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Kurt Cobain, martyr of authenticity

The story of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana – and the subversive politics that ran through their art and media performances – offer a paradigmatic example of the ability of corporate power to co-opt and sell back ideas, art and activism shorn of their political impact. Cobain’s refusal to accept this, I believe, was the major factor in his suicide, making him something of a martyr in the struggle for authentic, progressive liberation. As we move into an era where the values he fought for have entered (at least one-half of) the mainstream, it’s worth contemplating his life, art, and struggles in their historical context, if we are to maintain hope in the face of the forces that defeated him.

It’s hard to understate the impact that Nirvana’s second album, 1991’s Nevermind – and of its lead single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – had on popular culture. Throughout the 1980s, American popular music had reflected the plastic excess of Reaganite capitalism. It was the era of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl,’ while rock music was dominated by the hair metal of bands like Bon Jovi and Guns’n’Roses, whose major-key anthems and hedonistic postures offered a macho twist on the theme. With few exceptions, pop culture was apolitical – which is to say, it accepted without question the politics of the day, reflecting its neoliberal character. Greed was good, and the mainstream airwaves celebrated a homogenised orgy of American exceptionalism.

There was, of course, a thriving resistance to this cultural narrative. But the underground scene was very much underground. Just as the counterculture of the 60s had developed in reaction to the conformism of the 50s, its heirs in the punk and new wave movements of the late 80s defied the emptiness of late capitalism with a yearning for deeper meaning.

At times, this echoed the 60s’ turn to spiritual transcendence, as with the neo-psychedelia of the early Smashing Pumpkins. However, lacking the numbers, optimism, and financial clout of the Baby Boomers (who were now settling into coddled middle-age), the art and tastes of Generation X more frequently took on darker tones, expressing the voices of those marginalised by the conservative consensus. At times, artists and activists, like the young feminists that grew into the ‘Riot Grrl’ scene, were an overtly political continuation of old struggles for equality. But just as often, the music and art dealt with a more existential marginalisation, the angsty despair of a generation that had looked at the hollow façade of corporate blandness and asked: ‘is this it?’

*

The city and region around Seattle exemplified all of these elements. As the home of Microsoft, it was filled with tech yuppies in much the way that the Bay Area is today. They were young, educated, and with money to burn, but (unlike the bros of Silicon Valley), generally leaning left-of-centre. Drawing nearby centres like Tacoma and the university town of Olympia into its orbit, Seattle nurtured a thriving underground art and activist scene. But the musical expression of its punk attitude drew on heavier influences from classic rock and metal pioneers like Black Sabbath – as well as the grey Pacific Northwest weather – and combined them in the city’s live venues into a distinctive ‘Seattle sound.’ A sound whose slow, deep currents of distorted riffs were pierced by raw, primal vocals. A sound exemplified by the records sent out by local label Sub Pop to its magazine subscribers – the sound of bands like Soundgarden, Green River, and Mudhoney. A sound that the latter’s frontman, Mark Arm, summed up, perhaps onomatopoeically, as grunge.

This grungey milieu – encapsulated in Cameron Crowe’s superbly soundtracked early film Singles – brought together a wealth of countercultural elements. Crowe’s film emphasised the Northwest’s heavy sounds and ‘slacker’ anti-fashion of vintage t-shirts under flannel jackets, in sharp contrast to the glittery pop and overstated fashion of the mainstream. In so doing, it noted the era’s gloomy shades, but also hints at its brighter vibes, which reflected the scene’s continuity with the 60s’ counterculture.

The sharehouses of Capitol Hill were like a new Haight-Ashbury, and much in the hairstyles, fashion, and even décor – Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic recalled an apartment decorated with yellow streamers and Indian art – referenced both 60s’ aesthetics as well as its ethic of freedom from conventional attitudes of looking, thinking, and being.

Then as in the 1960s, the psychedelic cross-pollinated the political. Activism coexisted with, and fed off, disaffection. It was a time of renewed experimentation and challenging of the status quo. And yet – in the ‘anything goes’ environment of late capitalism – nothing anyone did really threatened the established order in the same way as the 60s had overturned its conformist predecessors. Without the numbers of the Baby Boomers, nor the draft which had galvanised it, this postmodern manifestation of counterculture seemed destined to remain underground, a scattered network of nodes centred on college towns across the country.

If, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, artists are the canaries-in-the-coal-mine of society, those who dwell underground are usually the first to notice – and to suffer – when there’s poison in the air. As the angsty, distorted sounds developing in Seattle resonated beyond its rainy shores, its artists embodied a cultural shift, one which – ironically – brought them to the attention of the big players in the entertainment industry. Soundgarden signed to A&M in 1989, while Nirvana’s touring that year in support of their debut Bleach – recorded for just $606 – had been noticed by several major labels, who tried to court them away from Sub Pop.

After signing to Geffen, Nirvana moved consciously away from Bleach’s grungey, riff-heavy drones towards a dynamic, Pixies-inspired power-chord pop, channeling the heavy distortion and raw vocal attack of their earlier sound into catchier, radio-friendly tunes. The resulting play of opposites – of melodic and pounding, spacious and saturated, slurred and screamed – defined their second album, Nevermind, and was perfectly expressed in its first single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

The album had been expected to do reasonably well, by indie standards. But something in it struck a chord that blew all predictions out of the water. Backed by a now-classic video – Generation X’s spirit of apathetic rebellion symbolised by anarchy-tagged cheerleaders dancing while the kids trashed the school gym – the single was an instant success on radio and MTV. The album shot through the charts, knocking Michael Jackson out of number one, and killing the careers of a decade’s worth of guitar heroes overnight.

It’s difficult to pick out any single element that explains Nirvana’s surprise success. ‘Teen Spirit’ was a like a lightning rod, attracting a seething, static charge of disaffection, a desire for connection and meaning beyond the frustrations of an overlooked generation who felt valued only as consumers. In large part, we might say that their disaffection grew out of a craving for the real; hence, their embrace of the imperfect. The loose, swinging distortion of the grunge sound, like the almost slovenly styles of ‘slacker chic,’ stood in sharp contrast to mainstream expectations of the late ’80s – to the refined solos of its rock music, the square drum machines of its pop, and the plastic fashion and perfect hair of the stars who embodied that era.

The key words that Cobain, his bandmates, and so many of his contemporaries return to again and again in interviews are ‘sincerity,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘authenticity.’ What we see and hear in that early grunge era are real people, playing music that expressed who they really were and how they really felt. The stars of the 80s were larger-than-life, and almost comic-book-like. They were hard to take seriously, even – maybe especially – when they were earnest. The ethics of an individualist era focused on success for success’ sake quickly rang hollow in the face of those who rejected the very concept.

Although Nirvana were frequently depicted as embodying a generation’s sense of apathy, this was in no way apolitical, but precisely the opposite. The feeling of disconnection they personified came precisely from a sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of a nominally ‘apolitical’ consensus that was nothing of the sort. As the Soviet bloc crumbled, elites across the West sang the chorus of TINA – that There Is No Alternative to neoliberal capitalism. The self-perceived neutrality of this doctrine, set forth by rationalist economists with pseudo-scientific confidence, only highlighted the narrowness of the class who declaimed it, and its depreciation – even ignorance – of the price paid for their privilege by those who did not share it. ‘Opting out’ thus became a form of protest against this oppressive ignorance, and its assumptions that the world shared its belief that material wealth could be a substitute for spirit.

*

Nirvana shattered this façade of consensus with a subversive take on what it meant to be a rock star. The video for Nevermind’s fourth single, ‘In Bloom’, captures the band’s attitude through a brilliant parody, mocking the hype it was receiving together with conventional ideals of the celebrity and the macho image of the rock hero.

The video starts with the band – dressed in sharp, 50s-style rock’n’roll suits and Buddy Holly glasses – playing on an Ed Sullivan-esque soundstage to screaming teenybopper fans. As the track progresses, however, the clip is cut with images of band members dressed in lingerie, dancing orgiastically through Cobain’s lethargic solo, before destroying the set with their instruments. Finally, in a dark portending of the corporate media’s embrace and assimilation of the grunge scene, the host – like the media machine throughout Nirvana’s career – simply smiles and applauds, blind to his own hollowness in the face of the Real forcing its way to the surface.

Nirvana’s media performances, like their art, are filled with challenges to anyone who would read them as a ‘typical’ rock band. Like its video, the song ‘In Bloom’ is an attack on macho rock fans drawn to the band for its heaviness:

He’s the one
who likes all our pretty songs
and he likes to sing along
and he likes to shoot his gun
but he don’t know what it means
.

Cobain returns to this point again and again in interviews, as when he showed up to MTV’s heavy metal hour, the ‘Headbanger’s Ball,’ in a full length ballgown. In the liner notes to 1992’s Incesticide, he wrote:

If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.

Using the band’s success as a platform, Cobain brought the social justice concerns of the anti-Reagan underground into popular consciousness – most significantly, to a generation of teenagers who were encountering the intersection of art, politics, and pop culture for the first time.

This is possibly Nirvana’s most enduring legacy. Not only did they embody that desire for authenticity latent in so many of their own generation, but they centralised it as a value for those who came after. It was a message the band would repeat over and again, not just through interviews, but by performatively undermining the norms and expectations of the entertainment-industrial complex. When asked to mime playing their instruments on the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’, the trio played so exaggeratedly that their disdain would have been obvious even if Cobain hadn’t sung darkly-altered lyrics in a deliberately off-key voice. Yet it was more than a personal act of rebellion. By turning this signifier of having ‘made it’ into a parody of itself, Nirvana also pulled back the curtain on the inauthenticity of the whole production, revealing their contemporaries as playing along in earnest.

Even when TV producers did leave space for actual live performance, Nirvana rebelled against the promotional circuit they’d found themselves thrust upon. More than once, the band were introduced as about to play their most radio-friendly single, ‘Lithium’, before launching into the high-speed, razor-scream of ‘Territorial Pissings’.

 

Cobain’s fémininité

Nirvana’s concept of authenticity toyed with and defined itself against what it saw as the oppressive expectations of mainstream culture. As such, it was an authenticity that always took the form of resistance and subversion, one that came – and could only ever come – from outside the structures of power.

Cobain’s enactment of authenticity has a lot of practical similarity with what the French feminist Hélène Cixous called écriture féminine – ‘feminine writing.’ Cixous and her contemporaries argued that, since the social, political and economic structures collectively called patriarchy were inherently oppressive, it is not enough to simply aim for equality within those structures. Rather, what makes them oppressive in the first place – and in particular, their unquestioned, tacit assumptions – has to be laid bare, subverted, and dismantled.

Cixous believed that this could be done through art and philosophy, and called for women to approach writing as women – that is, from outside the traditional or ‘phallogocentric’ modes of literature and art that privilege the (white, ruling class) male’s viewpoint as the primary source of truth, value, and meaning. She suggested taking female sexuality as a starting point for this challenge. Where male sexuality is (conventionally) phallocentric, and therefore goal-oriented and confined to a single, directional point of view, female sexuality has an open amorphousness that shifts not only between but within contexts. The multiple and contradictory ways and forms in which her body can feel and express pleasure opens woman to radically-other understandings of how-things-are and can-be. Translated to the practice of writing, as in the novels of philosopher Julia Kristeva, this might include actively avoiding or subverting conventional narrative structures – like linear time, persistence of identity or referent – in order to challenge readers out of their passive role, into an open and unstable space of interpretation.

Cixous emphasised that ‘feminine’ in these contexts – both in sexuality and writing – was not a biological category, but rather that which opposed the phallo- and logo-centric structures of the patriarchy. She offered Jean Genet as a prime example of écriture, for his provocative accounts of the Parisian queer and criminal underworlds. Such themes are paralleled in Genet’s contemporary William S Burroughs who, through his ‘cut-up’ works, pursued a kind of écriture that actively disrupted language’s unidimensional claim to truth. These experimental pieces sought to bring out new meanings that subverted even the author’s own authority, de-centring both writer and reader from the text, and blurring the roles of creator and interpreter.

Burroughs was one of Cobain’s favourite writers, and the two would eventually collaborate on the spoken word/noise art record ‘The Priest, They Called Him’. However, his influence is discernible even in Cobain’s early work. Most of Cobain’s lyrics are difficult to pin down to a single or obvious interpretation. At turns playful and laconic, they mix irony with earnestness, and abound in rich, bodily imagery. Sensuously invoking the ‘lower’ senses of smell, taste, and touch, his words evoke Burroughsian imagery of bodies, organs, and the processes of growth and decay laid bare.

Cobain’s lyrics are often simultaneously erotic and repugnant, linking sex with consumption and assimilation, as in ‘Drain You’, or nourishment with parasitism and illness, as in ‘Milk It’. ‘Floyd the Barber’ and ‘Polly’ deal with themes of sexual exploitation and domination first from the point of view of the abused, then the abuser, while ‘Rape Me’ confuses the two.

Cobain’s visual art, too – for example, the back cover of 1993’s In Utero – challenges the viewer with the same visceral uncentredness as his lyrics. As flowers become intestines and dolls become fetuses, beauty and ugliness are transposed as the foveal spotlight traces unguided paths. It’s impossible to know where Cobain stands on any ‘inner’ meanings of his works, only that he’s as morbidly fascinated as his audience, whom – like Burroughs, as Jack Kerouac said when naming the Naked Lunch – he forces to look at ‘what is on the end of every fork.’

Cobain’s art and music, then, express a femininity in the sense of écriture – decentred, blurring the edges of body and self, author and subject, desire and control – and thus unpredictable and threatening to the stable social order.  In his being, too, he questioned and challenged what was expected of a straight white man.

Cobain was queer in a broad sense. Although he apparently never acted on any homoerotic desires, he was strongly anti-homophobic from his high school days, and frequently spray-painted provocative graffiti like ‘God is gay’ around his conservative small hometown. He would occasionally claim to be gay or bisexual just to bait the prejudices of those around him, and after becoming famous, would often crossdress on stage. Although previous generations of performers – David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, for example, not to mention the Warhol crowd – had embraced their out-edness with flamboyancy, Cobain and Nirvana were more disruptively in-your-face.

Bowie or Lou Reed performed art-rock aimed at a certain demographic; their images were cultivated to impress a crowd that was already primed for it. Cobain, on the other hand, wore a négligée in a literally neglectful way – almost as an afterthought, and certainly not as a character. He didn’t seem to want to impress, nor even really to shock. Rather – in the mode of écriture – it was both.

He wasn’t going to be pinned down; you had to decide what it meant, to participate without the crutch of your assumptions, your prejudices, your expectations. He really didn’t care what you thought …

*

… unless, as he sang in ‘Drain You,’ it was about him. Cobain’s concept of authenticity was premised on being an outsider; his acts of resistance – and, therefore, much of his identity as an artist – only had meaning in contrast to established norms and expectations.

This led almost-necessarily to contradictory feelings about fame. While he and his band cultivated an image of not caring – rooted in genuine surprise at just how big they had suddenly become – they had, of course, been aiming for some kind of success. They had signed to a major label for a reason, part of which was the funding of a slick record of which they expected to sell tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of copies. Beyond a certain stage of novelty, being a starving artist, or driving your own van from one dingy nightclub to the next, is usually only romantic in retrospect. As though it needed any confirmation, Novoselic recalls with emphasis that Cobain really enjoyed being onstage: his shyness evaporated as he threw himself into the role of frontman, even before they made the big time.

Yet, on surpassing his own dreams, Cobain felt guilty and conflicted.

Part of this, no doubt, had to do with the shallowness of the world that fame brought him into. Another of Cobain’s favourite books was Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. He identified with Grenouille – the book’s unloveable but deeply sensitive antihero – and wrote the lyrics to In Utero’s ‘Scentless Apprentice’ about that character’s rejection of and by society, and retreat into a sensuous fantasy that blurred into deadly reality. The themes may well relate to Cobain’s troubled adolescence, and sense of (sometimes literal) homelessness after his parents broke up. But Cobain had sung on the preceding track, ‘Serve the Servants,’ that ‘that legendary divorce / is such a bore,’ and the album’s lyrics on the whole dealt with Cobain’s present life, not his past. Other songs, like ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ and, perhaps, ‘Rape Me’, can also be heard as attempts to make sense of fame, of becoming a symbol, objectified by fans and the media.

In this context, it’s interesting to recall a later scene of Perfume, where Grenouille is patronised by a wealthy marquis, who dresses him in beautiful clothes which, together with the use of his wondrous perfumes, lead him to be welcomed by the amazed crowds who had hated him earlier. Conscious that only his surface appearance has changed, Grenouille finds the people idiotic, and disdains them even more. He refuses to be taken in and, like Meursault at the end of Camus’ The Stranger, welcomes their renewed hatred at the book’s climax (although unlike Camus’ existential antihero, Grenouille escapes execution, using his sacrilegious perfume to precipitate a mass orgy that breaks down the entire order of society).

Listening with this in mind to the closing lines of ‘Scentless Apprentice’ ‘you can’t fire me because I quit / throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fit’ – brings out a sentiment common to both novels: that authenticity can only be maintained through the active rejection of an oppressive, monolithic social order, and a simultaneous embrace of the violent consequences of doing so.

Meursault takes a perverse consolation in becoming a symbol to the jeering crowds. And, as we saw, in the early days of their fame Cobain and his band seemed to delight in messing with and subverting what was expected of them.

But capitalism’s evil genius is to adapt and to accommodate. As A&R people flocked to Seattle, and the sound spawned imitators across the country, Nirvana found themselves at the centre of a growing new mainstream. They were pulled – half-willingly, perhaps, but with an innocence that couldn’t resist the fame machine’s growing momentum – into the heart of show business, a world apart from the bohemian underground of their experience. Offers were made, tours were planned, and the calling press had to be answered. They could play along, but the industry could play, too. Cobain’s homemade t-shirt for the band’s Rolling Stone cover shoot – ‘corporate magazines still suck’ – ultimately only helped sell more corporate magazines.

Photo by Keneth Cruz

It’s curious, in hindsight, to observe how much of rock music documents a sense of powerlessness from within the promotional cycle.

This wasn’t especially new by Nirvana’s time. Pink Floyd dealt with it almost obsessively: both ‘Welcome to the Machine’ and ‘Have a Cigar’ from Wish You Were Here explicitly confront the manipulations of promoters and managers trying to cash in on the massive success of Dark Side of the Moon, while the album’s leitmotif is the sadness and guilt at arriving there without founding frontman Syd Barrett. (This theme would recur over and again in Pink Floyd’s oeuvre; one can also listen to The Wall as a stylised retelling of the same story.)

But if the conflicting pressures of art and business had troubled musicians in the past, it became a recurring theme throughout 90s0 alternative rock, coming through in tunes like the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’, Pearl Jam’s ‘Not For You’, and Spiderbait’s ‘Buy Me A Pony’. Radiohead’s early film, Meeting People Is Easy, documents the gruelling nature of being thrust into the spotlight and adapting on the fly to being objectified both by audiences, who project an image of what they want the band to mean, and by an industry that sees them less as artists and more as resources – part of a ‘talent roster’ whose ultimate end is corporate profit.

All of these works show anger and frustration at the cynicism of media executives, and at being exploited in the name of mutating fashions. They point ultimately to a tension at the heart of making art in capitalist societies, between the romantic concept of the artist as an authentic, expressive subject, and a notion of success that is validated in materialistic terms, and that leads to the objectification of the artist and their work.

From a detached point of view, we can ask ‘why put up with it?’ or even ‘isn’t this what you asked for?’ But such questions are naïve on a few counts.

First of all, the artists are not detached, but caught up in a swirl of mixed emotions, and in the sudden realisation of the different hopes and dreams of different members, who have been working together towards the same vaguely-defined goal for years. Secondly, they are usually tied into contracts – multi-album deals, with debts attached, from which playing the promotional game actually looks like a short-cut to escape. Not to mention, the temptation of the personal and artistic freedom that money can buy – and that the ephemeral nature of fame demands be taken immediately or never.

Success and recognition as an artist becomes therefore a deal with the devil. Of course, many are happy to play along with the required self-objectification and with varying degrees of sincerity. But in the context of the authenticity that was the core value of the countercultural underground from which Nirvana sprang, such self-objectification was a tantamount to loss of identity.

For many, selling out just meant compromising one’s artistic values or integrity for the sake of profit, rather than antipathy to success more broadly. But this became more complicated where authenticity had itself become a form of resistance, one which – as we saw – could only operate from outside the structures of power. Even signing a contract with a sympathetic major label became, in essence, selling out – or more accurately, buying in – to the very structures that the scene was premised on breaking. And the more successful a group became – the more they, willingly or coerced, ran on the promotional rat-wheel – the more they became embedded in the power structures of mass media, of institutions of money and power.

Most artists rationalise this as means to an end – to achieving greater artistic freedom, or using their platform to promote the voiceless. But as Nirvana used their early success to subvert and disrupt the media machine, that machine adapted by co-opting their rebellion. Resistance itself – under Cobain’s  féminine conception of authenticity – became an endless treadmill, staying one step ahead of the game while watching his performances go from subversive to earnest to cliché in real time.

The ironic twist of corporate mediatisation is that both despite and because of his attempts to avoid it, Kurt Cobain became the archetypical rock star. Even the band’s destructive Bataillean excess – their release in destroying their instruments at the end of a gig – eventually became formulaic, losing its Dionysian spontaneity in the audience’s maenadic demand for sacrifice.

It may well be a law of nature that when you defeat the empire, you become the empire. Cobain and Nirvana had challenged corporate power from within, but the adaptability of those structures saw them drawn unwittingly into the middle of the machine. Cobain was too honest to give in, but also too exhausted to keep running ahead. The more successful Nirvana became, the less he was able to control his own message, to represent something other than the symbol he had become – the constructed symbol of a rock’n’roll star, a polite focus for suburban rebellion, even in spite of the challenging art he made.

As the band hit their peak, a parallel story was playing out on the political stage. Bill Clinton defeated Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, and ended twelve years of Republican rule. But he did so by selling out the left, embracing the neoliberal logic of TINA, and going on to promote the globalisation of capital that has exacerbated the growing inequality between rich and poor, and the ever-increasing gentrification and centralisation of popular culture.

*

True despair is when, whichever direction you turn, you don’t see a way out. Cobain was learning that if he didn’t play the game, the game would play him. And it is in this sense that Cobain’s suicide can be seen as a dramatic act of honest authenticity – enacting his refusal in the most catastrophic and irreversible way. By taking his own life, he performed the ultimate act of resistance. He became a martyr, choosing death over compromising what he believed in.

By calling Cobain a martyr, I don’t mean to endorse his choice. We need to remember that a person rarely kills themselves for a single reason: although his impotence in the face of the show-business machine was the main theme of his suicide note, Cobain’s chronic physical and mental pain – and resulting self-medication via heroin – must have had a distorting effect on how he saw his future. But by understanding Cobain’s suicide as an act of martyrdom, we discover its logic, and find an act consistent with his lifelong ethic of integrity and authenticity. It wasn’t simply the frustration of not being able to take success on his own terms, or the vulnerability at having his personal life dug out and aired as an object of consumption – problems that have plagued artists and celebrities for generations. It was, instead, an act of political resistance from a man who had devoted his life and his art to challenging the forms of oppression that he saw permeating society. Finding every new performance of resistance co-opted and turned against him, Cobain lost all sense of power and agency, except over his own being, which he took back in despair.

The tragic irony of Cobain’s death is that the machine rolled on. Even his ultimate act of refusal took archetypal form, as he joined the pantheon – ‘that stupid club,’ his mother called it – of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and other legends who’d burnt out at twenty-seven years old and the peaks of their careers. Meanwhile, ‘Nirvana LLC’ continues to release records and go to court over the profits, and the stoned, smiley-faced logo Cobain designed for his band has become a hipster fashion symbol, worn – in the good company of the Ramones and Motörhead – by teenyboppers with little understanding of the music and what it stood for.

Meanwhile, the oppressive structures of power that Nirvana challenged continue to dominate our societies. Although in recent years have seen a growing awareness of the pervasiveness of privilege and vocal uprisings by oppressed communities, much activism remains focused on achieving some kind of equality within existing paradigms. Cobain’s life and death show us that this is an unwinnable fight; that corporate capital will always adapt, co-opt, and sell back – that when you defeat the empire, you become the empire.

Building a genuinely freer world requires a fuller and more authentic resistance – not just in the art we make, but in how we consume it. Not just in our performances onstage, but in our performances in life. If we are to honour Cobain’s death as sacrifice, and keep his memory with the respect it deserves, we must resist the temptation to deify him, or objectify him as a symbol. We can keep his art and spirit alive by sharing and performing it, but more fully by creatively challenging the systems he fought against – not only through our own art, but by actually living our visions of a better world. Cobain opted out in despair when he felt it was too late to change. How would it be if we refused to opt in?

 

Header image by Michael Rose

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Josh Bergamin is a writer, amongst other things.

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Comments

  1. An interesting premise Josh.
    Many writers, poets artists and musicians are aware, and therefore world weary and cynical, because their craft compels them in that direction.
    They CAN see the wood for the trees.
    You might be interested to hear the lyrics (and beautiful melodies) of Conor Oberst.

  2. Zero mention of Courtney was a pretty glaring omission, particularly when talking about the In Utereo artwork, Frances Farmer, Kurt’s femininity and dresses etc.

    But I do always love a call back to that Top of the Pops performance 👌

  3. The omission of Courtney, I think, has a very good reason behind. As she played an active role in dismantling the guy. Why indulge someone’s ego, especially the one that craves any indulgence you throw at them?

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