Sleater-Kinney Carrying Nirvana's Torch

A punk-rock trio makes music matter all over again.

I think about Nirvana all the time; it's really impossible to forget them.

No '90s band delivered as caustic a message to so many people.

The remarkable video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song which sounds just as good today as it did upon release in 1991, seems to show up on MTV or M2 on at least a weekly basis. One of those channels runs all day long in my office, so I've seen "Smells Like Teen Spirit" many times.

I don't use the word "remarkable" casually. To be watching MTV when that video begins is to be forced to stop whatever you're doing and just stare, slack-jawed. Doesn't matter how many times I see it, I'm instantly pulled into the chaos.

A high school gym. A three-piece rock band. A bunch of kids. A few cheerleaders.

Those are the basic elements. But of course, it's all in the details. The song, a rock anthem for the ages, a caustic dismissal of the cynical marketing of youth culture, some nonsense lyrics.

The roar of raw punk. As primal, immediate and passionate as anything that has come before or after it.

And the sexuality of that cheerleader, as she is swept away by the band, the music, the scene, the other kids, the moment.

The kids, a group of outsider youths taking part in an eternally recurring ritual.

The band, so perfect in their imperfection.

Now, in the wake of a million copycat grunge trios, after every bit of novelty, every bit of danger, or anything real that you can dig your hands into has been co-opted, they seem like a classic pop blueprint. Hard not to imagine the corporate suits at the top of those UniPoly Corporate office suites watching the video now and seeing dollar signs.

"Get me a year 2000 version of that," they might say to one other.

Was it that Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain saw his joke on the cover of the band's Nevermind album -- money dangling on a hook in front of a baby -- become reality, destroy the scene, change everything? Was that what killed him?

I see all of that. And then I see the power and the passion of rock 'n' roll. Of punk. I see kids breaking free of all the jive, set free by that song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

I started thinking about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when I put on the new Sleater-Kinney single, "Get Up," which also includes the devastating "By The Time You're 25."

Around the SonicNet/Addicted To Noise office in San Francisco, it's become something of a joke, the fact that Goldberg is obsessed with Sleater-Kinney -- the punk trio from Olympia, Washington, that has picked up the mantle from Nirvana.

People don't understand. You know, like "Why keep listening to this one band? What's the big deal?"

The big deal is this: Like Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney actually matters. They're not just another punk band. Or another rock band. They're not one of those cookie-cutter bands baked up by the major labels.

They're the real thing. They do it their way, on a small indie label -- Kill Rock Stars -- that is itself a challenge to the status quo.

When I listen to a song like "By The Time You're 25," it feels like Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are declaring war. I can see people fed up with their job -- or their life -- literally get up and walk out the door and never come back. I can see them get in the car and drive away, into a different future.

Listening to Nevermind for the first time, it felt like a lot of the music that had been released during the late '80s and early '90s was a joke.

Now, with the empty pop of Britney Spears on the charts, along with a lot of one-hit wonder bands, it can feel, at times, like Nirvana never happened.

And then I put on Sleater-Kinney's "By The Time You're 25."