This past week marked the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. For me, personally, this isn’t a huge milestone, even though I’m a loyal Nirvana fan. I was not quite twelve when Cobain (allegedly) offed himself. That’s a weird age for music lovers – we know what we like but we can’t quite figure out why yet. I had just barely discovered Nirvana, and I think their only album I had was a hand-me-down copy of In Utero that someone had given me because half the songs on it skipped. Having just gotten my first CD player, the only other disks I had were Billy Joel’s River of Dreams, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, and that one TLC album. You know the one. We all had it. Don’t pretend you didn’t. Point is, I didn’t dive deep with grunge until after Kurt was gone, and by then grunge was already changing. Not that I knew it at the time.
What’s most interesting about his death, though, is the effect it had on the cultural landscape outside of music. The event was huge news even for non-Nirvana fans. That so rarely happened in the barely pre-digital age. It made CNN and not just MTV News, right? But why? Because it was Tipper Gore’s worst nightmare, probably. In the wake of the Judas Priest/Ozzy Osbourne suicide scares of the golden age of metal, having an icon actually kill himself rather than using suicide as a metaphor was really fucking scary for America. My middle school had grief counselors on hand that week, the one act of compassion I ever saw from my school system. Which is saying a lot, considering that I was in high school when Columbine happened and they did fuck-all for us then.
There’s an episode of Family Guy where Stewie goes back in time and talks Kurt out of pulling the trigger. When he returns to his own future he finds a CD with a chubby, balding, flannel-clad Cobain on the cover, an acoustic retrospective album of Nirvana songs, if I recall correctly. Stewie just smiles, but I can’t tell if it’s a happy smile or an I-just-perpetrated-evil smile. Either way, it’s a good moment. Kurt would be 47 now, and I wonder what would have happened if he had made it this far. Would he have gone the way of Elvis, and died pitifully, fat and alone, forever the poster boy for misspent middle age? Or would he have pulled a preemptive Eddie Vedder, and mellowed into comfortable awesomeness? We could speculate, but there’s no way to know. We definitely wouldn’t have The Foo Fighters or Queens of the Stone Age in their current incarnations. And we probably would have had to listen to more stupid shit fall out of Courtney Love’s word hole. It’s a horrifying prospect, if you think about it too hard.
The world has changed so much in these last twenty years. And, yes, I know that could be said about any given twenty years of human history. But the truth is, the internet blows the industrial revolution, the postwar boom, free love, and disco right out of the water. Go ahead, try to fight me on this one. So I wonder what he and the band would have done with the technology we have now. Would he have a Twitter feed? Would they have weighed in on the Napster fight? The Ticketmaster fight? Would he have benefited from the advances in medicine for drug addiction? The music industry’s changed. Music consumption has changed. Music fans and fandom itself have changed.
Part of that change, I think, is the big surge in darkness that happened in the late 90s. Everything got extra agro super fast. Maybe it was our fear of/obsession with teens finding Wicca. Maybe it was New Wave fans reaching adulthood. Maybe it was the rapid increase in antidepressant prescriptions. Maybe it was a reaction against raver culture. Maybe we felt the comedy bubble pop and got sad. I don’t know. But it definitely happened. Perhaps fans of country music or sitcoms or sportsball or whatever didn’t notice it as much as my angsty, small-town metalhead friends and I did. Or maybe we were just teenagers in the wrong place at the right time, and we saw it suddenly, at the same age as everyone else. Has that looming darkness always been there? It’s possible. Can the downer nature of an entire generation be traced directly to Kurt killing himself? I really doubt it, but I won’t say it wasn’t a factor at all. We will never produce happyslappy music in such quantities as the seemingly more cheerful generations that came before us. We will, thank god, never create another Beach Boys. Maybe the younger folks will. That could be their rebellion. It could already be happening and I’m just unaware of it because I live in a media bubble.
Anyway. Yesterday, on the day I was supposed to post this, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For once I have an excuse for a post being late. I wanted to watch the video, and I want you to watch it, too. I know this sounds cliché, but I really think that Nirvana is one of those bands that, while their body of work is pretty small, have influenced countless bands that came after them. If you’re not a Nirvana fan, you’re probably a fan of someone who is. And that ripple effect is more important than the band itself. It always will be. Good on them. Congratulations, gentlemen.