Race, Riot Grrl, the Black Rock Movement, and Nirvana: The Teen Espirit Revisited Overflow

Teen Espirit Revisited

This all started with J*Davey.

The first sunny morning I experienced in San Francisco, right before I went to hang with the Wikipedians, I checked my email and was treated to a free download of Jack and Brook’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit“.

Little did I know that later in the year I would get a chance to try to contextualize the impact of Nevermind, and Nirvana, and I would do it in the pages of Spin thanks to my awesome editor Charles Aaron. (The magazine is on newsstands now, page 45, and in digital form.)

My pitch for a piece exploring the 90s, and cultural angst was accepted, and the opening paragraph of my pitch was so well received it ended up as the opening for the article. But when I sat down to research, I realized I was making some assumptions about writing on culture that weren’t going to bear out. And after interviewing J*Davey, Jeff Chang, Laina Dawes, Allison Wolfe, Simon Tam, Mimi Thi Nguyen, Frannie Kelley, and Felix Contreras, I realized I had an 8,000 word draft that had to fit into a 2,000 word space. So a lot of really amazing thoughts – especially thoughts that veered a bit too far from the angst theme we eventually settled on – ended up on the cutting room floor. What’s the deal with Generation X? What did NWA and Nirvana have in common? How did corporatization impact the grunge movement? Did the grunge movement push out black rockers? I could have written a dozen other articles based on the stories people told me, but alas, print has space limits.

Still, I wanted to share with you all a bit of the overflow. Fun quotes and discussions after the jump.

Jeff Chang is consistently amazing as an interview subject. Every time I’ve interviewed him, he’s just given me a solid 30 minutes of amazing quotes, which always makes me want to die when I have to edit them down. He’s in the final version of the piece, talking about the mood of so-termed Generation X (a designation he called “bullshit”) and and movements. But here’s what he said about Nirvana and NWA:

Nirvana and NWA, to me, are both sides of the same coin. So it wasn’t ever surprising to me that you have Nirvana fans listening to NWA and NWA fans listening to Nirvana. I am also not surprised that both came out of the West Coast, both movements kind of being ignored by the East Coast establishment. These movements came out and said “here’s who the fuck we are” so in a strange way they were kind of parallel.

Chang also talked about the moment he discovered Nirvana:

My Nevermind moment came before Nevermind. I saw Sonic Youth at the Cress Theater or something in Seattle.And this guy comes on stage with long hair, just trashing it out, and I was like “Who are these guys?” They were primal, really primal. They must have gone through all of Bleach. They played “Love Buzz” and it was one of those moments when you weren’t listening, you were inside the song. I didn’t see Kurt’s face the entire time – just his hair. But the emotional pull was so powerful, it was almost like you could feel inside Kurt’s pores – you were just there. And I still get that feeling now. Even when I listen to his music now, I get that feeling.

With Hendrix, you admire his virtuosity. But you never feel like you can be him. With Janis, you could never be her. With Jim, you never wanted to be him. They were all martyrs for the rock and roll cause, but they still felt distant. But when Kurt died, it was like we all died. You just wanted to protect him because you could have been him. His work was always rich because it was within reach, it was always accessible, emotionally accessible. He didn’t feel like a distant rock god or goddess. Kurt was ours.

A lot of people probably feel the same way about Kurt that they do about Tupac. Kurt was the person you could be, but Tupac was the kid down the street that you loved. Maybe it’s the same thing.

I also got to speak to Jack Davey and Brook D’leau of J*Davey, via Skype, which is always cool. Jack made it in, but I had to cut Brook, even though he had some interesting insights on our changing culture.

Brook D’Leau:

Over the last 15 or 20 years or so since the internet has emerged, it’s this huge abyss of everything and nothing. There are more critics, a lot more people to say something about something. So there are a lot of artists walking on eggshells [to please critics] but that’s delusional. These [critics] are people in their homes, living their life on the internet and it can be trying for artists affected by popular opinion. Anything that has some substance or any real meaning, they don’t like to market it because it will be offensive to someone. Everyone’s so PC right now, so anything that bucks the system stands out. Everything is so homogenized right now. The trends now – I mean the internet gives you access to the new trend, but there aren’t a lot of people standing firm in their selves.

Then I asked both Brook and Jack if they thought there would ever be another Nevermind:

Jack: I think so…I think people are at their wits end and are waiting for someone to wipe the slate clean. You know, it’s like the Rapture…we don’t have a date for it, but it’s coming. People are opening their minds to it, but it’s really going to take someone very persuasive, who can carefully break down these constraints called political correctness. Once people are doing being PC, we can open our minds to a new Nevermind.

Brook: I think the reason why a band like Nirvana was able to do what they did at that magnitude was because they didn’t take themselves seriously, they didn’t take society seriously – all they knew was what was inside of them. Nirvana was successful because they didn’t care what the hell else was going on. if more people did that, we’d actually have something.

I wanted to interview some Riot Grrls for the piece, since they were such a huge part of that movement. Kathleen Hanna declined, pointing me to a video where she said she had already answered most of these questions. I suppose that’s one of the problems with doing a piece on something so well known – everyone tangentially related to Nirvana has been interviewed millions of times between 1994 and now. But I did get in contact with Allison Wolfe, the self-proclaimed “riot granny” from Bratmobile, who took time out from her ridiculous schedule to talk to me on the phone about various things. Her memory of Nevermind was hilarious – I think part of this quote made it in, but here’s the whole one:

I remember thinking [the Nevermind album] was the beginning of the end. Like, there goes the neighborhood! Everything that was so fun, home-grown, community supportive, and stimulating was about to go McGrunge. I loved Nirvana, but I could see it was something no longer special to our community. They were great, but their audiences got worse and worse as they expanded. There was no longer a place for us politically minded girls. Well, there probably never was, but we inserted ourselves in there anyway, and I think those bands valued us. I remember Nirvana’s first big show at the Paramount in Seattle, just before Nevermind’s release. Bikini Kill and Mudhoney opened, and a bunch of us riot grrls went up to the show. A lot of people backstage treated us girls badly. We weren’t taken seriously. In that arena, Bikini Kill wasn’t taken seriously either. [...]

My [twin] sister told me she was at a Nirvana show once after they got really huge and was just getting pummeled. It was not a safe place for women. And they played “Rape Me,” all these sweaty shirtless guys screaming rape me and being pushed around – and she was just like I’m done. And she went backstage and told Kurt and he was really upset – [he kept saying] “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do. And I always remember that story. After a while, it gets out of everyone’s control, even the creators.

Wolfe and I got to talking, and I told her how I was being informed by other things during the grunge era – mostly hip hop and the women there. (I was aware of grunge and riot grrl, but it was really limited to what I heard at my friends houses on on Top 40 radio – I didn’t really embrace rock until 1997.) So we got into a side convo on women in hip hop:

A large part of erasure is women being written out of history. There were so many amazing women hip hop artists – Yo Yo, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Roxane Shante, Queen Latifah, Salt-n-Pepa, just like real people with real message, singing about real things. It definitely had style and flair and sexuality, but there was a lot more to it as well. And at the same time with Public Enemy – there was so much cool and engaged hip hop. It was something that really inspired me and my friends in riot grrls. But women have just been brushed under the rug.

We even talked about backlash and corporate power, a theme that kept coming up time and time again.

I think [the move away from politics in music] is backlash. People in power don’t like to feel like they are out of control. In the early 90s there was so much energy, a kind of rebel spirit in all of these things. But mass culture in the end has to control it, defang it, declaw it, and spit it back out as a product. So in the end it’s just a fad. [...] So you think you’re political, but it’s just a fad. And suddenly we’re post. Post-feminist. Post-racial. Like anything has really changed. Things have gotten better, but there’s still racism, classism, sexism – women are still ending up in ditches. Dead women are still the opening on TV shows.

I then asked Wolfe about an interview she gave to Church of Girl where she said “I don’t want my entertainment/culture/scene just co-opted and sold back to me by Clear Channel or MTV.” We talked a bit about watered down versions of empowerment – I mean, I was a Spice Girls feminist, but yes, it was equal parts marketing message and feminist pop cultural discourse. Wolfe contextualized the shift like this:

I think about when I was in middle school, who was I crying over? Duran Duran. I’d much rather girls be crying over the Spice Girls instead of these guys they can’t obtain. I mean, I’m like Riot Granny – but I’m in a band now with these young girls who know about everything. And they think it’s funny because they don’t know about these obscure bands – but they just troll YouTube all day and discover so much stuff. So in a way it’s kinda cool that they have access to all these historical things…but sometimes I wonder if it’s too easy, that they don’t struggle for these things or experience them live, or amass these experiences where you discover bands because you played for them.

I also wanted to talk to folks outside of the sphere of grunge. When I first started researching for the article (back when I thought it was going to be about suicide narratives, Kurt Cobain and Notorious BIG, and how race plays into attitudes about suicide), I just did a quick search on black kids and Nirvana. I figured someone had to have written about the impact of Cobain on brown kids in the suburbs, right? Wrong! This article may exist somewhere, but it isn’t on the internet. So I started reaching out to black rockers to ask their memories and perceptions. Rob Fields, friend of the blog and creator of Bold As Love offered his thoughts, and also put me in touch with Greg Tate of the Black Rock Coalition. Unfortunately, Tate got back to me too late to be in the article, and I had to cut Rob, but one day I want to circle back to his last thought:

In terms of memories associated with Nevermind, it was definitely a combination of that video for Smells Like Teen Spirit and the music itself. I remember seeing a lot of videos on “The Box” back then, and it had this whole, gauzy Matt Mahurin look to it. The cheerleaders with the scrawled circled A on their uniforms suggested something slightly demonic. Musically, the thing that I immediately noticed–and always loved–was that rumbling bassline. It always sounded kinda black to me.

The impact on black rockers? I remember a lot of folks in the BRC really loving it. It was a big album that fall and into 92, so everybody seemed to be listening to it. But in terms of other musicians, I feel like what was really exciting us was that it seemed to be a moment in which black rock bands might break through. We were hopeful. Here’s what I can remember: Living Colour released their Biscuits EP that year. Fishbone released The Reality of My Surroundings. Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Said came out that year. The Family Stand released the critically acclaimed Moon In Scorpio. Eric Gales had his first release on Elektra. Sony released Eye & I’s debut album. 24-7 Spyz would release Strength in Numbers in the summer of 92. My point is that there was a lot of black rock bands that seemed to be on the verge of breaking through. We were more hopeful that things would change for the better, and it had very little to do with Cobain & company. To be fair, though, the focus on Seattle grunge probably pulled critical attention away from bands like Spyz and Fishbone.

Metal critic Laina Dawes, who did end up in the piece, also noted the expression that allowed Cobain to resonate with so many people would have been blocked from the mouths from those designated as others:

When Nevermind came out, it seemed like the perfect blend of rebellious, angry punk, macho heavy metal and youthful disillusionment. I had a friend who was a die-hard, Joe-Jock metalhead, yet he was able to tap into the feminine, sensitive side of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, loved him in an almost homoerotic sense, and who sobbed like a child when Cobain died. Nevermind was really the voice of that generation of youth who didn’t buy what Regan had tried to sell; who didn’t want to become their parents whom they….not despised, but felt like they sold their souls for a rigid conformity that only the youth could see was a bullshit, soulless existence. Unlike today, that era seemed to legitimately know and believe that making money was not going to bring them emotional or spiritual happiness – something that we, in this age, seemed to have conveniently forgotten. That generation questioned authority – not through violence, but by looking to popular culture’s elders and sub-dwellers; by reading books and lyrics from people whom they seemed to feel had the key to enlightenment. While simplistic, that act of investigation through developing one’s knowledge and questioning authority in a non-aggressive manner, seems to have been totally lost in this age of technology.

As a young black girl, I didn’t quite get the angst on Nevermind, as I knew that Cobain, despite his poverty-stricken childhood and physical ailments ( some self-inflicted, some not), had more societal privilege than I would ever have. But I appreciated the effort, and the music was so diverse and enraptured so many different kinds of people and thoughts, that you were allowed to take from it what you could to suit your specific existence, and run with it. After all, his lyrics tapped into a vulnerability that transcended across racial and gender lines. But some had the luxury of speaking about it openly and garnering a legion of fans who would be their to and others were chastised for it. I was always well aware of the contradictions.

And finally, the cut that hurt the worst, was leaving our blog home girl Mimi Thi Nguyen out of the final product when I adored what she had to say:

I remember the ’90s through something of a static screen; it was the time of my pop culture blackout, since I imagined myself to be too punk to care. I recall that I worried that post-Reagan (and the first Bush), that our political and cultural labors would lose their urgency under the more liberal face of the Clinton administration. Indeed, in the ’90s, we witnessed a raft of draconian measures targeting immigrant populations, youth of color. I was also a women’s health care activist and organizer and a clinic defender, and some of the worst violence against clinics and abortion providers happened in the ’90s (clinic bombings and several murders), as well as the emergence of new legal tactics to restrict access to women’s healthcare. I suppose I saw this mirrored in the mainstreaming of independent music too. By the time Nevermind came out, I was already invested in punk, and not a fan of the Sub Pop sound, and no doubt a critic of the corporate music industry when I bothered to consider it at all. I didn’t feel that Nirvana or Nevermind had anything to do with me, frankly.

The memory I most associate with Nirvana is the cover of a 1994 Maximumrocknroll (issue 133), featuring a closely cropped photograph of a gun barrel inside someone’s mouth with the headline, “Major Labels: Some Of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked.” At the time, I worked at the not-for-profit record store Epicenter Zone, located in the Mission District, which was affiliated loosely with the magazine, and I remember too that we were all shocked when Cobain killed himself — with a gunshot.

I don’t even know what ’90s fashion is; I was dressed in black for most of that decade. I was never into grunge as either a sartorial or musical style, but I would hazard that grunge as a fashion or anti-fashion statement emerged from thrifting as scavenging practice for anti-corporate cultures. I know that grunge became commercialized in the ’90s, alongside the music, though again I plead pop culture blackout. (Ugh, plaid.) The 2010 revival did not appear to bear this particular historical memory, but perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps it did hold out hope for some semblance of an “authentic” way of being.

I remember the ’90s as an outsider in an outsider subculture. Over the course of the decade, I found that it was too late to save punk rock for me. I still have what I consider to be punk-rock reflex, but my identification was made precarious and partial especially in confrontation with punk rock’s whiteness, its masculinist bent, and its often reactionary politics and aesthetics. (Once a straight, white punk boy wrote a song about wanting to rape me. Just another reason why I made the compilation zines …Race Riot, about race and racism in subcultures.) Throughout the ’90s, I learned over and again that punk rock was as contentious a cultural, political and social sphere as any other. For me, punk rock was not an exception to the rule, to the so-called “mainstream,” and neither are punk rockers.

I wrote this in a column for Punk Planet: Does my presence necessarily or automatically critique punk rock hegemony? Did the presence of women in punk rock mean that riot grrrl did not fundamentally tear at the social fabric of unquestioned masculinity and privilege in punk? Does the fact of Latino or Asian American or black or queer participation within the span of punk rock history negate the mountainous evidence of racisms and homophobia? (Answer to all of the above: NO.) Without downplaying the complex acrobatics of identifying, what are the terms and logic of inclusion? What do I have to look like, act like, speak like, in order that I might become one of the gang? Or consider: do you read my presence as a reaffirmation (to your relief) of your punk rock (and Americanist) bootstrap ideology of exceptionalism and self-made individuals? “Oh, she’s different than the others.” (That’s not my idea of a compliment.)

I wish all this could have fit, but I had to find a way to squeeze in disco, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, Rickie Vasquez, Aeon Flux, and emo. I also couldn’t get a firm bead on Nirvana and the Rock en español movement that Felix Contreras pointed me toward. Such are the issues with time limits and space. But hopefully, I’ll get a chance to revisit it some day.

Please help support – check out the issue, buy a copy, and help keep our voices in the cultural conversation.

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  • kim

    great read! i haven’t read spin since about 1994 but i will for this. love the nirvana/nwa comments as that really was true for me. i was always a hip hop fan but liked listening to nirvana alot. is there by any chance any mention of the 90s raver electronica scene? i felt like that was a big cultural movement then too which has been commodified and corporatized as well. its also one of the white music scenes where i felt less “different” than the others.

  • Julieta

    What an enjoyable read!

    Re: your conversation with Allison Wolfe. I “cried over the Spice Girls.” As a tween, my white friends and I would hotly debate over who was most like which Spice Girl. I was ALWAYS Scary. Not because I was black, but my father is a Mexican national which was close enough.

    I was okay with it. She may have been “the black one,” just like I was “the brown one,” but she was also something else. She was pierced and loud and hot as hell. She was the *different* one, and I loved it.

    In high school we moved immediately from Spice Girls to Nirvana. Someone’s older sister introduced us to Nevermind and the messages were different but translated well. The ease with which I could access those bands was a godsend. In 2002 I was 16, undiagnosed bipolar, highly unstable and had fallen in love with Alice in Chains. Layne Staley’s death made me get help.

    Now, AiC has William DuVall. He’s not Layne, but he’s the Real F-in’ Deal. He’s also, like Scary Spice, more than just “the colored one.” There’s probably more to be explored there but this is long enough.

  • PatrickInBeijing

    Wow!  What a great article!!  I too want to find the Spin version.  But, this is just a teaser, you said you have a lot more!  Please, please, share with us!  It is so great to hear more reality about those times, and from the broader perspective that Racialicious provides so well.  Great interviews!!!  More, more!

  • http://feministe.us/blog/ Lauren

    Latoya, I may have to go buy Spin magazine for the first time in 15 years. What a coup for Spin to score you and this article.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Lauren!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this; it brought back my college years, as I morphed from the DJ on the punk show (1984-85) to program director at my college radio station from 1987-92 my musical choices encompassed so much of the music you talk about here. I was never as big a fan of Nirvana as I was of Fishbone, but I do get that the mainstream popularity of Cobain et al gave other bands more breathing room and access to more listeners.

    I still miss the anger that seemed to abound in music in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s, and the energy that seemed to give to social justice movements. What happened to the bands that would take a stand on an issue and drag their audience along for the ride? And more importantly, why have we as a society seemed to go backwards in time along with the state of pop music (or is the music going back a result of society)?

    I’m a worn-out 45 year old, who’d like to have the future she worked so hard for as a young adult; instead I feel like I have to start again. Fighting for basic rights for everyone on the planet never ends and I know that, but trending backwards this far is too much.

  • Anonymous

    As a 90s kid, I spent much of my time with rock always feeling as if it was “not for me” as a gay black man, because the face of every rock band, whether they were critically loved or just commercially successful, mainstream or underground, seemed to be the straight white male. The music seemed to document their experiences, their feelings of alienation, their despair over the few areas of their lives where they had no privilege. This made it impossible for me to connect to the music and lyrics on an emotional level because I felt like an outsider pretending to an experience I’d never had, even if I was utterly enraptured by the guitar riffs and other beats. Though I do have a fondness for the melodramatics of New Wave bands like Depeche Mode, whose beats have always had this air of sadness to them that always stuck with me. I lived in something of a musical black hole though at the time, and it’s only now that I’m really discovering old school R&B, disco, 80s synth pop and finding stuff I love as well as modern acts who capture these genres really well. I’ve more or less completely gone off of rock now. One of it’s major contradictions for me was that for all of it’s pretense towards eschewing the image-obsessed standards of the rest of mainstream pop music, it’s various movements were equally concerned with image and for all their dislike of shallow and irrelevant lyrics, they seemed to substitute generic songs about love with surface nods towards social awareness, but kept the lack of self-examination and introspection.

  • lynn

    I was a black rocker chick in the 80s. I was a huge fan of the Clash, Bad Brains and a gazillion other bands. Went out to hear live music probably 3-4x a week for years. Played bass and sang in a garage band in college. By the time the whole riot grrl thing happened, and even Nirvana, I was in my mid-20s and had moved on to jazz and other forms of music where there was a higher level of musicianship. 

    There was no online community such as afropunk.com, to connect with other people of color also into the music. You were like a black dot in a sea of white. When I hear that music now it sounds so “white-male” to me. Still into rock but I prefer the blues-based sound of rock from the 60s and 70s. Those guys could play better than the punks and the music feels warmer, probably because it came from the blues.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=783095651 Nichole Fromm

    “It’s really going to take someone very persuasive, who can carefully break down these constraints called political correctness. Once people are doing being PC, we can open our minds to a new Nevermind.”

    Like Gaga? Maybe that’s what the “chola” and “Orient” lyrics were all about.

    • Ike

      Or maybe Gaga just builds upon centuries of white people with power defining the “other” through their own worldview? I see nothing new or worth celebrating about Gaga’s reminder that I was born to be spat upon and dismissed on the basis of my race. (Or maybe my sarcasm detector isn’t on this morning.)

    • nome

      Um, ya, no. She’s just another white girl who wants to look o-so edgy for the fanbase. Her use of racist terms is racist and that has nothing to do with being PC. Fuck political correctness. It’s about her being another white girl throwing POC under the bus to gain cool-points. This is nothing new or exciting or different from what a million other people have done. Not to mention her transphobia and transmisogyny. She claims to be a spokesperson for the queer community, but her actions fuck queer people over.

      But even beyond her shitty actions, how is her music new? It’s the same bullshit dance music that has been popular for years. Her music is as carefully constructed to be popular as her image is.