Argument Of The Day: Do People Actually Listen To Nirvana?

Jun 20th, 2008 // 29 Comments

nirvana.jpgWhere to begin? Atlantic Monthly associate editor and blogger Matthew Yglesias posts a Nirvana video yesterday in the midst of his political coverage, mentioning that he doesn’t think many people actually listen to the band, despite their influence. So, if you’re an economic blogger for Portfolio, why not write out an extensive rebuttal to that assertion?

Zubin Jelveh simply won’t stand for this sort of nonsense. After all, Nirvana sold a bunch of records.

I’ll start by referring to sales data. That’s not a perfect match for “listened-to,” but I’ll go on the assumption that if you buy the album, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to listen to it.

I think anyone who has actually purchased a disc knows that assumption isn’t entirely true (example: the Ed Harcourt best-of still sitting unwrapped on my desk), but let’s let that slide.

Nirvana’s most best-known album, Nevermind, has sold 27 million copies world-wide. The first 10 million of those sold in the U.S. have earned it the coveted(?) Diamond certification issued by the Recording Industry Association of America, one of only 102 albums released in the U.S. to sell at least that many. It’s also one of 40 albums since it was released in September 1991 to reach the Diamond level and the 84th best-selling album of all time.

But that’s just Nevermind. Two other albums, In Utero and Unplugged, have both sold 5 million copies each in the U.S. A 1997 concert video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, has sold 3 million copies.

Thankfully, Jelveh acknowledges that past sales success doesn’t really add up to much as far as current listening habits go, but why mention it then? I doubt anyone would argue Kenny G as a relevant musical act today, but Breathless went platinum twelve times. Hootie and the Blowfish’s 14x platinum album doesn’t help that argument either.

On, a MySpace for music lovers, Nirvana has been scrobbled, or listened to, 42 million times. The service started in 2002, so perhaps it was just catching the tail-end of the Nirvana interest.

On MySpace, the Nirvana page, up since 2005 it says, has some 89,000 friends. On’s competitor site iLike, up since 2006, Nirvana has over 1 million fans. That’s more than Metallica, Madonna, and Dr. Dre, but not as many as Radiohead, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West. (Interestingly, the most popular Nirvana song on both iLike and is “Come As Your Are” — not “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” although that’s the #2 song.)

The “scrobble” count holds some water, but still only counts the sort of person that would be likely to download the spin tracking application. However, counting “friends” on any service, especially MSspace is about the worst methodology possible for trying to discern fame. After all, MySpace is the service that brought us Tila Tequila, and that’s something that can never be forgiven. Still, music blogging, even when done by those outside the sainted inner circle, has such a low quality bar to clear that Jelveh’s misguided retort can be partially forgiven.

However, the question still is out there: Do people actually listen to Nirvana? Well, if they listen to alternative radio, they don’t have much choice, since Nirvana is the fifth-most-spun artist in the genre this year (slightly ahead of Seether, if you can get your head around that). If all radio formats are taken into consideration, Nirvana slides into the 50th spot overall, ahead of Brooks & Dunn and matchbox twenty, but below J. Holiday, Webbie, and Lifehouse. So, it’s largely a matter of perspective. Do people listen to Nirvana? Sure, but apparently they’re the same people who enjoy Seether and Three Days Grace. Take that how you wish.

Grandma Take Me Home [Matthew Iglesias]
How Many People Listen To Nirvana? [Odd Numbers]


  1. OliverTwist

    Come As You Are will always be on my Top Ten Most Annoying list. I can always swear it’s about to turn into 1,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

  2. alec_baldwin

    Bish plz

  3. loudersoft

    You’re kidding right? I was listening to Bleach on the way to Bonnaroo last week. Still love it.

  4. bcapirigi

    i go through phases on listening to nevermind a lot for two weeks and then not listening to it again for years. i used to listen to the unplugged one all the time, but that was when i still had a tape player in my car (ie. five to eight years ago.) the others i almost never listen to, despite the fact that i’ve only had them since i went to somebody’s yard sale last summer. ph, and on the tenth anniversary of kurt cobain’s death i actually recorded every nirvana song ever recorded off the radio, and it was all crackly and staticky and i liked the way it sounded. not to much the annoying dj banter, but you know.

  5. Poubelle

    I’m pretty sure almost every remotely alt/indie musically inclined [white] kid at my high school was required to own at least Nevermind, if not Unplugged or In Utero or Bleach. (I was one of the exceptions.) People listened to them enough to talk about them, and since I was in high school recently enough that many people had iPods or other mp3 players, I’m sure kids at least heard Nirvana when it came up on shuffle.

  6. Anonymous

    In Utero is a great album, that I will put into heavy rotation a couple times a year. Then I won’t for a while, but that pretty much goes for all the classics.

    Basically the Atlantic Monthly blogger is way off on this. But blogging is all about making assertions that hold no water.

  7. amandacobra

    i’m not saying this to be cool or indie or whatever it would be called to claim this for hip points but i never owned a nirvana album. i never got them. i was at the right age (11 when nevermind came out) and everyone around me liked them. i obviously know tons of people who claim they shaped their taste in music for years to come. and i appreciate that they steered kids towards the vaselines and stuff like that. but i just always found them, boring.

  8. Anonymous

    At this point, Nirvana has become an act I appreciate, but I do not actively listen to them. There is no craving, and it could be due to being in college in 1991 and overdosing on Nevermind.

    I consider them a fine museum piece worth considering from time to time, an important historical artifact. Does Nirvana have any current relevance to my life? Since I don’t listen to commercial, stuck in 1994 alt-rock radio, that would be a “no.”

  9. D Day

    Such a worthwhile question, Zubin.

    When you get an answer, maybe you can answer the much more interesting question:
    “Are people THINKING about listening to Nirvana?”

    Show your work.


  10. Anonymous

    @Commonloon: Thats just inaccurate. 53% of all claims made on blogs are certifiable.
    But your first point is a good one- there are so many records that just are, that having them in your record collection will have you reaching for it every once in a while; more often if your record collection is small. Gotta hear the old good to sort out the new bad.

  11. Anonymous

    @avoncobra: Saying Nirvana is boring does sound a bit like trying to sound cool….How can you not get them? Loud quiet loud, dude. Like the Pixies. And feckin catchy! Not having listened to them, you might be underqualified to dismiss them as “boring.”

  12. amandacobra


    I mean I have listened to them as anyone who has lived in a Western country in the past twenty years has. I know their songs. By “boring”, I mean that there is nothing about their songs that grabs me. You know that feeling when you hear a band and you’re like “meh”? That’s what I mean. I don’t recoil in horror. I just don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other. I’ve had people play me deep cuts to “really hear the good stuff” but it sounds like the radio singles which, again, just doesn’t do much for me. I can’t stress enough, though, that I respect them as musicians and all around dudes. Much love. Just not my idols.

  13. Captain Wrong

    I suppose having been 18 when Nevermind came out, I was in the right demographic but like other bands I have utmost respect for (such as the Beatles) I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing them again and be OK. OTOH, I just saw an emo kid (younger than 18) at the mall with a Nirvana shirt today which surprised me and made me feel a bit old. Of course, wearing a shirt doesn’t mean you’re listening to them (see also pop starlets and hipsters wearing ironic metal T-shirts) but maybe this kid did.

    In other words, I got nuthin.

  14. Eugene Langley

    The only guy I know who still listens to Nirvana a lot also still listens to Metallica a lot. I’m not sure what that means, but mainly I think it means I only know one guy, and no girls, who still listen to Nirvana a lot. He also probably doesn’t read Atlantic Monthly.

  15. Eugene Langley

    I only know one guy who still listens to Nirvana a lot, and he also still listens to Metallica a lot. I’m not sure what that means, other than that I only know one guy, and no girls, who still listens to Nirvana a lot. He also probably doesn’t read Atlantic Monthly.

  16. Anonymous

    This is a matter of content vs. context.

    Perhaps Nirvana’s context outshone their content — they were bigger than their music. The same could be said for plenty of artists & entertainers (John Belushi comes to mind).

    That being said, I rocked Nevermind and Unplugged for most of my middle school years, and still enjoy the occasional listen.

  17. phaballa

    All the radio stations in Austin (KISS, Mix, and the independent rock station) regularly play Nirvana. I have heard Nirvana more in the past 6 months on the radio than I have Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco combined.

    Now, if only I could say the same about that horrible Katy Perry song.

  18. SirLoin

    If I never hear Nevermind again for the rest of my life, it will be too soon. It seems like every third song on rock radio is something off that record. The only time I reach for my dial faster is when a Sublime song comes on.

    On the other hand, In Utero continues to find its way to my cd player every couple of months. Brutal for its time and a totally ballsy choice for a follow-up to a smash, it remains one of my favorite records.

  19. Cos

    @SirLoin: “The only time I reach for my dial faster is when a Sublime song comes on.”

    seconded. Sublime is the most wretched musical artifact of the 90s

  20. Peacocktails

    you paid money for an ed harcourt best of? leave it wrapped.

  21. loudersoft

    “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” never gets enough airplay, nor does “Verse Chorus Verse”. These Nirvana songs I can listen to forever.

  22. drjimmy11

    They were never a very good band.

    For my money they wrote one good song, “All Apologies.” People are always taking about “Unplugged” as a great album but for God’s Sakes it’s a COVER ALBUM!! Get a sense of perspective. Any halfway decent barband can sound good playing other people’s songs.

    Nirvana were very well marketed but from my experience the whole “voice of generation” thing was utterly fabricated. I was in a college dorm full of white kids when he died. Most people were laughing. I’m not saying its right to laugh at someone dying, but no one gave much of a shit about him or his music.

    Grunge music was not a genre. It was poorly-played Black Sabbath riffs with tired PC hippie-isms on top. It was a bunch of white guys with drums and guitars. Kind of like Foreigner with less chops. There was nothing interesting about it except the way it was marketed.

  23. philip sherburne

    Thats just inaccurate. 53% of all claims made on blogs are certifiable.
    Only 80% of the time.

  24. Captain Wrong

    @drjimmy11: You ever listened to Unplugged? There’s a couple of covers on it, sure, but it’s not exactly a cover album. And what’s your beef with white people?

    Also, I wish my friends were as cool as you and yours. Ok, not really.

  25. Chris N.

    @drjimmy11: You went to college with some real assholes.

  26. KikoJones

    In the last 10 years I’ve listened to Nevermind, on average, about twice a year, and still feel it holds up, long after the hype has subsided. The Unplugged disc has aged even better. Despite meaning to, I rarely ever listen to Bleach or In Utero–guess I gotta put ‘em on the iPod–but appreciate them both, especially the latter.
    Interestingly, then and now, of my friends with similar taste in music, most who had disparaging things to say about Nirvana were–by far–white. I really don’t know what that means but I find it curious, nonetheless. (I was in Mexico City when In Utero came out and the kids were really digging it down there. Not as much as they loved Morrissey, but that’s another thing altogeter.)

    Often overlooked, or ignored, is that a lot of Gen X-ers of color not only dug the Seattle/alt-rock of the late ’80s/early ’90s but also felt a sense of inclusion. Ex: Two black buddies of mine went to a Motley Crue in-store signing at Tower Records in the late ’80s, and as the only non-whites there, were met with confused stares by their fellow Crue fans. (The band, however, greeted them quite warmly.) Meanwhile, the original Soundgarden lineup had an Asian bassist and an Indian guitarist. And of course, there was James Iha, David Pajo, Joey Santiago, etc. A rock guitarist–and Haitian–friend of mine once said to me, he could never relate to the hair bands on the magazine covers–or the ones with similar musical influences, whose “guitarist wanted” ads he’d answer, only to be turned down without playing a lick when they saw what he looked like–but “these other guys” made him feel like he was a part of something. After all, no one at a Nirvana concert was gonna say to him, “Hey dude, you’re at the wrong show: LL Cool J is tomorrow.

  27. BakerStreetSaxSolo

    Haven’t listened to Nirvana in at least 5 years.

  28. Anonymous

    I’ll still listen to their stuff from time to time, in fact I think 2 or 3 months ago. I had burnt out on nevermind pretty early in the 90s just from general radio/mtv exposure, but now with a little distance it’s a solid album. I’ve even grown to like bleach a little better (I was never a fan of their sludgy stuff). I like that they often rock out in a punk/metal hybrid without falling into either cliche.

  29. cheesebubble

    The way music is formatted, delivered and listened to has changed drastically. It’s not the same as when Nevermind was released. Attention spans are abrupt and, on top of that, there’s access to a thousand times more artists as opposed to back in the day. There’s so much to choose from and because of that I think lots of people are hard-pressed to come up with a decent list of music from a few years back (or otherwise) that they actively listen to on a regular basis. Having said all this, does it diminish the great appeal of Nirvana and their output? Not one bit. Did I practically hear their album daily when it came out? Yes. Do I still spin it as frequently today? No. But that doesn’t mean I can’t receive it as eagerly now as I did then. It left a watermark that will be referenced for years to come.

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