Reaching across the void: the legacy of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain

April 4, 2014

On April 10, Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The band’s induction will take place only five days after the 20th anniversary of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In the years since Cobain’s death, he has been remembered as the last great rock star, a martyr who despised his own success and whose tortured lyrics contained an authenticity unadulterated by the mainstream music machine. 20 years later, it all seems inevitable, and the ghost of “Saint” Kurt still casts a shadow over the modern rock landscape. Nirvana was the biggest band since Beatlemania, and in the aftermath of Cobain’s death, rock and roll’s popularity has been in continual decline. And yet, the man who railed against his own fame and major-label exploitation on 1993’s “In Utero” has been even more commercialized in his death, as the Rock Hall induction demonstrates.

Kurt Cobain’s legacy remains contested among fans due to the unresolved tension between Cobain’s punk rock ethos and his incredible mainstream success. Nirvana first emerged from the Seattle rock scene with the release of their first album, “Bleach,” in 1989. Released by the independent label Sub-Pop, “Bleach”’s fuzzy, distortion heavy guitars, drop D tuning and incomprehensible vocal delivery made the record largely inaccessible to mainstream audiences. “Bleach” largely went unnoticed by the public until after the release of “Nevermind” on major label DCG Records in 1991. Thanks to the success of lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Nevermind” went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide, and Nirvana went from obscure indie punk band to international rock sensation overnight. In comparison to “Bleach,” “Nevermind” had a much more polished, radio-friendly sound, which undoubtedly contributed to its success. Cobain expressed his unhappiness with the record’s sound even as he admitted that when writing “Teen Spirit” he had tried to make the “ultimate pop song.”

In 1993, Nirvana released “In Utero,” described by Cobain as a “true alternative record” which returned to the screechy guitars and raw vocals that characterized “Bleach.” In various interviews, Cobain made clear that he was unhappy with the media attention he and his family had received following the release of “Nevermind,” particularly with the reveal of his heroin addiction and troubled childhood. In songs such as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Dumb,” Kurt attacked the media, his own success, his fans and Nirvana’s imitators. “In Utero” was a commercial disappointment relative to “Nevermind,” only selling four million copies, but it had succeeded in reestablishing Cobain’s punk credibility against criticisms of selling out. In their most famous performance, Nirvana appeared on “MTV Unplugged” in Nov. 1993. Cobain’s performance remains haunting to watch, as the set was made to deliberately resemble a funeral. Only six months later, Cobain died; bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl dissolved the band only days later.

In hindsight, it is clear that Cobain likely suffered from clinical depression, which combined with his heroin habit led him to take his own life. Symbolically, the violent manner of his death cemented Cobain’s status as an outcast who resented the music industry which had made him. He has been even more commercially exploited in death, anointed as “the voice of a generation,” “the last great rock star” and a patron saint of rock and roll. Every lyric Cobain wrote, every word he ever said in an interview and almost every photograph of him have been purloined to sell t-shirts, books and an endless number of greatest hits albums. There is no doubt Cobain would have rejected the Hall of Fame induction if he had lived. His music remains in heavy rotation on rock radio, and a new generation of teens have adopted Nirvana’s music today. Rock and roll has been on a slow decline commercially ever since Cobain’s death, and today’s rock scene remains dominated by Cobain’s peers in groups such like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam. But it is difficult to reconcile the mythology that has grown out of Cobain’s death with the reality of his life.

How then does one reckon Cobain’s legacy? He may not have been the rock and roll saint he has been made out as since his death, but his music’s impact certainly resonates as much today as it did when it was first released in the 1990s. Nirvana’s music arguably has more of an emotional punch today, and Cobain’s voice haunts us in songs like “All Apologies” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” Cobain’s ghost casts a long shadow over today’s indie rock scene, and contemporary artists from Arcade Fire to Lil Wayne have acknowledged his influence. That the accolades have mostly come after Cobain’s death does not take away from the accomplishments of his life. Undoubtedly, Nirvana is worthy of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if Cobain would refuse. Contrary to popular myth, Cobain was not infallible, but the world certainly lost a great voice far too soon when he passed away 20 years ago. We can pause and remember Cobain on April 5, without needing to elevate him to sainthood. We don’t need to glamorize his death in order to celebrate his life. Ultimately, Cobain’s legacy is in his music, which still invites new listeners to “come as you are.”

Menu Title