All The Rage
It's surreal to think that it's already been fifteen years this week. Fifteen years since music lost one of its most gifted and tortured. A decade and a half since thousands of disaffected youth were forced to deal with the initial shock of losing someone they had identified as one of their own. Though Kurt Cobain never set out to do much more than make good music that said something, his death on April 5th, 1994 would end up leaving countless people feeling like they had lost a part of their voice.
Cobain may have never wanted to be an icon, but his music is firmly entrenched in our cultural psyche. Nirvana is rightly recognized as one of the greatest Rock bands in history, alongside acts like The Beatles, Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen. Like so many Rock icons, Cobain's image has been over-proliferated to the point of triviality. Past the hollow marketing, though, there lies a very good reason that this unassuming man is revered today.
When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in September of 1991, nobody expected it to become such a runaway success. Geffen Records intended it to be a lead-in single for a mid-level album. Top 40 radio and MTV, both completely dismissive of the underground Rock scene, refused to play the single during the day, fearing that its angry sound would alienate listeners. But by the end of the year, Nevermind would be selling 400,000 copies a week.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth described it as a time when "the edge moved to the middle," when the musical elements of the avant-garde would kick down the doors of the mainstream to reveal a deep, seething anger that had long been ignored in American society.
While politicians prattled on about the "opportunity" that awaited young people in post-Cold War, post-Persian Gulf America, a lot of kids just didn't see it that way. What they did see were dead-end jobs, broken homes, the AIDS crisis, and a system that had little to offer them. The shiny decadence of Pop and Hair Metal just wasn't going to fly with this crowd the way it had in the ‘80s.
The success of Cobain's songwriting was its innate ability to simply be honest about all this. Journalist Michael Azerrad wrote that "Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for and about an entire group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to."
Cobain himself clearly shared in the disaffection of "Generation X." His parents divorced when he was eight, and he spent his teens shuffling between different friends and family members' homes. As a teenager he was friends with the one openly gay student at his high school, which often made him the target of homophobic bullying himself. In his published journals years later he stated that he "blamed" his parents' generation "for coming so close to social change, then giving up..."
Like other teen outsiders in the ‘80s, he joined the local Punk scene. When asked about his influences in later interviews he would cite underground mainstays like Black Flag, Flipper, Millions of Dead Cops, and often would place their importance above his own. He was good friends with The Melvins, and it was at their rehearsal space that he first met future Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.
This strident DIY, anti-mainstream ethos would be at constant odds with Nirvana's monumental success in the early ‘90s. After Nevermind's success, there came Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam, all of whom would go multi-platinum. "Grunge" became a buzzword, and major labels scrambled to sign any band with a vaguely Indie edge.
Cobain was uncomfortable with all this, but even after becoming the biggest Rock band in the world, he continued to stick to his defiant roots. At a time when it was still risky for groups to stand for political causes, Nirvana openly supported Rock 4 Choice. They also played benefits for the campaign against Oregon's Proposition 9, which would have made it illegal for public schools to teach about homosexuality. Though he often commented about how "apathetic" his generation was, it seems clear that Cobain thought music was best if it pointed to something better.
That clearly meant getting away from the mainstream. Cobain hoped that Nirvana's follow-up to Nevermind would separate the group from the "lamestream" as he called it. In Utero did surely represent a departure for the band, even as all the explosive rage remained intact. But as the band got bigger, so did the pressure to live up to major label expectations.
Ultimately, Cobain faced the dilemma that countless talented artists had faced before him. It's a lot more complicated than what elitist musos call "selling-out." It's the contradiction between wanting to reach a mass audience without dumbing yourself down.
That contradiction, that war between what's good and what sells, may have been what finally killed Kurt Cobain. When his body was found in his Seattle home on April 8th, 1994, his suicide note confessed "I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing... for too many years now."
We'll never know if Cobain might have succeeded in figuring out that contradiction. We do know that after he died, the shock and grief were immense. On April 10th, five days after his death, a public vigil was held in Seattle. A man who just a few years before had been playing Punk shows in tiny bars drew 7,000 to the city's center. Watching footage of it today, it's amazing to see people mourn for someone they didn't even know. But then, that's the affect of great music.
This is Cobain's great contribution. In playing the kind of ground-breaking music he did, he gave a wide layer of youth a sense of hope and belonging that they hadn't known before. And though most of the Pop mainstream may have reverted back to its shallow self-with its watered-down, unassuming banality-artists continue to make fascinating and original music that has the potential to resonate with millions, and once again shake the industry to its core. Ask any of them who their influences are, and there's a good bet they'll mention Kurt Cobain.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and SoCiArts.com. He is also a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.