MTV News has a great little write-up on a question that's been asked by many for the last fifteen years: Could there be another band like Nirvana come along and completely change the way we think about popular rock music? Forget the Next Big Thing -- the Next Nirvana would be a band that no one would have predicted such a major takeover. The deal is, anything is possible, but the odds of this happening now are much greater compared to how they were in 1991.
With the immediate blockbuster success of Nirvana's Nevermind in late-'91, major labels were caught off guard and tried to catch up in 1992. What made the whole alternative/grunge tag appealing was its vagueness. Bands like the Flaming Lips, Helmet and Soundgarden sounded nothing alike, but they were not hair metal, so major labels were interested. Granted, those three bands had major label deals before Nevermind came out, but they definitely had an easier time finding a larger audience after that record came out.
What really helped with the appeal of alternative/grunge was that the rate of hit albums was very high and consistent for the next couple of years. Albums like Ten by Pearl Jam, Dirt by Alice in Chains, Meantime by Helmet, Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and Core by Stone Temple Pilots all went platinum and those were just some of them. Major labels wanted to keep the alternative rock engine going, so anything went. Bands like Jawbox, Shudder to Think and Seaweed would be signed and there was hot anticipation for what was coming next.
Well, even with a decline in overall interest and Kurt Cobain's death in April '94, bands that sounded like watered-down alternative rock like Better Than Ezra, Seven Mary Three and Silverchair had a couple hit records. For bands like Jawbox and Shudder to Think, who put out records that were even more complex than their previous records, people weren't gravitating to that in droves.
For the rest of the '90s, short-lived replacement fads were seen in the US. There was electronica, Britpop and ska and not one, but two waves of pop-punk. Bands like Green Day and the Offspring were a part of what made pop-punk household names in '94. In '99, bands like blink-182 and New Found Glory were a part of what made pop-punk an even more welcome name, especially in the teen pop world.
Yet for those that craved rock music that had a mass appeal but was also dense, there was a hole. Teen pop was insanely popular for a few years, but that stuff didn't rock. As far as what was considered mainstream rock music at the time, that was either the rap-rock/nu-metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit or the rock schlop of Creed and Nickelback. Despite selling a lot of records, rock fans still wanted something more. For a brief period, eyes were closely watching El Paso's own, At the Drive-In.
If there was one band that could have been as big as Nirvana, it was At the Drive-In, or so people in the industry thought at the time. With Gary Gersh and John Silva (the same guys that worked with Nirvana) working with At the Drive-In, it seemed like planets were aligning. At the Drive-In had made an incredible record, Relationship of Command, and it had a lot of "right" things: there were melodic hooks in addition to crazy, off-kilter stuff all wrapped in a kick-ass production that was very radio-friendly. With Relationship of Command coming out almost ten years after Nevermind, the time seemed right for a changing of the guard.
Despite a big promotional push and some very nice write-ups (even getting ranked #22 on the prestigious Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll), Relationship of Command didn't change the world immediately like Nevermind did. With At the Drive-In breaking up in early 2001, people seem to have dusted the band off, but the change that they brought had a rippling effect. The aesthetic of stripped-down, no bullshit rock helped the Strokes and the Hives find larger audiences and the aesthetic of melodic hooks with strained singing helped Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World find larger audiences. Though there wasn't much crossover between those, they help explain what we have today.
While not as big in overall impact as alternative rock in the '90s, the look and feel of mainstream emo has come close. While Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco may have songs that a large number of people find catchy and fun, they certainly don't have the weight that Nirvana brought in 1991. So, where did all the weight go? That's a great question.
I argue that non-musical cultural changes had bigger impacts. With the Internet and cell phones becoming everyday necessities and 9/11 happening, these were a part of a much bigger and more widespread impact than any group of guys with guitars and drums could do. Plus, along with MP3s, iPods and music blogs, music feels much more factioned off now. There's always a chance there could be something new that jaded twenty- or thirty-somethings could get excited about along with wide-eyed teenagers, but don't hold your breath.
Michael Azerrad has a great perspective on this matter: the next big cultural change may not be from a musical act at all. "It may be a piece of software, or a Web site or a personality on YouTube, or something enabled by technology we haven't discovered yet," he said in the MTV News piece. "We're in a changing time, where music may not be the mode for youth culture phenomena. And because of the fragmentation of music fans, you're never going to get another Beatles or Nirvana, because not that many are into the same kind of music. Not that many people want to be in the same stadium together." How very true that is, but again, anything can happen.
For what passes as mainstream rock these days, we have an amalgam of glam and glitter with whiny emo and metal bands pretending to be decadent rock stars. Overall, there is too much show and very little on the depth side. This is a perfect time for a band to come along and blow all this out of the water, but people have been saying that for the last ten years or so. At the Drive-In came extremely close, as did the Strokes and Jimmy Eat World, but still, the door's open. For me, there's so much music out there that I haven't really gotten into. Yet Nirvana was the band that showed me that bands could rock in a different way. They didn't immediately change my life, but they immediately opened my ears up to a different kind of rock music. Not many bands can do that and that's what so difficult about finding one.