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Cobain spoke for a generation, but we're grown-ups now

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.

34 responses to “Cobain spoke for a generation, but we're grown-ups now

  1. “The early ’90s is the first moment that mass culture grabs itself by the tail and starts to consume itself”

    Yes, so true, except for the 3 decades immediately before the 90’s, which had already done this with more flair and originality.

    In fact, this was pretty much an exact replica of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s before them.

    Smells like Teen Spirit, Heart-shaped Box and About a Girl are still wonderful songs, and this is what should be remembered, forget the politics and what it felt like to be a teenager then, it was exactly the same as being a teenager in every other era.

    But apart from those songs, Nirvana were more or less a slightly edgier version of the Beatles. Only someone who was unaware of the 3 decades before the 90’s would think of Nirvana as ‘ground-breaking’ in any way.

  2. Personal attacks to one side, this was a beautifully written piece, despite the fact that it only partially resonates for me. I can disagree and still be grateful that HR can write and reflect at this level of quality.

    One thing though: “In Utero” is their best album, and I kinda think that if you were the SY / Flipper aficionado you profess to be you would agree.

  3. Has Helen swallowed a Dictionary? She just tries too hard in this piece to impress with clever words, and a contrary viewpoint.
    Nirvana was a massive high water mark in Indi music. Helen knows it. She diminishes herself by spewing out her own disappointments onto the page.

  4. Helen Razer disappoints much more than Nirvana. Shame. Just another opinion writer with no idea about music. Nirvana is not Massive Attack and vive la difference.

    Arcade Fire’s Win Butler calls Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ a ‘constant source of inspiration’

    I have gotten into that album in the past year only so is relevant for me at age 38.

    I relate to this band in a different way but they still sound phenomenal. I think they were influential not just in fashion and lyrical content but in the dynamics of the songs. Check out Aneurysm and Serve the Servants. Is isn’t loud soft so much as 2 kinds of loud.

    Perhaps Mikey Robbins sucks less. Or Maynard.

  5. Helen your comments about Nirvana suggest you are as much a victim of the media’s treatment of his music as Kurt was. This mindf#ck is a consequence of Nirvana’s music, front and centre, helping to bring a whole generation of outcast artists to centre stage. This is for better and worse. For better because it represents one of those freaky moments in history where something of substance breaks through the wall of wannbes for all to see. For worse because of the inhumane nature of the media and big business means that the vultures will, sooner or later, pick the substance to pieces.

    We can all hail the merits of other bands that were nowhere near as capitalised upon by the mind-numbingly superficial mainstream media, but the fact is Kurt’s music stands tall amongst all of the artists you have chosen to name drop here.

    “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”.

    WTF? Are you seriously attempting to dissect Nevermind by comparing it to the “catchy” tunes of Crowded House or the “refinement” of Massive Attack or the “revved up” Mudhoney? I quote “Nor were they nearly half so dreamily decelerated as My Bloody Valentine” Again WTF? I have all of these artists in my collection so I obviously rate them myself but using them in this ego driven belittling assessment of Nevermind / Nirvana is blatant self serving meism. Yeah sure we’re all grown ups now Helen but what actually happened to you?

  6. This has to be the biggest excuse of a petentious bloviating column i’ve ever read. Nirvana’s music still lives on because the sincerity of it is timeless. Honest music will always outlive the pretentious bloviators.

  7. For me Nirvana captured precisely what it felt like to be an alienated, young member of Gen X or Gen Y. I was only six when Nevermind came out, but I remember the enormous impact it had on everyone – music critics, “underground” music fans, and people who just listened to normal radio all loved them – even my dad respected them. It’s probably the last time any band ever united such a wide group of people.

    I remember Kurt’s death too – it was huge. Years later I still saw people walking around wearing his face on a t-shirt to parties, cricket training, everything. Kurt Cobain and 2Pac were the martyrs of our era.

    I still find their music difficult to listen to in large doses. But a few months ago I pulled out Nevermind and it still sounded incredibly fresh – especially the non-singles and the second side.

    I do agree with this article in one respect – we are in a different era now, with a different sound. Kurt gave voice to a disenchanted youth in a prosperous era. We now live in economically uncertain times. Music today has a different mood – not loud anger, but quiet, restrained resignation. Not everything about Nirvana would work today.

    1. “It’s probably the last time any band ever united such a wide group of people.”
      Good call, Lachlan. I was in a few punk/new wave/whatever bands in the late 70s/early 80s and a music fanatic, then drifted away as other cares took hold and the 80s turned into the most godawful decade for music in history (with apologies to Talking Heads, The Cure and maybe one or two others I can’t recall.) I would have been about 30 when I first heard Teen Spirit somewhere on mainstream radio and it was like getting a bucket of cold water tipped over your head. Jaw-dropping. Music mattered again.

  8. Cobain’s music was just the catchy tip of a very diverse iceberg and it’s poppiness made Nirvana a contact
    point between the murky and interesting underground scene that had brewed over the 80’s and the mainstream schlock that had just run out of puff. I like Nirvana but it’s just a bit boring and disposable compared to, say, Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose” or “Drunken Butterfly” by Sonic Youth, both of which still feature in my playlist through their sheer power and originality. I think lots of bands copied the Nirvana anthemic power chord style till it became formulaic (not to mention the Cobain/ Vedder) “yarling” vocals (Creed anyone? Cue vomiting …). The 70s punk scene was the same in that the big acts like the sex pistols masked AND inspired more interesting stuff going on in the background. The basic punk songs are boring now but their descendants have more merit (compare minor threat to fugazi).I also think the fact that Nirvana set the template for the subsequent wave of corporate pop-rock makes their music less listenable now because of that association, not because the music itself was that terrible.

    1. Successful = 2nd rate is always a limp argument mostly used by the insufferably hip to underline how superior their tastes are to the hoi polloi. And saying, “I also think the fact that Nirvana set the template for the subsequent wave of corporate pop-rock makes their music less listenable now because of that association…” shows you’re dragged down by the “culture” anchor as much as Razer. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and it’s hardly the flattered’s fault if the imitators are crap.
      I know we’re all post-modern now but FFS, how about just listening to the music? You don’t have to be 16 like Louisa Simmonds’ kid to escape the “associations” and set your ears free. I’m in my 50s and I can still do it.

      1. I’m not saying Nirvana is crap because their imitators were crap. I don’t think they’re crap, I think they’re awesome. The first time I heard them it was revelatory. What I mean is that people like Helen may have been desensitised to that style of music because it became kind of cliche as a result of being done to death. In other words, for some people, the brilliance of
        Nirvana got lost in the crowd. The fact the I like other bands more does not make me some snobbish hipster either. I’m a pudgy 40 year old school teacher whose tastes (unforgivably it seems) differ from yours. The fact that you seem to think it’s ok to have a go at me , from behind the security of a pseudonym, for expressing an opinion that you don’t agree with is a bit cowardly and pathetic “tyges”. My name actually IS Jim, what’s yours?

        1. I did say “mostly”, Jim, given I’ve heard that sort of line a thousand times before, “mostly” from the mouths of the insufferably hip. My apologies if you’re an exception to the rule.
          Not sure how “Jim” identifies you, either, Jim. My name’s Bob.

  9. Got to admit that I only really discovered Kurt Cobain and Nirvana recently, through the music journey of my sixteen year old son. He is surrounded by teenage musos who still worship the culture, music and messages left by Kurt Cobain – whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I don’t find the sound dated at all, not in comparison to much of the gumph that made it onto the radio station at that time, anyway.

  10. When did this article get moved from Politics to Daily Review and all the previous comments binned in the process?

    Not sure I know of any music that doesn’t sound “of its time”: Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, The Beatles and the list goes on. All were representative of the intellectual and cultural milieu they inhabited. So while all music – and all art for that matter – is “dated”, that much overused term says nothing about quality, relevance or durability.
    As far as Kurt doubting the worth of his artistic output, well fancy that! “Tortured, depressive outsider artist thinks he’s crap”. Stop the presses!
    Kafka ordered all his works destroyed on his deathbed. Fortunately his wishes were ignored and we got to see for ourselves what a rubbish writer he was.

    Let’s just contrast HR’s analysis of Nirvana’s music:

    “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”,

    with that of Israeli musician, composer and musical theorist Gilad Cohen:

    “…a closer look at the music of the leading grunge bands would unveil unique, innovative characteristics. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam – all share similar harmonic idioms, in which they present a fascinating mix of using traditional rock patterns from previous decades, while seeking new harmonic possibilities. The common use of the Phrygian mode, the use of power chords as the basic harmonic unit (which many times blurs the definition between major and minor keys), the frequent cross relations between sequential chords and chromatic clashes between melody and harmony – all became trademarks of the genre.”

    Drop the “culture” anchor, nevermind the music, eh, Helen. Careful you don’t eat your own tail.

    1. This!

      I read your contributions as a matter of course Raze, but you really are close to dissapearing up your own fundament with this rubbish.

  11. If you replaced every instance of Nirvana or Kurt’s name in this article with JJJ, this article would be far more accurate.

    What does this hatchet job make Helen? A cultural academic? Musician worth listening too? Or youth radio presenter who is vicariously lamenting the expiration of her used by date by attempting to retrospectively take down an influential band/artist who still resonates with old and young listeners alike.

    Stick to whatever transient audience you still have left Helen. I can’t think of anyone else who would care for such an irrelevant opinion.

  12. I think you harden your heart too quickly Ms Razer. The 1990’s were a petri dish for music that didn’t fit the “Top 100” bill, & I don’t think anything has come close in the intervening years to the sound, message & delivery of Nevermind. I still play it 20 years on & thoroughly enjoy listening to it, albeit in a vastly different way. And no, it’s not a nostalgic connection, it’s a visceral one. Yes, Mudhoney, Fugazi & Sonic Youth were more composed, focussed, eloquent or whatever but they lacked the rawness, vulnerability & sheer in your face-ed-ness that Nirvana brought to the (turn)table.

    While Nirvana has been surpassed in many ways by the success of the Foo Fighters & the longevity of Pearl Jam, they remain the undisputed driving life force of that period. Yes they plucked & pilfered, a little here a little there but they did so with astonishing creativity & originality. And let’s be honest, who the hell doesn’t pilfer & pluck these days? Nirvana reworked the old into something entirely different, new & utterly exciting. The Foo Fighters & Pearl Jam wouldn’t have the success they do today without Nirvana, & the same could be said for a lot of other (old & new) bands as well. They gave music a long overdue kick in the pants & made us all realise/remember that there was more to music than hammer time & big, dumb hair.

    Kurt chose, for whatever reason, to check out. I’m sad as hell he’s gone & I wish he’d just chosen to retire. But the fact remains that Nirvana & Mr Kurt Cobain will remain, forever, a shining light in an otherwise entirely vanilla musical landscape.

    Vale Kurt Cobian, vale.

  13. Several weeks after Cobain’s death, I saw what is still perhaps my favourite tshirt ever in Redfern.

    On the front, a picture of Cobain.

    On the back the text:

    Nice Shootin’, Son

  14. Once again Helen, you’re over-thinking it. I suppose it would be silly to expect you to not say something controversial, but really, when did you last listen to Nevermind? In my opinion (see what I did there Peter), it hasn’t lost anything. Last night I sat down to jam with a couple of guys who are both ten years younger than me, and less experience musicians. I was pleasantly surprised when they wanted to add Nirvana to the list.

  15. I must admit to agreeing to most of what this article touches on (superfluous adjectives aside), however, I still get mild chills when the opening stanza of Smells like teen spirit comes on the radio (I think i even heard it on Gold 104), but probably because of the palpable link to my own rebellious start in life and to some extent the awakening of my own personality, which of course is the beauty of reminiscence… but i digress. If you have ever played the song on a very distorted and loud amplifier with your own axe, a very base instinctual feeling takes over you and moshing quickly ensues!

    On another note i got married 3 and a half years ago and my dance was the pulp fiction dance…

  16. There are many people now ‘older’ who still find resonance in songs such as Come As You Are, Lithium, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and hey what about Unplugged?. People mature differently. I don’t think many of us have Sonic Youth on our playlists these days. In my view the songs have held up and I would say that Nevermind is a seminal work.
    The music aside, in my opinion Kurt was a victim of two things:
    1. He bought ‘the myth’ of the music industry and his perceived role in it and he didn’t need to.
    2. He had severe mental health issues and the early 90’s was a time when many artistic people shunned the use of anti-depressants, and in his case, self medicated with heroin. He was clinically depressed but unable to get help by virtue of his own uninformed views and being surrounded by others unable and unwilling to recognise his issues did not assist. There was of course a lot of money to be made.

  17. … well, this little late 30’s grunge-punk-lawyer still blasts his ear drums with radio friendly unit shifter on a regular basis – so there!

    I’ve grown up but my love for the music has not changed at all.

    My feeling about Cobain has changed though: from ‘rock super star’ (i hate that voice of a generation rubbish) to ‘unrecovered addict’. He died as a result of that addiction (as do many, Cobain was just one famous).

  18. Helen, I think you forgot to add ‘in my opinion’ in giant letters.

    Just because for you Nirvana was all about your own attitudes and you’ve ‘moved on’ from those, doesn’t actually have any bearing on whether it was a great album or not.

    To many people that album is still a legitimate high water mark in rock/alt music history, and the follow-up a lot more interesting than the glib one-liner you use here to dismiss it.

    1. I think the ‘in my opinion’ is implied.

      Readers such as yourself shouldn’t require every little detail pointed out to them.

      Think for yourself, and be an intelligent and active reader.

    2. I think you are missing the complexity of Helen’s argument/article, not that it wasnt great, but that it didnt live to pursue its own potential for all time greatness, Cobain opened the chasm and his death caved it in. I think it is a fantastic article and encapsulates not only the genre of the time but the loss, the poignancy that somehow symbolically comes with Cobain – which thus renders it unlistenable ( because of the poignancy and associated grief and loss). Maybe I have it wrong!? This is how I interpreted it anyway. Helen we have missed you, come back!


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