Walking around campus, I inevitably see students wearing Nirvana, Sublime, and other 90s band t-shirts. Whenever I see these shirts, I have an tinge of nostalgia, and almost immediately, I start thinking about specific songs. Yet, I also think, “Does this student even know the band they are representing?” The answer to this question, usually, is a resounding, “No!”
One day, I saw a student wearing a Sublime shirt, and I specifically asked, before even thinking about what songs the student may like, “Have you listened to them?” The student looked at me and replied, “No.” I then proceeded to ask why the student would buy and wear a shirt from a band that they did not know about and had never listened to. The student said, “It’s a cool design.”
Every time I saw that student since that interaction, I asked whether or not they had at least queued up Sublime on Spotify or some other streaming service and given them a listen. Eventually, they did, and they determined that they didn’t like Sublime’s music. However, they still wear the shirt.
While I see Sublime shirts here and there on campus, they pale in comparison to the number of Nirvana shirts that students wear. Everyday, without fail, I’ll see a Nirvana shirt on campus, typically either the In Utero cover or the drunken smily face logo. Sometimes I’ll ask students about the shirts, again asking them whether or not they listen to Nirvana. Some have listened to Nirvana; others haven’t. If they have listened to Nirvana, I ask them their favorite song. Sometimes they have a specific one; sometimes they don’t.
These questions feel, I know, like gotcha questions, like I’m the person calling these students posers because they’re “faking” an interest in something. On some level, that may be the case, as Leslie Stein wrote about in “We Need to Talk About Your Nirvana Shirt.” However, that’s not the case. When I ask these questions, I’m not thinking about my own inflated sense of ownership over music that I had in high school where me and a few other people even knew or cared about most of these bands. No, I think about it more as an opportunity to introduce students to music that had a generational impact on our culture.
I want them to know about the anguish contained within Kurt Cobain’s growl during Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” I want them to know about the angst and pain coming through the speakers as Cobain busts his guitar during “Endless Nameless.” I want them to know about the punk ethos that formed Nirvana, spawning anti-patriarchal songs such as “Mr. Mustache.” I want them to see these things, but I know that these moments won’t impact them as they did me, when I was their age.
Now, I see Nirvana and Sublime shirts on sale at stores such as Target alongside Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and other bands. They have become commodified in ways that decenter the music from the visual aesthetic. One doesn’t have to listen to Nirvana to like shirt design. One merely needs to like the design. Does that make the wearer a poser? I don’t know, and that’s not really the conversation I think we need to have. Instead, we need to think about the ways that the art that surrounded us as we grew up impacts us as we get older.
Our interactions with popular culture influence us, and the things that we encountered and loved during our formative years remain with us as we age. I thought about this when I watched Kevin Smith’s Clerks III the other night. As I watched Randall and Dante face their own mortality, I began to think, “These characters are close to thirty years old. I’ve aged alongside them.” I thought about the fact that Smith, over his entire oeuvre, peppers his work with pieces of himself, that Clerks was his life on film.
Reaching the end of Clerks III, when we see shots from the original 1994 film interspersed with Dante in the hospital bed as he watches it, I began to think about the impact of films such as Clerks or bands like Nirvana on my life. They entered my life at formative moments, causing me to think about and see the world in different ways. At that moment in my life, I was like Randall, never really leaving my home state (Louisiana) or really even my hometown. I hadn’t done much. I worked at a grocery store. I went to high school. That was it.
Yet, Clerks tapped into the same things that Nirvana tapped into for me, a sense of alienation and cynicism, each of which defined us at that time. But, it also tapped into something more, a connection between friends and community. These themes are the core of the Clerks films. They are the threads that weave together the View Askew universe because while the fictional characters connect with one another we must also remember that Smith’s films include people he knew growing up and they form part of the foundation for his cinematic universe.
I didn’t go into Clerks III with any real expectations except to enjoy the film; however, I walked away thinking about how much we connect with art and how important art, in all of its forms, is to our very existence. It holds a lens up to us, showing us ourselves in all our glory and flaws. It shows us our joys and our fears. It makes us confront reality in ways that may feel uncomfortable. Even among weed and dick jokes, we face our reality, our mortality, and we question what we have done with our lives.
Culture moves forward. What impacted me won’t, if they encounter it, impact my kids or students in the same manner. They won’t have the same experience of Nirvana being a cultural revolution, opening the doors to other artists pushing back against cooperate music. They won’t have the same experience of Kevin Smith’s Clerks doing a similar thing for cinema, ushering in a new era of independent filmmakers. They won’t connect with Nirvana and Clerks in the same manner. For them, these things will exist as historical markers, even as those historical markers continue to exist and permeate our culture.
I want students to encounter bands like Nirvana and films like Clerks on their own terms, not on my terms. I want them to connect with these works of art, bringing their own life experiences with them for the ride.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.