The Moment: Nirvana on SNL

Nirvana's influence on American culture can still be seen today. Image Courtesy: ExaggerArt
Nirvana’s influence on American culture can still be seen today. Image Courtesy: ExaggerArt

By Keysha Hogan

Around 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night in Texas, a brown skinned 9-year-old girl wearing Care Bear pajamas snuck out of bed and into her playroom. She kneeled on the floor in front of a large woodpaneled television and turned a big knob until she landed on her biggest secret. She wasn’t supposed to be up this late, she wasn’t supposed to watch shows like this, and she was too young to understand that type of humor.

Every week she tried to be on her best behavior. She memorized all of her Bible verses, and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Up until this fateful night, she only listened to the music of her parents. This girl knew the love and heartache of Otis Redding and the driving dance anthems of Donna Summer, but on Jan. 11, 1992 she witnessed something that felt entirely honest, new and unmistakably cool.

Three disheveled white boys from Seattle stood center stage in Rockefeller Center wearing old sweaters, t-shirts and ripped jeans. First came a guitar riff and then loud defiant drums. This music didn’t sound like being on your best behavior or following the rules. This music embodied the spirit of not giving a damn anymore. And for those of us in the middle of the country, miles away from the rad new trends of the big cities, this music felt like it was for us.

Once the chorus came in and Kurt Cobain was yelling “I feel stupid and contagious, Here we are now, entertain us,” they had our undivided attention. Just as quickly as the song had built into a head banger, the screaming guitar fell out and Cobain continued singing over a walking bass line and steady drum beat.

Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, collectively known as Nirvana, had just melted America’s face. In their performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit. they caused a million hairline fractures in the lives of everyone who never jumped on the New Kids on the Block bandwagon, including myself even though I was wearing those Care Bear  pajamas.

Later in the show they performed the high-octane punk track Territorial Pissings which begins with the Youngblood lyrics “Come on people now, smile on your brother and everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” They follow up that classic line about brotherhood by talking about how it’s women who are truly wise, and  explaining that your paranoia may not be imagined.

After they performed their second song, Cobain fiercely rammed his guitar neck through a wall of speakers. Grohl followed by throwing his drum kit all over the stage. The band then unleashed a torrent of energy and trashed the entire stage while wearing self-satisfied grins of defiance.

In the closing credits of Saturday Night Live the musical guest and cast usually awkwardly stand behind the celebrity host as they thank everyone in creation for making this all possible. But Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic had other plans. They lunged at each other and started making out. That’s right world, there were three men in a triple kiss, swapping spit on network television. They later said the act was simply meant to “piss off the rednecks and homophobes.”

Everything about Nirvana’s night on SNL felt like BOOM. Even in our collective naivete we knew the game had just changed. In the same month their album unseated Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. People everywhere started tying flannel shirts around their baggy ripped jeans and grunge style became mainstream.

Nirvana stood in direct contrast to the rock music of the 80s. This was nothing like the hairmetal bands that roamed from arena to arena with teased hair and spandex. The band destroyed the pompous cockiness that came before it and paved the way for the alternative music scene. This paradigm shift allowed people to step back and have an intimate connection with music again.

Nirvana’s lyrics weren’t about party anthems, but more about how the sad oddballs will inherit the Earth. They tackled issues of drugs, depression and the ethical dilemmas that fame had afforded them. On the cover of Rolling Stone, Cobain wore a shirt that said “Corporate Magazines Still Stuck.”

Members of the band always seemed conflicted between the need for people to hear the music and the financial partnerships they had to make for that to happen. This refreshing level of honesty endeared us to the band even when it hit upon darker topics.

Cobain’s lyrics were full of references to his ambivalence and depression. He seemed resolved that there were many depths of sorrow and he was familiar with them all. This was a new spin on old feelings. He spoke plainly and started a conversation about melancholy that had previously been out-of-bounds. When he sang “I’m so lonely, and that’s OK” (from Lithium) it resonated as true as a mantra we had repeated to ourselves.

Since the release of the album Nevermind, the Recording Industry Association of America has declared the album has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and is certified Diamond. Publications such as Time Magazine and  Rolling Stone also have named Nirvana as one of the most culturally influential bands of all time.

Just two short years after their debut on SNL, Cobain died from an apparent suicide and each year fans all over the world still mourn the loss. Drummer Grohl has gone on to become a rock legend with his band Foo Fighters. And Novoselic created a political action committee for artists and musicians, lobbies for electoral reform and occasionally plays with the Foo Fighters.

Nirvana was an underground band with an understanding of melody coupled with punk rock sensibilities that had the guts to lay its cathartic lyrics at our feet. That Saturday night in 1992 was the moment that sparked a  counterculture revolution that defined the 90s and changed the music scene forever.