Nirvana lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain changed American music in just the 7 short years the band was together. He was also a feminist, LGBTQ+ ally, antiracist, and champion of eccentric musical visionaries.
The book will make a perfect holiday gift for the music fan in your life - or yourself (get it HERE). Read Dana Spiotta's intro to the book below:
It is one of the jobs of the young to rail against the failures of the previous generation. You can trace a particular line of concern from Holden Caulfield in 1951 to Nirvana in 1991: phonies, conformists, squares, the establishment, the Man, the mainstream, yuppies, corporate culture, poseurs, fakes, sell-outs. The concern comes down to an ideal of authenticity, with maybe the worst sin being hypocrisy. Capitalism has always absorbed and appropriated dissent and resistance, which is why they have to constantly be reinvented in subculture. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s version in the 1990s was perhaps an apex, and also when tensions within that concern became unsustainable. Afterward, future critiques would have to be differently conceived.
Cobain, like other kids growing up after Vietnam, after Watergate, after the counterculture, absorbed a jaded, knowing quality. An obsession with irony coexisted with an obsession with authenticity. Satire became ubiquitous: Mad magazine (full of “take-offs” ridiculing everything from blockbuster films to TV ads), Wacky Packages (stickers on cards that kids collected that had fake advertisements for joke versions of products) and Saturday Night Live, which in 1975, its inaugural year, featured Jerry Rubin, the Yippie, in a fake commercial selling wallpaper with hippie and anti-establishment slogans on it. The joke was that Jerry Rubin had sold out, and somehow his knowingness made it okay, but that cynical stance contained a form of surrender. That version of the left seemed to give up. And in fact, Reagan and Thatcher were just around the corner.
Punk rock offered a giant refusal to that cynicism while still cloaking itself in irony. In 1977 the Sex Pistols released the ironically titled single, “God Save the Queen.” Johnny Rotten famously sneered as he asked his audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” The sneer insured that the joke was complicated: the Pistols were cheating the audience because they defiantly refused to please, but also that the culture had cheated all of them and left them with a kind of nihilism. There was a lot of spitting going on: gobs at the band and gobs back to the audience. As punk developed, it retained its nihilist refusal, but it also had a more egalitarian side. Lester Bangs wrote about the Clash inviting their fans to share their hotel room with them. They were not arena-rock gods, they were just a garage band. Virtuosity on your instrument was not the point, but being politically virtuous was. And it is this strain of punk purity that carried into the 1980s as a counter to the materialist corporate culture of the Reagan years.
There were always traps contained in that youthful fervor for authenticity: how to identify authenticity, first of all, and then how easily markers of authenticity can become just another pose, full of clichés (the hallmarks of hackery). Kurt Cobain, in these interviews that start in 1990, the year before Nirvana made the big time, and end two months before he died in 1994, had internalized the punk rock of the 1980s in the indie/alternative “underground,” and we see him grapple with trying to be true to his punk-rock ethics. But it was impossible: one must have the irony, the ambivalence of not caring, of admitting your own complicity in the system. At the same time, one had to care, and follow very strict rules for not selling out. You had to be like Calvin Johnson, maybe, obscure but respected. Kurt Cobain might have been the last person who believed in punk, and he grew weary navigating these tensions. Besides, there was something art-school and elitist in cultivated obscurity, wasn’t there? Punk should not be elite (this is the problem with a subculture often defined by what it is not).
One of my favorite threads of punk ethos perhaps came from the Stooges and was picked up on by the Replacements: proud loser-dom. It was a sly form of anti-capitalism, of resistance to the 1980s worship of avarice and material, amoral success. This is illustrated in the famous Sub Pop T-shirt that said loser in all caps and extends to Beck’s 1994 hit, “Loser.” And we can hear this self-deprecation when Cobain says Nirvana is “lazy” and “illiterate” and would lose an argument about any topic because they “took too much acid and smoked too much pot.” This is self-deprecation as liberation and subversion—the bullied kids appropriating the words that once were hurled at them. But it is also a kind of pose, as if they didn’t want to get caught caring about anything too much. You can’t criticize my songs ’cause I already said I suck and can’t play. Like all of these threads, it’s complicated. Kurt Cobain may not have been schooled in music or literature, but he was good. He was proud of the albums, if not proud of anything else.
But his humility was also real. After the traumatic divorce of his parents (“the legendary divorce is such a bore” he professed in “Serve the Servants”), he led an itinerant existence, even living in his car sometimes. He was a high school dropout, worked as a janitor, but was mostly unemployed. The thing that saved him, the place he began and finished, was music. He was a true believer in music as a space where he could be himself. He began with total commitment to writing songs, playing his guitar, and performing. And he knew how he wanted the music to sound. He wanted it to be like the music he loved: raw and hard but with pop hooks and lyrics you could hear over and over and still find oddness and interest in them. As much like the Beatles as Black Flag, which turned out to be very appealing to a big audience. The problem was what the world did with the music, with selling the music, and with promoting the music. Ultimately, in his interviews, you can see him trying to work that part of it out. He doesn’t want an “image.” And, as in his lyrics, he manages sarcasm and ambivalence while also exposing how much he cared, a lot, about everything, and constantly. While this worked in his songs, it was harder to pull off in his life. In interviews, he often lied or obscured while also being almost compulsively honest, vulnerable, a person in pain who kept confessing and pouring his heart out even as he felt betrayed by the press and unnerved by his fans.
He continued to do interviews even after the infamous Vanity Fair article that portrayed his relationship with Courtney Love in a cruel, harsh light. He became wary, defensive, angry, yet he still kind of believed that he could break through, regain control. He passionately voiced his complaints. Why didn’t he just shut it all out, become a recluse? He must have wanted, on some very deep level, to be understood. He must have believed that he could be understood. He could not be indifferent or ambivalent no matter how he professed it.
He denied he had ambition, but then admitted it. He wanted to make records and have an audience. He just wanted to do it on his terms, like his punk heroes. At first, his terms meant being on an indie label versus a major label. But this felt unsustainable. Nirvana were not some coddled middleclass kids in suburban garages. They were not even vaguely making a living on Sub Pop. And distribution (a now vintage consideration) sucked. Nirvana thought they could stay true to their vision while getting the advantages of a major label. That worked for Sonic Youth, who also signed with Geffen Records and gained just enough success to still maintain their indie cred, but Nirvana instantly became world-wide superstars selling millions of records, which was hard to reconcile with punk-rock bona fides. Nirvana complained about MTV but wanted to use MTV as much as MTV used them. They complained of playing big stadiums (arena rock, yuck) and the lack of intimacy and connection. But their audiences were too big now. And who exactly was in the audience? Those same kids that used to bully them when they were in high school. Cobain goes back and forth about this new audience: at first, they are not his true fans. They frighten him. Then he tries to control them. After the runaway success of Nevermind, he even puts this in the liner notes to Insecticide:
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.
And this points to what was probably the most interesting and enduring and new thing about Kurt Cobain’s punk ethos. He really wasn’t going to be just another rock god, he wasn’t going to exploit women, he wasn’t going to dog-whistle the cliches of rock and roll masculinity. He was a backwater white boy, but he was not a stereotype, not racist or sexist or homophobic. His sensibility was gay, he declared, and he liked strong, smart women. He was fragile, in constant physical pain, and he admitted it. He was highly married and he didn’t date models. He liked being a dad. It even extended to how he looked, or how he presented himself. Like Johnny Rotten, Cobain had great style, but it came out of his own contradictions. He was very pretty, but he didn’t comb his hair, and he wore grandpa sweaters. He wore dresses—not sleek glamour man-dresses like Bowie had once worn, but thrift-store castoffs. And he also wore hospital gowns (his own, which, come on, is really punk). So his style, as it were, came out of his vulnerability, his wearing it all on his sleeve. Or on his T-shirt. He famously wore a T-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone that said corporate magazines still suck. (Does that give him cover? No, not really. Is self-reflexivity ever really an out? But it is better than nothing.) He also used his shirts as billboards for other, lesser-known artists. As if to say, if you are all going to stare at me, I might as well use the space for good. He wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt, and when he was on MTV Unplugged, he wore a T-shirt for the proto-riot grrrl band Frightwig. Like REM before him, Nirvana used their fame to promote other artists while also giving credit to their influences (and proving their own cred). Despite MTV wanting the grunge hits and Pearl Jam cameos for Nirvana’s Unplugged set, Cobain insisted on playing three Meat Puppets songs and having them join the set. He also covered songs he learned from the Vaselines, and Leadbelly, and sang (what was then) a more obscure Bowie track. You could hear devotion in his singing: heart out, heartbroken, heartfelt. He tried to accept his contradictions vis-à-vis MTV, interviews, and his own fans. “Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be.” In his last interview, he said, “I get a few hours to try and subvert the way they view the world.” These tensions are never really resolved. They must be lived in. Or through.
In the 2020s, punk is sometimes seen as just another retro “aesthetic,” like goth or glam. One pose among many, and it is an expression of sensibility more than ethos. And, of course, artists are expected to pay even more attention to image, marketing, and self-promotion. The always contradictory notion of authenticity is not just quaint, but not even legible. Selling a lot of songs/books/tickets is a sign of quality, and it is fine to do ads, consider yourself a brand, make Marvel movies, etc., because you need to reach people in a noisy world, and you need to make a living if you want to continue being a maker/creator. And there is something refreshing in the lack of pretense about being commodified (not just your work, but you, the maker/creator). Resistance and subculture no longer have to be obscure because there are other values involved beyond the sense of self: virtual communities with horizontal reach that don’t need to breakthrough mainstream gatekeepers to be viable. There is the possibility of a real egalitarian leveling of access, which is subversive and anti-corporate. You can take the “sub” out of subculture, or you can say everything is subculture, that there is no mainstream to rail against. Maybe there are just streams: streams of music, of films, and somehow, for some people, streams of revenue. Is it better to be an artist now, or was it better to be stuck on the 120 minutes that MTV allowed late at night for “alternative” music? The answer is, I’m afraid, that it is never a good time to be an artist. But here is 1990s-era Kurt Cobain to tell you that there was something valuable at stake in the struggle to live inside those underlying tensions and contradictions.