Nirvana was an American rock band that was formed by singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting being Dave Grohl, who joined the band in 1990.
In the late 1980s Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album Bleach for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. The band eventually came to develop a sound that relied on dynamic contrasts, often between quiet verses and loud, heavy choruses. After signing to major label DGC Records, Nirvana found unexpected success with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the first single from the band's second album Nevermind (1991). Nirvana's sudden success widely popularized alternative rock as a whole, and the band's frontman Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation", with Nirvana being considered the "flagship band" of Generation X. Nirvana's third studio album, In Utero (1993), featured an abrasive, less-mainstream sound and challenged the group's audience. The album did not match the sales figures of Nevermind but was still a critical and commercial success.
Nirvana's brief run ended following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, but various posthumous releases have been issued since, overseen by Novoselic, Grohl, and Cobain's widow Courtney Love. Since its debut, the band has sold over 25 million records in the United States alone, and over 75 million records worldwide.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that prior to Nirvana, "alternative music was consigned to specialty sections of record stores, and major labels considered it to be, at the very most, a tax write-off". Following the release of Nevermind, "nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse". The success of Nevermind not only popularized grunge, but also established "the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general". While other alternative bands had had hits before, Nirvana "broke down the doors forever", according to Erlewine. Erlewine further stated that Nirvana's breakthrough "didn't eliminate the underground", but rather "just gave it more exposure". In 1992, Jon Pareles of The New York Times reported that Nirvana's breakthrough had made others in the alternative scene impatient for achieving similar success, noting, "Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions". Record company executives offered large advances and record deals to bands, and previous strategies of building audiences for alternative rock groups had been replaced by the opportunity to achieve mainstream popularity quickly.
Erlewine stated that Nirvana's breakthrough "popularized so-called 'Generation X' and 'slacker' culture". Immediately following Cobain's death, numerous headlines referred to Nirvana's frontman as "the voice of a generation", although he had rejected such labeling during his lifetime. Reflecting on Cobain's death over ten years later, MSNBC's Eric Olsen wrote, "In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small, frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X icon, viewed by many as the 'last real rock star' [. . .] a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed".