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Kurt Cobain: Still Dead (And Other Observations)
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Sixty-One
by Brian S. Wise
06 April 2004

A decade after his suicide, retrospect allows us to fully consider whether Kurt Cobain was a performer of significance or a flash-in-the-pan.

Spin magazine was the first by my observation to put the very dead Kurt Cobain on its April cover to mark the tenth anniversary of his suicide, on 05 April 1994 (his body was found on 08 April).  Though he’s nearly twenty-five in this picture, he looks all of seventeen and decidedly sober, one of those rarities.  It’s hard to say how often Cobain was photographed sober, but since his death very few publications have thought to publish a decent photo of the man, for fear of not portraying him as a tragic figure.
But at least we have tragic texts.  “Kurt Cobain was many things while he was alive – punk, pop star, hero, victim, junkie, feminist, geek avenger, wiseass.  But ten years after his death, he’s something else entirely.  He’s a ghost [emphasis original] …. [The] bitter finality of Cobain’s end became an indelible part of his story …. No other chapter in pop music history has so much darkness at its center.  And no other artist still haunts us in such a powerful, subliminal way.”  And so forth.
Chris Norris, who wrote “The Ghost of Saint Kurt” for Spin, may or may not be a fine writer in everyday life, but the article goes on as though beehived old blue hairs are lining up outside Cobain’s house to see his furniture.  Easy, Norris.  We understand that some journalistic liberties are taken when it comes to writing tribute pieces about popular figures, but come on.  If you’re going to say no other chapter in pop music history has so much darkness at its center (and in doing so, at least ignoring the likes of Syd Barrett, the former Pink Floyd lead singer who went crazy and stayed there, a different consideration from being addicted, depressed and ending it all), you’re implying that since “Rock Around the Clock” there has been nothing worse, which is more than a little silly.
But Kurt Cobain was what he was, and a decade later we are left to consider the question (“Was Cobain a performer of real significance or an over-hyped flash in the pan?”) with the full benefit of retrospect.  Helpful to remember that what makes a performer unique isn’t just his abilities but the moment in time in which he is “discovered.”  Consequently, what made Cobain special wasn’t necessarily his ability to write and perform the catchiest hooks in popular music (which he certainly did), but the confluence of musical events that made him palatable to very large, young audiences.
If released either five years before or after the actual release dates in 1991, both the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the album Nevermind would have come and gone without one-twentieth the fanfare.  In 1986, bubblegum pop was still big enough to overwhelm anything different; in 1996, Nirvana would have been thought of as just another band arriving too late to the party, in the way we today consider some of the other capable bands that surrounded Nirvana, such as Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
Instead, what happened was that Nirvana signed with Geffen (from a fine little label called Sub Pop; for its loss, Sub Pop negotiated what proved to be a tremendously profitable percentage deal against Nirvana sales, after a certain number of units), a company that had so little faith in the band it printed only fifty thousand copies of Nevermind for its initial release, and didn’t hurt itself in promotion.  That was, until MTV got hold of the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the rest being history.
Nearly lost in the Norris article is the fact that a radio station in San Diego, KBZT, now plays “all your favorite grunge hits,” meaning that it has switched to an alternative music format; also meaning that Nirvana has once again taken center stage.  Is anyone surprised that Cobain has found a new audience?  The dynamics that made his music so fashionable thirteen years ago are in place again today, just as they were then. 

Modern popular music is a repetitive, plastic, tedious wasteland directed primarily at teenage babysitters and their babysitting money; an industry in desperate need of several shots in the arm from something large, intrusive and different.  And while there are bands making large, original strides forward – Queens of the Stone Age comes to mind, as does Slipknot – they aren’t striking the sort of nerve Nirvana struck, most likely because not enough people aren’t fed up, yet.  Hopefully they will be very soon.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for Intellectual Conservative.

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