A carrot is the nearest a rabbit will ever get to a diamond. The fact monkeys fall asleep easiest when listening to Metallica contains no value judgment on the monkey’s part. While music, or structured sound if you prefer, may be intrinsically human, relying as it does on the ability to make sound deliberately and then to edit, tweak and position that sound according to a background meta-narrative of internal deliberations, it doesn’t make it something ‘natural.’ No piece of music is bestowed with an intrinsic value decreed by nature; its value is defined and judged by human observation and criticism. The value of a piece of music can be altered by time, geography, culture in which consumed, purpose/functional context — the same data (i.e., the specific locations and relationships of the sound being listened to) takes on a different value along a sliding scale from priceless to worthless.
In the case of the music of Kurt Cobain, death at close to his peak of success essentially lent his music an exceptional quality; the creation of scarcity enhanced the value to the market. If the zeitgeist had been allowed to pass just another couple of years, the impact of Kurt Cobain’s passing would have been significantly lessened — look at Layne Staley. Similarly, if Nirvana had openly ceased to exist prior to the death of Kurt Cobain, or if it had been the drummer (no offence Dave!) who had died, then the band would be respected but, again, it’s less likely they’d be sainted.
A crucial factor is also age. The other week I pointed out that the five year age difference between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain (1962 and 1967 babies respectively) meant one experienced his teenage musical renaissance in the peak of Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Queen, just prior to the rise of punk; while the other’s self-discovery coincided with the bizarre second wave of punk in the U.S. Music will never mean what it does at first listen, the unveiling of something fresh and new at the precise moment someone has no considered preconception to influence its reception. The passing from one generation to another tends to kill the momentum of a band or artist and their persistence and recognised greatness relies on them sticking around until there’s another generational shift — it’s good to wait ten years. The long gap between the first proper and worthy archive release in 1994 (MTV Unplugged) then the barely interrupted gap until 2002’s greatest hits and 2004’s With the Lights Out allowed the Nu-Metal generation to pass and a new tranche of fans to discover an acknowledged greats.
It was also a good time for a truly shocking rock death; Elvis, Lennon, Vicious — none of these had been artists at their peak and the memories had faded by the mid-nineties. Ian Curtis or Dead from Black Metal band Mayhem had been big figures but only in a relatively minor sub-culture and fan-base. Cobain rightly pointed to Freddie Mercury in his suicide note because Mercury was the only recent rock star death of any significant scale but, again, this was a band past its peak and into ‘institution’ territory while the manner of his death — complications from AIDS resulting from unprotected homosexual activity — hardly lent itself to deification.
Accidents and disease don’t really have any kind of glamour (for want of a better word). A juicy murder or an equally rare suicide — now that has an unnatural quality that lends itself to mystique and curiosity. It helped that Cobain was photogenic too and lent himself to those wide-eyed portraits that became so ubiquitous. The same occurred to Tupac Shakur, the hip hop generation, the non-rock audience, required its eternal image of tragic loss but Eazy-E’s death from AIDS didn’t match up — a dramatic shooting on a crowded main strip in Las Vegas did.
In terms of the music, however, the posthumous reputation of an artist doesn’t necessarily mean hearing genius bound intrinsically within its tune, melody, rhythm or riffs. The significance of music is as much about the listener, about the cultural moment, about what that music was a figurehead for or represented. Don’t expect to love every ‘classic’.