To me, the mystery and controversy surrounding Cobain’s death have overshadowed his place beside those other three, not as a victim of tragedy, but as an icon of great rock music. And I don’t think anyone—not even you, Eminem—has come close to achieving that stature.
When I first learned of Cobain’s death in the fifth grade, I couldn’t have cared less. I knew none of his songs, and close to nothing about grunge, until a few months later, when a friend made me a mix that included “Teen Spirit” and “Polly,” and I soon owned every Nirvana album. Now, between the poster of 5-year-old Kurt on my door in Quincy, the antique Fender Mustang (my first guitar, and the one famously endorsed by Cobain) my guitar teacher found for me in a used guitar shop in Greenwich Village, and my outdated, less than tidy fashion sense, I wonder whether my refusal to consider any contemporary pop musician his equal is just a premature case of longing for the good old days, like a parent complaining about his kid’s music. A small dose of MTV or listening to the radio usually relieves such concerns pretty quickly, though, and I’m convinced that the decade since his death has, in an almost objective sense, been utter crap for music.
When he was a teenager, Cobain told friends, “I’m going to be a superstar musician, kill myself and go out in a flame of glory.” These words suggest that Cobain was not always the humble, reluctant star that the media portrayed. Yet, whatever narcissism may have driven his rise to stardom, and perhaps even the timing of his suicide, both Cobain and his music possessed a level of authenticity so rare in pop music that they overshadow such flaws.
From Bob Dylan, who remarked that “the kid has heart” after seeing a performance of “Polly,” all the way to P. Diddy and Fred Durst, musicians, journalists and fans have almost unanimously praised Cobain for the quality of his work and the sincerity of his character. It is also safe to say that nearly all contemporary rock musicians, including bands like Weezer, the Strokes and the Vines, have expressed some debt of gratitude to Cobain and his work.
When I hear a Nirvana song on the radio, I understand all over again why their music has such lasting appeal. When juxtaposed with Limp Bizkit’s overbearing machismo, Creed’s creepy blend of pop and religion, or John Mayer’s annoying, emo voice, Cobain’s gut-wrenching howl and skillfully dissonant guitar-playing are as refreshing as a brick in Sean Paul’s face. Today, 10 years after Cobain’s suicide, his music appeals to us for the same reasons it did in 1991, when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” topped the charts, muffling the saccharine platitudes of Michael Jackson’s “It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White.” It’s also unusual that teens today wear Nirvana T-shirts and listen to Nirvana CDs as if the band were still alive and kicking. You don’t exactly see the same phenomenon with Stone Temple Pilots.
Something intangible about Cobain and his music has earned him titles like “Rock’s last great star.” Scarily enough, he reached out so far to people that some of his fans even mimicked his suicide. While the mysteries surrounding Cobain’s death undoubtedly contribute to his legend, I don’t believe they are the primary explanation. Because, frankly, it’s hard to imagine that Enrique Iglesias or Ja Rule would elicit the same reaction if either of them decided to put a shot gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Or, who knows, maybe we’d actually come to respect them more—but I hope not.
The real answer to the mystery of Cobain’s appeal is that beneath the flannel shirts, torn jeans, intermittent hygiene and biting sarcasm that came to define the grunge movement, there is an unspoken but powerful ideology that Cobain inherited from the likes of J.D. Salinger, William S. Burroughs, Dylan, Robert Johnson, Led Belly and even James Dean. Uniting all of these artists is the cult of the anti-hero, a philosophy which has resonated with generation after generation of disaffected youth. While every new proponent of this ideology has offered his own interpretation of its time old principles, the basic message has always seemed to stay more or less the same. Cobain wrote in his journal that he felt “a universal sense amongst our generation that everything has been said and done.” And while Cobain and the rest of the grunge movement were deeply indebted to the well-established tradition of misfits that came before them, the spin they put on it was unique and effective.
George Orwell once said that we lose our humanity when we try to be saints. Kurt Cobain, if anything, achieved sainthood through his humanity. Even in the face of his suicide, drug addiction and his apparent attempts to disguise his own careerism, I cannot help but feel that there was something extraordinarily benign about his sense of alienation from the testosterone-driven culture of his home town, his avid defense of gay rights and his firm belief that women, rather than men, should rule the world. But if Cobain is a saint, then we must reexamine our definition of sainthood. Cobain’s brand was not one founded on moral perfectionism, guilt or self-flagellation, but one that upholds sincerity and human decency above status and personal achievement, and is willing to forgive and occasionally to embrace the flaws that make us human. Now that Cobain is long gone, and rock has all but gone belly-up, who is there, if anyone, to voice the concerns of our generation? One undeniable fact about the past 10 years is that hip-hop has become the preeminent force in pop culture, overstepping boundaries of race and class that once restricted it to a limited segment of society. And unless we think Britney Spears or Blink 182 is capable of summing up our most profound, complex emotions, it seems that hip-hop is where we need to look if our generation hopes to identify a spokesperson of its own. The most obvious candidate for the job, then, is Eminem, because he is the only serious figure in pop music today with both the fame and the talent to compare to that of Cobain in his prime.
At first, the similarities between Cobain and Eminem are striking. Chris Norris of Spin Magazine observes, “Both were (are) left-handed, mom-hating, daughter-having, dysfunctional-wife-marrying, grossness-loving, who were utterly remade by a musical subculture, and then tried to present it as subverting the mainstream—even when it became the mainstream.” But beyond these interesting—and largely superficial—coincidences, there isn’t much common ground between Kurt and Slim. While Cobain always protested the sort of social order that embraces misogyny and homophobia, Eminem, in spite of the color-blindness he seems to have acquired growing up as a rapper in the heart of Detroit, isn’t ready to extend that open-mindedness to gays and women. Also, aside from the level of self-referencing that’s become proper form in rap, some of Eminem’s music displays a tasteless, offensive level of egotism that Cobain would have despised. In an MTV interview from a few years ago, Eminem explained the meaning of his song “Stan,” which tells the story of a crazed fan whose obsession with Eminem endangers both himself and his family. The rapper said it was about what could happen if his fans got to like him just a little too much. Thanks for the warning, Slim.
Despite his incredible skill, Eminem has a lot to learn before he’s qualified to speak for anyone other than himself, and as far as I’m concerned, the void left by Cobain’s suicide remains unfilled.
Joshua S. Rosaler ’05 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. Despite his love for Kurt Cobain, he doesn’t wear flannel shirts.