Kurt Cobain and the great divide

April 13, 1994

To most people born before man set foot upon the moon, the front-page news that "grunge rock" star Kurt Cobain had shot himself to death evoked this profound response:

Who's he?

News of the death of Mr. Cobain, lead singer of the group "Nirvana," likely crackled over every teen-ager's telephone line in this country last weekend, and led 7,000 to turn out for a rowdy memorial service in the singer's native Seattle.

But the tragedy, in a different way, must have also unnerved older folks, particularly baby boomers who might barely have been familiar with this 27-year-old idol of the MTV legions and his angry, haunting works.

People of President Clinton's era may have matured enough since the '60s to become downright adult-like, but baby boomers still consider themselves the hippest generation to ever grace Mother Earth. Possibly because they're the ones in the corporate board rooms now pulling the levers, the baby boomer culture still dominates the mass media.

The summer blockbuster movies -- "Batman," "The Addams Family" and "Dick Tracy" a few summers back and the "Flintstones" this coming summer -- are the stories they grew up on. The rock stars they first brought to fame decades ago -- Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Bill Joel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner -- are today still topping the charts and touring before soldout audiences. Even bell-bottom pants are said to be making a comeback (although we believe that is taking nostalgia too far.)

Kurt Cobain's death, and its cultural import, was interpreted quite differently by people older than 30 compared with the shock wave it sent through people younger than that. Middle-agers have no more understanding of why '60s rockers like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplan or Jim Morrison did themselves in at the height of their popularity, but these tragic figures were at least their fallen heroes.

If a rock star fell in the forest and a baby boomer couldn't hear it, would it still make a noise? The answer -- unsettling to many baby boomers determined to stay forever young -- is yes.

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