Why We Need to Stop Talking About Kurt Cobain
Miley Cyrus, Imagine Dragons, Little Mix and The Muppets pay their respects.
Photo by Bruce Pavitt
If you've been near anyone with even a passing interest in music over the last few days, you won't have failed to notice that last Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. Also the 5th anniversary of the 15th anniversary of his death, and the 10th anniversary of the 10th anniversary, such is the fervor with which the media like to mark his passing.
Tributes to the late Seattle icon ranged from covers of popular Nirvana tracks, interviews with "friends" and collaborators, the standard "I KNEW HIM BETTER THAN YOU" brigade, and this weird article from some dude in Australia who really got into the respectful spirit by saying Nirvana were crap in comparison to a band called Lubricated Goat –basically a butthurt YouTube comment turned into a feature.
Two decades on and Cobain remains the archetypal tortured icon; beaten only by Bob Marley, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ as the most marketable dead guy in the world. But why?
It's easy to see how Kurt has attained an almost religious status among those who found the Roman Catholic Church somewhat lacking – he was also the opposite of what an deity is supposed to be: effervescent and aspirational. Kurt was just a man standing there and saying, "Everything is shit. I hate myself. It's not just you".
Ironically, everything that Kurt hated is ensuring he continues to be at the forefront of the dead celebrity yard-sale. It's cynical, but having passed away both at the peak of his popularity and at an age where he still looked like fresh meat ready to be bedded, Kurt's image is prime fodder for things that are sold with peoples faces on them. Sitting next to Rihanna, The Beatles and the cover to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, you'll find Kurt inevitably peering out from the T-shirt rails of Primark. There's a very visible reason why he winds up there instead of, say, Billy Corgan and it isn't because Primark is constantly inundated with uni lads humming "Rape Me" while browsing through floral patterned jumpers. It's because Kurt is beautiful and he can no longer speak for himself - that has always been what sells.
Of course, no Kurt death anniversary, (or KDAs as they're no doubt abbreviated in Geffen's accountant's diary) includes the rehashing of former glories at the behest of someone looking to rack together some cash for the Christmas Party or the new video from The Vamps. Nirvana's In Utero — an album that was intended, from its songwriting to its choice of Steve Albini on production, to be a return to the band's unpolished roots— was reissued and remastered for its 20th anniversary last year. Nevermind, too, received the remastering / reissuing treatment in 2011 to almost universal dismay from fans, while every Record Store Day or anniversary seems to come complete with a slightly new version of what is essentially a pretty small canon of work to still be ploughing two decades later. Are they all necessarily worthy re-evaluations that add something worth adding? No. Will they make people money? Yes.
But all this is nothing compared to the ongoing contentious battle over the "rights" to Cobain's legacy. While Courtney Love is still at loggerheads with former Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic (Love recently professed that even sitting with them at Nirvana's forthcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be "awkward"), there seems to be an endless array of terrible decisions made regarding the way both Cobain and the band's wares are treated – a kind of playground one-upmanship; anything you can do, I can do worse. Grohl and Novoselic decide to play with permanently chirpy, thumbs up fan Paul McCartney for the first time since sharing a stage in Nirvana, leading to a hastily-dubbed "reunion", but with the happiest man in pop replacing the angriest; Courtney decides to back 'Kurt Cobain: The Musical'. Neither, you feel, is what the singer would be choosing to spend his time on had he the choice, but the two parties' ongoing disagreements are prime news fodder nonetheless.
Cobain, through no fault of his own, has descended into meaningless, depressing madness. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" alone has so far been covered in full by Miley Cyrus, Imagine Dragons, Little Mix and The Muppets, as well as being featured numerous times on The X Factor and cropping up in a Jay Z and Justin Timberlake song. Fearne Cotton, after a lengthy pledge of her Nirvana fandom, played it on her Radio 1 show this week as a tribute to the man, despite the fact the he had grown to hate the song and its popularity.
The tributes surrounding Kurt over the last week have been heartfelt nods to one of the most inspirational and important figures in MTV history. But to preserve Cobain's legacy in a way that even slightly relates to how it began, maybe we need to talk about him less.
Follow Lisa on Twitter: @LisaAnneWright