‘In Utero’ 20 Years Later

Kyle Seasly

Kurt Cobain, for various reasons, will forever remain somewhat mysterious. He was a killer songwriter, yet admitted blatantly to ripping off the Pixies in a Rolling Stone interview.

The circumstances surrounding his entrance into the infamous “27 Club” will always lead to finger-pointing at Courtney Love. Yet Nirvana’s success was the result of the ’80s underground punk/alternative/harcore movement and entered into the mainstream like no other band had done before –– with 30 million copies of Nevermind sold to date.

Nevermind was (and still is) very important to the formation of modern “alternative rock.” We can thank Nevermind for bridging the gap and allowing so called “alternative” groups to coax a mainstream audience.

We can also thank Nevermind for groups like Creed and Nickelback’s mainstream success. The record companies saw a formula of alternative rock that worked and signed bands that could emulate that sound –– and they were successful in doing so.

But Nevermind, although fascinating, compares little to In Utero, which will have it’s 20th anniversary on Sept. 13 this year. In Utero is important for a couple reasons, the first being the hiring of producer Steve Albini, former producer of the Pixies Surfer Rosa, which Cobain adored.

Nirvana hoped for a return to form on In Utero, partly because they were unhappy with the commercial sound of Nevermind. Producer Albini stripped everything down for the band and let them pick the sound they desired. Nirvana tellingly even recorded the song “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” The whole album came off as extremely raw –– too raw for the label.

“All of the people that were carping at the band from the outside about what a mistake they’d made with this record, that pretty accurately represented what they wanted to do with their music,” said Albini about the people working with the label.

In the end, In Utero was not as successful as Nevermind, because most of the album was too abrasive for mainstream fans to grasp outside of the two singles. That is why it’s important. In Utero was so much about shunning fame and returning to their Bleach-era sound. They wanted to have creative control of the music they created–– and the record label reacted.

If Nevermind  represented the beginning of commercial “alternative rock,” then in many ways In Utero represented a hole in the formula for record labels making money–– a frustrating lack of creative control for the band.  In Utero signifies a band trying to make a defiant uncommercial move against their label. Overall, that is why In Utero sounds more like the actual “Seattle Sound” than Nevermind.

Nevermind may have bridged the gap, but In Utero signified that record labels could not have control over musicians. And, 20 years later, the music industry is slowly falling to pieces. Records aren’t selling on major labels anymore. The only way you get signed is if you’re guaranteed  to sell records.

As Jello Biafra once noted, “Tin eared/Graph-paper brained accountants/Instead of music fans/Call all the shots at giant record companies now/the lowest common denominator rules/forget honesty/forget creativity/the dumbest buy the mostest/that’s the name of the game/but sales are slumping/and no one will say why/could it be they put out on too many lousy records?”