This Is the Difference Between Nirvana and Counting Crows

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“Why Counting Crows’ August and Everything After is as meaningful as Nirvana’s In Utero.” I’ll admit it. I clicked. It wasn’t exactly a rage-click; it was more a sort of general curiosity as to how the writer in question was going to take on a position that looked to be characterized by the sort of contrarianism that would make even veteran Slatepitchers quail in their boots. The writer in question is Steven Hyden, who presumably got paid a good rate by the generally excellent Grantland to argue his case, which he does here. Can he possibly be right?

Hyden makes some decent arguments, even if some of the parallels he draws between the two bands are… well, something of a stretch (“The no. 8 tracks [‘Sullivan Street’ on August and Everything After, ‘Drain You’ on Nevermind] are about romantic breakups” — mind-blowing!) But the first thing to note here is that “meaningful” is a kinda useless term in this context, because it blurs personal resonance with cultural significance.

Pretty much any album can be meaningful to you personally — there are probably people out there who have similarly fond memories from the same year of Morphine’s Cure for Pain or Teenage Fanclub’s Thirteen or Slowdive’s Souvlaki or, for that matter, albums like Crash Test Dummies’ God Shuffled His Feet and The Cranberries’ Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, which were just as big as Counting Crows and Nirvana at the time but which have since been lost to history.

But no one would argue that those records have had anything like the historical resonance of Nirvana. The question of why that’s the case, though, is an interesting one, and Hyden’s piece touches upon how cultural narratives are defined in retrospect. When you’re living something, there really is no narrative — there’s just a bunch of things happening, often in isolation, a confused jumble of events that’s left to historians to sift into a coherent story. We’re humans, and that’s what we like to do: find narratives in things, imposing order on chaos.

But when you’re experiencing it first hand, history makes no sense at all. I asked a friend who was closely involved with the fabled halcyon days of 1970s New York punk whether he had a sense at the time that there was anything with enduring cultural significance happening, and he said something to the effect of, “No — we’d just wake up in the morning and worry about where the good shows were that night, how we were going to pay our rent, and how we were gonna get laid.”

So it goes with any “scene,” I think. I’m old enough to remember grunge the first time around, albeit observed from the other side of the Pacific, and Nirvana certainly felt significant at the time, but perhaps not to the epoch-defining extent they are now. They were sort of first among equals amongst grunge fans, and Hyden is right when he says “many of the people who bought the Nirvana record also bought the Counting Crows record.” The same people who liked Nirvana also tended to like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Alice In Chains and Smashing Pumpkins and, yes, bands like Live and Bush and Urge Overkill and Collective Soul and other, lesser grunge-alikes who’ve been written into history’s narratives as footnotes and postscripts because their music doesn’t hold up quite so well in retrospect.

This is something that Hyden touches on in his piece: “[In 2013],” he writes, “the public [are] savvier about how the media frames reality in accordance with a certain (and not always amenable) agenda. A person who argues that anything is equally ‘important’ to all people is immediately suspected of being full of shit.” This is true, and it’s illuminating to see the historical narrative for the construct that it is, the albums that have in retrospect been anointed as Important.

In Utero certainly felt significant, but on the whole the initial reaction to its release was that of being slightly underwhelmed — the reaction, no doubt, that Cobain was striving for with the album’s inaccessible songs and nasty production. I’d argue that at the time, Pearl Jam’s Vs. felt just as Important; it was, lest we forget, the fastest-selling album ever at the time, a fact celebrated on a poster that adorned many, many bedroom walls .

But no one would argue now that Vs. was as significant as In Utero. So why is this? Is it really just a case of Generation Xers wanting to rewrite their own history, elevating the bands that were cool and erasing the ones who weren’t? I don’t think so. Hyden suggests that “we’ve chosen to remember Counting Crows as being more different from Nirvana than it really was in 1993,” but I don’t agree. History has perhaps magnified Cobain’s impact, but even at the time, it was clear that he was a special one.

Personally, I wasn’t hugely into grunge in general — part of this was a sort of natural teenage contrarianism (“I can’t like what everyone else likes!”), but part of it was also that I preferred my soundtrack to rebellion to be less visceral and more cerebral. The snarl of grunge and Cobain’s gut-clenching rage didn’t speak to me. I didn’t really hate myself, not any more than your average insecure, skinny teenage boy. I hated the world and its inequalities, and I wanted my music to tell me about that, so I graduated from a mid-teens U2 fixation to the likes of The Clash and Manic Street Preachers, bands who had Things to say about Issues.

But even to a grunge agnostic like me, it was pretty clear that Cobain was a magnetic figure, someone to whom his fans really, really, really related. To attribute Nirvana’s enduring popularity to the media framing reality in a certain way, or to our desire to rewrite our personal histories, is kinda disingenuous. I think it overestimates the power of the media, and rather underestimates the way that culture tends to write its own narratives.

Cobain’s remained important because he’s proven a source of ongoing fascination. That’s certainly to some extent due to the fact that, as Hyden suggests, “Kurt Cobain is now an eternally romanticized dead person, while [Counting Crows singer] Adam Duritz exists among the eternally awkward living.” Cobain is indeed frozen in time, forever the sardonic, lank-haired 27-year-old with a mystifying stomach problem and a voice that was more visceral, primal howl than anything else. It’s pointless to speculate how he’d be remembered had he lived, because we’ll never know — maybe he would have cleaned up and settled into grumpy elder statesmanship like a latter-day Neil Young, or maybe he would have wasted away into drug-addled nothingness like Layne Staley.

But c’mon, he would never have been Adam Duritz. There’s a reason that he’s held an enduring fascination for new generations that Duritz hasn’t, and it’s not only “Big Yellow Taxi.” There’s a difference between something that was big at the time and something with lasting cultural relevance, otherwise we’d all have been writing retrospectives earlier this year about the 15th anniversary of The Vengaboys’ Party Album.

The thing is, I like August and Everything After. I liked it at the time, and it’s still something of a guilty pleasure — it’s one of those albums identified with a certain time and place in your life, in this case a time in Melbourne that involved watching my friends smoke a lot of marijuana and wondering what in god’s name I was going to do once high school was over and done with. I’m glad that the album holds enduring significance for Steven Hyden, and I kinda respect the fact that he still likes it more than In Utero. Good for him for having the courage of his convictions.

But “as meaningful”? No. You can argue that it should have been, but that’s ultimately a subjective appraisal on the basis of your personal tastes. Hyden himself acknowledges that “in 2013, everything in the media seems solipsistic — there are just too many constituencies with fully formed, well-articulated points of view to pretend that most experiences are universal.”

This, I think, makes Nirvana’s legacy all the more fascinating: Cobain’s suicide felt like one of the last events that really did have global resonance in youth culture, something that you can still feel if you visit the park bench near his house in Seattle or the bridge under which he used to sit in Aberdeen.

Are we choosing to remember Counting Crows as more different from Nirvana than they were? I don’t think it’s really our choice to make, to be honest. The very fact that they are remembered differently makes them different. You could probably argue that Ben Jonson was Shakespeare’s equal, but it doesn’t really matter, because the fact that Shakespeare has meant so much to people over the centuries makes him different. Ultimately, history dictates its own narratives.