Not counting the hidden track, this is a gentle coda for a sometimes very loud and angry record. I suspect that a lot of people may not listen to Nevermind all the way through to the end. It’s frontloaded on the well-known songs, and once you get past the first half, the energy drops. And that’s fine, if all you want from Nirvana is angst at loud volume. But there’s also angst at a lower tempo. The inward and morose songs are valid too, and it’s important to experience both moods. It’s the thoughtful songs that will make you understand why Kurt Cobain was the sensitive troubled dreamboi du jour for 90’s kids.
I think we can say, with absolutely no hyperbole, that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is officially the definitive song of, like, the whole entire 90’s. At least, it was declared as such the minute it was released, in 1991. That may have been jumping the gun a little bit on the part of the music press, but it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smells Like Teen Spirit would be the rock anthem of the decade, and Kurt Cobain the voice of his generation. That was a load of hype even the most mentally ironclad person would have a hard time dealing with. Kurt Cobain was not mentally ironclad, unfortunately, and he could not deal. Which, of course, sealed his fate. Because minus the tragedy of all that snuffed-out charisma, Nirvana’s music really wasn’t all that different from the alternative and post-punk music of the 80’s. There’s no particular reason for this song to be anything more than just a really good rock song. Instead, what you’re hearing is a the sound of an entire generation’s first big grown-up rock star crush, followed by their first big grown-up taste of tragedy, loss and human frailty. It’s 90’s kids’ first pop culture trauma.
Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Kurt Cobain read a news story about a teenage girl who was kidnapped hitchhiking home from a concert; a pretty typical modern-day horror story, unusual only in that the victim managed to escape and went on to talk about her ordeal. Cobain was disturbed by the incident, which occurred in the Seattle area, and like any poet, dealt by writing a song about it. Obviously, some creative liberties were taken, but that is what makes it an interesting piece of work. The writer sees the relationship between perpetrator and victim as one of sick symbiosis. The condition of a man who would resort to the lowest depravity may just be a very extreme form of loneliness and alienation; he’s isolated and bored, so desperately out of touch with his own or anyone else’s humanity that only meaningful connection he can make is through violence. What about the victim, on the other hand? Here the artist takes a bold liberty, a controversial one. Is it possible that in her 14 years, being tied up and tortured by a filthy old man is the most attention she’s ever gotten? If someone is lonely, alienated, bored and ignored, then being a kidnap victim is the most interesting and important thing that’s ever happened to them. In a perverse way, they form a bond; they’re both experiencing the most intense experience they’ve ever experienced. That doesn’t make it not wrong, and it doesn’t make it worthwhile, but it does make it psychologically complex in a way that we don’t like to talk about.
The brief wondrous life and messy death of Kurt Cobain was one of those earth shaking, generation defining cultural phenomenons that maybe happen once in a decade. It’s one I’m just slightly too young to have fully appreciated, although people just older than me, or ones who were more culturally in tune at an early age, were devastated. The fact that we still remember and talk about it like it was yesterday rather than more than 20 years ago attests to the power of myth-making. Cobain’s biography could be subtitled The Making of a Martyr. I struggle to understand, and I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that launched this particular band into iconic stratosphere. Besides that they were good; of course they were very good, but plenty of good bands aren’t assigned the job of embodying the voice of their generation right upon their debut. The question is, whose self-image did Kurt Cobain really embody and why? It’s a Zeitgeist I wasn’t part of, yet I witnessed it, and I still don’t understand. Maybe it just comes down to the simple things – Kurt Cobain was good-looking and sad, and mopey adolescent people like that and romanticize it, sometimes to their own detriment and certainly to the detriment of the person being romanticized. Cobain’s now-grown and admirably functional daughter has criticized the ongoing prevalence of romantic-suicide culture, shooting down the I-wanna-be-dead posturing of Lana Del Rey; mental illness, substance abuse and suicide are not dreamy, not aspirational, not something to fantasize about as you snuggle in bed. There’s a fine line between admiring a troubled cultural icon because their struggles genuinely reflect your own, and putting them on a romantic pedestal because you wish your struggles reflected theirs.