Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A newbie's introduction to Nirvana and the Experience Music Project

There is this excellent, really enlightening piece on Nirvana's advocacy of feminism on the Daily Beast which has inspired this post. 
The 20th anniversary of the release of their album, 'Nevermind' just went by on September 24 and the stories about it were all over the media including CNN and local radio stations.

Growing up in India in the pre-MTV and nascent stages of the cable/MTV revolution, I hardly had any access to Western rock and pop music.  I listened to Bollywood numbers and old Hindi classics that were played on Vividh Bharati and some FM channels. Occasionally, we bought tape cassettes of the latest blockbuster (because you see, dear non-Indian reader, Indian movies have songs and dances built into them and the film industry has so completely dominated popular music as well that the only independent music that existed in its own right was Indian classical with some devotional music. Indipop, comprising native Indian pop singers was still a poor cousin in popularity). Things are changing now with lots of rappers coming on the scene but independent Indian music that is not classical or devotional still has a long way to go.

If you were born after 1993, you might be horrified to think that we had to deal with ancient, primitive devices such as tape recorders and walkmans:). Some people in my generation rib each other about this, ha ha, so this is not an original joke but anyway...

I heard Western music when my teenage neighbor in the apartment complex where I grew up would blare out songs from the stereo in his house and the adults would get all worked up about it, especially if you were studying for some crucial exams such as your tenth or twelfth grade Board examinations that still determine the course of most Indians' lives.
For some people, Western music and culture was still associated with drugs, decadence and no melody, all noise. However, many embraced music in all varieties, too.
Then, of course, came college life and during college festivals, giant speakers blared out hits such as 'We will, we will rock you', 'Where do you lovely...' (one of my favorites) while waiting for the crowd to assemble for events as we active participants darted about in preparation. Those were the nostalgic days...
My roommates played FM while completing assignments, in fact, one of them could not get any work done without something humming in her ears whereas I could not do any work that required intense analysis except in perfect silence. Routine, brain-numbing, grunt work assignments were okay, though so I got introduced to songs such as 'Don't love me for fun me for a reason, let the reason be love' thanks to my friends. No hard feelings, I enjoyed such experiences that my college life gave me and cherish my friendships.
I had heard of Nirvana but never heard them. In fact, I started paying more attention to this band only recently.

One of the sources of my interest was the movie, Definitely, Maybe which is one of my all-time favorite love stories. The heroine (there are actually three actresses that play the hero's love interests), April Hoffman, played by Isla Fischer, incredulously asks the character of the hero, William Hayes, played by Ryan Reynolds, how come he has not heard of Nirvana. The scene where they both get together at April's house for the first time has Nirvana's track, 'Come As You Are' playing in the background.
This movie not only struck a chord with me but I found surprising parallels between the characters and events/people in my life and I also noticed similar coincidences with Nirvana. Without going into too much personal detail, let me sum it up by saying that I grew more curious and enchanted with the image and impact of this band.
During this time period, while living in the United States, I started listening to radio stations more than ever before and have become a fan of Coldplay (knowing Chris Martin distinctively from his vocals rather than just Gwyneth Paltrow's husband), U2, Green Day, the Killers, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Snow Patrol, Sarah McLaughlin, Katy Perry, Adele, Lady GaGa, newer artists/bands such as Mat Kearney, Owl City, Mumford and Sons and many others. I also became acquainted with terms such as 'grunge' and 'alternative rock', thanks to Pandora, Wikipedia and the Internet in general.

I must thank Portland, Oregon's radio stations for my music education. The first among them, (101.9) plays music from all eras and even has online streaming radio. I got introduced to Lady GaGa and Katy Perry through another channel, 105.1 and now I also listen to 103.3.

More than a month ago, I visited the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, Washington. This is a very unique museum where they have exhibits related to movies and music with actual equipment displayed with explanations. When I visited, they were showcasing Nirvana, the landmark 3-D film, Avatar and the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica.
I had come across a headline somewhere a few days before that Kurt Cobain was from Aberdeen, Washington and hearing the lovely, well-informed guide talk about Cobain's adolescence in Aberdeen, his growth as a musician and his guitar smashing in the dorm of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington made me feel proud as a former resident of Olympia. [Note: Guitar smashing is probably cool to some musicians but in India, smashing a musical instrument would be sacrilege, tantamount to insulting Goddess Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge. This is not to be judgmental, just that different people across various cultures treat art differently.]

It was interesting to hear about Kurt Cobain's support of gay rights, the do-it-yourself culture of the punk rock movement where band members and fans themselves designed T-shirts, promoted themselves through fliers and played at various venues. In fact, as explained by the guide who happened to be a Nirvana fan herself and passionate about her work, the mainstream came to Nirvana rather than them going to the mainstream, begging to be recognized. It is sad that he died so young.

I was surprised to see the number of small and big bands that have come out of the Pacific Northwest, especially the Seattle area.  Here is a picture of the map of the region with the names of the bands that originated here and the interconnections amongst them that was displayed in the museum:

                              Nirvana and other bands in the map displayed in the Experience Music Project

The museum also had a demo room where one could try out different musical instruments, in fact, there is a table where you can tap on the images of drum-like instruments from different cultures and hear what they sound like. There are karaoke rooms where one can sing along like a professional recording an album for a certain allotted time. If I remember the names of the songs and the artists correctly, I tried some songs such as Sarah McLaughlin's 'I will remember you', Nirvana's 'Smells like Teen Spirit' and a couple others by Stevie Wonder and Heart ('Crazy on you'). I had never heard any of them before as far as I could remember except the song by Sarah McLaughlin.

                    An exhibit featuring different kinds of guitars at Seattle's Experience Music Project

They could build a musical center along similar lines in India, we have a ton of classical instruments that would educate millions about music.
One of my friends and I were discussing this long ago that the music industry in India should start having its own identity. We need to move away from the mundane lyrics on love and hot girls so that the youth can express their aspirations, dreams and frustrations through music, come up with original scores and styles and, in short, create a unique profile.
I am sure there are many Indipop bands now that I do not know of. Pop artists such as Alisha Chinai (who can forget 'Made in India'), Suneeta Rao, Shweta Shetty (loved her 'Deewane deewane to deewane hain') and many others truly did light up my school and college days.

It is true, music can cross all barriers, but only if you open your mind.  Many of us keep listening to the old and familiar in the languages we know rather than new melodies in other languages, even those of our own country. Thank goodness A.R. Rahman was discovered by the Hindi film industry and later by Hollywood or else many would have never been exposed to his brilliant and refreshing musical scores.
I have a theory: it has a lot to do whether you are a 'lyrics' person or a 'tunes' person. I am more of a 'tunes' person, that is, I tend to focus more on the melody than the lyrics, in fact, I completely bungle up words in songs at times so I am game for music in any language.
There is an earlier post of mine on encouraging a wide variety of vocal chords in the Indian music industry.

All said, I am deeply grateful for the freedom and ability to enjoy all kinds of music and cannot imagine life without it.

Note: This post has been slightly modified since yesterday. Please look for text in italics and brown for updates.

No comments: