What Have you got to be Sad About?

There’s always a divide in commentary on Kurt Cobain in which one side is sympathetic to the fact that his crisis had reached such extremes by early 1994 that he felt death was the only way out…And the other side where he’s simply another spoilt rich drug addict.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she pointed out that her periodic black moods had so little to do with the circumstance of her life, she complained that people regularly say to her; “you’re so beautiful, you’re rich, successful at your job…” then some variant on “we wish you were you” or “what have you got to be depressed about?”

I’m not stating that success, or lack thereof, in the various spheres of life (i.e., social, professional, creative, health/physical, spiritual) is unimportant. There’s a dividing line between handling the normal frustrations of life versus a genuine and deep episode of depression in which the entire perception of life has been skewed. The crucial point is that people tend to confuse the short-hand method by which we measure ourselves against others, with the actual substance of that other person’s existence. Ultimately success or failure isn’t an innate quality, it’s a comparative measure; if everyone has one million in any currency then they’re all millionaires but their buying power will therefore be comparable and only those who are super-wealthy will count as rich.

Confusing the observation “your life is great, you’re beautiful/rich/successful, etc.” with the genuine points of conflict within that person’s existence reduces everyone to a quick sketch, a paper-thin study of human nature. The opposite is true, of course, that examining a life and finding it wanting (i.e., “you’re poor/starving/oppressed/unhealthy, etc.) doesn’t automatically mean that life is devoid of smiles and pleasures — yes, we can find happiness in slavery. One of the ‘pop culture’ questions of history, applied to both U.S. slavery and to the Holocaust, was why these great tranches of humanity didn’t rebel against their enslavers. At the time, their oppressors stated that the absence of violent opposition meant their victims were sub-human, were passive/weak-minded/devoid of a ‘normal’ desire for freedom or dignity. In other words, Southern American slavers and Nazi guards, from their position of power, refused to gain a deeper understanding of their victims and instead reinforced their own sense of superiority by deciding that the fact they would hate being in their victims’ position.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, he had a very deep array of weaknesses and damaged circumstance lasting the vast majority of his twenty seven years. The expectation that two years of success tagged on the end of twenty five years of poverty, rejection and misery should be sufficient to solve everything — or that wealth and fame would remove obstacles — is a deeply unperceptive view of what makes and creates a fulfilled human being.

In fact, becoming famous added a vast array of new challenges to those already in existence. A very wounded adult was now beset by legal threats, by financial demands, by a vast sea of commentators, by management attempting to control his time and presentation, by the inability to have freedom given he was so recognizable… These were added to a man who had already experienced homeless, poverty, had ongoing health concerns, a major drug problem running from 1990 onward, a difficult marriage not helped by his own issues with family and intimacy. It’s no surprise that Kurt Cobain was an individual with a deeply set depression; and no surprise, sad though his choice was, that he didn’t necessarily see life as a positive outcome.

Judging the whole of a person by the shorthand categories we tend to use is the equivalent of relying on a 140 character Twitter statement to stand for our entire view of a film. The human experience of even the lives that appear either smallest or most blessed in these basic categories is in fact a deeper and broader tome requiring far more.


One thought on “What Have you got to be Sad About?”

  1. This is a great post, Nick. Your blog is way out there in a field all its own.

    No matter how many examples of failure are paraded before us, no matter the exponentially increasing number of TV talent show “successes” subsequently and unceremoniously dumped by their record labels and fans, there will always be a long, long line of people who believe, quite wrongly, that instant fame and instant wealth are the quick-fix solution to all their problems.

    And for every person who sees Kurt Cobain’s rise and fall as the cautionary tale it quite clearly is, there will be countless others who find a certain glamour in his fucked up and strung out demise.

    Duff McKagan speaks about this in the BBC documentary about Kurt’s last 48 hours.

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