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. 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?

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