My older sisters helped me find Nirvana when our family life got tough
Nirvana’s iconic album, “Nevermind,” was released 26 years ago today on September 24th, 1991.
“Ding!” An email notification alerted me to a new Spotify playlist my sister had shared with me. I was finishing my last year at a college that was a thousand miles away from my sisters. Clicking around Spotify’s black and green interface was a distraction from final papers and graduation stress and my impending cross-country move for law school.
My sisters have always known when I’ve needed them.
The playlist, titled “I only date grunges,” was a collection of early and mid-’90s songs that we’d first listened to almost two decades ago — back when they were high schoolers in the midst of the grunge wave, and I was their pesky elementary school-aged sister who constantly needed babysitting.
My sisters, who are eight and ten years older than me, were largely responsible for raising me while our parents juggled low-wage jobs and endured a bitter divorce.
I clicked play, and as any good ’90s playlist should, it started with Nirvana.
As Kurt Cobain’s voice filled my ears, I could practically smell the small bedroom that my sisters and I shared, that space where I first found validation in the unapologetic anger of punk and grunge.
In rural Michigan, surrounded by snow and cow pastures, our family was breaking apart. The only people who seemed to understand were the musicians whose CDs we played on repeat to drown out the sound of our parents fighting.
By the time my sisters converted me into a Nirvana fan, Kurt Cobain was already dead, but they kept a poster of the Nevermind album cover hanging above their bunk bed.
Whenever I felt scared at night, I would crawl onto the top bunk. We would turn the volume on their giant black box of a CD player up and up and up until the sound of Nirvana shook the bed. It felt like the three of us were protected from anything beyond the bedroom door. This music seemed larger than life; it showed me that there was some bigger world where people talked, or at least sang, about the complicated emotions that I was feeling and couldn’t name.
We are laying on our backs on the top bunk, once again drowning out the pained yelling of our parents in the next room with a mix tape.
“Kurt Cobain,” I start, “Dave Grohl…”
I could never remember Krist’s name — but an early indoctrination into ’90s grunge wasn’t really the point of my sisters’ questions. They quizzed me to take my anxious mind off what was happening to our family. Each blowout between my parents became a miniature lesson in the art of distraction via heavy guitar.
Sometimes, Elise’s dented blue sedan became our concert hall. I’d scream the lyrics to “Come As You Are” at the top of my lungs, and Elise would laugh and sing along as she shuttled me around town like a soccer mom. Our oldest sister, Abigail, was in the process of applying for college, but she always found time to jam to Nirvana with us.
Although we had little else in common because of our age difference, we found common ground in grunge.
While they undoubtedly understood the lyrics in a way I couldn’t at that age, I identified with the anger and energy of the music, and that was enough.
When our parents’ divorce was finalized, I went to live with our mom while my sisters stayed with our dad. It was heartbreaking to suddenly feel like an only child, but even though my sisters couldn’t see me every day, they didn’t let me feel alone. Shortly after the divorce, they took me on a shopping trip to a Sam Goody a few towns over, where they bought me a portable CD player. Back in Elise’s blue sedan, she handed me a thick CD binder full of her favorite albums.
If we couldn’t be together in person, we could be together in the music we’d bonded over.
As I grew up, I came to expect the packages from my sisters containing mix tapes or burned CDs of their favorite new bands. Their visits included record store trips and punk shows. I was just a kid and they were young adults, so I couldn’t always understand the things that were happening in their lives — but that didn’t matter when we talked about music.
Grunge was a language that kept us tethered across state lines.
Getting a link to that Spotify playlist in college was our modern day mixtape, a digital care package full of nostalgia.
It got me through my finals that year. I listened to it again as I drove across the country towards law school, and my new home. My sisters and I are all adults now. We have a lot more to talk about than grunge music. But when we’re all together, you’ll still find us in the car, screaming along to Nirvana at the top of our lungs, our original love language.