Twenty years ago today, the world learned of the death of Kurt Cobain. Postmortem examination has placed his final moments a few days prior, but it was on April 8th, 1994, that everyone fully grasped the extent of the Nirvana frontman’s inner struggles. Instantly, Cobain was anointed a musical martyr, a voice of a generation whose choice to take his own life meant that he exited this mortal coil in his creative prime, and therefore would be preserved as an idealized memory instead of sullying his reputation with erratic latter-day artistic detours or crass cash-in reunions. Even as the tragic news was first being digested, the sentiment that Cobain should be counted as one of the great icons of rock ‘n’ roll was in the air. Today it is accepted fact—he is one of those names and faces that a person charged with distilling the genre’s vast history into a ruthlessly abridged version would scan over and conclude, “This one, this one is worth remembering.”
As long as people continue to listen to rock music, Kurt Cobain will never be forgotten. But, what, exactly, is his legacy? Here in 2014, is Cobain any more than a sour-faced, flannel-draped summation of Generation X? His face continues to appear on countless shirts and posters, and his band’s music continues to be bought by a steady stream of new converts (many of whom, at this stage, weren’t even alive when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first hit radio and MTV like a much-needed rude awakening), yet does Cobain even figure into conversation of what contemporary music is?
Before I ponder these questions further, make no mistake: despite Nirvana’s scant body of work, its music continues to endure for good reason. Without hesitation, I consider Nevermind and In Utero to be simply two of the finest albums of the last quarter-century. Not only are they amazing works, arguably the apex of the alternative rock genre, but their initial arrivals had immediate repercussions upon the musical landscape. Nirvana copycats were never more abundant than shortly before and after Cobain’s suicide; it felt as if a person couldn’t change a channel or tune a radio dial without stumbling upon yet another gravelly overbored voice singing in fractured couplets that made no literal or linear sense, yet another wimpy verse turned into an angsty howl of a chorus with the timely stomp of an effects pedal.
As Cobain’s lifetime began to recede into history, the music world tried to move on. Yet even as flannel was phased out and everything from nu metal to garage rock to ‘80s revivalists vied for the spotlight, rock continued to look to Cobain as a reference point. Grunge’s immediate successor on hard rock radio, nu metal, reinvented a style previously typified by occult power fantasies and macho bravado by injecting it with detuned guitars and self-doubting, introspective lyrics that read like therapy sessions. No longer was commercial hard rock the domain of party-hearty bands that traded in hooks bigger than the Empire State Building; instead the unwritten rule, from Korn and Creed on through to Linkin Park, Nickelback, and Shinedown, has become that it has to be glumly serious, angst-wracked, and cathartic.
Hard rock today still relies a good deal on drawing crude sonic inspiration from Nirvana’s dynamic and emotionally volatile output. What’s really distressing though is what elements have been discarded over the years. Cobain’s outspoken advocacy of feminism and LGBT rights, his sarcasm, his uncertainty regarding celebrity, his tendency for self-effacement, his esoteric musical taste, his inclination to not care if a note was out of tune or a guitar made a horrific noise on a potential hit single—all these are too complicated and uncomfortable for much populist hard rock these days to deal with, and are thusly ignored. Instead, a band like Nickelback takes the turgid guitars and gruff vocal timbres of the grunge era, polishes it up, and marries it to hoary old rock tropes like getting drunk and partying with strippers. Cobain was supposed to be the anti-rock star, the herald of a more enlightened and politically correct type; not even 20 years later, Nickelback put out the gleefully lunkheaded “Rockstar”, a monster hit that acted as if Nevermind never happened. In comparison, Bush’s much-derided Nirvana-aping back in the ‘90s (right down to hiring In Utero producer Steve Albini to produce its second album) seems positively enlightened.
Even though mainstream rock has reverted to many of its pre-Cobain awful habits since 1994, the underground has undergone an evolution that leaves the musician looking like some quaint relic. Cobain famously detested the celebrity thrust upon him and regularly castigated himself for any seemingly “sellout” behavior—“Serve the Servants” notably kicked off with the self-mocking line “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m old and bored.” Today, licensing a song to a commercial or a quirky indie film is common practice, with little to no ethical hand-wringing involved. Social media—a technological phenomenon that encourages sharing one’s life with the public as much as possible—has become increasing important for building and mobilizing fanbases for independent artists. I highly doubt Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend broke into hives when they heard their albums topped the Billboard charts in recent years. Cage the Elephant aside, Nirvana isn’t often cited as a musical influence by today’s indie rockers—in a sphere that cherishes obscurity and focuses on and then discards each new buzzworthy micro-genre with alarming speed, to draw from Nirvana would be too obvious.
For a long time, critics and music industry types sought the next Nirvana, and by extension, the next Kurt Cobain. Indeed, they positively pined for someone else to come around with the same weight of importance around him. Nowadays, Cobain really is a musical ghost: there are flickers and flashes of his voice and guitar still audible, but much of what defined him—what he believed in and what he stood for—doesn’t resonate in today’s musical climate. To me, that’s the real shame. I’ve long accepted the fact that events in history have limited the Nirvana songbook. Yet I am really disappointed by how despite a stretch in the ‘90s that in retrospect appears anomalous, Cobain’s obstinate relationship with the music industry and rock stardom did not become a new kind of normal after all. After the anti-rock star breathed his last, traditional rock stardom roared back, with much of the ugly attitudes that were supposedly discarded along for the ride. After years of dealing with the post-Nirvana indie-label gold rush and wrangling over what if anything “selling out” meant, the underground retreated into itself and eventually moved on without really sorting out what its relationship with mainstream culture actually is in an age when independent records regularly top the sales charts.
Twenty years after Kurt Cobain died, has rock music been wise to let him fade away? In some respects, yes; for all its appeal, it would have been a shame if gnarly-sounding loud/quiet/loud alterna-grunge was the only flavor of rock on order until the end of time. In others, no. The reason I even ponder this question is because of how monumental Cobain has proven to be. Take Cobain out of the rock narrative, and the last 20 years fail to make sense. Considering all the fitful and winding and retrograde paths rock has taken in the past two decades, Cobain was in many instances the inciting factor, either as an inspiration or a figure to react against. Few musicians hold such a status, and even as Cobain’s tangible influence becomes more and more detached and obscured by the inevitable progression of history, he will retain an immense level of import for ages to come.
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