The Jesus Lizard, Pitchfork 2009
No, let me correct that: It means everything. That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we love being here, despite… you know, all that stuff we hate.
Cobain wasn’t expressing a supplicant desire with that line in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He was sneering at the very idea. “Here we are now, entertain us,” he sings. But the guitar and the vocals and the unforgettable, all-encompassing thrust of that song really says, “F*ck you! This music isn’t just entertainment! It’s about changing the world! Or at least changing myself, and maybe changing you, too! And in the end, that’s the same thing! So take this!”
So, like, what’s he talking about?
Here’s one instance that hit home: Meghan O’Gieblyn’s account of growing up a homeschooled Christian in downstate Illinois, listening to contemporary Christian music during the DC Talk glory days and slowly losing her religion, thanks in part to the same song DeRogatis cites. She was 13 when she heard it, making us about the same age.
I listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dozens of times during those years, and yet I never caught on to the words. Cobain slurred his words, and the liner notes to Nevermind didn’t include lyrics. It wasn’t until I was in college, listening to the track on campus radio, that I realized the song was a taunt—a wry dare to an industry that panders to young consumers: “I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.” It nails the rage of teens who have been asked for nothing more than their passive, profitable attention—and their cynical awareness that this rage will inevitably be aired on a media conglomerate network, between commercials for deodorant. I didn’t catch all of that at thirteen; all I knew was that this music made me stop feeling like a sheltered and naïve homeschooler. I knew it made me smarter and hipper than the kids at church—that it made me less of a sucker in a world that was trying, on all fronts, to dupe me.
For me it was the Sex Pistols’ "God Save the Queen," because my favorite book of the Bible was Revelations, and it was the only song I’d ever heard that seemed to remotely compare. (Nothing else really has since, save for a few tracks off the Mae Shi’s HLLLYH.)
Here’s another, Stephanie Kuehnert’s reflection on Q101. I know I linked to this yesterday, but it’s so good I’m linking again.
We moved to the Chicago area when I was 8. I’ve never been completely happy here because you know first impressions…. And my first impression was a lot of really mean kids that I seriously struggled to fit in with. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it repeatedly, when I discovered bands like Nirvana, Faith No More, REM and Hole, I found a voice, I found inner strength, I recognized that I wasn’t alone. Listening to Q101 in junior high and freshman year of high school gave me the first real sense of connection I had to Chicago. There was a larger community out there who liked what I liked and I would find them.
Around that time I didn’t have a good radio station to listen to, and the only music magazine I’d ever heard of was Rolling Stone. Then the late Web mag Addicted to Noise premiered, and they wrote about Chicago alt-country bands like Freakwater, the Waco Brothers, and Uncle Tupelo (I still remember buying Anodyne at the Dr. Wax in Evanston when I was doing a high-school program at Northwestern), and I realized that the sort of music that used to exist where I grew up had moved to the Midwest—my first real connection to Chicago.
Finally, Sarah Vowell from her odd, sweet debut Radio On, from her first day in Chicago:
I am left alone with two suitcases and a radio. Unsure exactly why I just left behind a community, a half-dozen true friends, three encouraging mentors, and my fiercely doting parents for this self-imposed exile, I turn it on. I hear two friendly voices: The first is Martin Booksban’s over the applause for a New York Philharmonic stab at Wagner. As a teenage trumpet player, I spent a lot of time with announcer Booksban, the guide to the Philharmonic season. Just hearing him talk, I feel that old adolescent gawkiness coming back. The second is Kurt Cobain singing "Lithium" and I think that if I’d had a voice like this sucking on the words "I’m so ugly, that’s OK ’cause so are you" and then hurling them back across the room at age fifteen, I might not have cried myself to sleep every night until college.
Enjoy the shows.
Photograph: Kirk Bravender (CC by 2.0)