Updated: April 5, 2011, on the 17th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain.
Where were you when you first heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? If you’re under 40, chances are good you can remember that moment.
I was a young radio DJ working the night shift on an AM top 40 station in Kitchener, Ontario. It was a Friday night, or more precisely Saturday morning. The songs I was to play were on a playlist chosen for my by the Program Director. Like most late night DJ’s, I knew damn well the Program Director was asleep for most of my shift, but I still tried to keep to the playlist as much as possible. At least until 3 or 4am, when I could be certain he was out for the night.
After playing “OPP” by Naughty By Nature, I put a CD I hadn’t seen before into the player. It was just another song on my playlist. In no way was I prepared for what happened when I pushed “play” on that CD.
The moment that opening riff ripped through the late night AM airwaves, I was keenly aware that I was hearing something truly different. And I had the amazing pleasure of sharing it with thousands (or at least dozens) of listeners.
Almost 20 years later, the impact of Nirvana’s arrival cannot be understated. It was a song/album/band that kicked hair metal out of the room and established angst as a reasonable emotion. It gave musical voice to a generation that had been searching for one and not finding it in the rock of the day, which was pretty much all about girls, booze, and cars. Nobody was speaking to a generation growing up in the shadows of the boomers, raised in the “me” decade, left to wonder what would be left of the world when our selfish predecessors were done with it.
Nirvana – and the movement they were part of – sang about reality. They were angry, confused, uncertain, proud, and ready to talk about it.
But if the music Nirvana made was THAT groundbreaking, how did it hit mainstream culture so quickly?
Nirvana delivered something unexpected within an expected framework. The band gave us a sound that surprised and shocked us, yet they did it with familiar chords and harmonies that we had heard somewhere before.
Kurt Cobain himself said “We got attention because our songs have hooks, which stick in people’s minds”.
The songs on “Nevermind” were unlike any other songs on the radio in 1991. Yet they were absolutely full of simple pop music hooks. Songs like “Come As You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are almost formulaic in their use of memorable hooks.
Kurt also realized that he was doing something nobody else was doing. He was mixing two kinds of familiar sounds that hadn’t really been mixed together before. “It wasn’t cool to play pop music as a punk band”, he said, “And I wanted to mix the two.”
According to the band’s founder, Nirvana played pop music as a punk band.
We had all heard pop music, laden with hooks that stuck in your brain for days.
We had all heard punk bands, angry and loud and far from hook-filled.
But most of us had never, ever heard pop music played by a punk band.
That was part of the musical briliance of Nirvana. They presented conflicting sounds, yet brought them together in a familar sound.
When the brain heard Nirvana for the first time, it was shocked by the bizarre combination of two known elements. You couldn’t help but notice Nirvana because their music was so different. But the brain was also very familiar with pop and punk, and was able to reconcile the two sounds into a new sound.
Like Reece’s Peanut Butter cups! Everyone has tasted peanut butter, and everyone has tasted chocolate. But when Reece’s Peanut Butter cups combined the two, our brains were forced to reconcile them together into an entirely new product.
If you are ever in Winnipeg, try the Chili Chocolate Chicken at Fude Restaurant. We’ve all tasted chocolate. We’ve all tasted chicken. But most of us have never tasted the combination of seared chicken, slathered in a house made dark chocolate sauce off set with spicy cayenne cream and chilies.
Conficting ideas awake the brain.
Putting them in a familiar context makes the unfamiliar easier to digest.
Another reason that Nirvana was successful was because thay aligned themselves with Geffen Records, an established record company at the time. Geffen provided the unknown quantity (Nirvana and grunge music) with a spokesperson (the record label that released albums by Don Henley, Elton John, Donna Summer, John Lennon, Whitesnake, Guns N’ Roses, and Aerosmith). That’s a pretty cool combination of avant-garde music and mainstream promotion. By aligning themselves with Geffen Records, Nirvana was given instant credibility and access to a massive promotional machine to get their music heard.
Here’s what I think Kurt Cobain and Nirvana can teach us in terms of branding:
1. Surprise customers with something unusual, but put it in context that is easily understood. Just like people tell you a new food “tastes like chicken”, allow your customer to find a point of reference for your new innovation. James Dyson created a bag-less vacuum cleaner. He didn’t need to call it a vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaners have bags. This was something entirely new. But by calling it a bagless vacuum cleaner, he put it into context so that it was easily understood.
2. Align yourself with a winner who can give you something you don’t already have. Nirvana signed with Geffen Records, and as a result their new sound was given immediate exposure. They had priority access to the ears of influential radio programmers and trend-starters. Although signing with a mainstream record label may have risked them losing some alternative credibility, it gave them incredible access to an audience.
3. Don’t be afraid to buck the trends. In the midst of the hair band dominance of the late 1980′s, Nirvana emerged with a raw energy unlike any other band. They didn’t sing about the typical topics in typical ways. They broke with tradition. The offended some ears. But as Roy Williams brilliantly stated, “the risk of offense is the price of clarity.” Nirvana broke through and got noticed because they risked offending the mainstream by being different. Clarity was the result.
If only Kurt Cobain wasn’t such a troubled soul. His voice is very much missed.