Nirvana hits #1 on the Billboard chart
Nirvana is the seventh rock band to top the chart in the past eight months, following R.E.M., Skid Row, Van Halen, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, and U2. This represents a smashing comeback for rock'n'roll after its lackluster showing in 1990, when no rock bands hit No. 1.
Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base. The trio's "Smells Like Teen Spirit'' single, which surges from No. 13 to No. 6 on this week's Hot 100, first hit the top five on the Modern Rock Tracks chart three months ago.
Nirvana heads a top 20 that is dominated by solid, substantial career artists. The post-Christmas top 20 in recent years has tended to include more fluky, ephemeral hits than we see this year -- teen sensations (Tiffany, New Kids On The Block), flavor-of-the-month pop acts (Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice), TV spinoffs ("Miami Vice,'' "The Simpsons''), and MTV-boosted movie soundtracks ("Dirty Dancing,'' "Cocktail''). But the vast majority of the acts in the current top 20 are likely to still be in the ballgame five years from now.
Though Jackson drops out of the top spot on The Billboard 200, he heads the Hot 100 for the sixth straight week with "Black Or White.'' Only two Jackson singles have logged as many weeks at No. 1. "Billie Jean'' topped the chart for seven weeks in 1983; "Say Say Say,'' a duet with Paul McCartney, was on top for six weeks later that year.
By Craig Rosen
Los Angeles -- The surprise success of Nirvana's "Nevermind'' seems to be kicking open the doors to mainstream acceptance for other alternative hard-rock acts.
Although the long-term impact of Nirvana remains to be seen, several label executives and programmers say the group's success already signals a "new openness to alternative rock.''
The success of "Nevermind,'' on DGC, which has sold a reported 2.5 million copies in the U.S. and has spent 11 weeks in the top 10 of The Billboard 200 (reaching the No. 1 spot two weeks ago), may have altered the perception of what constitutes mainstream hard rock. Where leather-clad, big-haired bands with heavily produced albums once ruled the genre, Nirvana -- and most other alternative hard-rock acts -- shy away from these trappings.
The Seattle area, from which Nirvana hails, has been a hotbed of underground rock activity for the last few years. But it was not until last summer that the no-frills hard rock of the Seattle set began to show signs of commercial accceptance.
Alice In Chains' "Facelift'' peaked at No. 42 on The Billboard 200 in July 1991, but the Columbia album remained a steady seller and was later certified gold. (The album re-entered The Billboard 200 three weeks ago.)
Two other Seattle exports, A&M's Soundgarden and Epic's Pearl Jam, have only had marginal success, but both make big jumps on The Billboard 200 this week. Soundgarden's "Badmotorfinger'' climbs from No. 92 to No. 72 after 14 weeks, and Pearl Jam's "Ten'' jumps from No. 158 to No. 106 in its fourth week. It is at No. 4 on the Heatseekers albums chart.
While the Soundgarden and Pearl Jam albums have been out for several months, they may not have run their course. Videos for Soundgarden's "Outshined'' and Pearl Jam's "Alive'' are both in Buzz Bin rotation on MTV. When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit'' was given similar treatment by the video channel two months ago, "Nevermind'' shot into the top 10 of The Billboard 200.
Pearl Jam may also have been given a boost by landing the opening slot on the Red Hot Chili Peppers tour, which also featured Nirvana as a support act.
Alternative hard-rock may get another jolt with the release of writer/director Cameron Crowe's "Singles,'' a movie about the Seattle rock scene. The Epic Records soundtrack, tentatively set for March, will include cuts from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and possibly Nirvana.
While the bulk of attention may be focused on Seattle's entries, some say that the success of Nirvana may signal a new openness to alternative hard rock, no matter where it originates from.
"There is a unique opportunity out there,'' says MTV senior VP of music and talent Abbey Konowitch. "Music is breaking from the streets now. Not just from the black/urban side but from the college/alternative side.
"This is a very different kind of hard rock,'' Konowitch adds. "It's from the alternative side, not the metal side. There is not a show-biz message ... It's hard to call it metal because there is not a lot of posing or satanism ... but it does have as much or more attitude as any music that is out there. Young people can find a music they can own again.''
Nirvana's success is also part of a trend in which acts that were once thought to be alternative -- such as Suicidal Tendencies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faith No More -- are gradually accepted by the heavy metal audience.
"The metal audience has opened up,'' says Ray Farrell, who heads sales for DGC and Geffen. "They are not as rigid as they used to be. A lot of things that come off as energetic now can get into that audience. In a way there has been a closing of the gap between alternative and metal. It was only a matter of time before they would cross.''
Radio has also been forced to take notice. The record industry session at the annual Pollack Media Group programming/management conference, to be held Jan. 29-Feb. 1 in Century City, Calif., is titled "The Increasing Impact of Alternative Music.'' Pollack is considered the pre-eminent album rock consultant, with a client roster that includes KQLZ (Pirate Radio) Los Angeles, KLOL Houston, and KSHE St. Louis.
And it is not only Pollack stations that have noted the trend. KNAC Los Angeles PD Gregg Steele says, "KNAC is a hard rock station and usually alternative acts are a no-no, but the intensity of bands like Nirvana has allowed us to cross that line from alternative to hard rock. Now that line is very thin. We are getting back into real honest music.''
Greg Stevens, PD of album rock KIOZ San Diego, concurs. "We are definitely seeing a growing acceptance of those types of bands,'' he says. Although Stevens admits that it is difficult for his station to program alternative acts, because of the presence of modern rock XETRA (91X) San Diego, he says he is playing some alternative acts, but "it has to sound like hard rock.''
Meanwhile, modern rock programmers have also noted Nirvana's success, and are hopeful it may help other similar acts. "Logically (Nirvana) will pave the way for some of the other artists, such as Pearl Jam,'' says modern rock KUKQ Phoenix PD Jonathan Rosen. "I would love to see it pave the way for Social Distortion.''
Longtime supporters of alternative hard-rock are also optimistic. "If Nirvana continues to turn people on to bands like the Melvins or L7, maybe that will change things,'' says Farrell. "There is a whole other scene, which the mainstream ignores. That is where Nirvana may have an influence by bringing people along on the wagon train.''
DGC director of alternative music Mark Kates concurs, adding that it is important, as far as Nirvana is concerned, to "pave the way for the same kind of bands, such as Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Mudhoney, and Tad.''
Yet Farrell's optimism is guarded. "We all keep our fingers crossed that punk rock finally made it, but I don't think most people that buy Nirvana see it as punk rock. They see it as just another record.''
Others suggest Nirvana may help revive the independent rock scene. "It may encourage someone to start an independent label with good distribution,'' says David Gottlieb, Epic associate director of national retail promotion and marketing.
Yet Nirvana's success could create problems. According to Farrell, Sonic Youth singer/guitarist Thurston Moore recently joked that someone will start a new label called "N.N. -- Next Nirvana Records,'' a reference to the A&R hunt for similar acts.
Kates also is not sure what Nirvana's success will mean to other alternative hard rock acts. "It feels like Soundgarden is benefiting from Nirvana, but they are also benefiting from opening up for Guns N' Roses,'' he says. "It feels like more album rock programmers are looking for more of these records, but not too many others. We will never know for sure, or by the time we do, something else will be cool.''
Nirvana strikes a chord and the media react.
As Nirvana appeared for its second set on ''Saturday Night Live'' Jan. 11, bassist Chris Novoselic twisted before the mike stand and, in a snarling slur, unexpectedly began to sing -- ''C'mon people, smile on your brother, ev'rybody get together, try t' love one another'' -- until he was cut off by unapologetic blasts from Kurt Cobain's guitar and Dave Grohl's drums.
Somehow it was perfect to have these new punk champions of the '90s take a mocking shot at a '60s peace-and-love anthem of their parents' generation. While the band's DGC debut, ''Nevermind,'' stays lodged in the upper reaches of The Billboard 200, the marketing elders scratch their heads -- but the young fans understand. Nirvana's brash and smart noise is the music of their lives and these times.
"We didn't do anything. It was just one of those 'get out of the way and duck' records,'' said DGC president Ed Rosenblatt in story on the front of the business section of The New York Times Jan. 13 that attempted to trace the ''orchestration'' of Nirvana's rise. With due credit to all involved, the music business just wishes it could ''orchestrate'' such triumphs. The L.A. Times' Robert Hilburn one week earlier wrote of the A&R ''crapshoots'' that pay off with hit albums like ''Nevermind.'' (See Medialine, page 67.)
The guys in Nirvana seem to operate on a more instinctual, in-your-face level, as witnessed by their goofing on ''Get Together.''
Or consider ''Endless Nameless,'' the hidden, uncredited, thrashing track that sneaks up and assaults the listener at the very end of ''Nevermind,'' many minutes after the CD's last listed tune ends. Was this a nod to such famous false endings as ''Her Majesty'' on the Beatles' ''Abbey Road'' or previously unlisted tracks such as ''Train In Vain'' on early copies of the Clash's ''London Calling''?
Nah. Nothing so obvious. Asked about the smart-ass move, first noted by the International CD Exchange newsletter, Novoselic responded through Gold Mountain Management that the idea came about (as it has to an number of acts and labels) to have some fun with the CD technology. ''Endless, Nameless'' was, says Novoselic, just another cool, loud prank.
Which the fans understand.
Thanks to Jen Johnson for this article