Fri. November 30
My Guilty Pleasure: Nirvana’s “Drain You”
by James Poulos
Some people can go their entire lives without ever feeling, knowingly, a guilty pleasure. Sometimes even then the experience is so uncomfortable that it becomes a guilty memory, something that will not be indulged. Some songs heighten the tension between listenability and unlistenability so much (Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”) that even perverse repeat enjoyment is off the table.
But other songs and other bands so squarely hit such a personal pressure point that guilt and pleasure find an equilibrium/negotiate a settlement/reconcile. In these cases the possibility of real guilty pleasure—the kind that can be revisited forever without becoming untenable, the balance never being upset—is an accident of biography and timing, and in my case the band is Nirvana, and the song, to narrow things down, is “Drain You.”
When kids who listened to Nirvana were listening to Nirvana I was way into Queen and The Beatles and Boston and that kind of stuff. When I did emerge into the nineties it was through Green Day and Weezer. Grunge didn’t “happen” for me. It was clear enough from the overlarge t-shirts and the album covers that appeared on those shirts, or the snippets of doom that came across the radio, that this was damaged music for damaged people. It took me forever to get to Alice in Chains, a better band than Nirvana, but even now I can’t make it through more than about six consecutive songs without relating way too much to Layne Staley. (The same goes for Elliott Smith.)
Nirvana is different. Ironically this is mostly because Nirvana is the most mainstreamed of all the grunge bands that fall under the category Nietzsche called “hostile to life.” Liking Nirvana is now one of the least controversial and most meaningless things a person with musical taste can do. Yet Kurt Cobain was one of the most ambitious songwriters in living memory. “Drain You” compresses it all into one fanfare: the ruthlessness of combining punk cruelty with pop obviousness, the Hamlet routine of relaying harrowing confessionalism through lyrical impenetrability. This is difficult to do just once. It is ridiculously hard to make into a style. And it is technically impossible to make millions of people listen to it—and like it. But he did.
For someone like me, however, who missed Nirvana almost completely the first time around, dreaded Cobain’s sensibility, and eventually learned just how similar our approaches to writing music turned out to be, listening to Nirvana is this uniquely sustainable encounter with something deeply alien yet always already intimately familiar.
Encounters like that seem to create the closest analogy to seeing myself from someone else’s standpoint, which is fun and scary and reliable and unreliable enough of a trip not to lead anywhere else but back on itself. The experience may be trapped in a heart shaped box, but I can pick it up and put it down as I please.
James Poulos is a producer at HuffPost Live, a contributor to Forbes and Vice, and the frontman in a band called Black Hi-Lighter.