Kurt Cobain was in many ways of a man of contradictions – he was outspoken yet introverted, sensitive but sinister, fiercely loyal and still full of contempt for the place he was from. In the final analysis, this was arguably his essence – the same personality trait that helped produce timeless music also reflected a very tortured soul. Although he and his band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention arising from the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – dubbed the ultimate anthem for the apathetic kids of Generation X – Cobain would later reveal in a Rolling Stone interview that he was ‘trying to write the ultimate pop song.’ In typical fashion, he had, of course, appeared on the front of the same magazine with a T-shirt reading ‘corporate magazines still suck’ some two years earlier.
Regardless of your taste in music – a very subjective art form if there ever was one – a strong argument can be made that Kurt Cobain was a particular kind of genius. Accepted definitions of genius recognize individuals with the capacity to demonstrate remarkable intellect, particularly with respect to creative and original work. While his lyrics were, on paper, relatively unremarkable and actually the subject of ridicule at the time – his rare, perhaps puzzling charisma is what drew people to him. Much like fellow musical icons John Lennon and Tupac Shakur, he was never the best in his genre from a technical standpoint, and amateur musicologists are quick to point that you need not be a master guitarist to emulate the chord progressions found in Nirvana’s music. But leaving a lasting impression is not so much about what is being done – rather, it is about how it is being done. And how Kurt Cobain was able to take alternative rock mainstream, hitting a cultural touchstone in regards to the teenage rebellion so prevalent at the time, is the reason that his songs are still dissected two decades later.
I remember the first time I heard Nirvana – like much of my early musical discovery, it was indirectly courtesy of my older brother whose room was above mine. Although I didn’t understand why, there was something about the alternating soft verses and hard choruses that resonated strongly. Years later, Nevermind remained part of the soundtrack of my teenage years, and you can clearly see the influence of its lead single by simply looking at the name of this podcast! I have a vague memory of the day Cobain died, and despite his undeniable magnetism, subconsciously I knew that someone that had killed themselves was no-one to idolize. And still, even in the years following 1994, he remained strikingly likable in the form of old interviews and magazine clippings. I smirked when viewing the famous Top of the Pops live performance for the first time, laughed at his sarcasm, and pondered what could have been had he lived past 27.
As I got older, I began to view Nirvana in a wider, cultural context beyond my own experiences growing up as a not-particularly angst-ridden youngster. As Alan Light observed in the Guardian earlier this week, the success of the band demonstrated what happens when culture meets capitalism. With the success of the group and its contemporaries, what had begun as the relatively organic grunge phenomenon had assimilated into the marketing slogan known as alternative culture. Suddenly, record companies sought to exploit the public’s new-found interest in the ‘underground’ – and alternative inevitably became just another commercial radio format, its by-product being a host of cookie-cutter bands trying to replicate what was impossible to. No advertising executive could ever have conjured up the generation-defining line ‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’ – not to mention the underlying sentiment that accompanied it.
[About A Girl]
Today, I wonder about the long-term psychological ramifications of a generation losing another hero to suicide. Even the most jaded cynic loves the story of a good guy conquering his demons, facing adversity and emerging victorious – the same cannot be said for a tale of success followed by struggle and ultimately, tragedy. Twenty years later, I remain steadfast in my conviction that music is more about feeling than theory, and find myself questioning how possible it is for the next American icon to emerge without being manufactured for us. There was something real about Kurt Cobain, and in that respect, his absence is still felt.
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Smells Like Human Spirit is a DAILY podcast that covers society, culture, and everything in between! Previous guests include Professor Noam Chomsky, Dan Carlin, Michael Ruppert and many others…
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