When I was a freshman in college in the mid 90s, someone directed me to a wagering website that hosted what it called a death pool: people made a list of ten famous people and whoever had the most on that list die in the coming year won the prize. (The concept may be familiar from a similarly named film.) A ticker ran across the screen, updating you on the viability of various celebrities. Who was old, who was sick, who was doing their own stunts—and at the end came the reminder: Kurt Cobain, still dead.
I have difficulty now remembering exactly why, but the death of the Nirvana front man was this kind of joke—or at least so its media portrayal led you to believe. Here was this soft spoken guy, usually hid behind a veil of blond hair, his voice like that steel-bending sound Godzilla makes, screaming about only God knew what. Cobain sung the lyrics unintelligibly, but even after reading them (Liner. . .notes?) you had no better idea what they were about. The music seemed designed to punish anyone who wanted to articulate what drove this music. All you knew was the singer hurt inside and was very sad.
Then he shot himself. The end.
Some made light of this, or went further and said it portrayed the death throes of culture itself. It was easy to accuse Nirvana of being little more than a tantrum, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide seemed its absurd but necessary conclusion.
For a phenomenon dubbed a voice of its generation, Nirvana’s critics were surprisingly hard to answer. When I take a look now at the iconic cover to the Nevermind album, I feel it powerfully communicating several layers of message, but I can’t help feel all of them are trite. The drive for money, infantalism, ickle baby pee-pee. America, this is you. No shit, I want to respond.
But here’s the thing. Nirvana meant something to me once upon a time. Like every kid my age I could play at least a dozen of the songs, I knew all the damn words, regardless of how clumsily they expressed whatever I now presume they must have been about.
In a way, Nirvana is still important to me. My emotional innerscape is not an articulate place. I am not one to lie on the floor and flail, but if compelled to express myself through interpretative dance, I suppose that’s very often what I would have to do.
We have often been told we have all the tools we need to be happy, but we are not happy. Then the fault must be in us: we are not using them right. But when we look at examples of people who are supposed to have won at life, we do not believe they are happy, and in any case we do not want to be like them. In our immediate vicinity, the world promises this is the best time yet to be alive, or at very worst something we can live with, but when we put it all together, it makes us want to scream like bending steel behind a veil of hair.
Singer Dan Bern wrote a song about the passing of Kurt Cobain. When I first heard it maybe fifteen years ago, I was immediately drawn to it, because it managed to capture both the eye-rolling which the event came to inspire and a genuine sense of loss and tragedy. Someone made a video of it, which I’ve included here.
This song was a turning point for me creatively. We’ve grown accustomed to being told not only how to behave but how to feel, whether by the soundtrack to a film, or by talking heads in response to real life events. We are asked to paint our emotional lives in broad strokes of unambiguous color. This is sort of bullshit, isn’t it? We are more interesting than that. We can both get the joke and appreciate the tragedy, we can do them both at the same time, and it is nobody’s business to hash out whether this is appropriate. We needn’t concern ourselves with whom our inner lives make uncomfortable.
Are there any cultural artifacts from your childhood you that make you cringe yet somehow they retain importance for you? Any music you still listen to ironically but are actually not that ironic about? How about tv or film?