Celebrity-obsessed media inflate Cobain's legacy

April 06, 2004|By Eric R. Danton

KURT COBAIN was eulogized as the spokesman of a generation when he killed himself 10 years ago. The Nirvana front man's songs were hailed as the embodiment of the angst said to gnaw at members of Generation X, and his influence on popular music has been pegged at somewhere between immense and immeasurable.

"Kurt was one of the masters of the craft, in addition to being a voice of adolescents of all ages," Danny Goldberg, a former Nirvana manager who later founded Artemis Records, told Spin magazine for its Cobain tribute issue.

It is beyond dispute that Mr. Cobain and Nirvana fomented a pop-culture upheaval with the 1991 release of Nevermind. The first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," cleared away a decade of musical excess before the vocals even kicked in, and punk-inflected indie-rock - grunge - was suddenly cool in a very mainstream way. Cool enough, in fact, that Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart in early 1992. What better symbol of the ascendance of Nirvana and grunge than dethroning the king of pop?

The ascendance was short-lived. Grunge essentially died with Mr. Cobain on April 5, 1994, and the singer's musical legacy has been oversold ever since.

In fact, Nirvana's subsequent influence owes more to faulty notions of tragic genius, and the rock-star fantasy world pimped by MTV, than to anything the band ever recorded.

Mr. Cobain's death was certainly tragic. He struggled with addiction and mental illness, yet the troubled singer was also a victim of his era. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison descended into drug addiction in relative privacy, in a time when America was less obsessed with celebrity. Mr. Cobain's fall was very public.

Although he craved success the way he later craved heroin, he was ill-equipped to handle fame when it rolled over him like an avalanche. Mr. Cobain had no privacy. He was buried under the pressure of his own success. He faced endless demands on his time and the constant clicking of camera shutters, and he wasn't able to tune it all out. The reluctant media darling finally snapped and turned it off the only way he knew how: with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.

Bam - instant antihero.

Suicide made Mr. Cobain far more famous than he would have been had he lived, and the reason is simple. In death, Mr. Cobain became something he never wanted to be in life: public property. Of course he's considered influential - he's ours now, to devour as we see fit.

And we consume him with a voracious appetite. We watch Behind the Music to bask in the pathos. We search for hints of tragedy as we pore over the innermost thoughts of his personal diaries, published as a coffee-table book for our reading pleasure. We have taken a reasonably talented man tortured by doubt and conflicting desires, and we have turned him into a god.

Without that People-magazine mentality, Mr. Cobain's death would have been about as noteworthy as that of Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistol who died of a heroin overdose in 1979. Out-of-control punk rocker ends life in blaze of nihilistic glory. The end.

Instead, Mr. Cobain is a pop-culture icon, lionized for the wrong reasons.

Nirvana prompted an untold number of kids to pick up guitars, yet the group's style of music, the biting, life-altering combination of "punk energy with hard rock riffs, all within a pop sensibility," as Mr. Cobain put it in his diary, has largely returned to the indie-rock subculture where it started. It's been replaced in the mainstream by updated versions of the bloated trash Nirvana rebelled against.

Nu-metal and pop-punk acts have co-opted his angst and transformed it into passionless brooding while watering down the compelling soft verse/loud chorus musical dynamic that made Nirvana so different.

Like Black Sabbath and the Velvet Underground, Mr. Cobain's band has become a fashionable name-check for groups that bear scant resemblance to their alleged influences.

The generation he purportedly spoke for - disaffected post-boomers left in the shadow of their parents' nostalgia - grew up to resist the half-baked assumptions of slackerdom that were supposed to define it.

Kurt Cobain presided over a short-lived revolution that lit up the musical landscape like a Fourth of July fireworks display, only to fizzle out the same way, in a cloud of sulfuric smoke and wispy debris. Lives were altered, perspectives changed; yet when it ended, our collective attention quickly shifted elsewhere and scarcely looked back.

Now, 10 cynical years later, we wait for the next revolution and hope it turns out differently this time.

Eric R. Danton writes about music for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Steve Chapman is on vacation. His column will return next week.

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