I admit I rather like this tale:
It should be possible to mock the fixation on an article of clothing as the show of allegiance to Kurt Cobain…But hold up. When I was nine years old (1989) I was still listening to Vanilla Ice, Prince, Def Leppard and the Transformers soundtrack. Childhood memories deserve a wry smile rather than dismissal or the kind of sarcasm that could rightly be doled out on an adult behaving in this manner…He says while still feeling sheepish.
The intriguing element is Keira (age 9)’s intuitive clarity on the subject of superstardom. Her comments don’t mention music, don’t say anything about the man. That may be because the venue for her comments is Flare magazine — a fashion publication. But her comments show her identifying three crucial elements in what makes a phenomenon like Nirvana.
Firstly, she comments that her brothers’ obsession was partly what got her into Nirvana. That sense of social belonging, of bonding, certainly has a significant role in the choices of children everywhere. The Pearl Jam/Nirvana controversies led to playground debates between rival camps and formed my first sense of the ability of music to create ties. Kurt Cobain himself is clear in identifying his musical tastes as the crucial glue that helped him find a place during his teenhood and brought him his firmest friendship group. Switching schools at age fourteen I experienced the same thing whereby music was a method of introduction to the various cliques and a fair method of assessing whether we were going to get along.
Secondly, and though not wishing to antagonize anyone, a significant component of the fame of Nirvana came down to the look. Keira would have been nine years old in 1994 which makes me think of the “striped cardigan” she describes as a perfect blending of the MTV Unplugged cardigan look and the striped jumper from the July 1993 Anton Corbijn photos. Nirvana as a whole were excellent subjects for photo studies ranging in form from the serious moody shots, to the frenetic live photos, to the goofy amused look, to handsome boyishness. It’s possible to think of Nirvana in terms of genres of photos covering a range of visual appeal that hooked one set of fans or another whether rockers, loners, love-struck girls, frat boys…
As a superstar, and to become a superstar, a core component of the interaction with fans and audiences is via pictures — their works are only a part of what creates their appeal. At its worst, of course, that creates the kind of vapid ‘famous for being famous’ fools who grace our screens and magazines far too often. But it’s present at all levels of the entertainment industry down to the corpse paint and theatrics of Nineties Norwegian Black Metal, or in the Death Row heyday of gangsta rap. Nirvana’s breadth of appeal occurred, in part, because of the wide number of ways in which they allowed themselves to be presented. To this day there are fans who adore the MTV Unplugged version of Nirvana but who would never touch In Utero.
The final aspect she identifies is the most intriguing to me; “though I was trying to be Kurt Cobain — this feels entirely like me.” The most crucial aspect of Nirvana’s identity was that there was a sense that one was observing something unmediated, authentic and also accessible. Nirvana never looked untouchable, they persisted in their ordinariness which meant that even a nine year old girl could find some part of their identity in which she could share. Though some clichés of the mainstream rock star did come to pass, the band steered away from many of the games of fame. Take a look at the exasperated comments from publicist Lisa Gladfelter-Bell in Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna’s highly worthwhile Kurt Cobain: The Nirvana Years a sense of the unwillingness to play. I would argue Nirvana were one of the most ‘real’ bands ever to penetrate the mainstream but I’d need a whole other essay to get into that one.
In summary, it’s this comfortable recognition of the artificial, the authentic and a fan’s personal need that makes me enjoy Keira’s brief anecdote. In far fewer words than I could manage she sums up a remarkable quantity of the ‘package’ that was Nirvana at its peak.