How the Harry Potter Books Are the Literary Equivalent of Nirvana’s Nevermind Album

Author’s Note: (A terrible secondary title for this could be “Why Harry Potter Smells Like Teen Spirit” but thankfully, good sense prevailed).

First, two admissions.

  1. When I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I did not like it. The “yaaah” part of the chorus annoyed me, even at a mere 13 years of age.
  2. Within three listens to the entire Nevermind album, I was already practically obsessed with Nirvana. “Something in the Way” and “Drain You” still remain some of my favorite songs ever.

I think most teenage boys of mImagey generation hold a special place in their hearts and earholes for Nirvana. Even with its pretty polished sound, Nevermind was something different. It was the publicly accepted way to enjoy popular music without actually liking popular music.

Of course, Nirvana’s success meant that obsessives like me went out and looked for any other grunge artists they could. I discovered Mudhoney, Soundgarden (pre-Badmotorfinger), Tad, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth because of Nirvana. Then there was the tidal wave of grunge bands that followed Nirvana…some good, and some pretty awful.

Within a few months, the “alternative” section of record stores (hey, remember those?) evolved from the one thin little shelf of the back rack to the premiere rack in the store. For a while, this was cool. But after that, it became sort of aggravating. Especially when bands like Better Than Ezra were getting this same shelf-space.

When you think about it, the Harry Potter books were very much the same.

The Young Adult section of bookstores were skimpy at best before Harry Potter. But before the series ended, that section of the bookstore had grown significantly. The effect is still being felt; walk into any Barnes and Noble (while you still can, that is, har har) and just take a look.

(And while you’re at it, notice how similar most of the covers seem…blech).

Now, while I read very little YA and therefore can’t rightfully compare any of it to Harry Potter, I’m going to make a safe bet and assume that much of it pales in comparison.  This was also the case with that influx of grungy alternative bands that tried riding Nirvana’s coat-tails. Bush was able to do it for a while, as was Silverchair and a few notable others. But look at their careers these days and you’ll see how different they sound. They are aware that their original style of music is no longer being demanded and they have done their best to adapt. In Silverchair’s case, we discovered that they are actually good musicians not afraid to do something different. In Bush’s case…erm, well…they did perform on Extreme Makeover Home Edition so, yeah, there’s that.

I suppose in some ways, YA fiction attempted a similar evolution, too. When the world of wizardry and godlike kids became stale, YA fiction started to mimic Twilight. And now it’s a butt load of books trying hard to be The Hunger Games or something similar.

I’m not complaining…well, not really. The wave of grunge bands that followed Nirvana—as well as the influence of Nirvana itself—allowed me to happily discover bands like The Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney, The Pixies, The Meat Puppets, and on and on. In that same way, a few YA titles like Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children have impressed the pants off of me over the last five years or so.

To further the Nirvana analogy…we all know that the band (or, more particularly, Mr. Cobain) grew to despise Nevermind and what it did to their lives. At the time, I agreed whole-heatedly because it was Nirvana and that was enough for me because NIRVANA. But now I very much stand in the “Cry me a river” line.

Anyway, to stick it to the man and find their true diehard fans, Nirvana followed up with the polarizing In Utero. It was an album much different than anything I had heard before and, according to any reviews you read for it, most of America, either. It was loud, abrasive, weird in parts, and alienating as hell.

But the band loved it. Some fans were very confused because the poppy sing-along choruses were gone. But the die-hards adored it because of it was a total opposite of the Nirvana that MTV had shoved down their throats. Just listen to “Lithium” from Nevermind and then “Milk It” from In Utero.  That is what you call “making a point.”Image

Did we see something similar with Mrs. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? In many ways, yes, we did. The lack of a bespectacled wizard on her covers lost her a large chunk of her audience. And all the while, many of those authors that are lining the shelves that Rowling helped to evolve are benefiting from her pioneering.

It’s sort of the same as Pearl Jam continuing to grow in popularity after Nirvana ended.

But really, Rowling fans came out on top…she dealt with fame by writing a new novel under a pen name later on. All Nirvana fans got were a dead anti-hero and needless re-releases of B-sides and re-mixed tracks. And the never-ending curse that is Courtney Love.

But we also got the Foo Fighters out of the wreckage and, frankly, anything with Dave Grohl is magic.

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2 comments

  1. “, YA fiction started to mimic Twilight. And now it’s a butt load of books trying hard to be The Hunger Games or something similar.”
    Wow harsh words. I seriously think you should re think this post (delete this comment too if you want)
    I’d say inspired by rather than mimicking or trying to be. The writers obviously enjoyed the books and wanted to create a similar feel. what you’re saying there is the same people falsley accusing you of writing like Stephen King just for the cash, but we all know you don’t. You are inspired!
    I’m an illustrator and love the work of Frank Frazetta, Patrick Woodroffe, Peter Jones and Chris Foss to name but a few, but I don’t consider what I do mimicking. I try to create the same depth of emotional response those works inspired in me but I don’t mimic the work it’s self.
    I’m happy the YA market has taken off because it means the youth are back into reading. And you are right, we should all thank Rowling for that. I must take a look at her latest work. Maybe I’ll like it.
    Michael Moorcock did the same thing for my generation in the late 60’s and through out the 70’s and we ended up with great writers like Stephen Donaldson and Tad Williams and now this new generation can discover them too.

    😀

  2. Barry, I had to read this post based on the title alone and I was not disappointed (though I think I might have preferred “Why Harry Potter Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)

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