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Grammys Preview: Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and the Death of Guy Rock

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PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Just about every graying, fading member of my generation has a similar story: I was on a bus with about 60 other kids from a New Jersey Catholic church youth group heading up to Lake Placid for a field trip with my Kmart off-brand Walkman in my lap when I first heard it. It was on a pop station such as Z-100 or 95.5 WPLJ where it didn't belong, but Kurt Cobain's call-to-arms opening riff and Dave Grohl's rolling intro didn't seem to belong anywhere.

Altogether too many trees were felled to give writers enough space to tell the world how Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was supposed to change music forever. It got me listening to a copy of Nevermind on repeat for days on end, but that song never quite had the effect that the bunch of guys -- and they were almost always guys -- sitting behind typewriters in black shirts had in mind. It never brought on that metal/punk hybrid of pure, adrenalized guy rock that would kick the longhairs to the curb and make all those rock-god groupies accessible to any nerd with a distortion pedal.

If anything, it helped swing the pendulum the other way, as Bon Jovi can attest. As we head into yet another Grammy Awards ceremony, the slate is once again clean of soaring guitar, macho bravado and dated notions of cool that were once codified as "rock." Cobain's death in 1994 coincided with the start of the Nielsen/Soundscan era of music industry tracking and, each year, Nielsen and Billboard give us an update on just how music industry buying patterns have evolved during that time.

This year, Garth Brooks topped the list of best-selling artists since 1993, followed by the Beatles, Mariah Carey, Metallica, Celine Dion, George Strait, Eminem, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Pink Floyd. The best-selling albums during that span? Metallica's Black Album (released 1991, sold 15.8 million copies), Shania Twain's Come On Over (1997, 15.5 million), Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (1995, 14.8 million), The Backstreet Boys' Millennium (1999, 12.2 million) and The Beatles' greatest hits release Beatles 1 (2000, 12.1 million).

That's a decided lack of "rock" in that mix and a whole lot of catalog releases from the days when people actually bought CDs. In fact, people who bought albums last year bought 10.2% fewer new releases than they did in 2011, while spending 2.5% more on old albums and 3.3% more on dusty "deep catalog" artifacts that require some digging in the crates. Though overall album sales once again declined 4.4% last year, digital album sales jumped 14.1%, digital track sales edged up 5.1% and vinyl album sales soared 17.7%.

So where does Nirvana fit into all of this? Well, the familiar narrative says they did the world a big, huge favor by ridding it of hair bands and arena rock and making it safe for garage bands again. That's not quite how it played out. The grunge and post-grunge era music world was filled with as much belabored growling, on-stage preening and aggro nonsense as ever, as evidenced by the lineup, fires and ensuing rioting and rapes that engulfed the ill-fated Woodstock '99.