By Michael H. Carriere, Professor of History, Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE)
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains graphic information about suicide which may be upsetting to some people.
By the early twenty-first century, it had become accepted wisdom among cultural critics and music journalists alike that Nevermind, the second album released by alternative act Nirvana on September 24, 1991, had, more than any other record from the early 1990s, transformed the landscape of American music forever. Ten years after the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s troubled front person, music journalist Eric Olsen declared that Nevermind created “the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock.” Close to thirty years after Cobain’s demise, in 2022, Pitchfork.com music critic Jessica Letkemann still referred to Nevermind as alternative rock’s “supernova moment,” one that left an indelible mark on American culture as it inspired countless acts to continue developing alternative music after the tragic death of Cobain.1
But what if there was another record released in 1991–one not as heralded as Nevermind–that actually came to exert an equally important influence on the trajectory of American alternative music? This article argues that Superchunk’s No Pocky for Kitty was such a record. Such a proposal is not meant to dismiss the cultural importance of Nevermind, a record that has sold over 30 million copies since its release. Instead, I hope to show that Superchunk developed another roadmap for alternative bands to follow, one that continues to be utilized by acts to this day. The cultural history of the 1990s, in other words, may not be as clear cut as we’d like to believe.
So how was this history actually lived? To answer such a question, we have to travel back to late September 1991. I remember hearing Nirvana’s Nevermind for the first time at a high-school house party in suburban Philadelphia. As an already jaded 16-year-old punk rock kid, it didn’t surprise me that the band had made the leap from indie Sub Pop to major label Geffen. While I liked Mudhoney and a few other grunge acts, I found the genre a little too close to the overproduced classic rock that still echoed throughout my high school’s parking lot. Soon I was hearing Nevermind being played in that same parking lot.
Late October 1991: I remember listening to Superchunk’s No Pocky for Kitty for the first time, alone in my bedroom. It lacked the studio polish of Nevermind, but I remember thinking the record had the potential to propel Superchunk into the mainstream. Their infectious 1990 single “Slack Motherfucker” had already become the go-to anthem for all my punk friends entering service-industry employment for the first time. “I’m working,” I screamed in my head every time I delivered another pizza to a cookie-cutter suburban family. “But I’m not working for you!” The other tracks from Superchunk’s debut eponymous album didn’t live up to “Slack Motherfucker.” How could they? Still, they did provide a satisfying serving of noisy punk rock that sounded even noisier when blasted through the speakers of my shitty car stereo.2
Yet what made Superchunk stand out was the sheer catchiness of their songs, along with the fact that they remained on an independent record label. At their core, many of the songs on the band’s debut album were pop songs, albeit pop songs played by young people who came of age listening to hardcore punk. It helped that the band was self-aware of such a reality and was seemingly interested in cultivating a sound built upon such self-awareness: an early Superchunk B-side was a raucous cover of the 1965 Shangri-Las’ song “The Train from Kansas City.” Here, girl-group vocal harmonizing was replaced by driving guitars, punctuated by the restless yelp of singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan.
The blueprint drawn up for the band’s debut was perfected on No Pocky for Kitty, released just a little over one year later. As bands like Nirvana attempted to “grow up,” I was struck by the fact that No Pocky for Kitty spoke directly to the anxious, uncertain movements of youth in a way that was both sonically appealing and lyrically direct. From its first note, it addressed the impatience of youth everywhere, as album opener “Skip Steps 1 & 3” implored the listener to “Hit the gas straight on/Run through the lights, run through the tree.”3 Yet the album expressed a vulnerability that was still rare in underground music in the early 1990s. It spoke to young crushes (the attention getting strategy offered by “Seed Toss”: “I put a stake in your spokes/And you better laugh at my jokes”), and the pain of such crushes deciding to pointedly ignore you (“Yesterday, you talked to me/Today I feel I’ve sprung a leak/Today you’ve going nothing to say/Today you just swam away,” from “Sprung a Leak”).4
Such lyrics were delivered through songs that weren’t necessarily “post-punk,” a genre that, through experimentation with sounds rooted in funk, electronic music, and disco, pushed punk rock in new directions during the late 1970s and into the 1980s.5 Early Superchunk was not such heady stuff; they were best described as “punk-plus.” The album took the good things of punk–its reckless sound and its ability to express that sense of feeling both intensely visible and completely invisible (and to find a certain pleasure in that feeling)–and seemingly made them more accessible. Or, perhaps the better word to use here is “inclusive.” On the one hand, this meant drawing from a host of disparate influences was OK. In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, McCaughan recalls No Pocky for Kitty engineer Steve Albini comparing his guitar leads to REO Speedwagon.6 While meant as an insult, McCaughan took it as a compliment: he had been a huge fan of the band since age 12. One can also hear nods to such acts as The Clash, Neil Young, and even Ted Nugent throughout the album’s twelve songs. There was no commitment to punk rock purity here, but the end result remained raucous and messy.
Yet, this idea of inclusivity went far beyond sonic influences. Lyrically, No Pocky for Kitty spoke to the impermanence of adolescence, that sense of placelessness that often marks entry into early adulthood. Who are you? And where do you belong? Superchunk offered guidance on how to start answering these questions, in a way that moved beyond the stereotypical confines of punk rock. “There’s no buried electric wire,” McCaughan sang to a friend wanting to find themselves elsewhere on “Sidewalk.” “There is no lock on this town.” Yet McCaughan also admitted, “I kinda like this place/I wish you’d like it with me.” While I was ready to leave my hometown, it comforted me to know that there could one day be a place that I would never want to leave.7
Of course, whether one was leaving or staying was only the starting point: there was still the work of discovering who you were to become. “I’m starting to climb,” relays McCaughan on “Throwing Things,” “well I started on my knees.” What struck me – and still strikes me 30 years later – is that Superchunk offered a vision of coming to terms with one’s identity that wasn’t chiefly defined by anger, nihilism, or destructive behavior; in fact, it sounded subversively healthy. “Head over heels, my hand’s on my heart,” McCaughan earnestly sings, also on “Throwing Things.” “I’m making a promise, and that’s a start.” As a young man previously enamored with hardcore, that was the most punk thing I had ever heard.8
In the immediate aftermath of the release of both Nevermind and No Pocky for Kitty, hack music critic after hack music critic made the point that Nirvana was performing the noble task of bringing punk rock to the masses. The glossy sheen of Nevermind, this argument often went, would help the genre go down smoothly, allowing the album to help music fans move beyond the standard rock music of the day. “Forget the new Guns ‘N Roses double overkill,” SPIN magazine breathlessly implored in a contemporary review of Nevermind. “Forget Rush’s Roll the Bones. Nirvana has built this one for speed–that would be speed with a capital ‘S’–and it sure is fun to drive….I swear you’ll be humming all the songs for the rest of your life–or at least until your CD/tape/album wears out.”9 Perhaps this process played out somewhere. It didn’t play out in my hometown. As Nevermind sold more and more copies, I kept thinking that the rawer-but-kinder No Pocky for Kitty would have been the better emissary from the underground. 30 years later, I still feel that way.
Despite the best efforts of journalists at magazines like SPIN, it is now clear that Nevermind, while a popular music phenomenon, really didn’t go on to radically change the face of American culture. In 1993, the year after Nirvana supposedly rewrote the musical landscape, the top selling albums of the year included Eric Clapton, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kenny G, and The Bodyguard soundtrack. The number one album for 1994? Ace of Base’s The Sign. Of course, we should not overlook the reality that the success of Nevermind did provide some space for previously underground acts like Soundgarden and Green Day to become bona fide pop stars. The fact that these bands could sell millions of records suggests that there was a hunger for music that was something different from the hair metal and glam pop that dominated American culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As music critic Ira Robbins noted in his November 1991 review of Nevermind in Rolling Stone, Nirvana were “scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants.”10 Nirvana were authentic punk rockers – and they did help carve out room for the underground genres of grunge, pop-punk, and post-punk in the cultural mainstream. But Nirvana’s very existence on a major label made their success an indicator that such “alternative” genres could be marketed and consumed. Water-downed grunge acts like Candlebox, rather than more challenging bands like Oakland-based Jawbreaker (who Nirvana handpicked to open dates on their In Utero tour and whose own foray into the world of major labels failed miserably), quickly became the beneficiaries of this evolution.
Superchunk turned down post-Nevermind offers from major labels, a decision that informs both the immediate afterlife and the long-term legacy of No Pocky for Kitty. The band would leave Matador Records after one more album – 1993’s On the Mouth – as they disagreed with the label’s decision to enter into a distribution agreement with major label Atlantic Records. On April 19, 1994, Superchunk released their fourth L.P., Foolish, on Merge Records, the label the band initially started in 1989 to put out their early music. Foolish came out exactly two weeks after the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Sadly, the fame that Cobain achieved made him realize, albeit too late, the dangers of major record labels. As he wrote in his final letter to wife Courtney Love:
All the warnings from punk rock 101 courses over the years, since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has proven to be very true. I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music…for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things.11
It is perhaps unfair to put these two events into conversation with one another. Yet, as Cobain was unable to square his creativity with existing in the world of major labels and arena shows, Superchunk didn’t allow those tensions to get the best of them by putting out records on their own label, on their own schedule. Ultimately, their decision to cultivate Merge Records and its eclectic roster shaped the face of American alternative music more than Nevermind ever did. Over the past three decades, such influential acts as The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, Arcade Fire (whose The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2010), and Waxahatchee all found a home on Merge Records at early moments in their careers.12
This history did not begin with No Pocky for Kitty. Yet the album’s release in that heady fall of 1991 has given it, at least for me, an importance that should be noted, if not celebrated. Here was an album that provided an alternative to the alternative, a grassroots response to the corporatization of punk rock. Nevermind may have overshadowed No Pocky for Kitty at that time but, thirty years later, Superchunk is still around – and still putting out relevant music. And American music is all the better for their continued existence.
Michael H. Carriere is a Professor of History at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), where he also serves as director of the MSOE Honors Program. His work has appeared in such publications as the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of Planning History, Cultural History, Reviews in American History, Pitchfork.com, and Salon.com. He is the co-author, with David Schalliol, of The City Creative: The Rise of Urban Placemaking in Contemporary America (The University of Chicago Press, 2021).
- Eric Olsen, “10 Years Later, Cobain Lives on in His Music,” Today, April 2, 2004, https://www.today.com/id/wbna4652653; Pitchfork, “The 150 Best Albums of the 1990s,” Pitchfork, September 28, 2022, https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/the-best-albums-of-the-1990s/.
- Superchunk, “Slack Motherfucker,” recorded January 18-19, 1990, on Superchunk, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-c_GX2CYkcQ.
- Superchunk, “Skip Steps 1 & 3,” recorded April 21-23, 1991, on No Pocky for Kitty, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTkyTAqgtWM.
- Superchunk, “Seed Toss,” recorded April 21-23, 1991, on No Pocky for Kitty, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I7SFqtGQYs; Superchunk, “Sprung a Leak,” recorded April 21-23, 1991, on No Pocky for Kitty, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPN2sPM3cEI.
- For more on the history of post-punk, see Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (New York: Faber & Faber, 2006).
- John Cook, Mac McCaughan, and Laura Ballance, Our Noise:The Story of Merge Records (Chapel HIll, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009), 32.
- Superchunk, “Sidewalk,” recorded April 21-23, 1991, on No Pocky for Kitty, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXAmEHZ2Opo.
- Superchunk, “Throwing Things,” recorded April 21-23, 1991, on No Pocky for Kitty, Matador Records, CD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWTtivhgpZQ.
- SPIN Staff, “Classic Reviews: Nirvana, Nevermind,” SPIN, December 1991: https://www.spin.com/2016/09/nirvana-nevermind-1991-review/.
- Ira Robbins, “Nevermind,” Rolling Stone, November 28, 1991: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/nevermind-251483/.
- The text of Cobain’s handwritten suicide note can be read here: https://kurtcobainssuicidenote.com/kurt_cobains_suicide_note.html.
- For more on Merge’s contribution to alternative music history, see David Chiu, “Merge Records Co-Founders on 30 Years of Indie Rock Success,” Forbes, July 23, 2019: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidchiu/2019/07/23/merge-records-co-founders-on-30-years-of-indie-rock-success/?sh=6f85c8c64424.