Romanticized, ripped off, and never quite forgotten, Kurt Cobain still haunts us like no other rock star. But ten years after his controversial suicide, as a new generation begins to experience his music in its own way, what do Cobain, Nirvana, and “grunge” really mean to anyone anymore?
Photo by Alice Wheeler
Consider “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song that just happened to rock the reigning order like a force of nature. But look at the journals — there, Cobain’s description of the video reads more like a giddy cultural campaign: “The first one, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ will have us walking through a mall throwing thousands of dollars into the air as mallgoers scramble like vulchers [sic] to collect as much as they can get their hands on, then we walk into a jewelry store and smash it up in anti-materialist fuelled punk rock violence. Then we go to a pep assembly at a high school and the cheerleaders have anarchy A’s on their sweaters and the custodian-militant-revolutionarys [sic] hand out guns with flowers and in the barrels to all the cheering students who file down to the center court and throw their money and jewelry and Andrew Dice Clay tapes into a big pile, then we set it on fire and run out of the building screaming. Oh, didn’t Twisted Sister already do this?”
Cobain’s journals are filled with his analysis of the waning generation gap, a sense of the rebellious possibilities in his peers, and a real concern for how he fit in with people his age. Unlike, say, Jack White, who has one foot in some gothic Delta/Nashville past, Cobain was fixed in the here and now, maybe fatally. “He sometimes hated himself for wanting [stardom],” says Goldberg. “He was a complicated guy, and there are things that you don’t always know you’re getting into. But he became a rock star on purpose. He hired me to do that. No one put a gun to his head. He put his own gun to his head.”
This is an older part of the ghost story. You may want to be rich and famous, you may want your music to reach millions, but you don’t want to be Generational Spokesperson. It’s like, if you’re in a Greek myth, you don’t want to be the most beautiful heroine or the mightiest warrior. Pretty damn beautiful or mighty freakin’ strong is fine. But not the most. That’s the one the gods fuck with, the one they enlist as a plot device for wars and mass murders. Odysseus or Eddie Vedder might turn out okay. But Achilles? Kurt Cobain? No Thanks.
In the headline of its front-page obituary, the New York Times bestowed on Kurt Cobain the absurd title “Hesitant Poet of ‘Grunge Rock.’ ” Sociologically, the term “grunge” echoes “punk” — another vague, contested, commercialized catchall applied by various segments of society to a huge array of ideas, sounds, styles, and personalities. It’s ridiculously imprecise and inadequate, but that’s the unholy deal you cut when you want to make a big noise in the world. You detonate the explosion, change things forever, and the meanings scatter.
But what about now? Has Nirvana’s legacy —their irrational rock exuberance — been purged? Or worse? Have we returned to the George Bush/Michael Jackson administration of 1990 — only in a newer, creepier version? As we speak, Nirvana’s moment is being packaged for your nostalgic enjoyment, in something that sounds like a late-’90s Saturday Night Live skit: “alternative gold,” a paradoxical new radio format pioneered by KBZT in San Diego that plays all your favorite grunge huts. It could be an update of the infamous ad for a classic-rock compilation that aired in the mid-’80s. Two hippie dudes sit outside a van as their boom box blasts the opening riff of “Layla.” Hey, is that Freedom Rock, man?” asks one guy, perking up from his private purple haze. “Yeah, man,” replies the other. “Well, tuuuuurn it up!”