Iain Ellis talks with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Listen to the interview here: Humor as a Weapon
After long laboring in the wilderness of underground obscurity, alternative rock pushed its way onto the big stages and into mainstream culture with Nirvana. In terms of the trends and tenor of the times, Nirvana were a rocking perfect storm; they invoked punk’s attitude, metal’s riffs, and pop hooks that would feel at home in a Beatles songbook. Hollywood could not have scripted their heavenly rise any better, though the band were far from willing participants in the process. Hailed as the voice of his generation (X), Kurt Cobain focused much of his songwriting attention on pouring scorn and sarcasm on the band’s predominantly slacker and head-banger following; embraced and propelled by the financial and media clout of Geffen Records and MTV, Cobain likewise mocked these institutional forces with a venom and disdain not witnessed since Johnny Rotten sang “EMI” in 1977. Unlike the Pistols and punk, though, Nirvana reneged on the “us versus them” subcultural contract; for Cobain, “we” were the pawns of “them,” and “he” was as trapped in the corporate machine as anyone.
The zeitgeist moment for Nirvana, alt-rock, and Generation X came with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in late 1991. Though peaking at number six on the U.S. national charts, the single hit the number one slot in many other countries. Nirvana crashed the national stage with an anthem, centered on a guitar riff of which Boston (the band) would have been proud, that spoke against their generation as much as it spoke for it. “Here we are now, entertain us,” demands Cobain, mercilessly mocking slacker apathy and self-centeredness. Through a first-person point of view and a slurred voice emoting part-boredom and part-rage, Cobain implicated himself as victim/point-man of this “teen spirit,” establishing the line between the authentic and the phony but unable to locate himself in either camp. Using a series of paradoxical lines to establish the schizoid struggle, Cobain provided both a sarcastic take on teen rebellion and an endorsement of it. As with Bob Dylan’s early “anthems,” Nirvana captured the tortured mood of their time, and just as Dylan’s “answer” was “blowing in the wind,” Cobain’s sarcastic conclusion to his own tortured position as consumer and dupe was “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” There is self-deprecating resignation to this line, as language itself denies him a satisfactory resolution. The conclusion of the song traces Cobain in his descent into a Samuel Beckett–like void. “A denial,” he screams, over and over and over again.
The video representation of “Teen Spirit” (a clip as responsible as the song itself for thrusting Nirvana to rock stardom) provides clarity to the obfuscations of Cobain’s lyrical abstractions and marbled vocal wailings. Set at a high school pep rally, a stereotypical suburban scene is established with Nirvana performing their song for the seated students. Signs of dissent come into view, though, as the camera pans in on the cheerleaders, who are all sporting anarchy symbols on their outfits. As the song progresses, the student body grows restless, ultimately erupting in a spontaneous riot. Beneath its self-consciously tongue-in-cheek “rock ’n’ roll high school” codes, the video countered the assumption that contemporary youth is doomed to ennui. Within even the most apparently staid middle-class kid, it suggests, resides a simmering cauldron of outcast rage just waiting to boil over. Nirvana, apparently, can provide the necessary precipitant heat.
If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” established Nirvana as the voice of, about, and against Generation X, the album that followed, Nevermind, solidified that designation. Replacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the charts in January 1992, Nevermind made a symbolic and literal statement in dethroning the King of Pop. Some in the underground rock community were thrilled by the breakthrough, optimistic that it might usher in a new era of meaningful rock in the mainstream; others were more skeptical, aware that success can precipitate a sellout of a different kind. Both schools of thought were partially right, and Cobain was front and center, attempting to negotiate the possibilities and perils of his band’s new stature. As many of the songs on Nevermind suggest, Cobain had already been musing over the consequences of fame and fortune before their arrival. “I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend,” he had once presciently written in his journal. Indeed, the cover of the album illustrated the dilemma, with its image of an “innocent” baby underwater, reaching out to claim a dollar bill from a fishing hook. It was not necessary to show who was holding the rod at the other end of the line. In “Stay Away” Cobain wonders, “I don’t know why I’d rather be dead than cool,”13 while “In Bloom” foresees the adoring masses that would soon leap onto the Nirvana bandwagon. “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs,” Cobain sings, sneering at the average “everyfan.” “But he don’t know what it means,” he concludes. Nevermind even had a working title of Sheep prior to its release, a further indication that Cobain was pointing his satirical stick squarely at the hands that fed him.
By the release of In Utero a year later, Nirvana were international rock stars. In response, the band raged with even greater sarcasm against their now-mainstream fan base. “Serve the Servants” sets the tone with its ironic opening lines, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m old and bored.” The darkening mood (both musical and lyrical) and (self-)loathing are further developed in “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” the title of which invoked pat industry-speak with icy sarcasm. “Rape Me” constituted Cobain at his most stark and cynical. The opening notes echoed the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff note for note, signifying (in the context of the new title) that that milestone song had since become the band’s millstone. “I appreciate your concern,” Cobain sneers, mocking the self-interested helping hands of the media, corporate establishment, and rock community.16 “Rape Me” is one of many primal screams on In Utero that evoke the kind of raw, candid, and scornful songs that John Lennon wrote after the Beatles’ breakup. Both artists employ black, self-deprecating humor as a kind of survival mechanism, a lifeline against the mounting internal and external pressures and expectations. If, as some have suggested, In Utero was Kurt Cobain’s official suicide note, it was not expressed without a modicum of gallows humor.
Despite the torment and pain (physical, mental, and psychological) that Cobain undoubtedly endured during his two years under the spotlight, he was not averse, like his doppelganger John Lennon, to periodic retreats into the most juvenile forms of prankster humor. As a kid, Cobain had garnered a reputation for such humor by spraypainting god is gay on random pickup trucks in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, mocking the local narrow-minded “rednecks” (he would later redeploy this phrase sarcastically at the close of “Stay Away”). Such a penchant for gender/sexuality subversions would prove to be an integral part of Nirvana’s public displays, too. While his heavy metal peers kitted themselves out in scary costumes for the 1992 MTV Headbangers Ball, Cobain showed up in full drag. A serial crossdresser (as were bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl), Cobain often donned women’s clothes for both videos and stage appearances. At their legendary Reading Festival performance in 1992, Cobain provided a comic response to the rumor that he might not perform that night due to (much-publicized) health and heroin problems by arriving onstage in a wheelchair and hospital gown; then, like Lazarus, he proceeded to spring into full animated rock star mode. For their 1992 debut Rolling Stone cover shot (seen as a career pinnacle by many an aspiring artist), Cobain offered his gratitude by sporting a T-shirt that he had inscribed with the words corporate magazines still suck, alluding to the “Corporate Rock Still Sucks” indie slogan of the time. A year later, the band would turn the sartorial satire back on themselves, recognizing their newfound fame by wearing formal Brooks Brothers suits for the same magazine’s follow-up band cover shot.