Afraid of a Ghost: Inside the ‘All Apologies’ Meme

On April 9, 2010, Britain’s Sun newspaper reported that Robert Pattinson of Twilight notoriety had been handpicked by Courtney Love to play her late husband, Mr. Kurt Donald Cobain, in a new biopic tentatively titled All Apologies. The story was quickly and widely picked up, and soon the entire Internet was abuzz with the notion of watching a lank-haired Edward Cullen diss Axl Rose (suggested casting: Jake Busey) backstage, or wake from a heroin-induced coma and ask Courtney Love (suggested casting: Courtney Love) for a milkshake, or descend into a suicidal despair that would leave his band mates (Jason Lee, Crispin Glover) suddenly free to devote a lot more time to their side projects.

The reaction, it is safe to say, was not positive. Within hours of the story breaking onto the blogs, horrified thirtysomethings worldwide were venting their disagreement with Love’s choice, decrying the idiotic logic of All Apologies‘ putative existence via the medium of comments boards, forum posts, petitions and (for Pete’s sake) more than thirty different Facebook groups. If the “Robert Pattinson will play Kurt Cobain” meme had been efficient, the “There is no way in a just world that Robert Pattinson should ever be allowed to play Kurt Cobain” meme was an unstoppable juggernaut.

One particular story that never stood a chance of stopping the fire was the notion that none of this ever happened – even though this particular notion had the added advantage of being true. Pattinson slated to play Cobain? Never on the cards. Hand-picked by Courtney Love? She had never heard of the actor. And when you stopped to think about it for a second, this was hardly even worth stopping to think about for a second. The Sun? This was a paper that had once broken the story that AIDS could not be spread by heterosexual sex. Anyone aware of the paper’s journalistic track record should have realized that their trustworthiness fell somewhere between that of the New York Post and the National Enquirer.

But when the [UPDATE] tags started getting added, not much changed. The original “Twilight to ruin Nirvana” meme continued to spread. Many of the bloggers who had spread the rumour sheepishly neglected to issue retractions; “Petition against Pattinson playing Cobain” Facebook groups continued to grow, even after having quietly acknowledged the very facts that ought to make them redundant; the original Sun story continued to be reported as true, with only the name of the mooted movie changed, as if changing the details of the story would talismanically revive its relevance. So why were people so determined to spread this story? Because the truth was irrelevant to the Nirvana generation’s worldview, but the fiction fits perfectly.

No story is told that does not reveal something about the teller. If someone says to you, “let me tell you something,” pay attention both to what they choose to tell you and how they choose to tell it – because what they are actually doing is revealing something about how they see the world. In the case of All Apologies, the choice of story was a way of opening a dialogue about a subject that nags at grunge fans old enough to have enjoyed the output of Cobain, Layne Staley, Shannon Hoon et al as contemporary product. It’s the same question faced by every generation of young rebels as they find themselves settling into their twenties. It’s the issue that Paul Simon was addressing when he sang, “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”; a concern that would still be pressing enough that a later generation’s hero could open an album with the sentiment, “teenage angst has paid off well/now I’m bored and old.” It is the problem of growing up, discovering that rebellion is a suit you can grow out of, and seeing your primal youthful passion for smashing the system co-opted to sell Xbox games.

So far, so facile. “It’s hard to rage against The Man when you are The Man” is a cliché evoked in profiles of artists as diverse as Cobain, Ice Cube, and Metallica (the phrase was required by law to be included in every single review of the band’s documentary Some Kind of Monster). And yet the frozen youth of Cobain’s barbaric yawp casts a potent spell: when you’re listening to him, it is easy to be lulled into thinking you are the first to experience all these new and troubling phenomena. So when one Nirvana fan, to another, said, “so Robert Pattinson is playing Kurt in a new movie,” all they wanted to be saying was, “can you believe what The Man is doing to our guy?” But given the details and tone of reportage, we can infer a different meaning.

When Nirvana fans got angry about Robert Pattinson playing Kurt Cobain, we were reacting to the subconscious realization that the angst and fervor and fire in the belly we felt as kids was not unique and was no more or less authentic than that felt by any other generation: that in fact, it could be commodified just as easily as our parents’ or our kids’ angst could. And the fact that the movie All Apologies, starring Robert Pattinson, was never actually in contention to become a real entity, is irrelevant. Because the meme “All Apologies Starring Robert Pattinson” became such a widely-accepted notion that it became its own entity, just as real but with the price of admission being more generous financially and significantly steeper emotionally.

The inclusion of Pattinson was not a random choice, after all. You cannot just cast any old schmuck as a generational icon and expect viral rage on the Internet and rioting in the streets. Lifelong devotees of The Doors steadfastly failed to get up in arms when the director of Wall Street proposed to have Jim Morrison played by the guy from Top Secret! and Top Gun. Lest this example seem flawed (the judgment of lifelong Doors devotees is automatically under question, after all), neither did anyone mind when it was proposed that Buddha-bothering Visa spokesdork Richard Gere would be playing Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. No, to generate ire on the level of the Pattinson/Cobain meme, your casting has to be very specifically uncomfortable to the right people.

A Zac Efron or Shia LaBeouf would not have given the rumor the necessary traction. Sure, the Nirvana generation cultivate a knee-jerk disregard for anyone under 25 with the temerity to hoist an electric guitar or step in front of a camera, but to really get our blood boiling, it had to be Robert Pattinson. Why? Because he signifies all that is earnest and posturing and unabashedly angst-ridden about Twilight (which is why the kids of today love him); and Twilight signifies everything that is nauseatingly over-sincere and maudlin and naïve about youth (which is why the kids of yesterday can’t stand it). Robert Pattinson was cast as the villainous protagonist in the drama of greenlighting All Apologies because it felt true to a generation who were still quietly fuming over the idea that archaic notions like “the mosh pit” and “the b-side” and “paying money for CDs” were being kept alive by bands like My Chemical Romance and Circa Survive.

The popular characterization of 21st century rock music with the derogative appellation of “emo” speaks to the same urge, after all. The popular conception of “emo,” all streaked eyeliner and navel-gazing, is a far cry from the imaginative zest with which the genre blends Tarantinoeqsue crime chic with SoCal punk guitar-heroics, or mashes comic-book excess worthy of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison into 90s-era Corganesque flights of musical fancy. Why the mischaracterization? Because any story where today’s kids are getting maudlin and over-earnest is a hell of a narrative to yesterday’s kids. There’s an embarrassingly simple metric in the Nirvana generation’s haste to sneeringly dismiss a Robert Pattinson or Gerard Way or Pete Wentz: the enthusiasm with which today’s adult embraces this easy schadenfreude is directly proportional to how emotionally raw he was at the same age.

It is worth commenting on the irony that Facebook was a primary means for the viral distribution of the story. If any phenomenon signifies the transition from misunderstood youthful outcasts to paradigm-defining dominators of the discourse, it’s the growth of Facebook and Twitter and Digg and Google and Gawker Media ad infinitum. The Nirvana generation’s use of Facebook to position ourselves as perpetually misunderstood youth, our heroes co-opted to sell t-shirts and our pain sold back to us at label-inflated premiums (etc), is a bit like if Jann Wenner were to (hypothetically) continue to use Rolling Stone as a vehicle for positing the Baby Boomers’ continued status as trendsetters and rabble-rousers and buckers of the system. Which leads to the next obvious question: if this meme was propelled by the Nirvana generation’s increasingly threatened self-image, why not just rewind to a time when that image was more secure? Say, 2005?

Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized account of Kurt Cobain’s final moments on Earth, provides a sympathetic, far from hagiographical account of the actions that would provide All Apologies‘ hypothetical third act. The film walks the delicate line between the urge to canonize Cobain as the sin eater of Generation X, ascending with all of grunge’s hypocrisies and inner turmoil and contradictions on his back, and the responsibility to depict a fucked-up dude who hates himself and wants to die so fervently that he writes songs with titles like “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”. The indie actor Michael Pitt portrays the singer with an implosive intensity that’s as impenetrable as any begrudging Rolling Stone interview, bursting into impassioned brilliance only through the occasional moment of musical release. As if that weren’t everything Cobain fans could want from a portrait of the singer, there are other options: Nick Broomfield’s classy-guttersnipe documentary Kurt and Courtney and AJ Schnack’s meditation Kurt Cobain: About a Son provide equally nuanced, reality-saturated portraits of the singer. So why wasn’t this enough?

Nirvana fans, like most any other community, want their truth recognized. In this case, the call is for the canonization of that truth via the supreme honor that can be bestowed on any story: the Hollywood dramatization. The masochistic fantasy that that canonization would be forever botched by making a “bad” movie, one suffused with the commodified angst of the Twilight movies, belies the inadequacy of Last Days or Kurt and Courtney or About a Son to serve this purpose (surely Pattinson could serve as a goofy Roger Moore if Pitt had already paved the way as a canonical Sean Connery).

There is a bizarre double standard at work here. The very people who would take a sloppily reported, inadequately-sourced rumor as fact – transforming laughable scuttlebutt into plainly literal fact to suit their purposes – ignored Kurt and Courtney and About a Son because they presented the tragedy of Cobain within the too-literal confines of the documentary, and found no use for Last Days because it wasn’t literal enough (Pitt’s character is named Blake, and his music demands no songwriting credit for Cobain). For people able to comfortably sing along to “Rape Me”, Nirvana fans were demanding a frustratingly exact degree of literality from their movie.

And that continued confusion as to what to do with Cobain’s story encapsulates the contradiction of his life and death. Popular consensus has his suicide triggered by the unbearable weight of his presence as an icon, at the expense of his ability to function as a person. By doing (understatement ahead) the absolute worst thing for his continued human existence, the singer made the absolute perfect choice for his status as a phenomenon. Maybe his diehard fans are absolutely right, and a Hollywood movie starring the embodiment of misguided, embarrassing kidult angst would represent a fatal blow to Cobain’s legacy: memetic suicide, if you will. And maybe in a way, that would make an uncomfortably symmetrical sort of sense.

But then, we’ll never know, because it was never really going to happen.