by Victoria Barrett
It probably sounds childish or self-indulgent to say that a couple of rock records changed my life. I mean, I grade freshman comp essays. I don't usually write them. But here we are, facing down the 25th anniversary of the release of two records that gave me permission. Not so much permission to do anything in particular. Permission to be.
This week, I'm going to tell you a few stories about Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and a cheerleader from the suburbs who was a little bit of a punk misfit at heart. Here's the first:
25 years ago this week, I was a senior in high school, a varsity cheerleader, a stereotypically-but-not-interestingly pretty girl who made good grades and had an athlete boyfriend, a part-time job, and an overdeveloped interest in books. And yet, when the cheerleading squad was announced, a girl who'd been left out had looked at my name and said, "Jesus, her? She's not even popular." Later, a boy I knew would tell me that he thought about asking me out, but people told him I was weird. No matter how much I did right, I could never get right with the kids who determined the social hierarchy. It took me way too long to understand that this was a feature, not a bug.
The video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made me deeply uncomfortable. There they were, on the screen, mocking everything I'd spent my entire adolescence trying to be. I should have had hurt feelings. And yet. The discomfort felt honest in a way the cheerleading and the social striving did not. I couldn't climb that ladder because my ladder was pointing up a different slope.
I should say that I wasn't some kind of icon of misfits. I wasn't different from other kids in interesting ways. I certainly wasn't trying to be. And I still like and admire cheerleaders and their ilk — I think they get a bad rap, culturally, and that bad rap is deeply sexist at heart. I loved being a cheerleader. I loved performing, being looked at, being on a stage. I loved the pom poms. I wanted to be popular. I wanted all the boys to like me (and none of them to think I was weird).
Nevermind and its attendant subculture were my first experience being powerfully attracted to something conventionally unattractive. Nirvana's songwriting formula was jarring and anti-melodic. The chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" left my nerves jangled. Cobain's snarl and his unwashed hair and the imagery of that first video unsettled my suburban sense of beauty. My first searing, painfully-unrequited crush, at 16, was on a 20-year-old art school guy with tattoos and Doc Martens, but even he was undeniably conventionally attractive underneath the unsuburan style choices. But this — this was something else. Someone was describing, in very uncertain terms, the ragged margins of my personality that refused to fit into the aspirational mold I kept trying to stuff myself into. (When I fell hard for Nevermind and mentioned it to the art-school guy, he said, "I like his wife's band better." He was probably right, looking back, but I couldn't see it at the time.)
Now, when I show my freshman comp students the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video (I promise I have a pedagogically sound reason), which has been viewed 436,460,928 times as of this moment on the band's official Vevo channel, they don't quite get it. They can't — Nirvana and their contemporaries so thoroughly saturated the rock music that came after that it feels commonplace now, ordinary. But I stand in front of them, transported into their seats, to an age when my life was heavy with possibility, when every choice felt like it might mean something substantial, or catastrophic, or both. The hair on my arms stands up. Sometimes my eyes even fill with tears. Not because I made the choices wrong, or ended up somewhere I didn't intend, but because the music blaring in my classroom opened those choices up for me in a way that I could not, before it, have imagined in my status-seeking cheerleader heart.
Victoria Barrett's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, Salon, PANK, and other outlets. She lives and writes in a house full of men and boys (even the pets) and tries not to feel too bad about it.