If you're looking for a good summation of why Nevermind changed the face of music and youth culture, you'll have to go elsewhere. I'm no musicologist; God knows I try. I've read some good articles. Slate had a good article earlier in the year about the state of the Nirvana legacy today. Drowned in Sound also has a good, honest critique of the recent Nevermind reissue. There are some others I'm having a hard time finding. I'll put them here when and if I find them. I probably have nothing new to add to the twenty-year-running conversation about Nirvana and Nevermind. The only things I can really share are my experiences.
I literally have no recollection of my life pre-Nirvana. I'm not going to say "I was there." I was one year old when Nevermind dropped, only just a bit older than the baby on the cover. I was there, but it was my mother that was really there, exposed to the music of the time and able to appreciate the music as it happened. She listened to the radio and she had a CD player. So yes, I heard Nirvana, a lot of Nirvana, on the radio or otherwise, for the entirety of my childhood. It wasn't until middle school, though, that I rediscovered my mothers CD collection and all of its gems, including most of the Nirvana CDs, which included Nevermind.
Can you imagine what that must have been like? For someone entering puberty, confused as fuck about everything and in doubt of himself and the world around him, Nevermind was pretty much a gift from above. It was cathartic, emotional, punk rock as hell, confrontational and nihilistic at once, and it practically underwent its own identity crisis every time I spun it. In a way Nirvana's music made a whole wealth of my own repressed emotions acceptable, because someone else expressed them: Life really just isn't fair, it's okay to hate your parents for divorcing, the truth is ugly, you don't have to dress like everyone else, people just aren't listening.
In addition to life lessons, Nirvana taught me about a whole new world of music. My obsession with them did not come without a hell of a lot of research into an incredible amount of liner notes, articles, websites, books, VHS tapes, interviews and more. Kurt pushed all of his favorite bands harder than his own, and I would have never known who scores of bands were without his guidance. Through his words, Kurt introduced me to indie rock. Could there be a greater gift than that?
This 1992 interview is proof that Kurt was completely aware of the effect that he was having and would have on young people like me. He realized it and after the fact he continued to spread his knowledge of music and the music industry to everyone he could. That's a pretty generous stance to take on music. His words being broadcasted on MTV and the like, how could he not take advantage of his popularity and use it to change things for the better?
And I suppose I should write a paragraph about the actual music. A big topic of discussion about Nevermind, especially recently, has been about its production values. Some people say they cheapen the album. My feeling is basically that this album's glossy production has nothing to do with why it was popular. Nevermind blew up because it is a legitimately good album. A good album for rock music, for punk music, and most importantly for pop music. To me the keystone of the Nirvana oeuvre is the Unplugged album. Take all the production values away from those songs and you just have some beautiful melodies, simple as that. The "secret" to Nirvana's success is the painfully obvious fact that Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter.
To say Nirvana was important to me would be a criminal understatement. They opened up completely new worlds of thought, music and expression that I had never thought possible. I can imagine that thousands, millions of kids went through the same stuff about ten years before me, and at the same time as me, and still do now, and will continue to do so ad infinitum, at least as long as kids are still into rock music.
To me, that's what I find really impressive about Nirvana, Nevermind, Kurt Cobain. I was relating to this music with my mother. Thirty plus year age gap, there. That's the kind of pathetic reality that Kurt Cobain sought to steer young people away from. I guess that didn't work the way he planned, at least in my case. I think he underestimated Nevermind.