Over here on the populism part of this blog, this April will be about 1994.

Have you ever complained about boy bands? What’s the first defense of the boy-band police? Something like: “They’ve been around since the 50s, they’re just a side part of any healthy rock’n’roll scene, and besides I like this one song.” That defense conveniently ignores the fact that overprocessed pop bands were completely, utterly dead – unsellable – between New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls, or basically, during the grunge era. You have probably read (Rolling Stone has written it at least 100 times) that Nirvana suddenly made obsolescent all the “hair bands” – namely Poison, Warrant, Skid Row, Whitesnake, up to and including Bon Jovi and Guns N Roses. The truth is both more and less than that, and Rolling Stone, which this week is peddling Nirvana on newsstands one more time, should know better.

By the time Nirvana’s Nevermind came out in September 1991, pop music needed a serious cleansing, and if Kurt Cobain had joined the Peace Corps or something, someone else would have benefitted from the previous years’ buildup of bombast. The flash and glitter went way beyond hair bands: it was New Kids, it was MC Hammer, it was Vanilla Ice, it was Milli Vanilli lip-synching. All of these were major stories in 1990 and 1991, all of them calling into question issues of theft and pop music realness. MC Hammer and “You Can’t Touch This” was a particular sore point, because conscious hip-hop was very clearly in a golden age, but instead of noticing that, Rolling Stone focused on a “rapper” dancing in gold-lapelled sweatpants. Actually, if you turned on MTV in 1990 (back when it mattered, back when it played videos), you were as likely to see Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, and Paul McCartney as you were any band that didn’t have a hit in the 1960s. MTV in early 1991 was basically dinosaurs and divas and deceivers.

The answers to pop’s woes had been staring it in the face for years, in the form of bands like the Cure, Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, Fugazi, the Pixies, and 100 other “alternative” bands to whom MTV couldn’t and wouldn’t give major airtime, outside of their “modern rock” show 120 Minutes. (Whatever else U2 were, they were outliers; when they became Rock Gods in 1987, they didn’t bring with them any of their “modern rock” brethren.) By September 1991, thanks partly to 80s fatigue and other societal trends that I’ll discuss in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, Americans clearly wanted something…that wasn’t Milli Vanilla MC HamNew Kids. This was clear from the surging summer popularity of 1) MTV Unplugged, 2) R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” 3) Perry Farrell’s original Lollapalooza, and 4) hip-hop.

Here’s something no one else has written: outside of the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan, there may never have been a more fateful week in pop music, nay, pop culture, than the week of September 22-28, 1991. That Saturday brought the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, starring new NBA champion Michael Jordan and Public Enemy (PE had been bumped to this episode because of the Sinead O’Connor controversy). It would take two more blog posts to explore the greatness of that SNL show, but to summarize, it was a bit of a defense against In Living Color, a conscious African-American party (also featuring Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson, Chris Rock, and others) unlike any SNL had provided before (or since). Public Enemy debuted their new song, “Can’t Truss It,” in a barn-burning performance that made millions of white people think: hey, maybe we shouldn’t trust whitey.

On September 24, 1991, Nevermind was released into record stores. Jon Pareles wrote in 1992 in The New York Times, “Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions”. Michael Azerrad later wrote, “Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to.” What historians like Azerrad have “overlooked, ignored” is that at the exact moment that conscious hip-hop was reaching its zenith as the voice of young America, a bunch of kids who didn’t like rap suddenly had something real that they could call their own. It takes nothing away from the genuine, harrowing greatness of Nevermind to say that its timing was exceptional – and fatal for political hip-hop, which would soon turn entirely gangster. (You could make a similar case for the Beatles and Motown, a case that would also not imply that the Beatles were racist, or anything but outstanding.)

So what did I mean by Nirvana was both more and less than the band that killed the hair bands? Well, they were more, in that their success (unlike the Sex Pistols in 1977) invalidated everything fake about pop music (think Rick Astley, or Roxette) for at least a few years. (Yes, Mariah Carey had her biggest years then. Not all white people realize that there’s nothing artificial about her.) But Nirvana was also less, in the sense that the changes were probably coming anyway, and in fact some 1980s bands with long-haired lead singers had their biggest successes just after Nevermind – notably Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The key theme of American music from 1991 to 1994 was not quite grunge – it was authenticity of a sort that the New Kids just couldn’t do. In that mini-era, U2 and R.E.M. broke personal records when they did authenticity (Achtung Baby, Automatic for the People) and failed when they didn’t (Zooropa, Monster). Guns N Roses would have invalidated themselves with or without help from Nirvana, and Jon Bon Jovi was doing just fine with long hair and a more stripped-down style. But yes, Nirvana certainly helped other grunge bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails achieve a visibility that might not have happened otherwise. Nirvana moved the needle, but if not them, someone else could have. We could have had the 90s without Nirvana, but would we have wanted to?

The truth is, you simply can’t discount the power of a young (then 24), blond, blue-eyed, handsome-faced, long-haired, own-song-writing, rock-guitar-playing, flannel-and-Chuck-Ts-wearing, living, breathing example that was Kurt Cobain, singing “with a voice like an exposed nerve,” as one critic then had it. Had the lead singer of the Pixies looked more like Cobain (and had Dolittle come out in 1991, instead of 1989), well, who knows. There will always be people who discount most of a musical movement, but begrudgingly (no, not begrungeily) respect someone they’ve seen or heard somewhere somehow. Think how many people don’t know reggae, but know Bob Marley. Like it or not – and obviously, Kurt didn’t – Cobain was the face of 90s punk, the face of grunge. For a couple of years there, he channeled all the demented scrawls on bathroom walls, all the pukey stains on mattresses, all the leftover film emulsion, all of society’s debris and detritus. It took years and many replays to appreciate the howling cry of spasmodic alienation that was Nevermind. In 1992 and 1993, Cobain had a unique claim on making pain into art.

And that’s why the moment that Kurt Cobain took a shotgun to his head, 20 years ago this weekend, wasn’t just any suicide, not even just any rock’n’roll suicide (to borrow a lyric from an artist Nirvana covered). For us Generation X-ers, it was both an unimaginable loss (how many great albums did he have left in him?) and somehow terrifying. Was this whole self-hating punk-death-wish thing a little out of hand? Had we loved him too much, or not enough? Compared to reviews for Nevermind, the notices for its follow-up In Utero were more mixed; people demanded purer nihilism, yet on the other hand people also demanded Kurt comport himself like a rock star, like, say, Neil Young or Freddie Mercury (both of whom Kurt referenced in his suicide note). Who were we, to demand that Kurt dig so deep into himself, yet come up smiling? Perhaps it was time to re-examine our relationship to music, to violence, to rebelling against everything that the baby boomers had come to stand for. (The postmortem chasing of various murder theories feels like active denial of this re-examination. The world of hip-hop, now cleaved off thanks to grunge, would have its own rude awakening after the deaths of Tupac and Biggie.)

As a side note, these days, it’s a little hard to imagine a band like Nirvana succeeding with a song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and an album like Nevermind. Have you spoken lately to any teenager? The “anarchy” symbols in the video would be ripped to shreds on twitter, the cheerleaders instagrammed and found not hot, not talented enough. The very idea of a baby in a swimming pool chasing a dollar bill – what the hell, does Nirvana have some kind of obviously hypocritical problem with making money? Nowadays, we are sincere only after we admit that we like capitalism.

In the end, of course, grunge and musical “authenticity” didn’t end on the day that Cobain’s dead body was found in Seattle. But Cobain’s death was nonetheless bigger than himself. Just as it’s hard to imagine 80s music playing out the same way if John Lennon had lived, somehow the second half of the 90s wasn’t quite the same without Kurt. Not right away, but within a couple of years, grunge became more sanitized, more corporate-friendly, less shotgun-in-the-eyes and more Third Eye Blind. Two years after Kurt’s suicide, Lollapalooza and the “women’s rock” movement (including the Breeders, Hole, Liz Phair, and Alanis Morissette) crested out. And schlock returned, first with the Spice Girls and then with N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Again, as with grunge in general, you can’t put all of that on Kurt. But in April 1994, everyone felt a chilly wind blow, an unwelcome wake-up call. With Kurt’s light out, it was less dangerous. In April 1994, though we didn’t know it yet, the second half of the 90s began to begin.

Next week: Part 2 of 4: The news media