could he have been? I was an outsider, and I felt that he spoke for me, and there was just no way I was enough like everyone else for Kurt to be speaking for them, too. I still feel that way–I don’t claim ownership of the band, obviously, and a lot of people got a lot of different things from Nirvana, and art and artists are like that. But I will not have the frat boys, the meatheads, the sexists, the conservatives, the people who are cruel to those who, like Kurt, are different and not afraid to say so, laying claim to Nirvana. Nirvana is ours, not theirs.

(Fun fact: as a teenager I met Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic at a Sky Cries Mary concert, and kissed him on the cheek.)

I will leave the analysis of what Nirvana meant in a broader cultural context to others. All I know is what Nirvana meant to me. Nirvana made me realize that if I wanted, I could be myself, and loudly proclaim it, and never be ashamed.


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