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.
Kurt Cobain: your favorite male feminist and mine. During his short tenure as the voice of his generation Kurt Cobain could not have been a better role model (aside from the whole heroin thing.) Like any good messiah, he denied that he was the voice of anyone, which of course cemented him in that role even more. But he used his platform to speak about his frustration at the deep sexism within the music industry, and all across the board. He hated the machismo and aggression in the underground punk scene he started out in, and soon found that the mainstream industry wasn’t any better. He was an early supporter of the Riot Grrrl movement; in The Punk Singer he gets a shout-out from Kathleen Hanna for being the only friend who believed and helped her after a sexual assault. I remember a few things about the early 90’s and one of them is the lively debate then going on about whether date rape is a legitimate thing or just another example of feminist hysteria. (We’ve since reached a general consensus that it’s most definitely a real thing, and it’s mostly considered pretty much illegal nowadays.) I also recall some hand-wringing and controversy as higher learning institutions started to implement campus anti-sexual assault policies; there was some deep concern that the awkwardness and effort of procuring a partner’s verbal consent would leech all of the fun and spontaneity out of sex. This particular lively debate has cycled back around along with tartan skirts and Doc Martens; we’re still collectively unclear on the concept of consent. All things considered, I would say that 90’s kids are lucky that the voice of their generation was a man who loudly, angrily and publicly proclaimed that rape is a shitty thing that needs to be talked about and took a stand of solidarity with victims and declared himself a proud feminist. Ironically, or perhaps not, he also felt used and violated in his role as a public figure to such a degree that he was unable to go on living. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the best role models are the people least suited to that role.
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.
Behold the legendary 1979 Saturday Nigh Live performance of The Man Who Sold the World. In which David Bowie brought in Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for help and inspiration. Klaus Nomi even let Bowie wear one of his Nomi suits. As if an already weird song needed to get any weirder. It didn’t particularly, but adding a little Nomi to the mix never hurt anybody, and Bowie is the indisputable master of well-curated weirdness. Sadly, the encounter failed to skyrocket Nomi into superstardom, showing that even David Bowie’s powers are finite. Klaus Nomi rocketed straight back into NYC art scene obscurity, brief pop success in Germany and finally, the AIDS ward. David Bowie moved on to serious moonlight, MTV rotation and Jim Henson movies. The song itself went on to have an unexpected second life as a grunge anthem, thanks to Kurt Cobain, who identified with – and brought out – its underlying angst. Because it is a deeply angsty song. As Bowie tells the origin story; “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there’s some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.” That might seem like a bit of a trite explanation to those intent on pinpointing Lovecraft and Antigonish references, but underneath the reference points and homages, the quest for a unified self has always been one of Bowie’s great themes, and it’s something that carries over with or without eccentric accessories.
So this is the voice of my generation. I barely remember Nirvana being around, honestly; I was a small child. Mostly what I remember is the effect on people slightly older than me. Kids a few years ahead of me, for whom grunge was a real thing that they experienced in real time, not a historical event viewed in glossy hindsight. It happened and it was important but I was just a tiny bit too young. So I can’t say I feel sincere nostalgia for any of it. I guess I’m between generations, being born 1983. Just on the tail end of Gen-X and just ahead of the Millennial curve, and not entirely relating to either one *tears of alienation* The thing about those who were born just ahead of me, they had a voice of their generation. Their generation anointed Kurt Cobain, and so it has been settled for all eternity. And the thing about that is, someone decided that Cobain was to play that role, when he was right out of the gate. He barely had a chance to look around before someone put that crown on his head. He was a rookie, and he never had the time to develop as an artist, or adjust his viewpoint, or grow into a full person, even. He was pushed very quickly into a role largely created by the media, and one that he hated, and he couldn’t even deal with it long enough to create himself a persona he was comfortable with. He couldn’t deal with it, so he shot himself, and irony of ironies, that only cemented his status as a one-dimensional icon, and he still serves that purpose. And of course, his loss and his suffering were, whether he liked it or not, for the benefit of the generation he was purportedly the voice of, and they were lucky to have him as such. It’s kind of a timeless martyr narrative, really. And possibly the last great one of its kind, at the time of this writing. For who is the voice of the youngest generation so far? Who is the Millennial martyr? I don’t know, and I can’t even nominate a candidate. Perhaps history will establish, with that fabulous 20/20 vision, who was the one person speaking with the voice of all the youth culture? Or whatever passes for youth culture nowadays. Perhaps there is no such thing as a youth culture anymore. Perhaps the culture has changed so much that there’s no possibility of a Kurt Cobain figure emerging to exemplify an entire group of young people all born within a few years of each other. There no one person to rally behind anymore. Thank the fractured media-sphere and the interwebs and all of the other boogeymen of modern times. Or maybe that person is already out there, poised to become the beacon of a generation – to become the messiah, all they have to do is die.