The latest entry in the popular Guitar Hero video game series has now hit store shelves, but there has been some public discontent over the game’s playable avatar of late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. On September 11th, surviving Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl issued a joint statement expressing that they were “dismayed and very disappointed” that the Cobain avatar could be used to play any song in Guitar Hero 5, not just Nirvana tunes. Meanwhile, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love has been raging on Twitter over the guitarist being included in the game to begin with, claiming Cobain would have loathed the game and that she would sue video game maker Activision over his image use.
Okay, let’s put aside the fact that both Love and Grohl had to give permission for Activision to use Cobain’s image and Nirvana’s music in the first place (making Love’s assertion that she never approved the likeness very odd). More importantly, let’s also push aside the cultural and historical baggage. Yes, Nirvana was the most important rock band of the 1990s, largely due to how it was resolutely spat in the face of rock music convention. Nirvana was at the center of the alternative rock revolution, which by its nature denounced commercial opportunism and despised the corporate music industry machine. Despite his well-documented drug problems, Cobain’s 1994 suicide is often interpreted by rock scholars as the ultimate act of defiance in the face of unwanted stardom. Nirvana does hold a hallowed place in rock history, but the group shouldn’t be treated as a sacred cow, never meant to mingle with the sort of artists they mocked and despised in a blockbuster media product. As a huge Nirvana fan myself, I too am certain that Cobain would have intensely hated his image appearing in the game. Then again, Cobain hated a lot of things, chief among them cleaning his apartment. The inclusion of a playable Kurt Cobain avatar in Guitar Hero 5 is definitely ill-advised, but it’s not because it devalues everything Nirvana stood for, as Love in particular suggests. It’s ill-advised because it looks utterly stupid.
Here’s a YouTube video stitching together various snippets of Guitar Hero 5 gameplay featuring the Cobain avatar. Your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is Flavor Flav’s voice coming out of Cobain’s mouth at the beginning. Followed by the avatar bouncing around to Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself”. It’s hard to avoid being overcome by laughter at how ridiculous this really is. I mean, whose secret desire has it been to see the grunge icon belt out Bon Jovi tunes as if he were really feeling it, bro? The best thing I can take away from this clip is that players can have Cobain sing songs by blatant Nirvana clones Bush, which is so delicious it almost makes the whole exercise worthwhile. Almost.
“Rhythm game” franchises Guitar Hero and Rock Band thrive by incorporating all the standard rock clichés into the gameplay, regardless if they fit with the music being performed. Whether it’s a Bon Jovi song or a Radiohead track, the game avatars will raise their arms in glee at witnessing their vast crowd, jump around stage in a showy manner, and then end the performance in mass sing-a-longs and crescendo show-stopping endings. The games are designed this way because it makes playing them a more enjoyable experience. The avatar represents the game player, and no one plays video games to not have fun (while in contrast, there are entire genres of music based around making their listeners depressed and/or angry). Still, even if the music is a bit incongruous, the imagery has to fit. Slash works as a character in these sorts of games, because he embodies the traits typically associated with rock stardom very well. Cobain doesn’t. The fact of the matter is people are able to play as a grungy little guy with scoliosis wearing a cardigan sweater, singing the biggest arena rock hits of the ‘80s with a huge smile on his face, while the imaginary crowd cheers its heads off. And that’s just silly.