Music

The Real Significance of Kurt Cobain

Michael Abernethy

It's been 10 years since Kurt Cobain's death. So what? Don't get me wrong. I love genuine musical talent. But when artists are dead, no amount of memorializing will change that fact.

It's been 10 years since Kurt Cobain's death. So what?

Don't get me wrong. I love genuine musical talent. But when artists are dead, no amount of memorializing will change that fact. They will be just as dead after 16 years and three weeks as after 10 years. Their legacies live on every day, not just on anniversaries.

But legacies change over time. When one icon passes, someone else steps in to fill the void, even as music buyers of one generation grow up, and the next generation finds someone new to represent their particular concerns. With this in mind, bowing out early is one of the best things that can happen to a Cultural Icon. He or she will be deemed "Voice of a Generation", and grief-stricken fans will hold candlelight vigils and anniversary memorials for years to come.

I think Cobain's artistry was limited, not just because he died, but because he suffered a complex and drug-influenced life. "All Apologies" was an early favorite of mine, though I never understood how "Smells Like Teen Spirit" could become the anthem for a generation when so few understood the lyrics. But Cobain was not the only disillusioned young man in the early '90s. Neither was he the only disillusioned artist. Photographer Cindy Sherman, author Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero), and poet muMs, to name a few, shared a similarly gloomy vision at the same time as Cobain. But when Nirvana signed with Geffen, Cobain's voice became available to millions. And so his angst became legendary.

Edna Gundersen of USA Today argues that the anniversary of Cobain's suicide is more significant than the 50th anniversary of "rock and roll" ("Cobain's Dark Life Left a Shining Legacy", 6 April 2004). Newspapers in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and China also memorialized Cobain, asserting his greatness in terms as effusive as Gunderson's. Fans interviewed for these articles called Cobain "the purest, most human voice in rock music" and "the greatest person who ever lived". Even PopMatters extolled Cobain's worth, with Shadi Hamad calling him a "tormented genius", and Michael Calderone maintaining that "Kurt Cobain's suicide was our generation's Kennedy assassination".

This romance with Cobain has turned him into a commercial goldmine. Amazon.com currently offers 18 books narrating his life or investigating his death. Nick Broomfield's 1998 documentary, Kurt & Courtney, has become a cult favorite, and the WB is planning a film version of Cobain's story. Courtney Love, the controversial grieving widow of Cobain, and his former bandmates from Nirvana have been battling for years over financial control of the band's work, which is worth millions. Cobain, like Elvis, Morrison, and Vicious before him and Tupac and Biggie since, is worth more dead than he was alive.

It's easy to condemn obviously crass efforts to cash in on Cobain's name, but this is his legacy. You can't cut yourself open and not expect people to stare -- whether in disgust, curiosity, or adoration. Calderone asks another question raised by many Nirvana fans: How is our environment so spiritually and personally unfulfilling that people feel a need to withdraw, self-medicate, and in some cases, take their own lives? But the question implies that such unhappiness is something new, that only grunge-rock fans, self-identified during the early '90s, feel so severely disenfranchised and alienated.

The question should not be why do sensitive, artistically inclined people withdraw, but rather, why don't we help when they are screaming at the top of their lungs? Why do we just buy the CDs or the books, identify with their pain, and then continue to let them reel it in? In his article, "Kurt Cobain: Ten Years On," published in the student newspaper, The Warwick Boar from the University of Warwick (Volume 26, Issue 17), Chris Carter writes,

Cobain kneels onstage, aimlessly picking out notes on a battered guitar while smacked up to the nines on heroin. He looks up obliviously at the anonymous masses, and slowly drops his instrument with a dull thud. Wasted and exposed, he crawls like a baby to the side of the stage, and the video fades to black.

Cobain did not self-destruct in private or even in a moment. He incorporated his suicide into his music and shows; it was a long, painful suicide dragged out over a matter of years, not a bleary eyed decision made one fateful night that ended in a flash of gunfire. We, the screaming public, ate it up and begged for more. And now, after sitting on the sidelines and watching the light slowly fade, some have the gall to ask why it shines no more.

The average consumer can't affect change in an artist's obviously pained life. It's not like we could have a huge intervention with millions of fans showing up to say, "We love you, but you've got to get help." Still, we don't need to encourage wallowing, or pay increasing amounts of money to consume it. Identifying with an artist's anguish is understandable; purchasing it again and again results in a dilemma for the artist: should I clean up my act and (possibly) lose my fan base, or give the people (and label executives and contract-holders) "what they want"?

The world is full of unhappy people. They come in all forms, from misunderstood teens to disenchanted senior citizens. They are artists, students, government employees, farmers, accountants, police officers, and housewives. You see them in your neighborhood, on your tv, and sometimes on the sofa sitting beside you. Their pain, coming from so many sources, is real. Equally real is how we react to them. The appropriate response is, "What can I do to help?" not "I want to see more".

Cobain -- along with Morrison, Joplin, and the others -- has a valuable lesson to teach us. It is not about social ills, but individual efforts. Mourn his death, idolize his music if you so choose. But don't lament the loss of his potential when your silence led to his. That goes for Cobain, that goes for the person sitting on the sofa beside you. In his song, "Feed Me, I'm Hungry", Cobain makes a simple request:

Hold me, something's happening.
Help me, somebody help me.
Hold me, I'm fucking hungry.
Help me, I'm right here, who are you?


How many who listen to him now heard him when he was alive?

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image