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What Genre is Nirvana?

If you weren’t around in the good ol’ days to witness the maniacal magic of this legendary band, you might be wondering… 

“What genre is Nirvana?”

Right away, the short answer to this question from anyone who knows their music history is Grunge. Nirvana is often held up as the defining band of the Grunge genre. But, of course, things are never all that simple.

Ain’t It A Shame?

Although Nirvana was filed under the Grunge label by the 90s media, their influences and music had a lot more range than that. Plus, many would argue that their unique sound, which made them stand out, meant that they didn’t fit easily into any one box.

So let’s Dive a little deeper into Nirvana’s sound and see if we can’t Stay Away from automatic labels.


What Is Grunge, Anyway?

Even this question isn’t all that easy to answer. The word “grunge” normally means dirt, grime, or garbage. Something deeply filthy that can’t easily be cleaned.

When this word was first applied to music in 1987 by Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt, he meant it as a dark and dirty sound emanating from the low-budget, heavily-distorted sound of the growing Seattle alternative music scene.

This contrasted greatly with the highly polished, clean sounds of bands recording in the professional studios of L.A. and New York.

Specific to Seattle?

This term took hold and was used to pigeonhole many different bands coming from Seattle and the Pacific Northwest during the 90s. It didn’t seem to matter if they sounded much alike or not. And, for the most part, these musicians didn’t use the word grunge to describe their music.

Kurt Cobain apparently hated the term grunge and never used it to describe Nirvana’s music. It seems that Grunge was more a hyped-up marketing term than anything else.

If you want to know more about Grunge and Nirvana’s place, if any, in this supposed genre, you can check out Grunge by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Or, hear it from the horse’s mouth in Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge.

Nirvana’s Sound

Nirvana’s Sound

The sound of a band can develop from a lot of different directions. Influences are important, but so is experimentation as well as going against the grain or, conversely, jumping on a bandwagon.

Nirvana’s sound is often described as a mixture of punk rock, hard rock, and alternative rock (whatever that means) with subtle pop infusions.

Yes, pop!

Nirvana was definitely not a Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. But, some of their songs came across as heavily pop-influenced.

Songs like Come As You Are and All Apologies have distinct pop structures, major chords, and peppy sing-along choruses. Even if they were sung with the raspy, edgy voice that made Cobain so popular.

Not just pop…

Contrast these songs with others like Breed and Negative Creep, which presented a whole other dimension of Nirvana. These songs are heavy and fast, with pounding rhythms, heavy guitar distortion, and almost screamed lyrics.

OK, almost screamed on the records – usually screamed live! These songs represent the punk and even metal sound that gave Nirvana a hard edge.

Hit the distortion…

Songs like LithiumSliver, and In Bloom really defined the Nirvana song structure more than anything. These tunes share something in common – they all have a quieter, nicer verse and a harder, heavier chorus.

Kurt Cobain claims he stole this structure from The Pixies, which won’t come as a surprise to Pixies fans. But, Nirvana boosted the contrast even more so, making their choruses loud, raspy, and frantic.

A subtle and sophisticated side too…

To round out this well-rounded band, think about the famous “MTV Unplugged in New York” album. This live recording uncovered a completely different side of Nirvana that most fans hadn’t ever expected.

They covered songs by Meat Puppets, The Vaselines, Lead Belly, and even pop icon David Bowie. What was relayed was a softer, more musical, and much more sincere Nirvana. Even if the record was released after Cobain’s death and the band’s subsequent demise.

Nirvana’s Influences

Nirvana’s Influences

Dave Grohl wasn’t the first drummer in Nirvana, but he’s the best-remembered and the one who spent the longest with the band. He came from the hardcore punk scene, having played in the Washington, D.C. hardcore band Scream before joining Nirvana. Well, the name says a lot.

Krist Novoselic had a proto-metal and punk rock background. He grew up listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, then later got into Devo, The Ramones, and the Sex Pistols. However, he was also a fan of much more popular bands like Kiss and even The Beatles.

Kurt Cobain’s influences were all over the place. He grew up listening to everything from The Beatles to The Ramones to ELO. He also loved Led Zeppelin, The Melvins, and Jimi Hendrix. Talk about diverse sounds.

Come As You Are

So, when these members came together, they had a lot to work with. Grohl played the drums like a monster. Novoselic’s bass was heavy and driving but also deliciously musical. Cobain brought a talent for songwriting, guitar chops, and that signature raspy voice. And then the Nirvana sound was born.

How About Content – Were Nirvana’s Songs Grungy?

As I’ve already established, Grunge wasn’t much of a genre based on a musical style or a particular sound. It can be argued that production style, fashion, and lyrical content united Grunge far more than the music ever did. So let’s look at that lyrical style.

Grunge music was, in so many ways, a reaction to the hard rock and hair metal of the 80s. This music was all about partying, having a good time, and being successful in life, love, and sex. So, like any angst-filled teenager, Grunge had to rebel by going in an opposite direction.

The lyrics of many Grunge songs are about disenfranchisement. Lyricists wrote about alienation, isolation, trauma, neglect, and self-doubt. In a cynical reaction to the booming capitalism of the 90s, Grunge songs also expressed distrust of corporations and money, as well as anyone fake and insincere.

This was not happy music…

Bands also sang about mental health issues and substance abuse. Especially addiction to opiates, like the Seattle scene’s drug of choice, heroin. There was also a lot of marijuana use in the scene and, of course, alcohol. Coffee culture also spurred on the manic elements of the Grunge scene.

Nirvana’s songs certainly fit in with this categorization. Or maybe they define it. Kurt Cobain, as the main lyricist in the band, took inspiration from his own life and the people around him.

A heart-shaped box of disaffection…

So many of his songs were based on themes of social isolation and rejection, and these themes struck a chord with fans. He often wrote poetry and then cut and chopped it up into lyrics that were less about linear stories as they were about creating emotions within the songs.

Drugs, both medicinal and otherwise, also featured as themes in some songs like Lithium and DumbAll Apologies may be a veiled reference to Cobain’s struggles with heroin addiction as well.

Did Nirvana Define the Grunge Style?

Grunge Style

Maybe I’ve been looking at this whole thing the wrong way. Maybe Nirvana didn’t fit into the Grunge label, and it was the other way around.

It could be that Grunge was molded and formed around what Nirvana was doing as its most successful darling. Perhaps, the question, “What genre is Nirvana?” is an answer to “What is Grunge?”

Seattle in the early 90s…

There was a strong culture of espresso, booze, and drug abuse like in most major cities at the time. But, they also had a lot of heavy-hitting, hard-playing musicians who were creating edgy music. This also influenced fashion.

The long-haired, stubbly, plaid-shirt-wearing Grunge rocker in a pair of ripped shorts and stomping around in Doc Martens became an internationally recognized image. The members of Nirvana experimented with long hair, dyed hair, and in Cobain’s case, going platinum blond using Bleach.

They wore ripped jeans and scraggly lumberjack shirts. Cobain also expressed his likely bi-sexuality publicly and was happy to play full concerts wearing a dress. Don’t remember? Here’s a video of him playing in Rio wearing a little black cocktail number.

Smells like teen spirit…

These boys were also wild, chaotic, and unpredictable. They would play hard and heavy, and they also had crazy fun. Often, they jumped into mosh pits or went crowd surfing.

Also, they regularly smashed up their instruments and gear, not to mention a lot of what was probably also rented venue equipment. Cobain took the lead in these antics, smashing his guitars and diving headlong into towers of amps and drum sets.

You can see a typical concert ending here or take in a full compilation of the reckless abandon Nirvana became known for.

Want to Learn More About Famous Music and Musicians?

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What Genre is Nirvana? – Final Thoughts

The short answer is that Nirvana was a Grunge band. That’s true in as much as Grunge was more or less defined by what Nirvana sounded like, and what they did. But, by their sound, their lyrics, and their behavior, Nirvana was a hard-rocking, punk-inspired ball of chaotic energy.

This is a band that made a huge impact on music and pop culture, sold over 75 million records worldwide, and most of all, rocked hard. They will be forever missed.

Until next time, let the music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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