When I was young, Kurt Cobain was a rebel angel banished to earth and loved by a fallen generation. When I was young, Kurt Cobain ate from the Tree of Knowledge and heaved up its toxic fruit in the troughs of popular culture. Now I am old, I have largely dropped such grandiose teen metaphor and find Kurt Cobain made music that became unbearable.
If you don’t believe me, it might just be because you’ve pressed the “next” button every time Lithium shuffled onto your player this past decade. This is music that belongs to the time that produced it. This is music that lives better in our cultural memory than it does on iTunes or the playlists of variety adult FM.
When we are young, Everything was Forever, and many of us supposed that Cobain’s death was the Greatest Cost to Culture since the destruction of the Library at Alexandria and Nevermind was the Greatest Album Ever Recorded. Of course, it really was one of the better records of its year. Its tunes weren’t quite as catchy as those in Crowded House’s Woodface, and its cheesy pop-punk production was as nothing when set against the refinement of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Nirvana weren’t so revved-up as Mudhoney nor were they nearly half so dreamily decelerated as My Bloody Valentine. But they were certainly better than MC Hammer.
Now, though, the songs, some of which are very very good, are almost as unlistenable as 2 Legit 2 Quit.
When news of Cobain’s death reached me 20 years ago — it’s not clear which day he died, but it’s around April 5, 1994 — I was struck with a keen sense of loss. So were many other sour teens and 20-somethings who mourned Cobain publicly and privately in 1994. The scale of the grief was substantial. It extended from a vigil in the US Pacific north-west down to Sydney, Australia, where my workplace, a youth-oriented radio station, had become a spot for kids in flannel shirts to leave plastic dolls and heart-shaped boxes; flowers were not the way to remember Kurt. The rubble of our innocence seemed far more apt.
It was a big deal then and it remains so memorable, I can’t just ascribe it to the inflationary passions of youth. From a broadcaster’s standpoint, this of all the untimely ’90s pop deaths — River Phoenix, Jeff Buckley, Shannon Hoon, Michael Hutchence and even Princess Diana — seemed to demand the most careful eulogy. This was not because Cobain was loved more widely or more deeply. He was just loved more epochally.
Chiefly by accident and partly by design, this guy just dovetailed with his era. As the blow-waved force of Guns’n’Roses wilted to a tepid nothing, Cobain’s cold indifference to his own rockstar looks seemed super-hot. It was as though Axl Rose had emerged from a sunless reality where skateboards replaced stretch Hummers and everyone took Ritalin instead of Jack Daniels. He looked and sounded like the agony of a sexless life endured at ordinary speed in an outer suburb and not at all like a fast ride down Sunset with girls, girls, girls.
Nevermind managed to sound exactly like this transition from gaudy rock to punk introspection. If there is a BOSS pedal that can at once mock classic cock rock and embrace it, Kurt certainly had it at his feet. He would go on to denounce the radio-friendly punk of Nevermind. “It’s closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record,” he told a biographer. But it was Cobain who set sweet, certain melodies against vinegary, vague sentiment, and it was Cobain who turned the ambivalence of his age into pop.
Even as a young rock snob more partial to the conceited noise of Sonic Youth or Flipper, I remember being grateful for Cobain. He was to the era’s music much as Tarantino was to the era’s cinema. Which is to say that he made a preference for nostalgic pleasure in pop culture not only permissible but compulsory. To enjoy Smells Like Teen Spirit, you kind of had to admit that you liked the classic rock radio you listened to as a kid. Nevermind was, asPulp Fiction became just a year or two later, a means of processing mass culture through a more learned punk lens.
If you dare to watch Uma Thurman and John Travolta do their reference-rich dance now, it looks kind of hokey. It does not, for all its cunning, stand the test of time because it chronicles a time newly conscious of time. The early ’90s is the first moment that mass culture grabs itself by the tail and starts to consume itself. Quentin Tarantino made a career out of this kind of instructive recycling. Kurt Cobain became, by all accounts, terribly embarrassed by his fondness for the past.
And so his music, which never progressed beyond a contrary and mediocre third album that said nothing more interesting than “I was a punk, you know”, remains stuck in a referential groove that he started but never pursued. That a man who could advance our understanding of the past shut down his own future was what made his death so devastating 20 years ago. And it is what makes his once-great music so unlistenable today.