Kurt Cobain is a divisive figure in my family: My brothers and I revere him as a musical genius and role model, while our parents view him as nothing more than a loser, a label based solely on the facts of his untimely self-induced demise in 1994. But for some reason, my father had original copies of two Nirvana CDs (Nevermind and In Utero) in his collection comprised mostly of ’80s glam bands and David Gray LPs. “Everyone was talking about them,” he told me when I found the CDs. “I was just following the trend. I’m not sure why.” The year was 1991, and Nirvana’s Nevermind was quickly moving from being a relatively underground release to one of the biggest records in the world, and, as it would turn out, of all time.
Nevermind‘s combination of intensely catchy melodies and thrashing punk made it unlike anything mainstream audiences had ever before heard, especially on the radio. While it embodied the underground punk scene of the Pacific Northwest, it was also extremely well-polished, something Cobain was never fully comfortable with. “It’s such a perfect mixture of cleanliness and nice, candy-ass production,” Cobain would later tell Nirvana biographer Michael Azeraad in Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. “It may be extreme to some people who aren’t used to it, but I think it’s kind of lame, myself.” Two years after Nevermind, Cobain would make up for this “lame” sound with Nirvana’s third (and final) studio album In Utero, which perfectly captured the band’s raucous live performance.
Released in September of ’91, Nevermind only sold 6,000 copies in its first week, and barely broke into the Billboard 200. However, it wouldn’t be long before the Samuel Bayer-directed video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting MTV plays, which would skyrocket the single, and the record, which would sell over one million copies worldwide and achieve platinum status just under two months after release.
The record’s growth was exponential, and by the time 1992 rolled around, it was steadily making its way up the charts. Then, finally, on January 11th, the glass ceiling broke. Nevermind surged to No. 1 on the Top 200, leaving in its wake Garth Brooks, Hammer, U2, and (incredibly) Michael Jackson, with Dangerous dropping from No. 1 to No. 5.
“The Pop Life — Nirvana’s Nevermind Is No. 1,” read the New York Times. “From what we gather, Nevermind‘s audience is between 14 and 34,” vice president of sales at Geffen Records Eddie Gilreath told the Times. “It seems to be a project appealing to both the younger or hip set. Nirvana has outsold over the last two or three weeks U2, Hammer, Michael Jackson, Metallica: real big-name values. If you told me last year it would outsell U2 I’d probably die laughing.”
According to Billboard, After first appearing in the Billboard 200 in 1991, Nevermind would remain in the chart for nearly two years, only falling off briefly in 1993. To date, it has spent 335 total weeks on the 200, with the number continuing to steadily increase as the years wear on.
Regardless of the record’s continuing success, people will probably never stop paying the Nevermind baby to jump in a pool.