Where it began (enter Nirvana)
Although the late 80's were sprinkled with great guitar rock bands like the Pixies and Husker Du, these bands were little known on a global level. Popular music was concerned more with image and superficial entertainment as what it has grown to again today. This, of course, left the music cold and lacking of any truly emotional qualities. Even the hip-hop and rap of the day was of the light beer, dance hall, diluted to 1% of its strength variety. This atmosphere festered and bred a more apathetic music listener. This tendency also had other disastrous side effects like the decline of live music on a local level as well as many other detrimental by-products, but that's a whole other story. Anyway, the point is pop music was breeding a whole generation of music listeners who were void of passion, and as a result many believed rock music to be dead. Enter Nirvana.
"The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.'"
- Aaron Copland
Nirvana's sound so brimmed over with passion and intensity that it at first appalled its listeners. Their music was not the frivolous, feel-good tunes or the passive background music to which people had grown accustomed. Suddenly, listeners had something to feel passionate about. This passion is the key. It didn't matter if you loved or hated Nirvana. What mattered was that you had a feeling, and the "Nirvana difference" wasn't just in the sound. Nirvana didn't smile for the camera and thank you for buying their album. As a matter of fact, they did the opposite. Once you had torn away the cellophane wrapper and opened the CD you were promptly given the finger.
However, before Cobain could even finish screaming "a denial" in your ear, every record label in the world was searching for the next Nirvana. This was the sword that killed the rock and roll dragon. Lucky for us there were many bands playing and performing with passion at that time, and the music world had a few more years of storm before the calm. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soul Asylum, and Stone Temple Pilots were able to sustain this flame through several years of great and exciting music. Yet, throughout all this, the quest for the next Nirvana by the record labels continued.
Nirvana became a figurehead for a sound rather than a movement. Fans, record executives, and musicians alike couldn't distinguish between the power that was the passion and the vehicle that were the overly distorted guitars, the huge dynamics, and the subdued to screeching vocals. Before they could even say, "Nevermind," every new band was beating this formula into the ground. Even though rock once again owned the pop music world, it did so just long enough to allow its grave to be dug.
I have a hard time completely blaming Nirvana for the death of rock in the very same way that I can't give them total credit for its temporary rebirth. They simply did what all musicians were meant to do, give us their passion. When music stops making us feel, then music is dead.