This long essay is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Cobain and Dimebag Darrell
At the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach on July 2, 1994 a collection of large signs made by Pantera fans hangs above the stage before the show. One of them proclaims: “FUCK LAST NIGHT’S CROWD / YOUR TRUE FANS ARE / HERE TONIGHT”—with the band’s name written underneath it along with a pot leaf. At this moment, the band is at the height of its success; the group’s seventh studio album Far Beyond Driven had just come out in March of that year and it was their fastest-selling album, immediately selling 185,000 copies and reaching the number one spot on the US Billboard 200. The album is the third in a trio of Pantera albums (along with Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power) that solidified the band as being a dominant force in the heavy metal genre in the early nineties. Conversely, another important band’s career had just come to a grinding halt in April of 1994: Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven at his home in Seattle. In September of 1993, the group released its third studio album, In Utero, selling 180,000 copies and reaching the number one spot on the US Billboard 200. It is the third in a trio of Nirvana albums (along with Bleach and Nevermind) that established the group as a massive force in the world of rock. Both bands feature edgy lyricists along with aggressively superior musicianship: Phil Anselmo and Kurt Cobain are the definitive voices of each group; Dimebag Darrell and Kurt Cobain are both elite guitarists in their own right; Vinnie Paul and Dave Grohl are two of the most important drummers in the history of rock music; Rex Brown and Krist Novoselic hold each group together with their solid bass music.
Because these two bands occupied different spaces within the music world at that time, they are not seen as being in conversation with each other. Each group’s fans exist within two distinctly different camps: Pantera fans listen to heavy metal; Nirvana fans listen to bands that were classified by the media as being grunge rock. In fact, both genres were at odds with each other in the early nineties which created even more of a gap between the two bands. Pantera was seen as keeping heavy metal alive during a time when it was perceived to be faltering due to the rise of grunge; Nirvana was seen as the rock band that officially put an end to the overindulgent and obnoxious reign of hair metal that had dominated rock music in the eighties. The goal of this essay is to examine Pantera and Nirvana from the perspective that both bands are not only iconic and genre-changing, they are complimentary to each other. Through the description/analysis of live performances, music videos, song lyric/structure, and interviews, these two important bands will be placed in conversation with each other so that their differences and similarities will not only be recognized, but it will also be seen that both bands fueled rock music in the nineties in a way no other bands have been able to do since then—and this is what makes them truly iconic.
To begin, it will be necessary to give a brief overview of how Pantera and Nirvana came to occupy the top spots in each of their respective genres partially because their trajectories were different and partially because it is important to understand why each band came to be as significant as they were in accordance with each genre. Pantera came out with a series of independent releases (Metal Magic, Projects in the Jungle, I Am the Night, and Power Metal) all throughout the eighties; the band was based out of Arlington, Texas and they played in clubs all over Texas and Louisiana. For many years, they were a club band and during that time they developed a loyal fan base. Pantera also featured a different singer for the group’s first three albums (Terry Glaze), who sang in more of a hair metal style, although musically, they were very much a metal band influenced by Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Kiss, and Van Halen. Power Metal, which came out in 1988, is the first album that features Phil Anselmo as the band’s vocalist. During this time, the band was going through an important transitional period as they began to strip down their sound in order to implement the thrash and hardcore metal/punk elements that defined Cowboys From Hell, the first album they put out on a major label—Atco Records. This was the breakthrough album that brought Pantera into the broader world of heavy metal and it is also the first album that includes producer Terry Date (Soundgarden, White Zombie, Deftones), who would go on to produce the rest of the group’s records except for Reinventing the Steel. From this point on, Pantera’s aggressive and groove-infused music spread like wildfire throughout the metal world. They got the attention of Rob Halford, who invited them to open for Judas Priest in Europe. The group was also asked to perform at the Monsters of Rock in Moscow in 1991 to a crowd of over 500,000 people. Afterward, the band went into the studio and recorded Vulgar Display of Power which really solidified them as a powerhouse in the metal genre with songs like “Mouth for War,” “Walk,” “A New Level,” and “This Love.”
The reason why Pantera achieved rapid success after years of touring small clubs has everything to do with the fact that they became more authentic musicians and performers; they began to embody a more casual appearance and started to write music that reflected who they were as musicians: Anselmo’s vocals shifted significantly from Power Metal to Cowboys from Hell—he developed a spoken word style of singing that became more prominent in Vulgar Display of Power, reflecting his hardcore punk/thrash metal influences (Black Flag and Slayer) which allowed him to sound less like Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson and more like himself. Dimebag Darrell shifted from being a highly technical guitar player who could perform elaborate solos in the style of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads and incorporated more of a rhythmic and bluesy type of style that served as an excellent complement to Anselmo’s aggressive vocals. Vinnie Paul’s drumming became much more nuanced and tuned to Dimebag Darrell’s playing; the two brothers became an even tighter unit on their major releases. Pantera’s success as a heavy metal band is characterized by its rejection of hair metal (much like Nirvana) that had already started to take root on a larger scale in the late eighties. Pantera has often been erroneously labeled as a hair metal band in the eighties because of their style of dress and Glaze’s vocals, but again, they were very much a metal band musically and they were already pretty well known in the metal genre; they already had established friendships with James Hetfield of Metallica and Kerry King of Slayer (Dave Mustaine of Megadeth invited Dimebag Darrell to join the group). It is also important to understand that Pantera occupied an interesting place within the metal genre that set them apart from other metal bands. At that time, thrash metal was not only incredibly popular, it had replaced bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden as the next step in the evolution of heavy metal. Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth were the major metal acts of the time and dominated the scene in every possible way—from music to lyrics to attire to performance style. Pantera is significant because it was the first metal band to successfully fuse classic metal with thrash metal elements, creating an entirely new sound that established them as the band that reinvented heavy metal in the nineties.
Nirvana’s journey to success was much quicker than Pantera’s and this was both a blessing and a curse. One principal difference between Pantera and Nirvana is the fact that Pantera was a seasoned band when they achieved major success and they were prepared for it in ways that Nirvana was not. Like Pantera, Nirvana was a band characterized by their environment—they were based out of Aberdeen, Washington and toured in the Seattle scene in the late eighties, right at the beginning of what the media called the “grunge” explosion, alongside Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam later on. However, Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl all came from the early to mid-eighties punk scene. Cobain and Novoselic were avid listeners of punk rock music; Grohl, who joined Nirvana after the band’s first release, played drums in Scream, a hardcore punk band from Washington, D.C. Buzz Osborne of the avant-garde metal group Melvins was also instrumental in not only introducing Cobain to punk music, he was also responsible for bringing Cobain and Novoselic together with Grohl which really solidified Nirvana on a percussive level at a time when they had no stable drummer. The group’s first album Bleach was released on Sub Pop in 1989; the label is based in Seattle and is considered to be an important mover in the grunge explosion, as they also supported Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Prior to Nevermind, the album sold 40,000 copies, but has since sold more than 1.9 million copies in the US, making it Sub Pop’s highest selling release. Musically and aesthetically, Bleach is similar to the band’s other two albums. Here, Nirvana differs from Pantera because early on, Cobain had a clear understanding of how he wanted to be heard and perceived. Coming from the punk scene, the style of music Nirvana played was already tuned to listeners with an anti-hair metal sensibility. All three albums are consistent in their musical style: stripped-down rock music with punk elements; all three albums were also produced by three different producers: Jack Endino, Butch Vig, and Steve Albini. Cobain’s influences are reflected in Nirvana’s sound: he was a fan of bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Queen alongside bands like the Sex Pistols and Black Flag. Nevermind did much more to communicate this fusion of rock and punk in a way that was attractive to mainstream rock music listeners. It was Nirvana’s first release on a major label—DGC (David Geffen Company) and it thrusted them into the spotlight unexpectedly. By January of 1992 it reached number one on the US Billboard 200 and was selling around 300,000 copies on a weekly basis. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was primarily responsible for the band’s skyrocketing success which paved the way for other songs on the album to achieve a similar level of popularity, including “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom.”
The reason why Nirvana became so popular so fast has to do with the fact that the group’s music resonated with audiences who wanted to listen to rock music that differed from the over-marketed styles of hair metal and arena rock. Once the band achieved popularity, it was placed at the forefront of the grunge scene by the media as a way to market a genre of music that would create a whole new class of listeners which came to be called “alternative” music listeners. Nirvana became the band that allowed other bands who were similar on an aesthetic level (independent but safer than punk and metal) to achieve mainstream success. It is also important to note here that Nirvana did not have the chance to cultivate a fan base the way Pantera did. When Nevermind came out, the group attracted fans that had only seen “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV or heard it on the radio. As a result, Cobain struggled to come to terms with a large fan base who did not really understand him or his music. In many interviews he was asked to explain his aesthetic and his lyricism in ways that caused him to feel frustrated and alienated (this will be discussed in more detail later). Because there was a need for the media to justify grunge as a legitimate genre, they often overlooked Cobain’s ties with the punk scene, which they had erroneously deemed as a dead genre. Much of Cobain’s sensibilities as a musician and a songwriter were inspired by punk music and this was never adequately appreciated by the media and by fans who listened to grunge without any knowledge of the fact that grunge stemmed from punk. It is even more important to note that although Pantera was understood on an aesthetic level by their fans (heavy metal listeners who knew their genre inside and out), they too were asked to explain their sound and their lyricism to interviewers who often mischaracterized them as being angry and violent—precisely because they had a limited understanding of heavy metal. Even though Nirvana struggled to be wholly understood, their music was absolutely groundbreaking because they made rock music palatable again to an audience who had become disenchanted with traditional rock which was seen as being out of touch with the current moment. The eighties was a decade marked by extreme hardship for lower classes of people (artistic and working class) who typically listened to music on a regular basis. Nirvana successfully resonated with both groups, along with other musicians who were looking to shift into a more authentic sound.
Live performances are an incredibly important aspect of music because it gives fans knowledge of who a band is in a more tangible way. There are plenty of Pantera concerts available to view on YouTube which gives fans who were not able to see them access to what Pantera was like on a performative level. The concert that will be discussed took place on June 27, 1992 at the Hollywood Palladium; what follows is a description of the concert in detail. Anselmo shouts “Alright! We’re Pantera!” and the opening song is “Heresy.” Dimebag plays the beginning riff very aggressively as Anselmo jumps off of the drum platform. Dimebag whips his head around in circles as he plays. Anselmo wears a tie dye shirt with a pot leaf on it; Dimebag plays his famous Dean from Hell guitar with the lightning bolts on it. The crowd sings out the lyric “It’s their fucking decision.” Anselmo shakes hands with people in the front row. Anselmo shouts “Let’s go ape-shit!” Rex paces back and forth on stage. Anselmo helps a fan onstage who jumps up and down and then runs backstage. Someone just below the stage films the crowd. Anselmo knocks Rex’s microphone stand over and slaps hands with crowd members; the stand is picked back up by someone on the stage crew. The song ends and the camera gets a good shot of the crowd which looks like a sea of bodies and arms. After “Mouth for War,” Anselmo picks up a shoe someone tossed on stage, says, “Thanks,” and tosses it in the direction of backstage. He then thanks the crowd and “Domination” begins. A stage crew member wearing a shirt that says “Kick Ass” on the back brings out a large box fan as Anselmo sings “It’s a useless ploy” and plugs it in. Rex spins around as another shoe lands on stage. The stage crew member moves the box fan so it is at the back of the stage, facing the crowd. After Dimebag’s solo, Anselmo jumps off of the drum platform, lands hard, and jumps around a few times aggressively. Anselmo thanks the crowd again and introduces the song “Hollow” which is played at the tail end of “Domination” (playing the two songs combined becomes a staple of the group’s live performances). Dimebag and Rex face each other as they play the end of “Hollow” (this also becomes a regular part of the live performance of “Dom / Hollow”). At the end of the song, Anselmo helps another fan on stage who immediately stage dives. Anselmo says, “Thank you very much people, you’re fucking kicking ass.” Then, Anselmo is no longer wearing a shirt; he pours water all over the crowd as Dimebag plays exaggerated guitar sounds.
During “Fucking Hostile,” Anselmo says, “I wanna hear you” right before the main hook of the song and the crowd responds by singing the phrase “Fucking hostile.” During Dimebag’s solo, Anselmo gets on the drum platform and puts his foot on the kick drum. Right before “This Love” starts, Anselmo introduces it as being the new music video and tells the crowd “I want you to make this motherfucker number one. Show ‘em, Vince.” Vinnie Paul starts hitting the cymbals and as soon as Dimebag plays the opening riff, the crowd cheers. A fan ends up on stage and dances around slowly then stage dives. Someone throws a shirt onstage and the crew member with the “Kick Ass” shirt quickly retrieves it. During the chorus (the central part of it consists of Anselmo singing “Love” repeatedly), the camera zooms out and captures a giant circle pit in the middle of the crowd and part of another circle pit right next to it. As the song slows down, the camera zooms in on Anselmo as the legs of crowd members are up in the air in an attempt to crowd surf; fans climb all over each other. During the chorus, the camera zooms out again and captures two giant circle pits as Anselmo, Rex, and Dimebag scream the word “Love” over and over. As the song pauses, the crowd gets excited and Anselmo shouts “I want to see everybody fucking destroying, man,” followed by the lyric “No more head trip.” The camera zooms in on Dimebag as he plays a slow riff in a menacing fashion. Anselmo says, “You’re kicking fucking ass, people.” The camera zooms in on Dimebag again as he plays his solo.
There is a break in the set for the first time as Anselmo says, “Turn on the lights. Let me see everybody in the fucking eyeballs, yeah!” The crowd cheers as the lights come on and Vinnie Paul hits the drums a few times. The camera blurs a bit as it focuses in on the crowd. Anselmo says, “Catch your fucking breath. I know it’s scalding out there. You still got some energy out there?” The crowd responds with a cheer and he says, “Good.” Anselmo thanks the fans for supporting the show and then asks them to give the opening bands White Zombie and Crowbar a round of applause and they do as Vinnie Paul hits his drums. Anselmo tells the crowd they’re the best the band has ever played for and then dedicates “A New Level” to “Everybody out there who don’t let nobody fucking piss on them. Sometimes you have to punch the motherfuckers right in the neck.” As Dimebag plays a riff, sweat drips off of his arm. The stage crew member runs out to wipe down the floor near Anselmo. During “Walk,” Anselmo shakes more hands with people in the crowd and helps a female fan on stage who tries to kiss him and then stage dives. Dimebag takes center stage as he plays his solo; Anselmo drinks water, pours some all over his shaved head, then motions for the crowd to watch Dimebag play. As he plays the main riff, the lights go out and one giant light shines behind him as the camera zooms out to capture a giant circle pit. The person with the camera below the stage is still filming the crowd. Just before Dimebag plays the closing riff, Anselmo says, “This part…is slow…and fucking heavy,” jumps up and hits the ground hard as the song changes, and puts the microphone in his shorts as he walks around. Dimebag faces Vinnie Paul as he plays. A shirtless fan gets on stage, shakes Anselmo’s hand quickly, and then stage dives as Rex walks toward Vinnie Paul and faces him for the end of the song. Once it’s over, Anselmo says, “Thank you very much.”
There is another break in the set where Anselmo thanks the crowd again and asks, “Are you having a good time out there, yeah?” He asks for the lights to be turned on again so he can see the crowd. He asks, “How’s everybody doing upstairs, man, you fuckin’ cool? How about the sides? Can y’all see what the fuck’s going on?” then humorously says, “We ain’t really much to look at, man…We’re like the fucking wedding reception fucking band that nobody looks at. They’re just waiting for the next song…Fuck all that pacifist talk, you know what I’m saying? How many bad motherfuckers do we have in here, man? Admit it.” The camera zooms in on the crowd. Anselmo continues: “This is a great way to blow off all that fucking angry fucking steam…I love it…I LOVE it…I like it when my girlfriend, when I think she’s fucking around on me. It gives me an excuse to be pissed off [laughs].” Then the recorded sounds of rapid gunfire blast through the speakers as “Psycho Holiday” begins; Dimebag dances across the stage while playing; Rex paces back and forth. More of the crowd is being filmed by the camera person below the stage as Dimebag bends over while he plays, letting his hair fall straight down toward the ground. At the end of his solo, Anselmo jumps down hard from the drum platform and starts singing again. Another fan marches around on stage and then stage dives. Anselmo reaches out and touches the hands of crowd members. A fan wearing a Pantera shirt gets on stage, dances a bit, tries to shake Dimebag’s hand, realizes he can’t because he’s playing, taps him on the arm instead, and then stage dives. Another fan gets on stage, dances around aggressively, then climbs back down into the crowd. At the end of the song, Anselmo says, “Thank you very much.”
The lights go out until Dimebag takes center stage and begins to play the opening riff to “By Demons Be Driven;” a giant light shines behind him and then the rest of the stage lights come on. As Anselmo sings, he spots a scrawny kid (around eleven or twelve) with a shaved head and motions for him to come on stage. Someone helps him on stage; he shakes Anselmo’s hand quickly and then Anselmo rubs his shaved head; he stage dives and the camera follows him as he crowd surfs, lifting both middle fingers before the camera focuses back on Anselmo. Someone just below the stage takes pictures of Anselmo as he sings. The stage crew member with the “Kick Ass” shirt quickly retrieves a shirt thrown on stage. At the end of the song, the camera zooms out as a fan jumps on stage, high fives Anselmo, waves to Dimebag, and stage dives; once the song is over, Anselmo says, “Thank you very much,” and then says, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for fucking Vince back here on the drums, man.” The crowd cheers loudly; lights shine down on Vinnie Paul as he stands up and the camera zooms in on him. He nods his head and points to the crowd, drumsticks in hand.
This signals another break in the set where Anselmo addresses the crowd by saying, “We’re not the type of band who plays for fucking fifteen hours and bores everybody…Let’s get loud, come on!” The crowd responds with a huge cheer. Anselmo says, “This is the best fucking crowd I’ve ever fucking played in front of ever, man. This is fucking killer,” and Vinnie Paul punctuates it by hitting the drums. Then Anselmo says, “Never say that, never say that. You never know where you’re gonna play tomorrow. You’re untouchable tonight. Un-fucking-touchable, man.” He shakes more hands from the crowd and continues: “You know what the best fucking thing is? When you come see a fucking Pantera show, you don’t come to fucking see the lasers…you don’t come to see fucking explosions and fucking fire…you come to fucking hear the songs, man. That’s what makes us real, man. There’s nothing more real than that. Getting off on the fucking songs, I love it. This song goes out to fucking everybody…I’ve got to say this real quick. Some fucking little pussy in the safety of the fucking crowd dickhead keeps spitting…If you see people spitting, punch them in the fucking face, please. Handle this. Handle this, man, we’re not animals. This is a fucking show. This song goes out to everybody.” The lights get chaotic as “Primal Concrete Sledge” begins. The camera zooms out and gets blurry and focuses as it captures a giant circle pit. It gets blurry again as it focuses on Anselmo singing and Dimebag spinning his head in circles as he plays. As he plays the riff after the chorus, a guitar tech runs in to tend to his guitar. As the song builds, Anselmo tells everyone to put their hands in the air. The lights are bright as the camera zooms out all the way to show three giant circle pits. Anselmo says, “Bad fucking ass.” At the end of the song, a sweaty, shirtless fan jumps on stage and then stage dives. Anselmo says, “Thank you,” then screams “We’re fucking Pantera!” and drops the mic as the band leaves the stage.
All the lights go off except for the stage lights. The camera moves around unsteadily as the crowd waits for the encore. Rex walks across the stage and meets Dimebag at the other end; the camera zooms in on them as they face each other and begin to play the musical introduction to “Cemetery Gates.” Right before the main riff is played, the lights intensify on Anselmo, also lighting up the box fan that is still running. A kid in a cap runs out on stage and high fives Anselmo who also pats his head; as he walks across the stage, he waves to Rex, and then climbs back down into the crowd. Dimebag jumps onto the drum platform and faces Vinnie Paul as he plays. Someone throws a drumstick onto the stage. The stage crew member picks it up and Anselmo motions for him to toss it to him. He does (right as a fan stage dives) and Anselmo picks it up and throws it back into the crowd as he sings. A fan jumps up and tries to crowd surf unsuccessfully. During Dimebag’s solo, Anselmo invites a fan on stage. Shirtless, he pulls his shorts up, smooths his hair back, walks across the stage, and dives into the crowd. Once the song is over, the lights go dark and a voice that says, “We’re taking over this town” blasts through the speakers followed by strobe lights and a loud repeating guitar riff that signals the grand finale: “Cowboys from Hell.”
Anselmo says, “Thanks y’all for kicking so much ass…Buy the fucking new record Vulgar Display of Power. You gotta do it, man…Goddamnit, we’re the cowboys from hell!” The camera gets blurry as a fan dances on stage while Dimebag plays the opening riff to the song. Anselmo helps another fan on stage who dives into the crowd. As Dimebag stands beside Anselmo, he touches his palm to the guitarist’s forehead, then high fives another fan who jumps into the crowd. He tosses a shirt to another fan on the stage who takes it and jumps into the crowd. At the end of the song, Dimebag plays part of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as Anselmo repeats the phrase “Smoke weed.” At the end of the song he says, “Thanks very much, man, we love you. Badass. Fuckin’ A.” The concert ends with drums and loud guitar noises; Anselmo shouts “We’re fucking Pantera” and drops the microphone. Dimebag gives his guitar to the guitar tech; Vinnie Paul throws drumsticks to the crowd; the camera turns to jagged static.
The Nirvana performance that will be discussed is the acoustic set the group played for the television series MTV Unplugged. It was recorded on November 18, 1993 at Sony Studios in New York and aired on MTV on December 16th. The live album was released a year later, several months after Cobain’s suicide; it charted at number one on the US Billboard 200 and won Best Alternative Music Performance at the 1996 Grammy Awards (the group’s only Grammy win). The live performance was released on DVD in 2007 and was certified eight-times multiplatinum by the RIAA in 2020. A description of the concert follows. The show begins with the camera focusing in on applauding audience members who are seated. The camera zooms out to capture the stage which shows a giant chandelier, spotlights, tall black candles, white lilies, and all three members seated with their instruments. As the applause dies down, Cobain—wearing his famous green jacket and a beaded necklace—says, “Hello here” into the microphone followed by the word “Plectrum” (rolling the “r” sound). The camera zooms in on Cobain as Novoselic plays notes on his acoustic bass. He picks up his acoustic guitar and begins to strum it as he spins around in his chair. He adjusts the microphone closer to his mouth, breathes into it, says, “Good Evening,” and introduces “About a Girl” by saying, “This is off of our first record. Most people don’t own it.” The camera shifts to Pat Smear who blows cigarette smoke into the air as Cobain begins playing the opening riff; the audience cheers in response. Then the camera shows Grohl wearing a dark-colored turtleneck sweater as he plays using drum brushes. The camera mostly remains focused on Cobain, but often shifts to Grohl and Novoselic. One shot of Novoselic shows him with a cheeky expression on his face, hair tousled a bit; he is very relaxed playing seated with his legs open, keeping time with his right leg. The camera continues to shift between members, and then zooms out on Cobain, getting a good shot of Pat behind him playing a red, yellow, and blue striped acoustic guitar. There are red curtains draped all over the studio and what looks like gold flower patterns on the floor of the performance stage, along with red curtain fabric on the ground behind Grohl. The camera focuses back in on Cobain as he plays the solo while slightly shifting his jaw back and forth; his playing is very mellow and precise. Once the song ends, the audience applauds; Cobain responds with a humorously forced grin that shows his teeth.
As Cobain starts to play the opening riff to “Come as You Are,” the audience cheers and the lights shift from yellow to blue. Grohl is now playing with drum mallets. Cobain begins to sing the song in a pain-drenched tone with squinted eyes. The camera gets a nice shot of the group as it slowly zooms out through the white lilies and black candles. Cobain shifts his jaw back and forth as he plays his solo. The camera zooms in on his strumming hand; there is some dirt under his fingernails. At the end of the song, the audience cheers; Cobain sticks out his tongue and presses the tip of it to his upper lip—his facial expression deadpan—and then says “Thank you.” Novoselic stands up and hands his bass to Grohl who jumps up from behind the drums and takes it. Cobain strums high notes on the guitar as Novoselic puts on the accordion; Cobain introduces the cellist Lori Goldstein and then says, “And this is our new guitar player, Pat.” The audience claps; Pat bows his head and Cobain says, “He’s a certified honorary punk rocker,” which generates cheers from the audience. Pat says, “Thank you” in a low, quick, humorous tone and then Cobain says, “But he likes Queen better,” which only generates mild laughter from the audience. The group plays the Vaselines’ rendition of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” which features Novoselic on the accordion. Grohl plays acoustic bass. Once the song ends, the audience cheers and Cobain leans over to drink from a plastic blue cup. Novoselic takes off the accordion, hands it to someone offstage, and retrieves his bass from Grohl. To introduce “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cobain says, “I guarantee you I will screw this song up.” Grohl asks, “What song it is?” and Novoselic says to Cobain, “But you know which part.” Cobain says, “Yeah, well, I at least know which part I’ll screw up.” Novoselic responds playfully by saying, “You’re psychic” as Grohl jokes, “Yeah, like he only screws one up.” The audience waits quietly for the song to begin. Cobain half-grunts, half clears his throat and begins playing the song. Grohl still plays with drum mallets. Cobain’s jaw shifts as he plays the solo. Once the song ends, the audience applauds and cheers and Cobain says, “Thanks. That was a David Bowie song.”
Grohl asks, “What’s next?” Cobain acknowledges he did a good job and says, “I didn’t screw up, did I?” Grohl says, “No” and follows it with a drum roll. There is little to no laughter. Cobain says, “Okay, but here’s another one I could screw up” in regards to “Pennyroyal Tea.” There is discussion between band members about how the song should be played: if Cobain should do it himself or not—as the audience sits in total silence. Cobain says, “Okay, well, I think I’ll try it in a different key. I’ll try it in the normal key. If it sounds bad, these people are just gonna have to wait. We’ll do it over,” which generates laughter from the audience. Then Grohl says, “Do you have a smoke, Pat?” Cobain strums a few times and begins the song as Pat gets up and heads toward Grohl behind the drums. Cobain sings “I have…very…bad posture. Sit and drink pennyroyal tea” and exaggerates the word “tea” to poignant effect. When the camera pans out a bit the plastic blue cup is visible on the floor beside Cobain. Once the song ends, the audience cheers; Cobain puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it as Pat picks up his guitar and sits on his stool. Cobain blows a stream of smoke into the air; Grohl says, “That sounded good;” Cobain says, “Shut up” very dryly and the audience laughs.
Before “Dumb,” Cobain and Novoselic discuss whether or not they should play “On a Plain” right after it and Cobain—still smoking his cigarette—says, “Let’s just play ‘em back to back. Who cares? It’ll be edited different. This is a television show” which generates laughter from the audience. Cobain takes a pull from his cigarette and sets it down; Novoselic sits down with his bass, sips something from a cup, and puts it on the ground. The audience waits quietly as Novoselic tunes his bass, Grohl pounds his drums lightly, and Cobain tunes his guitar. Grohl uses regular drumsticks for this song. Goldstein begins playing cello as the song shifts into the chorus and it sounds deep and emotional as an accompaniment. Once the song ends, the audience cheers and all musicians begin to make sure their instruments are tuned. Cobain tells the audience “Okay, the reason we didn’t want to play these two songs in a row is because they’re exactly the same song” which generates laughter from the audience. For “Polly,” Grohl sings back-up vocals and Goldstein fills up the extra song space with her cello. Novoselic’s bass also takes up prominent space. At the end of the song, Grohl taps the cymbal and the audience cheers. Cobain takes a sip from a paper cup as Grohl plays a light drumbeat and Pat swings his legs back and forth as he sits on his stool (he just has socks on his feet). All musicians except Goldstein retune and Cobain asks Ian for more monitors on vocals; Grohl plays another light drumbeat as Cobain strums his guitar a few times. The audience cheers lightly as the group begins to play “On a Plain;” Grohl uses drum mallets. When Cobain sings “I love myself better than you,” it has a strong register, along with “I’m on a plain. I can’t complain.” When the song ends, the audience cheers and Cobain gives a tight-lipped smile, says, “Thank you,” takes a sip from the paper cup, and checks to make sure his guitar is still tuned.
Right before “Something in the Way,” Cobain says to Grohl, “Oh yeah, I need you to do a little beat so I can keep talking.” Grohl starts a light beat and asks, “Can you hear that?” Cobain says, “Yeah.” The camera is zoomed way out to show the entire stage, the chandelier, and a couple sections of the audience. Cobain shifts his jaw as he begins the song. The camera shows Grohl lightly tapping his leg with a drum mallet. The camera zooms in on Cobain’s face as he sings “It’s okay to eat fish ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.” The entire band begins to play once the chorus starts. The stage lights are blue. As Cobain sings the next verse, the camera zooms out to capture him slowly swiveling back and forth on his chair. Novoselic sways back and forth in his chair as he plays. The audience cheers at the end and Cobain thanks them. The camera zooms all the way out and lowers down into the audience. Cobain says very politely, “I only have three cups of tea already, but thank you” as he tries to tuck his hair behind his ears. Grohl plays a light drum beat.
As Cobain reaches down for a paper cup, an audience member shouts something. Cobain says, “Hurry up? Is that what you said?” as he lifts the paper cup to his mouth. The audience member repeats what they said which was “Kumbaya” and Cobain grunts a little and smiles, places the paper cup back down. The audience snickers lightly. Novoselic says, “Remember the little black bird on Davey and Goliath?” Cobain says, “The little what?” Novoselic says, “The little black bird on Davey and Goliath that says Kumbaya.” Cobain, sitting back comfortably in his chair with his elbow draped over his guitar, says, “I don’t remember the little bird…Remember that really evil episode where he was really mad at this kid and he had all these visions of how he’s going to—[mimics Davey’s voice] ‘first I’m going to take him up to a hill and tie him to a tree and tar and feather him.’ That was evil. That wasn’t Christian at all,” which generates laughter and mild clapping from the audience. Novoselic shakes his head and says, “Interpretation.” Cobain says, “Yeah,” and Novoselic says, “Old Testament.” Cobain says, “Yeah” and laughs a little. He turns away from Novoselic, plays his guitar a little, and says, “What’s next? Oh, we’re supposed to play the Meat Puppet songs now” as he turns back to Novoselic and asks, “Right?” Novoselic says, “Yeah,” as he tunes his bass and the audience whistles. Cobain says, “Okay, great,” and puts his acoustic down, saying, “Brothers Meat, come up on stage.”
The camera zooms out to capture the entire stage along with another camera person standing offstage as the audience claps and Grohl plays a drum beat. The camera zooms back in on Cobain as he leans over and puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it. Novoselic plays notes on his bass. Grohl calls out to Pat. Cobain faces Novoselic—who stands with a yellow plastic cup in his hand—and says [referring to Davey and Goliath], “That’s an evil show. It scares me. It always did when I was a kid.” The camera stays focused on Cobain who sits with his cigarette, swiveling back and forth in his chair. The camera zooms all the way out again as the Meat Puppets enter the stage and Cobain says, “These are the brothers Meat Puppets.” The audience applauds as Cobain says, “We’re big fans of theirs.” As the Meat Puppets are getting set up, Cobain spins around in his chair and asks, “Do you want us to play Nine Inch Nails songs?” and one person from the audience shouts “Yes!” Cobain picks up a booklet and says, “Let me read an anecdote” as the camera zooms out and then zooms in on Novoselic sitting next to Cris Kirkwood playing an acoustic guitar. There are lilies in Cris’s microphone stand. A few people shout “Free Bird!” which generates a little laughter and Cobain says, “I’ve been waiting for that” as he continues to flip through the booklet. Cris says, “I’ve got a free bird for you right here,” and slightly lifts his middle finger. Cobain chuckles. Nothing is happening; just a lot of guitar strumming and bass tuning.
Novoselic starts playing the opening riff to “Sweet Home Alabama” and the audience mildly cheers and claps. Cris joins in and so does Grohl; the camera focuses on him as he plays drums with a cigarette in his mouth. Cobain starts to sing slurred vocal tones into the microphone in a purposely bad attempt to mimic Ronnie Van Zant. The audience screams in response. They stop playing and the audience cheers. After a few moments, as nothing continues to happen on stage, Cobain asks, “What are they tuning, a harp?” which generates laughter from the audience. The camera continues to stay on Cobain as he smokes his cigarette and zooms out again as he says, “I thought we were a big, rich rock band. We should have a whole bunch of extra guitars,” which only generates very mild laughter from the crowd. Someone on stage says, “Tell that to the IRS.” Cobain sings vocals on “Plateau;” Cris sits in Novoselic’s spot and plays his bass; Curt Kirkwood sits on Pat’s stool and plays his guitar. Grohl plays with drum mallets. The camera zooms in on Curt’s picking hand. The camera switches back and forth between Cobain humming and Curt playing guitar. Cobain sings vocals on “Oh Me.” Grohl continues to play with drum mallets. Curt plays a mild solo. Cobain swivels around in his chair. Cobain introduces “Lake of Fire” and lets the audience know that all three Meat Puppets songs are off of their second record. Again, he sings the vocals. The camera shows Curt playing guitar with his legs spread wide open, exposing his denim crotch. It zooms in on him more than once from below at crotch-level as he plays. Once the song is over, the audience cheers; as Cris and Curt walk off stage, Cobain says, “That was the Meat Puppets” and the camera zooms out as he drinks from a paper cup and Grohl plays a light drum beat.
Holding his guitar again, Cobain asks, “Any requests?” The audience shouts out various songs, but “Sliver” is most audibly heard. Then Cobain asks, “How are we supposed to play ‘In Bloom’ acoustically?” The camera zooms out and back in again as Cobain says, “I need a plectrum.” Cobain starts to play “All Apologies” but has to stop as someone says, “Wait” multiple times and “Sorry.” Cobain starts again. Grohl is still using drum mallets. Goldstein returns on cello. The camera gets shots of Cobain from different angles as he sings “All alone is all we are.” The music stops and Cobain rubs his chin as he continues to sing the line. The audience cheers at the end and Cobain reaches for his paper cup, takes a sip, puts it down, starts to retune his guitar. Grohl asks about “Sliver,” but Cobain says doesn’t want to play it. The camera zooms out as Grohl says, “Oh, you gotta scream in it” and Cobain says, “Yeah, I have to scream in it.” The audience is dead silent. The camera zooms in on Cobain as he adds “Not that I’ve been doing that all night or anything.” He faces Grohl the entire time and attempts to tuck hair behind his ear.
Grohl asks, “What else do you want to do?” Someone shouts something and Cobain says, “That’s not our song. Oh, we’ve been playing covers all night.” Audience members begin shouting random songs again and “Sliver” is audibly heard. Someone shouts an inaudible song name and someone says, “That’s for Tori Amos.” Cobain plays his guitar a bit and says, “This is the last song of the evening.” Someone shouts “Sliver” again. There are more inaudible suggestions from the audience. Cobain pulls out another cigarette and lights it with the camera focused on him. Novoselic asks, “How much time do we have left?” and Grohl says, “An hour, probably,” emphasizing the word “hour.” Novoselic says, “I don’t even know how to play that fucking song” and Cobain says, “Neither do I. I mean, everything they’ve been blurting out I don’t know how to play.” Grohl starts to play a sixties-sounding drumbeat as he shakes his head from side to side. Someone shouts “Serve the Servants” and someone shouts something that gets a reaction from Cobain who exhales cigarette smoke and says, “I don’t think MTV would let us play that.”
After briefly playing his guitar, Cobain says, “Fuck you all, this is the last song of the evening,” which generates some laughter. Grohl asks, “What is it?” Cobain says, “This was written by my favorite performer—our favorite performer, isn’t it? All of ours?” he asks; the camera zooms in on him as he looks over at Novoselic and Grohl. Cobain asks, “Do you like him the best?” Novoselic jokes that there is a donation basket going around for anyone who wants to help Cobain buy Lead Belly’s guitar. Cobain says, “This guy representing the Lead Belly estate wants to sell me Lead Belly’s guitar for five hundred thousand dollars…I even asked David Geffen personally if he’d buy it for me. He wouldn’t do it.” There is barely any laughter from the audience. Cobain says, “Okay,” and begins to play “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Afterward, Cobain thanks the cheering audience as he, Novoselic, Grohl, Pat, and Goldstein put their instruments down and walk off stage. Cobain is the last to leave; he puts a cigarette in his mouth as he exits. The camera follows him as he steps into the audience and lights the cigarette. The camera immediately zooms out to show the empty stage then shifts back to Cobain as he signs autographs for audience members.
When looking at both performances, of the most significant differences between the Pantera concert and the Nirvana concert is the fact that the Pantera concert was not televised. It was posted on YouTube by Sonic Warfare TV which features bootleg concert footage of various metal bands from the nineties: Pantera, Sepultura, Crowbar, and Slayer, to name a few. Pantera started its career as a live band and continued to remain a prominent live act all throughout the nineties. Like many metal bands, Pantera’s live presence functioned on crowd participation; the Hollywood Palladium concert is an excellent benchmark for what a typical audience member would experience at a Pantera show. It was incredibly physical; Anselmo was skilled at engaging the crowd on a personal level—talking directly to them, shaking hands, helping fans on stage, and encouraging them to let off steam through singing, crowd surfing, stage diving, and participating in circle pits. Anselmo was keenly aware of his audience and understood that many of them were unprivileged and frustrated and needed a safe space to vent. Another major feature of the live performance is Dimebag Darrell’s massive guitar sound paired with Vinnie Paul’s powerfully rhythmic drumming which placed them both at the forefront of their respective peer groups. In this particular concert, Dimebag and Vinnie Paul play not only immaculately, but showcase their skills in a way that makes them feel accessible. Even though Dimebag has always played loudly and aggressively, in this larger venue he plays as if he’s still performing for an audience at a small club. In 1992, the set list included all the best songs from Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power—songs that had already become metal staples. They were played back to back with only a few breaks in-between which kept the energy of the crowd and the band at intense levels. As a result, Pantera was able develop an incredibly loyal fan base just through their live performances. The group had no radio or major press support aside from its music videos being featured on MTV’s Headbangers Ball and getting some exposure in metal/hard rock and guitar magazines. The group’s biggest asset, aside from its studio albums, was its live shows, and the Hollywood Palladium concert is probably one of—if not the best—live performances the group ever gave.
The Nirvana concert, which was recorded well over a year after the Pantera show, is a different beast precisely because it was televised by MTV. It features the group playing acoustic versions of some of their songs; however, the band still used electric amplification and guitar effects, setting themselves apart from other Unplugged performances. What is immediately noticeable about the performance is the total passivity of the audience. At the beginning of the set, Cobain does not speak much and does not engage the audience, but eventually he begins to talk more with Novoselic and Grohl who help to warm him up a bit. The set also features three songs by the Meat Puppets (Curt and Cris Kirkwood play the instruments while Cobain sings vocals) along with a handful of cover songs. According to Wikipedia, Cobain and MTV did not agree on how the performance should go: MTV preferred that Nirvana play more hits instead of cover songs; they also would have preferred a guest appearance from a band or performer who was more prominent (and grunge-approved) than the Meat Puppets. These were the kinds of aesthetic problems Cobain faced that affected his ability to perform. In fact, when he was initially asked to play an Unplugged performance, he said no at first, but then changed his mind. Additionally, right up until the actual recording of the performance, Cobain thought about canceling. The biggest issue in regards to the set is the lack of connection between Cobain and the audience, most likely because the audience was made up of people brought in by MTV for the performance (some of which were fans for sure) that made the energy of the set feel like it was artificially constructed rather than an organic live performance. Many of Cobain’s comments throughout the set are suggestive of the fact that he was not interested in giving MTV or the audience a pleasant show that confirmed to the larger rock world that the music Nirvana played was at all palatable or to be innocently consumed. The sentiment of all members in the band seemed to reflect the fact that they resented being presented as the poster boys for “grunge.”
When viewing both concerts, the differences are noticeable: Pantera enjoyed a large cult following that knew every song the band played; the Hollywood Palladium show is an interactive experience that affirmed not only the band, but the crowd members who could climb on stage and shake Anselmo’s hand, and be close to Dimebag as he played. The connection between the band and the audience is undeniable; they sing together, sweat together, and experience a moment in time together that is both memorable and exciting. Even though Pantera did not have any of their concerts featured on MTV, it did not seem to matter because they benefited from achieving success through fan support. Although Nirvana’s acoustic concert has received tons of accolades, the overall sentiment of the performance is characterized by resentment and a feeling of not being understood by MTV or the audience it brought in to watch the performance.
However, what both bands have in common is an impeccable live sound. Musically and vocally, Pantera sounded excellent; the Nirvana songs sounded wonderful on acoustic and vocally, Cobain was on-point. A major commonality between the two bands is the fact that they have both become iconic through their live performances. Pantera will always be known for the intensity and power of its live shows; a good portion of the concerts on YouTube are bootleg—which means they were filmed by actual fans. This gives the concerts an aesthetic edge to them because the fans know how to film Pantera; they know exactly where to put the camera and when. Nirvana will always be known for its brilliant performance at Sony Studios—what makes it brilliant is the fact that each band member acted authentically and let the set unfold as naturally as they could, given the restrictions placed on them by MTV and the cameras that filmed them. Although there are a handful of bootleg concerts on YouTube, they are not as profound as the Unplugged performance precisely because Cobain let his frustrations be seen and felt. If he had tried to give MTV or the audience the kind of performance that was expected of him, it might not have turned out as poignant as it did. His opposition to being objectified as a grunge sensation is precisely what makes his performance memorable and enduring because what surfaced instead was his punk roots—his dry humor, his contrariness, and his overall sense of disgust by what he had chosen to do (which was to perform an Unplugged set). That disgust serves as a nice counterpoint to MTV’s desire to dress Nirvana up as being ideal for consumer consumption (which they were not).
Another major similarity between the bands was their interest in the music video form; each band released music videos that were so aesthetically different and interesting that it gave new life to the art form. The Nirvana music video that will be discussed is “In Bloom.” It was directed by Kevin Kerslake (who also directed the videos for “Come as You Are” and “Lithium”) and it officially aired in November of 1992. A description of it follows. The video starts by cutting into the middle of a variety show from the sixties in black-and-white. The audience applauds as the host says, “A thoroughly wonderful show from the world-famous dancing poodles. Next, ladies and gentlemen, we have three fine young men from Seattle.” The audience erupts into screams. The host holds up his hands and says, “They’re coming. Hold on. They’re coming. They’re thoroughly alright and decent fellas with their hit single, ‘In Bloom.’ Here they are, Nirvana.” The host doesn’t quite pronounce the band name correctly, giving the first “a” in Nirvana a flat sound. As soon as the band is introduced, the audience erupts again; the camera shows an audience full of girls jumping up and down, clapping and screaming. The camera shifts to the band and they start to play, wearing suits and ties (Grohl wears a blond wig); the stage set consists of a cutout of an Arabic-style palace with planets hanging above it. The camera zooms in on Novoselic and Grohl as they each play in a style reminiscent of musicians from the sixties (fun, but very straight-laced and stiff). The camera shifts to show all three members as Cobain begins to sing in a dead-pan style. Novoselic and Grohl continue to bob their heads, but Cobain remains utterly stiff as he sings into the microphone. There is another shot of the audience sitting, clapping, and cheering. The camera focuses in on Cobain as he sings the chorus (and begins to smile a little as he sings).
There is another shot of the audience (mostly girls) overcome with excitement. The camera quickly shifts back to the band and then back to the audience as it pans across, filming them as they clap along to the rhythm of the song. After the chorus, Cobain relaxes a little, but stiffens up again as he sings the next verse. The camera zooms in on him as he sings “Nature is a whore,” with a serious (but very dry) expression on his face. He also makes sure to stare directly into the camera as he sings it and then immediately pretends the camera isn’t there again. This time, when the chorus is sung, the camera captures the cutout of the Arabic-style palace being knocked over as Cobain walks through it in a dress; there is quick footage of Novoselic in a dress playing in a more uninhibited performance style. Then it switches back to the band in suits and ties playing “normal.” Then it switches back to Cobain spinning across the stage in a dress. Then it switches back to the sixties version of the band. It switches again to Cobain dancing in a dress as Novoselic climbs onto the makeshift palace wearing a dress. Then it shows Novoselic in a dress dancing while playing his bass. It zooms back in on Cobain in his suit and tie and then back to more nonsensical behavior from the band members as they continue to tear up the stage décor while wearing dresses.
It continues to switch back and forth between the band playing in suits and ties and then playing in a wilder fashion while wearing dresses. At one point, Cobain, while wearing a dress, loses his guitar and then it shifts back to him in a suit and tie, smiling. During the musical interlude, Cobain stands over Novoselic as they each play their instruments in dresses and the camera zooms in on the guitar and bass. It continues to shift back and forth between the “pleasant” performance and the “out of control” performance and briefly zooms in on an audience member who is thoroughly enjoying herself. During the chorus, the camera shows an audience full of young females jumping up and down in their seats screaming and then shifts to Cobain sitting on top of Novoselic’s shoulders as he slams one of the hanging planets into another one that Grohl holds in place. It briefly shifts back to Cobain singing and then shifts to the band playing in a chaotic fashion in dresses; there is a shot of Grohl holding one of his drums as he continues to play. It shifts back to the sixties version of the band and then back to Cobain swinging one of the planets around until he falls off of Novoselic and injures his crotch. Holding onto his crotch, he heads over to the microphone and continues singing as Novoselic holds a large piece of the set.
There is a brief shot of Grohl playing drums in a dress, a brief shot of the sixties version of Cobain singing and then it switches back to the chaotic version as Cobain throws a piece of the set into the drums. It shifts back to the sixties version of the band and then the chaotic version as Cobain does an exaggerated spin with his hands on his head. The camera zooms out to get a shot of the sixties version of the band playing in front of the Arabic-style palace. Then it switches back to the chaotic version as Grohl tosses a piece of the set to Cobain and one final shot of the band playing in dresses. Cobain tears his dress as the song ends. The camera now shows Cobain standing in front of the palace in his suit and tie holding a cymbal; the host comes back and says, “Alright everybody, let’s hear it for these three nice and [Cobain drops the cymbal and it crashes loudly; the rest of the band enters as Novoselic briefly holds his bass upside-down] clean-cut young men. I really can’t say enough nice things about them. They’re gonna be really big stars. Let’s give a big hand for Nirvana.” He shakes hands with all three band members and then they all stand still together briefly as if posing for a picture.
The Pantera music video that will be discussed is “5 Minutes Alone” which was released in 1994—around the time that Far Beyond Driven came out. A description follows. The video begins in rewind as a shattered lightbulb becomes whole again and Anselmo’s face appears behind it. The lightbulb swings out of view as Anselmo’s face becomes more prominent. The camera shifts to Vinnie Paul as he kicks and pounds on his drums followed by Dimebag playing the opening riff—neither band member is visible except for the parts of them that play their instruments. There is a shot of Dimebag playing with his back turned to the camera and lights shining in front of him and another shot of his hands playing the guitar. Then there is a quick shot of Anselmo behind a chain link fence and a shot of Rex playing his bass (only the bass and his hands are visible). There is another shot of Anselmo behind the chain link fence before the camera gives a more straightforward shot of Rex’s bass strings as he plays them. Then there is a shot of Rex’s face as he plays in the dark with light shining on him. It switches to Dimebag playing his guitar (the Dean from Hell).
The camera zooms in to show Dimebag’s hand strumming guitar strings and then shifts to Anselmo reaching out through the chain link with the shining lightbulb taking up the right side of the screen. There is another shot of Rex playing his bass up close. There are quick shots of band members playing their instruments and then it shifts back to Dimebag playing his guitar (the camera angle is just beside the headstock of the guitar). The camera shows Anselmo in a chain link cage. As he starts to sing, the background is black, and he shifts around holding the microphone. The camera shifts to Rex playing his bass strings. Then it switches back and forth between Rex playing and Anselmo singing and then Dimebag playing. It goes back to Anselmo inside the cage and Rex’s bass strings appear again. The camera continues to shift back and forth between Anselmo singing and Rex’s bass before the song and the camera both slow down to show Rex playing. There is a quick shot of Vinnie Paul and Dimebag (each playing their instruments) and it shifts back to Anselmo singing. Then he is back inside the cage again, trying to climb out of it before jumping down. The camera shifts to a shot of Dimebag’s face as he plays his guitar. Then there are various quick shots of Anselmo and of Vinnie Paul’s reflection in his cymbal. Then there are quick shots of him playing drums. It quickly shifts to Dimebag then Anselmo singing again. There are more shots of the guitar and bass before the camera goes back to Anselmo, then briefly to Vinnie Paul then back to Rex’s bass.
The camera shows Anselmo again followed by a large blue eye and then Dimebag in slow motion about to strum his guitar. Then an up-to-speed shot of Rex playing bass. There is more extensive footage of Anselmo inside the cage as it switches back and forth between him and the bass and guitar. Then the camera shifts to a close-up of Dimebag’s face as he plays a quick melodic groove; his hand and his red goatee are visible. There are more quick shots of instruments being played and Anselmo singing. The lights get more orange and then shift to a fluorescent blue as Dimebag bangs his head in slow motion while he plays, his hair flowing. Then the quick shots return and Anselmo sings the chorus: “I ask you please just give us…five minutes alone.” There are more quick shots of the band playing, but mostly Vinnie Paul is visible as Dimebag plays the quick bouncing melody. After Anselmo shouts “Five minutes,” there is a shot of Vinnie Paul hitting his kick drum immediately followed by a shot of Dimebag with an aggressive look on his face as he plays his guitar. Then it returns to Anselmo singing. The quick shots return. The lights turn fluorescent blue again as the camera focuses in on Dimebag playing his solo. At the end of the solo, the camera focuses on the guitar strings; they appear to bend before Dimebag runs his fingers across them.
There is a quick shot of a crowd, Rex’s bass, and Dimebag strumming aggressively. There are more quick shots of the bass and then Dimebag strumming with the camera focused on his hand and guitar pick. There is a quick shot of Vinnie Paul wearing his black bandana and then the camera shifts to a shot of Dimebag playing live on stage shirtless. The video begins to shift into a live performance as the solo continues along with close-ups of instruments being played. The song and camera slow down to show Rex banging his head back and forth, his hair going everywhere, and Vinnie Paul hitting his drums with a flaming drumstick. There is a simultaneous shot of Anselmo and Dimebag playing his guitar. Anselmo shoots what looks like boogers out of his nose and the camera shifts to Dimebag playing live. The close-ups of the guitar and bass return again along with Anselmo singing the chorus. The song and camera slow down again as Anselmo sings repeatedly, “I ask you please just give us” as the light bulb hits Rex’s bass. Vinnie Paul plays his drums as Dimebag bangs his head in slow motion, his hair going everywhere. The blue eye is vaguely visible again underneath shots of Dimebag banging his head in slow motion and Vinnie Paul playing on drums that show his reflection. The song picks up again and returns to a live performance where Anselmo sings in a flannel shirt as quick shots of Vinnie Paul, Dimebag, and Rex playing return. In another shot of Anselmo, the lights are fluorescent blue and he wears an Eyehategod shirt. There are more quick shots between the instruments and Anselmo and Dimebag playing live under fluorescent lighting along with spotlights. There are more shots of the crowd shown alongside close-ups of Anselmo, Dimebag (there is a shot of him head banging in sped-up fashion), Vinnie Paul, and Rex. The video ends with all four members’ faces appearing and disappearing one after the other.
Starting with the Nirvana video, according to Wikipedia, Cobain wanted “In Bloom” to be lighthearted because he felt that the media was taking him and Nirvana too seriously and he wanted to show the band’s humorous side. This comes across very clearly in the music video not just because it’s a parody of sixties entertainment, but because it features a version of the band that wears dresses and destroys the set. However, the music video itself serves as a larger statement about how the band felt it was being perceived. In the video, there are two aspects of the band: the masculine and the feminine. The masculine aspect includes suits and ties and a polite performance. The feminine aspect includes dresses and wildly destructive behavior. Interestingly enough, both versions of the band are enjoyed by the audience who watches with an uncritical eye: all they care about is the fact that they’re being entertained in such a way that thrills them.
This music video seems to speak to the band’s refusal to be seen as appetizing and appealing to an “alternative” music audience. The sixties’ version of the video contains parallels to the early nineties in the sense that the media was attempting to restart a music craze through the creation of the grunge genre. Much like the Beatles in the sixties who were responsible for the explosion of rock and roll in mainstream society, Nirvana was being thrust into the same type of position, which the group resented. This music video is one way in which the band attempted to communicate its refusal to be consumed by a demographic of listeners who were being trained to like grunge through the lens of the media (MTV in particular). What the humorous components of the music video reveal is not just the band’s dry sense of humor, but its desire to be seen more accurately, as a band not safe for general entertainment. And yet, neither the audience, nor the oblivious host seems to understand this. The band is permitted to act like crazed madmen in dresses on stage without interruption or criticism. This implies that the audience being addressed is too desensitized to pick up on the dark humor and clever lyrics and how those elements connect to the aggressive behavior of the band; there is no desire to understand the song beyond its most basic musical elements. What makes this music video iconic is the fact that it is aware of itself in ways that most music videos were not at that time—it is postmodern on a political and aesthetic level in the way that it shows how Nirvana refuses to do what the media wants it to do, which is to usher in a new era of rock music to an audience who has already seen and heard everything the genre has to offer and can no longer be affected by it.
The Pantera music video is interesting because the song itself includes a backstory that has a few different versions. Essentially, the chorus of the song comes from a parent who wanted to have “five minutes alone” with Anselmo so he could kick his ass. In one version of the story, a kid provoked the band by raising his middle finger to them while they played; after he was confronted by Vinnie Paul, several members of the crowd beat him up. In another version, Anselmo talks about how a kid claimed that he beat him up at a show. Lyrically (and in a more general sense), Anselmo is responding to a series of individuals who sought to discredit him out of jealousy and a desire for attention. In the music video, Anselmo spends a good amount of time in a chain link cage, which symbolizes his frustration toward being made to feel like someone who should be locked up. And yet, the music video is incredibly empowering. Anselmo is also shown singing outside of the cage, which could imply that what the cage symbolizes is actually more psychological than physical.
Aesthetically, the video is one of Pantera’s best because it brings together all the evolved aspects of the band and presents them in such a way that shows who they are on a creative and performative level. The idea to use the close-ups of strings came from Dimebag Darrell and it serves the video very well; it is a nice artistic contrast to the heavy subject of the lyrics. The video is both serious and fun as it captures the band playing their instruments in a controlled setting and on stage. A few principal strengths of the video are how it gradually shifts from quick shots of band members playing individually into a live performance at the end, and how it showcases the percussive talents of Vinnie Paul and the brilliant guitar work of Dimebag Darrell in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. More than anything, “5 Minutes Alone” is about the group’s desire to present itself as an elite metal band at the top of its game (which they were) and seeks to bring out the physical elements of their music to viewers who had not seen their live performances. All Pantera videos attempt to do this on some level, but “5 Minutes Alone” does an especially good job of presenting the band in a way that is both artful and visceral. What makes this video iconic is that it is the first video that presents each member individually in a more conscious way so that their strengths can shine through. “5 Minutes Alone” is unlike any of the metal music videos that came out at that time because of its aesthetic strengths. Pantera wanted to be seen as a heavy metal band that could coexist on the same level with other major bands (like Nirvana). By showcasing the persona of each member and then bringing them all together in a live performance at the end is an excellent demonstration of their dominant status not just in the metal genre, but in the larger rock world (even if they weren’t receiving confirmation of it from mainstream media).
These two music videos show one large commonality between Pantera and Nirvana: each band had a clear view of how they wanted to be perceived on an aesthetic level. Both bands used the music video format to present masculine identity in a way that is meant to be uplifting. Nirvana members appearing in dresses represented one way in which the band resisted hyper-masculinity; they wanted to honor the feminine by appearing in dresses and engaging in behavior that was not merely destructive, but anti-patriarchal. Pantera used the music video format to respond to false accusations from those who sought to take away their legitimacy as a metal band by turning a verbal threat around and using it as a means to reclaim their power. Anselmo allowed himself to be filmed inside of a chain link cage, which suggests that he understood the complex nature of his aggressive side and being filmed that way allows viewers deeper insight into his psyche. This is partly what makes the video so important; it highlights Anselmo’s honesty about what it means to be a frustrated male in contemporary society.
On the flipside, the video features the superior musicianship of Dimebag Darrell, Vinnie Paul, and Rex, which shows how male aggression can be channeled productively into musical art. Pantera was utterly aware of itself as a masculine band; in this particular video, they make use of the masculine in ways that are refreshing and empowering. More generally speaking, Nirvana was aware of itself as being a reluctant symbol for the reemergence of rock music in the early nineties just as Pantera was aware of itself as being a savior for metal music during a time when it struggled to remain relevant against the “alternative” music wave that was generated and promoted by the media. Both music videos highlight the nuanced concerns of each band in ways that can still be clearly understood in the current moment. Both videos are enduring because they transcend the aesthetic trends of the time through a postmodern understanding about what it meant to be a famous rock/metal band in the early nineties. As a result, not only are these videos iconic because they capture the distinct personalities of the band members at the height of their success, they also track a particular moment in time—when more aggressive forms of rock music occupied a visible place in modern culture.
The principal aspect of Nirvana and Pantera is most obviously the music itself. Both bands wrote songs that lend themselves very well to lyrical analysis. The Nirvana song that will be analyzed is “Drain You” from Nevermind. The song consists of a chorus, two verses (with the first verse repeated) and a bridge. It begins with Cobain strumming his guitar and singing the first line of the first verse before the bass and drums enter. Here’s the first verse:
One baby to another says, “I’m lucky to have met you”
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
What is interesting about this song is how the lyrical content and the music fit together. Musically, it’s rhythmic and mellow and contains a subtle groove that is reflected in Cobain’s singing voice which is also subdued, but emotional. The lyrics, however, address a beloved in ways that are offbeat; they are dark and humorous, but the way Cobain delivers the lyrics is essential—his tone is incredibly sincere, which adds depth and complexity to the song itself. The song shifts with the chorus and Cobain lowers his voice a bit as he sings it:
Chew your meat for you
Pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss
From my mouth to yours
I like you
The chorus overall has a quicker rhythm and lower sound which intensifies the darkness of the lyrics, creating an interesting blend of humor and eroticism. Cobain sings the lines along with the increased tempo of the song, but exaggerates “I like you” vocally as the music of the song slows down. After the chorus, Grohl plays a drumroll and the song picks back up again to the original rhythm as Cobain sings the second verse:
With eyes so dilated, I’ve become your pupil
You taught me everything about a poison apple
The water is so yellow, I’m a healthy student
Indebted and so grateful, vacuum out the fluids
Here, all of the lyrical images start to really stack up. The main images in the first verse were “baby,” “tube,” and “infection.” In the chorus it was “meat,” “kiss,” and “mouth,” and in the second verse the main lyrical images are “eyes,” “pupil,” “healthy student,” “poison apple,” “water,” “yellow,” “vacuum,” and “fluids.” It would be fair to say that the second verse contains most of the images in the song, but what is most apparent is the fact that the images point to the concept of love as something that is incredibly nuanced and unusual. This feels like a love song written to a beloved who shares the lyricist’s strange love language. This is incredibly purposeful and brilliant; considering the simple and rhythmic music, Cobain could have written more traditionally in regards to love, but instead, chose to write lyrics that resist sweetness and affection by including images that are gross and uncomfortable as a way to create deeper tension within the song.
After the repeated chorus, the song shifts into the bridge which consists of guitar sounds and a steady bass and drumbeat. Here, Cobain repeats the word “You.” Then, the song becomes completely instrumental as Grohl builds tension by beating the drums constantly and employing hard crushing beats as Cobain periodically chimes in with a sour guitar tone. Toward the end of the bridge, Cobain plays a simple melody followed by a background scream and the song returns more aggressively to the main rhythm of the song. The first verse is repeated as a way to reintroduce the sentiment of the song, asking the listeners: get it? Here, the lyrics take on an even deeper meaning as it becomes clear that Cobain wants listeners to feel love on the same level he does—which is erotic, emotional, and unconventional. As a result, “One baby to another says, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’” holds more weight than it did at the beginning of the song. When the chorus is sung this time, the lines “Sloppy lips to lips / You’re my vitamins” is added to emphasize the messiness of passion and how essential the beloved is to the lyricist’s life. “Sloppy lips to lips” is the most graphic image of the song on a sexual level and paired with “vitamins,” it becomes clear how vital this love connection is for the lyricist. The song ends with Cobain drawing out the words “I like you,” followed by a solid guitar sound that fades, which seems to suggest musically that some sort of release was experienced because the lyricist got his true feelings off of his chest, which are a bit filthy, but utterly poignant.
The Pantera song that will be analyzed is “I’m Broken” from Far Beyond Driven. The song consists of two verses, three pre-choruses, and two choruses, along with an outro. “I’m Broken” is more mellow than Pantera’s usual hard-hitting musical style, but still aggressive and primarily riff-driven. It begins with Dimebag playing a powerful riff that contrasts with the title of the song, creating wonderful tension for the listener. He repeats the riff a few times, accompanied by Vinnie Paul’s drums which help to establish a steady rhythm for the song. After the riff and rhythm are established, Dimebag alters it slightly which helps shift the song as Anselmo prepares to sing the first verse. The guitar and drums shift again quickly (this particular musical shift happens a few times at various points in the song) and Anselmo begins to sing:
I wonder if we’ll smile in our coffins
While loved ones mourn the day
The absence of our faces
Living, laughing, eyes awake
Is this too much for them to take?
Too young for one’s conclusion, the lifestyle won
Such values you taught your son
What is most interesting here is how Anselmo sings the lyrics. He employs a unique groove that the guitar and drums echo so that when he sings, it looks something like this: “I wonder / if we’ll smile / in our coffins While / loved ones / mourn the day / The absence / of our faces / Living, laughing / eyes awake / Is this too much for them to take?” This is utterly brilliant because it creates a fantastic push-pull type of tension in the song that is incredibly rare in metal. It’s not merely because of the groove, but how the groove sound is being utilized to express death as a condition. Anselmo sings the rest of the verse so that it looks something like this: “Too / young / for / one’s / conclusion / the lifestyle won / such values you taught your son.” What is interesting about his vocals in this part of the verse is that he screams “Too young for one’s conclusion” word by word and very slowly as the guitar and drums maintain the steady groove and then he draws out the word “son.” Anselmo’s vocals work with and against the rhythm of the song in ways that highlight the emotional content of the lyrics but also play with the musical content. Anselmo returns to his regular singing style as he screams the first pre-chorus and chorus. When the song shifts into the chorus, the guitar returns to the main riff (the opening riff) of the song:
That’s how, that’s how, that’s how
Look at me now
Inherit my life
When Anselmo sings the second verse, it looks something like this: “One day / we all will die / a clichéd / fact of life / Force fed / to make us heed / Inbred / to sponge our bleed / Every-warning-a-leaking-rubber-a-poison-apple-for-mingled-blood.” He sings the first few lines in the same way as he did in the first verse, but the lines “Every warning, a leaking rubber / A poison apple for mingled blood” are sang as a run-on which creates another layer of lyrical complexity within the song. Anselmo sings the last few lines the same way he did in the first verse: “Too / young / for / one’s / delusion / the lifestyle cost / Venereal mother embrace the loss” and draws out the word “loss.” In this verse, the lyrical images stack up. In the first verse, the main images are “coffin,” “faces,” “eyes,” and “son.” In the second verse the primary images are “sponge,” “leaking rubber,” “poison apple,” “mingled blood,” and “Venereal mother.” What is clear is that these images are not attractive, but rather, a bit horrifying as they describe oppression.
What follows the second verse is the second pre-chorus and chorus which replaces the “I” with “You”: “That’s how, that’s how, that’s how / Look at you now / You’re broken / Inherit your life / You’re broken.” Here, the listener is specifically addressed and brought into the song which seems to suggest that those who are hearing it share the same life experience as the lyricist. This is an interesting lyrical move because it seeks to unite the lyricist and the listener rather than implicate the listener. The third pre-chorus emphasizes this sentiment: “That’s how, that’s how, that’s how / Look at us now.” It is also important to note that Dimebag and Vinnie Paul continue to stabilize the song through the steady groove of the music they are creating. Just before the third pre-chorus, the guitar and drums shift into a quick repetitive beat (same as in the beginning of the song) as Anselmo grunts and then Dimebag plays a new repeating riff that reappears in the outro.
After the third pre-chorus is sung, Dimebag plays his brilliant guitar solo. It is bright, bluesy, uplifting, aggressive, stimulating, and very much works in contrast with the lyrical content of the song in ways that are interesting and impressive. It is also important to note that all of the lyrical content appears before the solo; this allows space for Dimebag to respond musically and to communicate feeling through the energy of his guitar solo. As aggressive as it is, it is also empowering, so that when Anselmo enters to sing the original chorus, it holds more weight because “I’m broken” now feels like a powerful mantra rather than a lamentation. After the first chorus and first pre-chorus are repeated, the outro begins as Anselmo sings the line “I’m broken, broken” three times and ends his participation in the song with the lyrical punch “I’m broke,” followed by a grunt. After that, the song finishes with a short rhythmic shift that moves into the riff Dimebag introduced just before the third pre-chorus (with a slight variation) and the song takes its time fading into silence.
The primary reason “Drain You” and “I’m Broken” were selected for analysis is due to the fact that both songs share a specific image: a poison apple. This is important on a political and aesthetic level. In terms of politics, both bands function against the traditional ideological understanding of mainstream rock music. Here, the poison apple (on a deeper level) represents an acknowledgement of reality: rockstar fame is not all that it is cracked up to be. Both bands consciously chose to represent themselves as being against that particular lifestyle because not only is it an artificial construct, it is destructive to the ego. Cobain and Anselmo chose to write from lived experience rather than from an idealized fantastical perspective because it more accurately represents true life. It also represents what it means to be lyricists and musicians creating music in the early nineties. Neither band fell for the “poison apple” of rockstardom—in fact, both bands railed against it in every possible way. Both of these songs are perfect examples of how Nirvana and Pantera rebelled against accepted norms within the rock world and achieved a different kind of success that was founded on genuine personal expression and principled conviction. Aesthetically, the poison apple represents the unpleasant lyrical content of both songs. “Drain You” and “I’m Broken” are image-heavy, but the images they include are purposely ugly and graphic. This is what makes the songs so great: the fact that they explore deep topics—love, desire, eroticism, death, suffering, and empowerment—by using images that are original, dark, and off-putting.
One of the biggest differences between the songs is Dimebag Darrell’s guitar presence. “Drain You” does not include any solo work partly because it is not called for aesthetically (it’s meant to be simple but edgy) and because Cobain was stylistically a different kind of guitarist than Dimebag was. For Cobain, less is more; because he came from a punk rock background, he was less likely to employ solos in the traditional sense. His guitar work is energetic and powerful, but it functions as a counterpoint to superficial mainstream rock rhythms and melodies—which is primarily what makes him so brilliant as a guitarist. Dimebag was a soloist by nature, but riffs make up a good portion of what he did musically in Pantera. “I’m Broken” is incredibly riff-heavy, but the solo is where deeper feelings are ultimately expressed. It could be argued that Pantera consists of two singers: Phil Anselmo and Dimebag Darrell. Anselmo communicated his feelings through his lyricism and Dimebag communicated his feelings through his solos. In “I’m Broken,” Anselmo gets to have his say lyrically and then Dimebag gets to have his say musically. Typically, Dimebag’s solos mirror Anselmo’s lyrical sentiment, but also add to it in nonverbal ways that are truly remarkable. Dimebag never prescribed to an “insert metal solo here” mentality. His solos are brilliant because they work in conversation with the lyrical elements of the song and because they aren’t typical metal solos—they have a strong bluesy edge to them that helps contribute to the emotionality of his guitar playing. Through the solo in “I’m Broken,” Dimebag’s personality shines, but the solo also adds to the lyrical expression of the song in its emphasis on emotional empowerment from a musical perspective. He chose to write an uplifting solo just as Anselmo chose to embrace the listener as an act of solidarity and those particular musical and lyrical moves serve as the genius operating within Pantera’s music. Another difference between the songs is the fact that Anselmo seems to be more engaged with the audience than Cobain was; Anselmo had a close relationship with Pantera fans that allowed him to be more direct and honest on a lyrical level. For Cobain, his lyricism, although personal, is less interested in addressing an audience and more interested in artistic expression. Although Anselmo’s lyrics had an artful quality to them, they are conscientiously engaged with an audience in ways that Cobain’s lyrics are not.
What makes Nirvana and Pantera iconic in terms of song structure is the fact that both bands go against the grain lyrically. “Drain You” is a love song that avoids traditional romance in favor of something more sinister which creates a deeper emotional register. The lyrics contrast with the rhythmic groove of the song in ways that make the song memorable. “I’m Broken” does very much the same thing; it’s a song about death and suffering, but the musical content is incredibly powerful and uplifting. With these two songs, both bands were able to transcend conventional understandings of the subjects they were exploring. As a result, listeners can experience the concepts of love and death/suffering in a new light, which stimulates higher thinking and emotional development, even if it isn’t wholly conscious. It is a natural byproduct of listening to the songs. What also makes these bands iconic through song structure is the fact that both Cobain and Anselmo go out of their way lyrically to reemphasize their feelings. In “Drain You,” after the short musical interlude, Cobain repeats the first verse and the line “One baby to another says, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’” is heard in a new way by the listeners wherein they understand the power of that line much better than they did at the beginning of the song because it is drenched in passion. In “I’m Broken,” after Dimebag’s solo, Anselmo repeats the chorus so that listeners can understand it in a new way. When he sings “I’m broken” this time, it holds more complex meaning to it than it did at the beginning of the song partly because it is heard right after Dimebag’s musical interpretation of the lyrical content and also because Anselmo more aggressively sings it as a phrase of personal strength.
One final similarity is primarily musical in nature. “Drain You” and “I’m Broken” both employ rhythm and groove as the foundation for the songs. This creates stability as difficult subjects are being explored. Pantera is well known as a groove-based metal band, but Nirvana is rarely seen as being groove-oriented. This is because the grunge label was placed on them which caused the musical aspects of their songs to be overlooked. Nirvana’s music is highly rhythmic; the backbone of “Drain You” in particular is the groove that operates underneath the surface of the song. When listening to both songs one after the other, it becomes clear that Nirvana and Pantera share a lot lyrically and musically in ways that were never (and still aren’t) acknowledged by the media outlets of the early nineties. Cobain and Anselmo are very similar in their lyrical approach; they emphasized experiential and conceptual writing over traditional rock lyricism which is usually entertaining rather than abstract or complex. Cobain and Dimebag are similar in the sense that they both employed riffs and rhythms that were unique to their respective genres while also conversing with the lyrical content of the songs in compelling ways. Even Grohl and Vinnie Paul are similar in their percussive approaches. They are solid, powerful, and nuanced in ways that enhance the overall groove of the music. “Drain You” and “I’m Broken” are perfect examples of how Nirvana and Pantera can be listened to as bands that complement each other lyrically and musically. Not only do they emphasize each other’s strengths, the unique personalities of each band are enhanced, which demonstrates how close they are aesthetically even as they inhabited two different genres (rock and metal) that were seen as being at odds with each other when both bands were at the height of their careers.
During the course of both groups’ careers, band members gave countless interviews, and many of them can be accessed easily on YouTube. Some of these interviews will be discussed so that it can be seen how each band engaged with the interviewers and what the main concerns of the time period were—from not only the interviewers’ point of view, but also from the band members’ perspectives. To begin, Nirvana appeared on MTV’s Headbangers Ball on October 25, 1991—a month after Nevermind was released—and was interviewed by Riki Rachtman (who mentions during the interview that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is quickly becoming one of the most requested videos on the program). Another important thing to note is that Headbangers Ball mostly featured metal bands—it was a special show on MTV that catered to the heavy metal demographic. During the interview, Rachtman discusses the band’s roots with Cobain and Novoselic and specifically mentions “the big emerging Seattle rock scene.” When he asks them if they were playing clubs with bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, Novoselic makes it clear that they were not, that they were playing clubs with Mudhoney and Tad. Then Rachtman asks, “you guys were kind of an underground [band], didn’t start in, let’s say quote rock and roll clubs. You were kind of playing for the college crowds and the underground scene first, right?” Novoselic responds by saying, “Well, that’s where we got our start. It’s like we were listening to Black Flag and MDC and we all were into punk rock and stuff, and we just kind of fell into this Seattle thing….” In another part of the interview, Rachtman and Novoselic discuss grunge:
R: Cuz the way they’re categorizing it, they’re calling it, you know, part of the grunge sound, and now they’ve said, you know, Nirvana is the newest band in this—I hate putting labels on things—but they’re saying you’re the newest of the new grunge sound.
N: Yeah…I’m starting to understand like what grunge is. It’s like if you have heavy metal, a lot of it’s the same guitar sound. I think grunge has to do with guitar sound….Grunge is more organic guitars, like, you know, Mudhoney, they have their crazy sounding guitars…Tad, just totally growly, like a different sound.
What is interesting here is the fact that—unlike a lot of interviewers—Rachtman is skeptical about the legitimacy of grunge as a genre and Novoselic is doing the best he can to explain what he thinks the genre is, which suggests that he is not engaged enough with it to be able to articulate it. In this aspect, Rachtman and Novoselic connect as they both try to make sense of grunge. Aside from being the host of Headbangers Ball and coming into contact with a variety of heavy rock and metal bands, Rachtman excelled as an interviewer because he understood who he was interviewing. He had punk roots; he’d been immersed in the hard rock, metal, and underground scenes throughout the eighties, so he had a very informed and nuanced knowledge of where Nirvana had come from and understood their personalities from that vantage point. During the interview, Cobain wore a yellow ball gown as a joke, because the band was appearing on Headbangers Ball, and his offbeat sense of humor was much appreciated and understood in the interview.
Another good interview was conducted for Rapido in 1991, which was a French television show dedicated to music. In this interview, the band members are in their hotel room, sitting on the floor, and just very casually talking to the interviewer (Cobain talks while resting his head on a pillow, and at one point, Grohl rolls a cigarette on camera), who facilitates more of a conversation rather than interview. During a discussion about Nirvana being an underground band that broke into mainstream success, the interviewer says, “You’re the first one to push the door open.” Here is Novoselic’s response:
Yeah. It seems like the mainstream is very consistent—consistent in like blandness, being bland, like bland boring TV shows, bland boring bands, bland boring blockbuster movies. It’s all very consistent….It’s a vicious circle. Actually, these people who are trying to make money, they play it really safe and they take like a demographic survey. So they survey all these papal, papal—papal hierarchy in the Vatican—I mean, they survey all these people and say like what do you like? what do you want to see? and they’ve been fed garbage so that’s all they know and they say we want more garbage, so they give them the garbage. They survey them again and it’s all this garbage. Next thing you know, you have this overfull landfill full of diapers and Styrofoam. And that’s mainstream culture—a soiled Pamper diaper in a Big Mac container.
Later on, the interviewer brings up punk rock and Cobain gives a very detailed and thorough response about why punk music resonated with him:
Punk rock made me realize that you don’t have to be professional, you just have to have passion. You can be as sloppy as you want. That’s what made me start playing guitar. I was intimidated when I first started playing guitar—I was intimidated by really professional musicians, like heavy metal musicians who are very anal and technical, you know, promoted the fact that they can play really good, you know, and that made me not really ever think of playing rock and roll realistically or ever make a career out of it or actually, you know, going for it and doing it. But when I first heard punk rock, it made me realize that these people are a lot like me, you know. They’re just as sloppy and as bad musicians, but they still like passion and they like energy, so it helped me start a band.
Just before Cobain’s response, Novoselic describes his understanding of punk rock and what is interesting to note here is that his answer is incredibly nuanced as opposed to his struggle with trying to describe grunge to Rachtman:
Punk was like very simple and there was a lot of energy—the first real punk—there’s a lot of melody, too. It was a reaction to like stuffiness and like progressive jazz in rock and roll, old farts playing twenty minute songs when what rock and roll was—it was like a three-minute song and just really got you going…Emotional instead of like really cerebral.
Aside from the fact that the interviewer conducted the interview in such a way that encouraged open-ended responses from the band members, the fact that it was a European program probably factored into the band being comfortable to talk in a more personal way. In general, the interviewer was coming from a broader worldview and understood Nirvana’s role in rock music. He seemed to have a good understanding of the American music industry and also what was happening musically in the UK. This allowed for the band members to have a more productive conversation because it wasn’t bogged down with concerns about the grunge scene or having to explain what their songs meant and what their overall intentions were as a band.
One of the least productive—and probably most hostile—interviews was given for MuchMusic in 1991, which was essentially the Canadian version of MTV. In this interview, the interviewer asks a series of questions that cause the band members to joke around and not give serious answers, partly because the questions being asked reveal to them that the interviewer is unfamiliar with who they are as a band, and also, that he has a clear agenda. As a result, the band members use humor as a defense mechanism. The first question the interviewer asks is: “I read the first page of your bio and you’re talking about punk rock. Now, are you still a punk rock band?” Immediately, a question of this nature signals to the band members that the interviewer has very little knowledge about the group and it becomes obvious that they will have to explain themselves, which Cobain graciously does: “I don’t think we’ve ever been labeled as punk rock in the first place. We just played in the underground circuit. We like punk rock more than any other style of music.” Cobain clearly explains that Nirvana came from the underground scene and that the band members are fans of punk music. However, the interviewer ignores Cobain’s response and asks the same question, worded differently: “Now, I’m sure you dislike labels, but then where do you see that your music fits in?” Cobain, frustrated by having to answer the same question again, responds with four words: “In rock and roll.” That seems to be a very specific answer: we are a rock band. Grohl makes a joke that they were classified as “Seattle Sub Pop grunge” and Novoselic begins to joke about labels in general before the interviewer says, “Okay, but see this is a little bit different though because I think to a certain extent people out there want to know because it helps them decide whether to like it or not, right?” This is a counterproductive question because what the interviewer should be doing is conversing with the band, but instead, is choosing to argue with the band members about the importance of classifications.
Again, there is more joking from Novoselic who says, “We’d all like to say we’re the Black Sabbath molesting the Bay City rollers,” and the interviewer tries to redirect the band back to the issue at hand, which is classification: “I guess you guys all talked about how you’re a pop band yet I wonder how many people would really describe you in that way.” Then, he asks another question, which is still about classification: “How do you feel though about the crossover into the metal market?” and Cobain responds very tight-lipped: “That’s fine.” Here is Novoselic’s response:
Well, maybe we could feed those kids. They could go from worshipping Satan to being studious and alternative. And some of those alternative people could be like smoking pot on their Camaro hoods, hoods of their Camaros. It’ll be a trade-off, yeah. It’ll be joint forces, unite all potheads and bookworms. Come together.
The interviewer ignores Novoselic’s humorous response and asks this question: “Now, one of the things I was reading, though—you were being interviewed in a metal magazine and someone, one of the members of the band wasn’t very happy about it.” Immediately, Grohl asks, “Who said that?” and Novoselic gives another joking response: “Is that a pubic hair [pulls it off the mic]. It’s curly and crinky. Oh, I don’t know. Where did you get that? Who sent you?” And this is where the interviewer becomes hostile:
I: Are we gonna be able to get anything out of this interview?
N: We are. We’re talking.
Later on, the interviewer confronts the band again:
I: You guys don’t like explaining anything to do with your music or to do with what you’re doing.
N: Just like Ricky Ricardo said to Lucy, “Splain, Lucy. Splain.” But she never did.
I: Why don’t you like talking about it, though? What’s the problem with going on camera and just relating a little story to do with it?
C: There’s nothing to be said. It’s all in the music, man. It’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat.
I: You don’t think that people that are fans of you would like to hear what you had in mind or maybe—
C: I want to hear what they have in mind, you know. How they interpret it….Yeah, I’d like to get some letters.
The most offensive aspect of the interview isn’t the fact that the interviewer doesn’t know how to talk to the band members or the fact that he doesn’t understand that humor is being used to avoid his one question about classification worded several different ways, but the fact that he asks them: “What’s the problem with going on camera and just relating a little story….” The implication here is, why can’t you just go along with the narrative I’m trying to build? That narrative is all about classification, because this interviewer, who represents the larger consciousness of music journalists of that time, was more interested in categorizing bands as a way to tell people what to listen to; the media was attempting to control how people hear and engage with music through labels as a marketing strategy. This is a perfect example of the concept of neoliberal consumerism—everything is categorized for easy consumption. This is the exact mentality Nirvana resisted, not just because they understood how people really come to music (through personal experience and environmental factors rather than from watching an interview and listening for buzzwords that signal to them that they should buy the band’s records), but because their punk roots gave them a way to identify and rail against mainstream industry mindsets. This was not understood by the interviewer at all, and it is safe to say that any mainstream interview might have taken a similar trajectory due to the fact that Nirvana was not a mainstream rock band; they were a rock band with punk roots.
Additionally, when the interviewer asks: “You don’t think that people that are fans of you would like to hear what you had in mind…” the question contradicts his aims. If the target audience were Nirvana fans, they wouldn’t need the interviewer to get the band to explain their sound because they already know what Nirvana sounds like. Based off of the questions he asked (which was really just one question worded in many different ways), he is not interested in showing Nirvana fans who the band is on a personal level. He is actually targeting a general audience as a way to help them make “consumer decisions.” So, this isn’t really an interview at all, but rather, a marketing session. At the end of the interview, the interviewer asks this question with a disrespectful attitude: “So now we’ve just got a brand new video from you guys. Does somebody want to tell me about that or you don’t want to explain that, it’s just there for everyone’s own interpretation?” The truth of the matter is that anything the band releases in terms of content: albums, music videos, etc., is open to interpretation. And because the band members refuse to tell listeners what to think about their music, the interviewer takes a hostile attitude toward them, because his goal is to explain and give definitive meaning to subjective art in order to sell it.
In another terrible interview, conducted on September 24, 1993 (the source of the interview is unclear), the band is instructed to watch a TV showing college students being interviewed. At a college campus, copies of In Utero are being handed out to random students. They are asked to listen to the record, come back the next day, and share their thoughts about it. The band members are forced to sit there and listen to people—who don’t know who Nirvana is—give their opinions about the album. Here is how the interviewer begins the interview: “Three out of eight people we approached said they never heard of Nirvana. What do you think of that?” What is important here is the fact that the interviewer is already trying to shape the interview in a particular way, to paint Nirvana as a massively famous band, rather than to just sit and have a conversation with the band members. Then, he asks a more specific question that generates a really interesting response from Cobain:
I: Some of the people who responded to the song “Rape me” said they were offended by it in some way or that they couldn’t understand it. Could you explain the meaning of the song to perhaps clear up…
C: Well, we’re the cover boys of about ten different magazines this month and in every one of those magazines we explain it pretty, pretty good. It’s an anti—let me repeat that—anti-rape song….I got tired of people trying to put too much meaning into my lyrics, you know….So I decided to be really blunt and bold. I just thought it’s kind of a funny just reward for a person who rapes, like a guy, like a mean asshole who rapes a woman, violates her, and then he goes into jail and gets raped, you know. I think it’s kind of a justice in a way….I thought we’ve made our stance on rape clear within the last year and a half, you know. Most anyone who knows about us would probably know that we are pretty much anti-rape at this point, you know.
This interview was conducted in the fall of 1993, which means that the band had already been dealing with mainstream success for two years. Cobain’s response seems to reflect a frustrated sentiment that suggests he has had to explain himself one too many times and is more than likely burnt out. The problem of having to explain the meaning of a song that he wrote with the intention of being very clear is also suggestive of the fact that everything he wrote from a lyrical standpoint was being ripped to shreds, misunderstood, and overanalyzed, whether it had a specific message or not. The fact that he had to make it very clear that the band is anti-rape is also interesting because it feels like something that should be implicitly understood. Additionally, the fact that the interviewer is even asking this type of question also shows that he is more interested in perpetuating an overblown controversy rather than giving band members space to talk comfortably. The other red flag of the interview has to do with the fact that random college students were asked to give their opinions about Nirvana’s music—because, again, it shows the ongoing concern with classification. Here is the exchange that happens between Cobain and the interviewer in regards to this matter:
I: I guess these were people who didn’t know anything about you and are just listening to a record.
C: I would rather have taken it to a rock and roll show or something, you know, instead of just like college students.
I: Just random college students who may or may not listen to rock music.
C: Because I don’t think they listen to our music anyhow.
It is unclear whether the interviewer actually went out and conducted this survey himself, but Cobain is justifiably critical of the project because it doesn’t make much sense to get musical opinions from people who have never heard of Nirvana or who may not even listen to music, whether they are in college or not. Another important implication of this interview is the fact that Nirvana got played on college radio early on in their career and did have college students attending their shows, but there is a big difference between college students who attend rock shows and the general college population who typically aren’t informed about rock music and therefore don’t understand how Nirvana operates lyrically. So, the survey feels like a waste of time, especially for the band members who have to be forced to sit there and respond to people who have no frame of reference for their music.
However, Cobain does give an interesting anecdote in relation to “Rape Me”: “My favorite was when—the whole MTV controversy—when we were playing the awards last year, when we couldn’t play “Rape Me” and so we had this interview later on and Dave decided to tell the story about it to MTV.” What is important about this quote is that it shows what a joke the entire mainstream music media was in the early nineties. Not only was Cobain being forced to do something as ridiculous and irrelevant as respond to uninformed college students’ responses about his music, the band wasn’t permitted to perform a song with serious lyrical content on MTV, which was the primary music platform of that time, and then, in a purposefully humorous way, Grohl decided to tell MTV about how the entity itself had censored the very band it had been aggressively promoting for the last two years. It was silencing the very band it was attempting to force-feed to its audience. This interview in particular, although not hostile, generated very little interesting content other than retrospective insight into how little music journalists actually understood about Nirvana’s politics or aesthetics. Their lack of understanding didn’t end at Nevermind; it continued right on into In Utero. It seemed as if the good interviews were few and far between, and interviews like the two negative ones described above were probably more of the standard types of interviews Nirvana had to suffer through—which would explain Cobain’s frustration and exhaustion (he yawned more than once during this interview) and Novoselic’s refusal to take leading questions seriously because it was part of his personality to do so and because humor was a way to neutralize tension.
For Pantera, interviews took on a completely different tone. The interviews (that could be accessed on YouTube) were typically shorter than Nirvana’s (which often went from half an hour to an hour) and more to the point. Much like with Nirvana, interviewers would ask certain types of questions with a specific aim in mind, but more often than not, the band members were very good at giving responses that didn’t allow for the interviewer to argue. As a result, Pantera had a different relationship with the media; the group knew that the best way to counteract critical and/or uninformed questions was to respond from a position of strength rather than defense. For example, in probably one of the first real interviews Pantera did—in October of 1990, a few months after Cowboys From Hell was released—both Anselmo and Dimebag assert themselves in very direct ways against questions that feel agenda-based. It was for the Power Hour, which was Canada’s version of Headbangers Ball, operating under the umbrella of MuchMusic. In this short clip, the interviewer, Dan Gallagher, is wearing a purple motorcycle skull cap, sunglasses, and a black t-shirt that says Los Angeles on it. Here is the second question he asks, along with Anselmo’s response:
G: We’ve had guys in here before like with tons of tattoos, I mean, the guys from Circles of Power got tattoos everywhere and stuff, but not very often do we get guys with them on their head. Now, I can understand—get a shot of this one here [points to Dimebag]—with this Cowboys from Hell [Dimebag lifts his shirt sleeve to show the tattoo on his upper arm] which is the album’s single from you guys, but I mean, what does Strength symbolize and why the word Strength? [referring to Anselmo’s Strength head tattoo]
A: You might have Christianity and you might have Jehovah and you might have this and that, you know, and I’m really not that much of a religious person, but I’m into heavy self-belief and strength and power within, you know, and that’s my bag of tricks right there, you know. I’m into that—Strength.
Anselmo gives a very direct, but thorough answer, and yet, Gallagher doesn’t seem interested in Anselmo’s response because he says, “Can we see the other side there? Come on, come on, just show us [referring to Anselmo’s other head tattoo which is the band’s symbol CFH]”. Anselmo graciously lifts his hair so the camera can get a good shot of his head tattoo. Since this is a TV show that features heavier types of music—metal in particular—the interviewer (obviously) decides to focus on tattoos, which seems to suggest that they serve as a specific marker that allows metal fans to identify each other, but in the end, it comes off as a very superficial way to engage Dimebag and Anselmo. Then, Gallagher asks another question with an obviously biased undertone that Dimebag and Anselmo both respond to very succinctly:
G: When we think of metal bands, we don’t think of them as coming from Texas. We don’t think of bands—you know, we think of Los Angeles, like bands leave Texas, go to Los Angeles, leave Texas, go to New York.
D: There’s a bunch of those out there, ain’t there? Whole bunch of those out there.
A: You should see our fans in Texas.
This is a masterful move on Dimebag and Anselmo’s part because instead of defending their decision to stay in Texas and be a metal band from Texas, they assert themselves as being proud of the fact that they didn’t rush out to the West or East Coast—their Texas roots are what make them who they are as a band, and there’s genuine pride in their response. Additionally, when Anselmo says, “You should see our fans in Texas,” it’s a brilliant way of turning the question back on the interviewer that suggests you’re missing out on what we’ve got going on in Texas. It also suggests that there’s a whole other aspect of the metal world that the interviewer has no clue about, and in all truth, he really doesn’t have a clue. Just as he is trying to uphold the standard narrative—that to be a successful band, music groups have to move to an important city like L.A.—Dimebag and Anselmo tear it down in seconds with concise and clever responses.
This same type of question was asked in a 1991 interview with Anselmo and Rex—who are seated and shirtless (Anselmo has a towel wrapped around his neck) after a show (both are drinking beer)—given by Vanessa Warwick, the UK correspondent for Headbangers Ball, and Anselmo’s response is absolutely perfect:
W: Now, what have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of coming from Texas as opposed from being in a scene town like L.A. or New York?
A: Okay….To answer your question simply [burps]—that’s not the answer—it’s an advantage totally. If we were from L.A. or New York where the race is always on and there’s a trend to follow and this and that, then we wouldn’t be the same band, number one, and we’d have to fall in line….We could do any type of music well, I guess, but man, being from Texas, and this and that, we have the advantage, number one, of the hecklers and the people that disbelieve, you know, they’re gonna sound like ZZ Top, and this and that, what are they doing on the Suicidal Tendencies tour? and we come out and bludgeon them with what we do. That’s a full advantage on our behalf, you know, and we love it.
A: Disadvantages from being from Texas? No….There’s no scene to follow there. We are the scene. We are very honest and you know, we’re the only band of our genre in Tejas, you know what I’m saying? And we got a great crowd there.
Again, Anselmo approaches the question by emphasizing that being from Texas is a strength rather than a weakness. When he mentions that people who watch them open up for bands like Suicidal Tendencies regard Pantera skeptically precisely because they’re from Texas, he explains that not only do they “bludgeon them,” they love getting the opportunity to do so. Then, when Warwick tries to get Anselmo to list the disadvantages of being a Texas metal band, he just lists more advantages and makes it a point to say “we got a great crowd there.” This is really important because it should signal to Warwick that the band already has an audience and it’s a close relationship. Pantera isn’t doing the interview because they need fans; they’re doing the interview as a way to get more exposure, so Pantera has the upper hand, not MTV.
Earlier in the interview, Warwick asks a question about classification and again, Anselmo’s response is excellent:
W: A lot of people try to categorize you as a thrash band, don’t they? How do you feel about that?
A: When you go to a record store and you look for our record, our album is in the heavy metal section—number one. Number two, you know, we don’t look like a pop band or a new wave band or anything like that, you know. I can see where they call us a thrash band, this and that, but you know, what lies within all of us, is like, you know, influences that range way more in-depth than thrash, you know. My favorite band is like old Black Sabbath and stuff like that, you know. I’m into slow, heavy shit, you know, what we try to do is groove, is what we do, you know. We try to write songs—when you go see a thrash band, it’s all a hundred fuckin’—can I say that?—all a hundred fuckin’ million miles an hour and it’s like, you know, it’s cool for about the first ten songs, but the next ten, you’re going, damn, you know. What we try to do is make the crowd, you know, move to something, you know. We like to write groovy parts and stuff like that, so I think that kinda sets us apart from a thrash band, you know.
In this response, Anselmo reasons through why he can see how people might try to classify Pantera as a thrash band, but ends up explaining why they’re metal. He makes the aesthetic of the band very clear. And yet, Warwick doesn’t seem to absorb what Anselmo has said and asks a question that disregards his response: “Coming up very shortly, we’ve got the video for ‘Cemetery Gates’ and I found this song very, very interesting. It’s not a typical death metal song—.” Before she can finish, Anselmo interrupts her and says, “It’s not a death metal thing.” She responds by saying, “No, I know, but this title might lead people to believe that it was, but it’s actually a semi-ballad….” It is a bit perplexing how listeners might mistake “Cemetery Gates” as a death metal song just from the title, and this suggests two things: 1. Warwick doesn’t understand the death metal genre and fan base (because if she did, she wouldn’t have asked that question), and 2. She makes the assumption that the title is misleading and delivers her question from that perspective. She takes this further by making another assumption that Anselmo dispels immediately:
W: There are no love songs on the album.
A: Every song is about love, man. It’s about love of brother and about love of life and stuff like that, you know. All the songs are written, in a way, of real-life pain, love, happiness, shit like that. It’s all about real life, you know….So, to me they’re all love songs.
Anselmo once again turns the question back on the interviewer by giving a very profound answer that highlights exactly how Pantera’s music is love-oriented.
One of the worst interviews Pantera gave was for MuchMusic in 1992, after the release of Vulgar Display of Power. What makes the interview so bad is the fact that the interviewer seems to have absolutely no knowledge of who the band is, but she conducts the interview in an incredibly condescending way to try and establish the dominant role. She directs questions at the band as if they are on trial rather than having a conversation and it is clear from the expressions on the band members’ faces that they know they are being grilled for no reason other than the fact that the interviewer is clueless about them. Dimebag and Anselmo are sitting up front with Rex and Vinnie Paul behind them; Dimebag is sitting with his legs crossed, but he is not relaxed. Here is the second question she asks in the video clip: “Let’s talk about your adornments all over your bodies. Does everybody have tattoos here? [To Vinnie Paul] Why have you no tattoos?” Because she knows nothing about the band except the fact that they are metal, the only thing she knows to do is to point to their tattoos, which is not only superficial, but the definition of bad journalism.
Then she asks Anselmo an inappropriate question: “When you’re a grandfather, how will you feel about these kinds of things—Unscarred on your tummy [referring to his stomach tattoo].” Anselmo’s response is concise, but a bit constrained because it is clear that he recognizes he’s being judged. So, when the interviewer points to his head tattoo and asks him: “Did that hurt the most?” he says, “I didn’t come” and laughs a little. His answer is completely understandable given the attitude of the interviewer who grunts in a chastising way despite the fact that her disrespectful question warranted the type of response he gave. Later, she talks with the band about opening up for Skid Row and asks them: “How is your music different?” This seems like a completely innocent question, but it points to a more problematic issue: the fact that she genuinely doesn’t know. This places the band in the position of having to explain their sound in contrast to Skid Row. Here is Anselmo’s answer and the interviewer’s response:
A: Our music is more of an extreme—I guess the heavier side of music. Theirs is what you still call accessible, you know…their last record’s a lot heavier than their first record. Slave to the Grind is heavier than their first one. What’s the name of the first one? Skid Row. So, in a way it’s compatible because they’ve worked, they’ve gained some heavy fans and they have that audience that hasn’t seen a band like us and we’re fortunate that we can win them over, you know. We do well—
I: Hit them over the head, more like?
Here, it feels like Anselmo is doing the interviewer’s job for her by not only explaining the difference between Pantera and Skid Row, but explaining how Skid Row has evolved as a band in such a way that they have started attracting listeners who like heavier music. It feels very much like he is having to educate her. Then, her response is incredibly condescending; it is clear that she didn’t hear a word Anselmo said and is deciding to continue with the narrative thread of Pantera being a band about violence. All Anselmo can do in response is smile. Then she holds up a copy of Vulgar Display of Power and asks the band “Are there offensive lyrics in there?” Anselmo replies by saying “Damn straight” and there is laughter in the studio. Again, this feels very innocent, but ultimately, the question is offensive. The interviewer is more interested in highlighting Pantera as a “shock value” type of band because the assumption is that all heavy rock and metal bands choose to be offensive as a way to get attention. This is not Pantera’s goal as a band; the band’s lyrics are realistic and at times controversial, but not offensive. As a result, the interviewer fails to capture the true essence of Pantera and its members and chooses to apply the standard music industry narrative that says all hard bands are violent and offensive in order to sell records.
To prove this point further, she asks the band this question: “What happens if you sell a couple million copies of this and get rich and life doesn’t seem so hard?” It is a completely inappropriate question because it is accusatory: the implication here is that Pantera is capitalizing off of anger in order to sell albums. What’s worse is that she asks the question very casually, as if this is a common feature of rock music and Pantera is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill rock band that is only interested in getting rich. Here is Anselmo’s response: “Then I’ll write lyrics to how I feel that week and that’s the truth.” This is a skillful answer because he exposes her question as being speculative about a moment in the future that may or may not happen. His response is suggestive of the fact that he is concerned with the present moment, not the future, and that he will deal with what happens in the future when it happens.
What is interesting about the Pantera interviews is how the tone changes after the release of Far Beyond Driven in 1994. This is most likely due to two important factors: 1. After four years of the band conducting interviews and stating very explicitly where they stand aesthetically and politically, there is a sense that the media has gotten the message and has chosen not to react well to the fact that Pantera is not dependent on them for success and 2. The artificially-constructed alternative genre was the primary concern of the media and as a result, metal music was seen as being “out of step” with the times—which is completely false. In a Headbangers Ball interview in 1994, Dimebag and Vinnie Paul (both are drinking beer; Vinnie Paul wears a Dallas Cowboys cap backwards) are being interviewed by Warwick in a tent at the Donington Festival in the UK and she asks a question that gets wonderful responses from both band members:
W: You’re one of the few bands—and this is something else that I really admire you for—you’re one of the few bands that actually stand up and say we are heavy metal because that seems to be a real uncool thing to say at the moment. I think that’s just all part of the honesty of the band, that you’re prepared to stand up and be counted.
D: Well, you can hear our stuff, you can hear one note and you know it’s Pantera. We grew up on, you know, heavy metal roots, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest—British Steel….Back to the categorizing stuff, though, you know, I mean, whatever.
VP: Those are our roots and that’s what we are, you know. It’s kinda cool to claim you’re something else. I mean, alternative’s in right now, it’s really cool to claim you’re alternative, you get a built-in audience when you claim that, but, you know, we’re heavy metal, and we’re not ashamed to say it. That’s what we do.
There are a couple of things that are important here. Firstly, Dimebag’s response is skillful because he makes it a point to reference Black Sabbath and Judas Priest—two British bands that defined metal in the seventies and early eighties; they essentially created the genre. He openly gave those bands credit for being the ones who influenced Pantera; during the time of the interview, classic metal was seen as being “uncool” and their legacy was being largely ignored by the mainstream press. Secondly, Vinnie Paul pointed to the alternative genre as being responsible for causing a lot of bands to fit in aesthetically with an artificial style of music that was not created organically the way metal was. In solidarity with Dimebag, Vinnie Paul was proud to proclaim Pantera as a metal band because it meant that they stood for something tangible. Thirdly, what is important to remember is that Far Beyond Driven was released in March of that year and it also reached number one on the US Billboard 200. This is incredibly significant: a heavy metal band topped the chart at a time when heavy metal was supposedly “dead.” Instead of being allowed to celebrate their achievement, the band had to defend its aesthetic and its genre.
Even worse, the band was dealing with controversies having to do with Anselmo—and the band as a whole—being accused by the media as being racist, which was completely untrue. In a Pantera interview that took place in Paris in 1994, Vinnie Paul gives a definitive response to those accusations:
That’s something that’s been overblown by the media. Pantera is in no way, shape, fashion, or form a racist band, Nazi band, skinhead band, anything to do with that. Philip shaved his head because that’s the way he wants to wear his hair, period. It has nothing to do with that. If you read the lyrics to our songs, you’ll find that the only kind of thing they ever speak about is equality amongst people, period. That was just some malicious statements made by MTV in the United States. They came to one of our live shows and one kid there was doing this white power number. They film him, they come in, they see Philip and instantly they go two plus two equals four, you know. And that’s in my opinion, poor journalism.
Far Beyond Driven is the band’s seventh record, the third record released on a major label. At this point, the group had given many interviews and it was well known that they were not interested in catering to the media; their focus was on the relationship they had with their fans and creating music that resonated with themselves and their audience. It is worth noting that more than likely one of the reasons they were accused of racism had to do with the fact that it was an easy way for the media to smear them as a response to their refusal to cooperate with them. This is not something that was unique to Pantera; the media is notorious for running smear campaigns against groups/individuals who do not comply with their narratives or agendas. Another reason might also have to do with the fact that Pantera achieved major success without the help of the media which caused them to become the counter-narrative to the preferred narrative: punk is out; metal is out; alternative is in. In the Paris interview, Vinnie Paul gives an explanation of why Far Beyond Driven was such a huge success: “The reason why the record did so well is not because of being on the radio or being on MTV or anything like that. It’s from four years of nonstop touring and developing a very true and loyal fan base and when the record came out, those people were hungry for it and went and got it.”
Another reason Pantera was falsely accused of being racist had to do with Anselmo’s critical response to hip hop music. Hip hop was extremely popular in the late eighties and early nineties and MTV, after years of ignoring Black artists, saw the potential of hip hop from a monetary perspective (along with record companies), and began to promote it in ways that were questionable. Many hip hop artists operated from a divisive stance in terms of race and it was something that Anselmo took issue with. This is more than likely what caused the media to go after him because he was exposing their true aims, which was to capitalize off of racial tension rather than properly uplifting Black artists and promoting equality. Anselmo was justified in taking issue with the divisive mentality and used his lyrics as an opportunity to express his frustration, which he was completely entitled to do. In an interview he gave in 1992, he explains his stance on racism, and it is safe to say that the response he gave was representative of the type of answer he gave any time the question was asked, which was consistent and straightforward:
Hey, man, I lived in a car for two months. I quit high school. I’ve had one job. I can’t get a job right now. I never got my goddamn GED, you know. I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear about that. I’m twenty-three years old. I didn’t oppress fuckin’ no one. You know what I’m saying, man? I’d rather stick my hand out and shake the bastard’s hand, man. I’ll buy that son of a bitch a beer, man. Come over to my house. Have what I have. Don’t hate me just because I’m bald and white. And don’t hate me just because I am not prejudiced. That goes to the white side of it, you know. We get white power kids who come out to the show and start doing all this fuckin’ shit [referring to the Nazi salute]. I say, no sir. Not anymore. No way. Not at this show, man. You look around. Pantera shows, there’s blacks, whites, etc., etc. And everyone’s welcome.
When looking at the interviews of both bands, the similarities are striking: both bands had to explain and/or defend their aesthetics (even after achieving major success), and later on, they had to deal with false accusations: Nirvana had to explain how they were anti-rape; Pantera had to explain how they were anti-racist. What is really interesting about those controversies is that they were stirred up by a media system that had generated grunge—which transformed into alternative—which was supposed to be more “progressive” in terms of politics and aesthetics. And yet, Nirvana wasn’t allowed to perform “Rape Me” on MTV—which should have been something that the music platform should have encouraged given its supposed desire to present a more “enlightened” version of rock music to its audience. Another similarity is in regards to classification. Both bands were forced to explain what category they fit into. This was easier for Pantera to do given the fact that they were a metal band, but for Nirvana, the struggle was immense, and in many ways, unnecessary. Even though they said they were a rock band, and went to great lengths to explain their punk roots, they were shoved into the grunge genre as a way to give it legitimacy. Another important thing to understand is the fact that prior to alternative and grunge, there was the college demographic, which was also false in many ways. Nirvana was regarded as a band for college students because college students came to the shows and they got played on college radio. None of the band members went to college and were actually very critical of the college system in general, but were given the label of being a college radio band. It also points to the hypocrisy of these fabricated genres and how they operate under the assumption that certain types of music are more enlightened than others. A band like Pantera would be regarded as too aggressive and ignorant and would never be able to reach the kinds of “markets” Nirvana fell into because of inaccurate assumptions about heavy metal music. As a result, it raises questions about how enlightened the college-grunge-alternative genre truly was.
And yet, what these interviews show is that Pantera fared better as a band in many ways because they were largely ignored by the media outlets who were trying to promote a genre of music that was anti-punk and anti-metal. The only real exposure the band got was on Headbangers Ball which was specifically designed for what MTV regarded as a smaller subgenre of rock music. They did not see metal music as worthy of mainstream attention and chose not to put it in conversation with the other genres they were promoting on their main programming. However, Headbangers Ball was immensely popular because it was the first major TV platform that gave heavy metal its own space to flourish. The existence of Headbangers Ball also points to the contradictory nature of the media outlets that saw metal as “struggling.” If that was the case, why did the Headbangers Ball exist? MTV—the very music platform that was claiming alternative as a flourishing genre and metal as a dying genre—created the show, which further demonstrates how inconsistent their own agenda was.
As a result, one of the main differences between Nirvana and Pantera is that Pantera found a home in Headbangers Ball. The band was interviewed multiple times by Rachtman and Warwick and the interviews with Rachtman were particularly exceptional because he had a very good understanding of metal and he also had a good rapport with the band. In probably the most entertaining interview Pantera gave, Rachtman flew to Texas and spent a couple of days with the band in the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth Area as they celebrated the release of Far Beyond Driven. In another interview Rachtman did with Pantera while they were in Venice, California in March of 1992, he is seated on a bench outside with Rex and Dimebag. Here is his exchange with Dimebag:
R: What was the last CD or tape you bought?
D: I’m telling you, Cow Porn Heaven. I’m serious.
R: Is that a Texas band?
R: Friends of yours?
D: Yeah. That’s what I’ve been jamming to. That, old Kiss, old Judas Priest, and Phil’s tape collection.
What is wonderful about this exchange is the fact that Dimebag can be comfortable telling Rachtman what he likes without having to explain why. Also, Rachtman—being a music fan himself—can appreciate the fact that Dimebag likes what he likes without having to dissect it or criticize it. There is an understanding between them. It also shows one of the main reasons Pantera had such a loyal fan base: Dimebag Darrell. Although he was one of the most talented guitar players in rock music history, he was extremely friendly, casual, and down-to-earth. His personality came out in the Rachtman interviews in such a way that fans could relate to him in a tangible way. It is safe to say that he was probably one of the most approachable guitar players who played at the higher caliber level because he didn’t see himself as being larger-than-life that way. The way he talked and carried himself showed fans that he was a regular guy; he was immensely talented, but he was relatable. One of the biggest failures of the media and music journalism in general is that they ignored him completely.
In another interview with Rachtman in 1994 he asks Dimebag and Anselmo if they wrote “This Love” in such a way so it might be acceptable enough to get radio play. The immediate response from Dimebag is a “No” and a shake of the head. In regards to the radio, Anselmo comments, “We never thought of ourselves as having ‘Cemetery Gates’ or ‘This Love’ or anything like that as being like a big radio hit….We ain’t gonna be on the damn radio, so look, man, go buy our record like you always do, come down to our shows like you always do. We got the craziest—we got the best audience in the world. Face it.” In the video, Dimebag and Anselmo are sitting at a table with Rachtman in what looks like a bar, simply hanging out. Most of Nirvana’s interviews (on YouTube) are filmed with the band either sitting or standing, the camera is focused on them, and the interviewer isn’t visible. This was probably one of the biggest factors that contributed to Nirvana’s struggles with the media. In no way did it feel personal or comfortable.
Additionally, the person who posted this particular Pantera interview clip gave it the title: “Here’s why Pantera were the best.” In order to listen to Pantera, fans had to buy their music. And they did. And Pantera was proud of this fact just as much as the fans were. The band belonged to them. This wasn’t specifically unique to Pantera in the sense that most heavy metal bands never got played on the radio (and neither did most of the punk bands in the eighties), but this is what signals the major difference between Nirvana and Pantera. Nirvana was never at home at any media outlet and they didn’t have a relationship with their fans that was anywhere near the level of what Pantera had with their fans. Nirvana had plenty of attention from MTV, but they did not have a good relationship with the music platform. Their songs were getting constant radio play, which meant that their music reached a larger audience, but it was a general audience, and it didn’t always understand what the band was about. It is certainly true that Nirvana picked up lots of loyal fans from the radio, but it is extremely important to understand that Pantera built their fan base without the radio and without the attention from the larger MTV body. As a whole, the media did not factor into their success as a band—the fans did.
Another major difference between the bands is how they handled interviews. For Nirvana, Novoselic was probably the most vocal of all the band members in interviews, although Cobain and Grohl gave precise and thorough answers. However, it was always from a position of defense. Novoselic often employed humor as a way to resist the uncomfortable interview questions, but it was also a defense mechanism. It served as a deflection, and in some cases, it was a way to fill the silence when Cobain did not feel encouraged to answer the questions. This was a stark difference from the Pantera interviews. Whether the band was giving a good interview or a bad interview, they were in control. All the members knew exactly what to say and how to say it, not because they were coached, but because of the mere fact that they came from a heavy metal background and they had naturally aggressive personalities that kept them from falling victim to underlying agendas. Nirvana came from a punk background, which prepared them to be skeptical of the media and the music industry in general, but they were unable to counteract it the way Pantera was. In many ways, Nirvana succumbed to the pressures they were attempting to resist by putting up with the media and ultimately feeling like they needed them to help them achieve success. Right after Cowboys From Hell was released, Pantera walked into interviews with four albums under their belt; they utilized the experience they gained from operating independently outside the music industry to be able to interact with the media on their terms and to achieve success in such a way that placed them squarely in the driver’s seat. They knew that the most important aspect to their success was the fans because they had already built a solid following in Texas. They knew that the audience was more important than the media—and they were right.
Nirvana had a following before achieving mainstream success, but it was rooted in the Seattle scene, which consisted of multiple bands. It would be fair to say that people that were listening to Nirvana were probably listening to those other bands as well. However, with Pantera, because they were the only band in Texas playing the kind of music they were playing, their fans were primarily listening to them. However, generally speaking, Pantera fans were more than likely listening to other metal bands as well, but what made Pantera unique from a metal listener’s standpoint was that they weren’t classic metal and they weren’t thrash metal. They were their own style of metal. This is what helped them develop such a close relationship with their fans. Pantera fans probably listened to Pantera more avidly than they listened to other metal bands because Pantera generated a deep connection with them through their music and lyrical content. Nirvana wasn’t necessarily making music in order to connect with their fans. Cobain wrote music that resonated with him and as a result, it resonated with the fans. But as he continued to write and make music, that sentiment stayed the same. The music was primarily for him. As Pantera wrote and released records, they specifically thought about what their fans would like and connect to. This is one of the reasons why Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven are regarded as their most significant releases. Those are the albums where the band really responded to their fans and gave them exactly what they wanted. This is important in regards to the media because it made it difficult for music journalists to act as the middleman between Pantera and their fans. It was nearly impossible. Additionally, Cobain was constantly having to explain his lyrical content to the media in ways that did major damage to his psyche. The media had become the middleman: they were presenting Nirvana to its audience, which mostly consisted of people who listened to grunge music and/or the radio and didn’t understand the band’s punk roots.
Another key difference in the interviews is the fact that Nirvana was never asked to explain why they chose to stay in Washington rather than move to L.A. like “all rock bands do.” This was because it was understood that the Seattle scene was good enough for the band; they didn’t need to move to LA. It also plays off of the idea that because Nirvana was part of the Seattle scene—which was a more “enlightened” scene—they didn’t need to take the traditional route most rock bands did. Plus, because they had the attention of the so-called “college” crowd, they didn’t need to develop a listener base in L.A. Conversely, Pantera had to justify their decision to stay in Texas because it was assumed that the metal scene only existed in L.A. and New York—where the Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax) were prominent. This mindset completely disregarded the fact that metal originated in the UK—not the American coasts. Dimebag, Vinnie Paul, and Rex are from Texas and Anselmo is from New Orleans. This is significant because by proclaiming their roots, they brought a different perspective to the metal genre, one that was Southern and purer in attitude. This contributed to the band’s personality—which was distinct and different, as opposed to the metal bands that had East and West coast sensibilities. It also allowed them to connect with fans who saw them as being more like them, not from L.A. or New York, who weren’t privileged, and had to work for what they had. Pantera earned their success through hard work, and it was hard-won. This was another reason the media ignored them. The media couldn’t take credit for their success—only Pantera could.
In many ways, the media felt more entitled to claim credit for helping Nirvana achieve mainstream prominence. Nirvana wasn’t deeply devoted to the Seattle scene because in truth, it wasn’t really their scene. They were playing in the clubs there to develop a following, which they did, but they didn’t take pride in it. They were only on Sub Pop for one album (their first album) and then they switched to a major label after that. Their aim was to survive. Cobain wrote the absolute best record he could and it took off in ways that neither the band nor the label were prepared for. Within a month of Nevermind being released, they were literally thrust into the spotlight by the media who saw that they were getting a lot of attention from listeners and that their record was selling really well. They didn’t attempt to capitalize off of Nirvana’s success until after they noticed that the band was doing well. This is incredibly important because it confirms the fact that the media was only interested in promoting Nirvana as a way to further their agenda, which was to promote alternative music as a safe form of rock music that still contained an aesthetic edge. That was all they were really after, so in a sense, they took advantage of Nirvana, who had made a really substantial rock record, and used them to develop a passive audience and promote a variety of bands who were receptive to the genre because it meant they could achieve success without having to actually create something that was as significant as Nevermind was.
However, the fact that both bands had challenging relationships with the media is more proof of their iconic statuses. The media struggled to understand both bands precisely because they were not typical rock and metal bands. They were innovative musically and lyrically. It’s not to say that their struggles with the media are acceptable because they were exceptional, but it does serve as another way in which the band members and fans can feel justified in knowing that what each band did was incredibly significant and much-needed in the rock world—and that both bands brought about massive change even at the cost of having to fight the media (who was only interested in stimulating change on a surface level in order to generate more wealth). It is also worth noting that one of the biggest failures of the media was that they never thought to feature Nirvana and Pantera together in any way, shape, or form because they were too busy trying to construct narratives and genres that were more divisive than anything else. Had they recognized that they had two elite bands making iconic music at the same time, that they had two elite vocalists in Anselmo and Cobain, two elite guitarists in Dimebag and Cobain, and two elite drummers in Vinnie Paul and Grohl, the rock music landscape in the nineties might have turned out completely different—and for the better—because not only would the audience (fans and general audience alike) have regarded those bands and their respective genres differently, the band members might have as well, which would have helped to foster more unity among the two different genres.
On February 9, 2022, a Twitter account called Rock History (@historyrock_) posted a photo of a stack of old cassette tapes along with the question: “It’s summer 1990. What’s the first tape you’re popping into the cassette deck?” Here are the names of some of the bands whose tapes are represented in the photo: Guns N’ Roses, Alice Cooper, Winger, White Lion, Ratt, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Poison, Faster Pussycat, Stryper, Mötley Crüe, Dokken, Europe, Skid Row, Kix, and Cinderella. In the summer of 1990, Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell had just come out; Nirvana’s Nevermind wouldn’t come out until September of 1991. The cassette tapes are a good representation of what most mainstream rock fans were listening to at that time. It is interesting to think about how that landscape would change drastically in the coming months, first from Pantera’s music spreading across the heavy metal world like wildfire, and then Nirvana’s music utterly altering the rock music terrain. Looking at these tapes, many of the bands— who are still considered rock and roll powerhouses—had an incredible foothold on the music climate at that time. No metal or punk cassette tapes are shown. As important as many of these bands were at that time, there was an obvious distinction that was made in terms of what was acceptable for a fan of rock music to listen to, and what was seen as “too aggressive” or “too edgy.” Much of the music that Pantera and Nirvana were influenced by was excluded from the larger rock music environment. And yet, both bands managed to shift that landscape in remarkable ways. Heavy metal in the seventies and early eighties was vastly important in shaping Pantera; punk rock music in the late seventies and early eighties was also instrumental in Nirvana’s development as a band—and both bands managed to take the spirit of those genres to the next level in ways that haven’t been possible for any other band to do since.
On a sadder note, Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994 was deeply felt within the rock world, a world that hasn’t really been able to recover from it since. And then, ten years later, on December 8th, Dimebag Darrell was brutally murdered on stage during a Damageplan performance. His death also affected the metal world in such a way that it too has not been able to recover from. Neither guitarist deserved the deaths they experienced and it isn’t enough to say that their music lives on because both guitarists should still be alive, creating the kind of music they both excelled at making. Additionally, both Cobain and Anselmo became heroin users to treat health issues (Cobain had a stomach ailment that took years to cure and Anselmo used heroin to treat his severe back pain). On July 13, 1996, Anselmo lost consciousness after a live performance in Dallas and had to be revived by paramedics. He didn’t quit his drug use until 2005 when he underwent surgery for degenerative disc disease. Then, on June 22, 2018, Vinnie Paul passed away suddenly from a heart condition after spending fourteen years living with the heaviness and misery of not having his brother around. It seems that things should have gone much differently for the Abbott brothers: the devastating breakup of Pantera in the early 2000s and the murder of Dimebag left a severe strain on not just the fan base, but on the legacy of the band in general. Pantera deserves much better in terms of how it is treated by the media (who still excludes them) and how the group’s music has been honored (or not honored). Nirvana’s legacy has fared very well and they still remain a landmark band; Kurt Cobain’s face is still featured on the covers of all the major music magazines on a regular basis, which is bittersweet. It is a comfort to know that his presence still matters in the present moment, but it is also troubling due to the fact that his face alone continues to be financially lucrative to a media system that is partly responsible for his suicide.
Although Nirvana came to a grinding halt after Cobain’s suicide, Pantera went on to make two more albums: The Great Southern Trendkill (1996) and Reinventing the Steel (2000) which are equally as notable as their other albums. Another major similarity between Pantera and Nirvana is the fact that each band made a series of amazing records in back-to-back fashion from 1989 to 1994. That’s only five years. Their ability to make music at such a high level and so consistently can’t be overestimated. Fans of both music groups have a lot to be proud of in terms of what the bands they loved and supported achieved in such a short amount of time and how those achievements reshaped rock music and metal music permanently, and for the better. That’s what makes both bands truly iconic. In the end, the music—and how listeners connect to it—is really the only thing that matters. For readers who are interested in seeing how both bands converse with each other visually, I created a playlist on YouTube of live performances and music videos that track the simultaneous timelines of both bands (from 1988 to 1994). To conclude, here is a final quote from Phil Anselmo as he addresses the audience during a live performance at The Backroom in Austin, Texas in 1994: “I wanna say real quick that I thank everybody for fucking showing up because, you know, they give us bad reviews and shit, but you know something? We’re fucking number one now. They can suck my fucking dick.”
February 21, 2022
 Smear (guitarist for the punk band Germs) had just joined Nirvana as the second guitar player.