Nirvana and Pearl Jam plunged into the mainstream with their albums ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Ten.’ But will these Seattle bands survive their sophomore year?
By Elysa Gardner.
This fall marks the moment of truth for grunge. Ever since Nirvana roared out of Seattle with the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — an ascent followed closely by Pearl Jam and a number of other alternative bands — the record industry has ridden the coattails of a musical phenomenon whose appeal is based in part on the nihilistic, couldn’t-care-less-about-success attitude of its leading artists. Now, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam both releasing sophomore efforts in the coming months, industry experts are watching to see if the marriage of convenience between alternative rock and big business can be saved. "There will always be fans who feel that when their favorite indie band is suddenly being backed by corporate dollars, then it’s selling out," says Peter Ganbarg, an A&R exec at SBK Records. "But if the band wants its music to reach the largest amount of people, it doesn’t usually have a choice."
Will grunge’s core fans abandon bands that seem to have become too commerical? Or will mainstream fans be turned off by groups that try too hard to appear unlovable?
Initial reports suggested that Geffen Records execs feared Nirvana’s In Utero was "unreleasable," according to the Chicago Tribune. But in a nod to commercial viability, the band brought in hit-making producer Scott Litt (R.E.M.) to help take some of the raw edges off two In Utero tracks, including the single "Heart-Shaped Box." But that song, like most on the album, offsets relatively calm, graceful passages with what might be described as vocal and instrumental equivalents of a nervous breakdown. While Geffen executives are now able to generate some enthusiasm, one can detect some subtle spin control in their comments. "We’re going to aim to reach the fans more than the Top Forty," says A&R manager Mark Kates, delicately deflating overblown expectations. "I think it’s a great album, and it’s going to be really well-received by people who are fans of the group, as opposed to just being fans of one of its songs or videos." (So far, the band hasn’t taken the next step of making itself accessible to the press.)
Pearl Jam, meanwhile, which spent part of July opening for U2 in Europe, has yet to release even the name of its upcoming album. It will, however, be produced by Brendan O’Brien (who has worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and include such songs as ‘‘Rats" and "Nemesis.
Though always paired in the hierarchy of grunge, Nirvana and Pearl Jam launched themselves into the stratosphere very differently. Nirvana’s Nevermind combined taut melodies and lean pop textures with a brash punk sensibility; on Ten, Pearl Jam tripped through loosely structured songs and hippy-dippy lyrics — the sort of music punk rock had traditionally rebelled against. As in all new sects, schism resulted: Some said Pearl Jam was producing nothing but a lite version of the Seattle sound; "fake grunge," sniffed Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
But Pearl Jam’s Ten just keeps going and going. The album recently passed Nevermind in sales, and Maria Wibbels, a rock CD buyer for Tower Records in New York, expects more demand for Pearl Jam’s latest album than for In Utero. "Nirvana re-released some old material recently," says Wibbels, "and it didn’t sell that well." (Late last year, DGC put out Incesticide, a compilation of early Nirvana recordings that to date has sold a disappointing 680,000 copies.)
"Incesticide wasn’t really promoted, so that’s a bit unfair," counters Rick Krim, vice president of Talent and Artist Relations at MTV. "Nirvana and Pearl Jam followed different patterns in breaking: Nirvana exploded, while Pearl Jam steadily built. But both gave us multiple hits, and neither is a flash-in-the-pan act. I’d say that these two groups are gonna stay around."
That assessment explains the manic effort on the part of record labels to throw six-figure sums at virtually every up-and-coming alternative act in the Cascade Mountain region; everyone wants to land the next Pearl Jam. But those investments could have the lifespan of the grunge boutique at Macy’s if these new bands choose to place antiestablishment ethics above standard business practices. Stone Temple Pilots, for example, whose major-label debut album, Core, became a sleeper smash, recently passed up an opportunity to open for Aerosmith in order to tour with the Burthole Surfers — not exactly the kind of decision that warms a marketing executive’s heart.
Ask Mark Kates if Nirvana’s nihilism is self-destructive, and he will demur. "I think that In Utero more than ensures that Nirvana will have a lengthy career," he says. "It would be unrealistic to expect it to top Nevermind, because when a band becomes a phenomenon, that generally only happens once. I don’t think Michael Jackson’s ever gonna top Thriller, you know?"
Yes, but does anyone expect Nirvana to perform "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" during halftime at the Super Bowl?