The act grew old a long time ago, and let’s face it; its always been pretty pathetic. In case you don’t know – and on the off chance that you really don’t, lord knows you will soon enough if you pay attention to current events – 2013 marks the 20th Anniversary year of the release of In Utero, the final album from Nirvana. Kids, go ask your parents about them. That means there are a billion fawning odes to In Utero, Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana, and we’re likely to be suffocated in the overwhelming avalanche of pithy remembrances next year, which is the 20th Anniversary year of Cobain’s suicide.
I like Nirvana a lot, but I think I must have missed something somewhere. I didn’t become acquainted with their work until after Cobain’s death, so that perhaps puts a slight handicap on my understanding of the Nirvana cultural phenomenon, despite the fact that I was twelve years old when he put that shotgun into his stomach and therefore more than old enough to have had a fully formed flashbulb of it. It was still a little too early in my life to be serious about musical tastes, though, so I missed all the original vigils. When I finally started to come around about two or three years after the fact, it was the radiant power of Nirvana that first struck me. The angst had nothing to do with it, but as Cobain was canonized and deified by the march of time, it was the angst which appeared to come out and take center stage.
That’s something I can’t live with. My viewpoints on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are politically incorrect, but they’re correct. My personal distaste for Kurt Cobain the person grew as time revealed more facts about him to me. On my most recent visit to Chicago, I lamented this to a friend. “The more I learn about Kurt Cobain,” I said, “the more I hate his guts.”
Much as I like Nirvana, I do find them overrated; and Kurt Cobain, doubly so. Cobain’s talents are given far more attention than they actually warrant. Throw in any Nirvana record and take a real close listen, breaking the songs down to their individual components and it will reveal a serviceable musician and decent singer. The one major talent Cobain really had going for him was his ability to construct songs – he wrote songs in such a way that they were able to consistently highlight the strengths he had. In every other way, time managed to prove that he wasn’t even the most talented guy in his own band. That would be Dave Grohl, the drummer who did the whole phoenix rise routine when he stepped up as the frontman of his own band, the Foo Fighters, after Nirvana didn’t exist anymore. Time also somehow managed to put a muzzle on Nirvana’s Seattle competition. When Nirvana busted loose out of the early Seattle grunge scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they were still just one of a handful of wave-riders. In a course of all of three proper albums, an MTV Unplugged album, and a B-side collection, Nirvana decided it wanted to eschew musical growth. Meanwhile, superior bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains – all of whom did take legitimate musical risks – are somehow considered Cobain’s tailcoaters. (For my money, Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, is the classic album of the era.)
Seriously, did Nirvana ever really grow in a musical sense? Like, at all? It’s easy to scour all the words written about Nirvana, be they online or in print, and see all authors print the word “authentic” as their reason for bowing down at the altar of Cobain. After giving that a little thought, I don’t buy it. Nirvana did change their sound more than once, but that wasn’t a natural growth from a band that wanted to expand and challenge itself. Every gear shift happened because of Cobain’s outright contempt toward his fans and his apparent need to show them how many shits he didn’t give about them. In Utero was an admitted fight to alienate people. Cobain threw a hissy about the production of Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, because he thought the sound was too mainstream, and he went as far as to try to call it Sheep as a stealth insult to those who liked it. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album is a beautiful piece which features a bunch of covers and the taming of their primal rage. Everything about Cobain’s so-called authenticity comes off as a change carefully calculated to project middle fingers and an attitude that he didn’t care what anyone thought. If that’s authenticity, then I’m the Lizard King.
What about the idea that he brought a stripped-down form of rock music into vogue? One that was rougher and rawer than anything released in the musically shimmered-up 80’s? The counter-argument about this rabbit hole starts in 1987 and a convenient blackout by rock critics who believe Guns ‘n’ Roses and their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, went the way of Axl Rose by spacing out somewhere. Now, Appetite for Destruction wasn’t some insignificant little speck. As of date, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind have both topped sales marks of 30 million, but what people are forgetting is that relative to their release dates, Appetite for Destruction totally dwarfed Nevermind and it remains the highest-selling debut album ever. Nevermind’s release was low-key and virtually ignored. The albums are similar in the fact that they both captured a less synthesized, darker, more guitar-driven, and more personal feel than anything released in the 80’s. Appetite beat Nevermind to the punch for four years, though, and if you’re smart and courageous enough to try to bring Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, into it, it’s still a nice two-year start. Whether or not Guns ‘n’ Roses wrote better songs than Nirvana is perfectly debatable, but the musical quality just isn’t. Kurt Cobain was decent at best as a musician, and he carried the bulk of Nirvana playing guitarist and singer double duty. Guns ‘n’ Roses – at least for that single album – had one of the great underrated drummers in rock music with Steven Adler; with Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin came the driving forces behind Appetite for Destruction; Slash is one of the top-tier guitar gods; and Axl Rose is favorably comparable to Robert Plant in every way when he decides he actually wants to show up. Everything Nirvana did on Nevermind was done better by Guns ‘n’ Roses on Appetite for Destruction.
Cobain’s anger over his fame holds an echo similar to that of John Lennon, who hated the fact that his band was given a boy toy makeover in order to give them over to a mainstream following. Lennon was fed up to the point that he changed his lyrics in live shows because he knew fans wouldn’t be able to hear the difference. There’s a difference between Lennon’s anger and Cobain’s though; Lennon’s anger seemed more rooted in his image. Before the British Invasion days which came to define The Beatles, The Beatles were a more badass band than Ed Sullivan would have anyone see. Onstage in their German club days, The Beatles swore, chowed down on fried chicken, and nailed condoms to the wall and set them on fire. Their mainstream audience makeover removed the wildness of their shows, and that didn’t sit well with John because audiences weren’t getting to see the real John. When real John finally attained enough power to drop in on the world, he seemed pretty comfortable with his spot in the world, and he was happy to be spreading peace/love messages to anyone who would listen – and man, a lot of people wanted to listen.
Cobain was pissed at his image too, but in a different way. Nevermind hit it big because producer Butch Vig gave a slight little sheen to songs which were a lot rougher, and Cobain hated that people weren’t hearing the real Nirvana. Yeah, he got angry at his producer, but he got even more pissed off at the fans for having the gall to listen to his music. It had something to do with them not being the right kind of fans. Not being the right kind of fan is one thing if your listening contingent is mostly Nazis, but in Nirvana’s case it meant his music was resonating with more people than a very narrow demographic he apparently had in mind. I would think that being authentic would mean being appreciative of the fact that there were more people finding the authenticity in your music than you ever thought possible, not trying to shut out all your fans. By all means, his so-called authenticity appears more to be a certain brand of elitism worthy of fundamentalist religion; fuck you, you’re not worthy, you can only come in if you follow my ridiculously specific guidelines.
It seems a harsh thing to say, but Cobain’s death may be the best thing that ever could have happened to Nirvana and its legacy. What would have happened if Cobain managed to reach a peak of absolute power in the music industry with his attitude? You’re almost certainly looking at a gradual degradation of sounds until Nirvana started splicing random sounds together and calling it music. Cobain’s attitude toward his fandom would have gotten out and made him a pariah; provided, of course, that he didn’t just willingly lock himself away and become the ironic soul buddy of Axl Rose, who Cobain famously hated (for absolutely no reason, if the account of rock journalist Mick Wall is to be believed).
I’ll continue to be a Nirvana fan. Don’t expect me to revere Kurt Cobain as my angst voice, though; U2 and Rush have that spot filled nicely, and Cobain probably wouldn’t have appreciated me anyway. Nirvana is becoming more of a corporation, an irony which Cobain probably would have despised; and yet, one which the afterlife’s ironic punishment division would almost certainly see fit to suit a person like him.