On April 8, 1994, the body of Kurt Cobain was found. It is estimated that he died three days before on April 5. The 20th anniversary of his death was widely commemorated, but the important day, the day we actually remember, is the day we found out. Was Cobain our last great rock star? Or was he in the right place at the right time for us to cast him in that role?
Numerous factors converged to define that particular era. Rock had arguably run its course. Grunge and college rock were like a dose of viagra in the Autumn years. Dubiously marketed as “alternative,” the totalizing commodification of punk rebellion kicked into high gear. Nevermind pushed Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the Billboard number one spot. Cobain was widely perceived as rock’s savior, embodying the angst of the time; this is a role he rejected, and the drama of his rejection further cemented the title. Cobain hated the attention, and felt that the pressure destroyed his creative process, and ruined his passion for the music. Our adoration drove him to ruin.
In 8th grade, I came across a writeup of Nirvana’s Bleach in Thrasher magazine, which the reviewer dismissed as more of the same crunchy guitar sound from Seattle. Not knowing what that was, and not knowing any better, I took the review at its word, and moved on to news of a new Anthrax album. This was the early ’90s, a cultural extension of the previous decade. Number one songs of the period were diluted simulacra of important subcultures — glam rock wannabes like Extreme, family-approved R&B from NKOTB and Milli Vanilli, and something approximating rap by Vanilla Ice. (In this fraudulent environment, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.) But audiences listening to college radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes were growing steadily. These were the new cool kids, slumped in flannel and ripped jeans, instead of donning silk and pristine blue denim. Underground genres like grunge and hardcore were philosophically anti-fashion, and they came into the spotlight at the very moment fashion was at its worst. Nirvana looked like alternative music scenesters, those new arbiters of cool, the recently emerged, newly labeled Generation X.
One morning in 10th grade, Smells Like Teen Spirit echoed through the halls at the end of the morning announcements. The song had significant buzz since some friends had seen the video on 120 Minutes. But my family didn’t have cable, so this was the first time I heard it; alternative culture officially administered by my high school. I thought the loud parts were cool. The quiet parts were kind of whatever. It was pretty good, but I didn’t quite see the big deal. But in the battle between mainstream and underground music, this was the shot heard round the world. In the 2001 VH1 special “All Access: 25 Years of Punk”, David Byrne recalled hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and thinking the punk energy of his era had finally returned. Ian MacKaye responded in an interview that Byrne was part of a music industry that had ignored an entire decade of underground music, because those subcultures didn’t want to participate in the mainstream.
A couple weeks after first hearing “Teen Spirit”, I bought Nevermind on cassette, and was disappointed overall. With all the talk of Nirvana as the vanguard of the Seattle grunge scene, I was definitely expecting something heavier. Nevermind was what we called “weak.” It wasn’t a grunge album, and the flagship track was Cobain’s attempt at writing a Pixies song. But it didn’t quite sound like the Pixies either; Frank Black’s self-aware humor was replaced with Cobain’s self-conscious performative emoting. My naive teen self began to notice the discrepancy between how music was marketed and what music actually was.
Heavier kinds of alternative rock, such as industrial and grunge in particular, were, for many, a doorway out of an exhausted metal scene. As my own adolescent metal stage ended, I discovered music with a more nuanced approach to angst, like Fugazi, Ministry, Jesus and Mary Chain. I was also a huge fan the little-known Meat Puppets. The raw, primitive punk of their early albums spoke volumes about what music was and could be. Cobain must have felt the same way, because shortly thereafter, the Meat Puppets received long-overdue attention when he covered three of their classics in his performance for MTV Unplugged.
In the winter of my senior year, I left school one day, feigning illness, and gave a truant friend a lift to another delinquent friend’s house. He popped In Utero in the tape player for the ride, and left it with me. Now this was something I could get in to; In Utero was heavier and far more experimental than I expected. This was the sound Nirvana was after. That tape stayed with me for as long as I had a car with a tape player.
Cobain was dubbed “The Voice of a Generation.” Many counter that he didn’t want that title, but it wasn’t up to him. Someone had to be the figurehead of these young, angsty slackers. Ultimately, he couldn’t adapt. Cobain believed he was a slave to his rockstar status; that it had drained him of his passion for music, and that performing without passion made him a sham. Like many icons, he was troubled, inconsistent, and human in his time. His suicide reinforced his legend. He played the role he played, and that made him an icon.
What do we do to our icons? We drive them to death. Celebrity adoration (like idol worship) carries with it a desire for public humiliation: to see the object suffer in life, and celebrated in death. Cobain was a martyred rock star for the masses, people for whom music was background. Rock music is another celebrity realm of stars and fairy tales, and Cobain was anointed our scion. Cobain’s role in capitalist culture ironically took away the individuality of fate, making his fate subject to collectivism. The next generation has come of age being taught of his greatness, and that greatness becomes codified. This year, Nirvana will be inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside Kiss and Hall & Oates.
A couple months after receiving In Utero, my girlfriend and I ran into those same two friends at Bob’s Big Boy, an empty diner where we often spent our evenings. “You want to see something?” My friend pulled up a strip of caulk from the wall, stuffed it through his nostril and strung it out his mouth, and squeegeed it back and forth. Later on, he said, “Did you hear the news? Cobain’s dead. He killed himself.” We sipped our bottomless coffee and smoked cigarettes into the night.