Writings on the Twentieth Anniversary of Cobain’s Demise

I was too busy that week of the anniversary (April 5-8, wherever you want to draw the line) to really dedicate some time to doing something so rather than dashing something off I thought it was better just to say nothing if I had nowt to say well.

It didn’t mean I didn’t find time for quite a significant amount of reading though. Now. I try to make a real point of avoiding sweeping generalisations except in error, but here’s one; the Cobain anniversary really brought out the worst kinda space-filling, low quality pop culture criticism I’ve witnessed circulating around any event this side of a British royal wedding – a vast array of dashed off click-fodder.

If you feel like playing bullshit bingo sometime, go to Google news, tap in Kurt Cobain and scan through a few – you’re looking for the following; James Dean/rebel references, references to the power of Cobain’s voice or ‘voice of generation’ hyperbole, inability to name one song other than Teen Spirit and endless quoting from same song, repeated summarization of the Nirvana life story cribbed from existing biographies, point of article confined to a paragraph or two at most surrounded by repetition of tragic/flawed eulogies cut/paste from a thousand other articles.

Sadly, in amidst it, there were a few interesting thoughts but usually without the knowledge of the topic to advance or develop the idea. Here are a few examples:


Of six paragraphs, only the fourth and the fifth aren’t autopilot recitations designed for people who neither know about nor are interested in Nirvana/Cobain. There simply isn’t the depth to answer the question set – it argues Cobain may have struggled to articulate anything fresh as he aged without offering any evidence supporting the proposition. This is a shame because it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry. The fifth paragraph deviates entirely to discuss the changing landscape of music post-Cobain – again, it’s not a bad topic (though spit-roasted to the consistency of leather by this point in time) and could have carried a full article.

Pop Matters made a far better show of asking the question raised in the fifth paragraph of the Telegraph articleeven if, again, the depth into which the average music journalist can go is simply to make surface-skimming points about modern guitar music compared to Nirvana:



This is how to do it (God bless the BBC!) A very brief article but an original story about a specific point in time and Youri Lenquette is a top notch individual. Similarly, here’s NME doing a quick burst about plans to record. The issue would be that these are news bulletins rather than criticism or proper thought-pieces but, again, I’m ok with the idea that one says as little as possible if one has nothing fresh to say.


Again, in the Oregon Live piece below, the idea of discussing the topic of how Cobain changed anything at all is a topic worth exploring…Thing is, Charles Cross has already done it for this anniversary (I scanned the rather light, rather small, hardback of his new book in a store today and somehow couldn’t stomach the £14.99 asking price – I’ll wait for the paperback) so what’s left are nine barely related factoids with no central thesis and no link to the title. It’s mainly an ad for the Cross book. A tragic waste of a good angle that could have worked well in this media format.


CNN disgrace themselves by pegging a space-filling slideshow under the title “Kurt Cobain: His Death and the 1990s” – I mean, I almost like the 90s-palooza thing but even that could have been more stylish; Nostalgiapalooza perhaps? I mean, what’s next? “The Manson Murders: Fun and Frolicsome Memories of the 1960s”? Tagging this photobook of amusing “d’ya remember when…?” pieces to a death feels pretty wrong even beyond the depthless ‘commemoration’ aspect.


At least one of the local Seattle papers did a better job by making a few light comparisons between Seattle c1990s versus modern Seattle – there’s surely a lot more to be added on this one but let’s not quibble given its a concise and distracting enough job well done on an original angle. I mean, heck, it’s a different city now entirely:


MTV do some truly uninteresting merging of personal bio and Cobain text that could be sold in a box as a word game – construct your own posthumous Cobain article:


And the other week I mentioned not being particularly impressed by Everett True’s “I knew him, you didn’t” (I summarise tragically fairly accurately) piece in the Guardian – the guy has done so much better before. I enjoyed the reprint of Jonathan Freedland’s original 1994 report for the intriguing reportage on Seattle at that moment in time, local reaction and questions regarding the depth or otherwise of Cobain’s representation of a generation.


What’s lacking is commentary that has an argumentative depth, an original angle, a willingness to assume sufficient knowledge on the part of the audience that the rehashing can be abandoned, a degree of depth on the part of the critic allowing them to roam more widely through the Cobain tale and greater effort having been put into finding primary sources to speak on specific questions or debating points – I’m presuming the North West was flooded with dashed off journalistic inquiries along generic lines no more evolved or intelligent than “so…tell me…What was he LIKE?” or “what’s your biggest memory of him?”

Essentially pop culture media seems to have been stripped down to nothing more than the simple relaying of soundbite and imagery courtesy of PR agencies on behalf of their clients with any attempt at depth confined to full-scale books – there have been some impressive ones in recent years. I may not enjoy hagiography and applications for Cobain’s sainthood but he genuinely is one of those few standout figures in the musical world that would seem to demand that a commentator know a bit more about than is on evidence in the above pieces – it’s like someone writing a piece on Shakespeare based on reading the back cover of a biography plus a sonnet or two.

Just for balance though, here’s an article I genuinely did appreciate (in part) for its willingness to marry the subject of Cobain to a wider question, to a new angle, to evidence I hadn’t heard or considered before:


I saw it in the FT in which it was a four column full-page piece and for sure, it does suffer from some of the sins of pieces described earlier. The first column strings together a set of non-sequiturs and clichés taking in the recent statue in Aberdeen, quick references to Cobain’s art, two brief quotations from his lyrics (simultaneously marking the beginning/end of Kurt Cobain’s existence to a majority of people – Smells Like Teen Spirit he begins, You Know You’re Right he ends) then finally states that the article has a point. The first two paragraphs, really, are a document describing how the writer failed to find any information out from a primary source so had to rely on quoting another media site to fill some space; the third column in the newspaper returned once more to a retelling of the Nirvana tale at least pepped up with some quotes from Bruce Pavitt related to the article’s main topic.

The redemptive components of the article are the second column – everything from the mention of Scott Sandage to the next … break – plus the final three paragraphs (column four.) The dissertation regarding the evolving model of what failure has meant over time is a welcome one – giving a historical context to the entire ‘loser/slacker’ topic is a really rich theme to run with and certainly sparks thought about where Cobain/grunge belong in the overall narrative of American social/political/economic history.

In fact, it’s a good angle despite the fact I disagree with the author’s point fundamentally. He simply asserts that ‘Generation X’ was the slacker generation and that it was self-evident that a wave of young people were embracing a form of nihilism at the time – untrue. The generation coming of age alongside and around Cobain was just as likely to be employed, more likely to be entrepreneurially active, more likely to have pursued getting an education as a potential advantage in the jobs market (I hate to rely on a Wikipedia article but what the hey, it’s a decent summary and raises the wider point about the different forms of ‘Generation X’ worldwide – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X), has a higher level of involvement in social causes…Need I go on? The flipside was that it was the generation that had to deal with a new economic/political complex that no longer believed the point of the government was to aim for 100% employment for citizens; in other words, no matter what anyone/everyone did, there would always be more jobs than people and no way for some people to find a job. The tales of over-qualified individuals taking service industry positions wasn’t the tale of a lack of ambition it was the tale of an economic realignment toward a service-orientated economy with more part-time jobs, more unskilled jobs, fewer opportunities overall.

The author has conjoined two separate arguments here; one is about the overall nature of the post-baby boom generation, the other is about the professional respect to be offered to artists and musicians. He essentially – and oddly for a ‘pop critic’ – is claiming those who pursue income via the creative arts are the same thing as slackers. This is a really tangled arena; are only those musicians who aim to be multi-millionaires from the outset worthy of being deemed professionals and accorded the respect that any entrepreneur should receive? Are musicians who are content developing steady but predominantly local audiences unambitious or just establishing a secure and realistic measure of success as opposed to the fantasists who see visions of cheering throngs in their heads even while touring the toilet circuit? Is it only Cobain’s ability to sell millions that makes his art worthy of note despite the fact all the songs on Nevermind originated long prior to his band being anything more than another underground band with reasonable respect? The question of why precisely the author deems Cobain to be a failure, or whether he’s reserving that epithet for the bands around Cobain who didn’t miraculously go through the roof, is the piece he doesn’t answer – again, like the assumption that Generation X were the slacker generation, he assumes it’s self-evident that Cobain was a loser simply because that’s the casual association made regardless of whether it has substance behind it.

I’m not specifically answering that question here (might have a go another time though!) but what I’m saying is that article raises an intriguing intellectual argument that made me think a lot more than most of the pieces published these past weeks – it just doesn’t particular answer or pursue its own subject matter to a finale.

Similarly, there’s a disjointedness within the article’s wider point given Generation X itself has been the biggest purveyor of the ugly blend of new age self-help philosophies coupled with hard-nosed Social Darwinian economics that is manifested via latter-day mainstream hip hop and via the economic politics of a majority of voters. The broad brush tarring doesn’t explain that ‘Generation X’ wasn’t a single phenomenon and therefore was, on the one hand, the ‘me generation’ of the Eighties (recently toasted and semi-celebrated in The Wolf of Wall Street) and the ‘stocks only go up’ cash-in crowd of the Dot-com bust and the same crew recently found corruptly manipulating financial markets, selling financial products that created systemic risks and cashing out million pound bonuses, as well as, on the other hand, being the generation that has pushed for ever more ethical decisions by corporates, is more involved in green causes, anti-corruption campaigns, anti-war movements, local grassroots social activities and so forth than ever. The mythical drop-outs the article is taking aim at don’t have too much in common with Kurt Cobain, nor with the majority of their own generation.

The final three paragraphs are a separate article really pointing out that Jay Z’s appropriation of a Nirvana sample for a recent song was simply a way of contrasting the failure of others to rise within a certain paradigm with his own claim to self-made success. That’s a really neat and sour point and at least a strong conclusion. Unfortunately, having failed to identify why exactly Cobain should be deemed a loser or a slacker, these final paragraphs barely connect to the main thesis.

There was potentially a far more coherent angle for the article. The second column explained that success/failure were concepts that changed over time according to specific circumstances, needs, opinions and therefore are not intrinsic physical realities that can be scientifically defined – that the current definition is NOT the absolute, eternal way it was or should be. The article could have either taken aim at the lazy reporting of Generation X clichés (that really had more to do with typical “older generation dismissing younger generation” thinking) as fact – or debated why Cobain is held up as an icon of failure when by many measures he’s one of society’s one percent of high-achievers. At least, however, it was an article with a bit more substance to it. If there was anything to be taken from a couple of weeks of magazines, newspapers and online media sources deciding to fill a few quick pages with Cobain-talk it’s that an ‘icon of depression’ twenty years dead managed to achieve more, inspire more, pump more thought and effort into his works and make a far less shoddy job of what he did than a vast number of media commentators (who I’m presuming all self-define as relative successes) manage here in the enlightened future.


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