Presented at the National Communication Association Convention
On April 8, 1994, one of the dominant forces in 1990s youth subculture put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist for the punk/grunge band Nirvana, thereby ended not only his own seemingly successful career and life, but also one of the great rock and roll anti-movements of the century. Certainly, Cobain was not the first overwrought rock star to take his own life. However, nearly three years after the act, his death (as well as his life) is still a topic at the heart of youth subculture. As the unwilling spokesperson for a subculture with nothing to claim for its own but angst, fear and disaffection, Cobain’s music and lyrics spoke (loud) volumes about the troubled society we live in. His musical career was a cry of anguish; his suicide stands as an exclamation point.
For those of us who claimed membership in the "disaffected youth" subculture so commonly labeled "Generation X," (I wish I had time to unpack all the baggage that name brings with it, but that would be another paper) Cobain’s death has taken on a significance far beyond his corpus of work. Four albums worth of new material and two sets of rereleases does not guarantee a place in the rock and roll canon; however, Cobain has claimed a place, all the while having claimed that he didn’t really want it. This tension, between his words and his acts, may lie at or near the heart of his suicide at age 27. Popular music critics and social pundits certainly seem to think so. I think, however, that there may be more to it than that. A look at the scenes in which Cobain lived, played, worked and suffered suggests that the scenes had a significant impact on his life and its end.
Those interplays between Cobain’s scenes make naming them difficult. There was the Generation X youth subculture, much of whose lore emanates from Seattle in the early 1990s. There was the world of popular music, which Nirvana made a huge mark on with the success of their 1991 release "Nevermind." There was the mass culture of the early 1990s, which paid Cobain and his band, as well as his troubled family, a great deal of attention. Finally, there was the man himself, struggling with his fame and his goals. These layers intersect at many points, one of which represents the crossing-over of alternative, youth subculture into the mass culture. Nirvana was the first of a new generation of "punk" or alternative bands to achieve mass commercial success.
Nirvana’s short stint in the spotlight of popular music and youth culture was filled with fame, money, drugs, anger and resentment. Cobain’s impact on Generation X is undeniable. In the wake of Nirvana’s first major-label release, "Nevermind," in 1991, several bands began waving the "grunge" banner. Bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Seaweed, Tad (the list goes on and on) began playing dissonant, angry rock music with lyrics filled with self-hate and disempowerment. Like Nirvana, several of these bands hailed from Seattle, which quickly became the center of the popular music/youth subculture universe. In fact, the Seattle scene became such a focusing point for the subculture that it began sucking people into it. Bands and punk kids from all across America were moving to the Emerald City, hoping to meet the right people and get their piece of the action.
With some measure of fame and influence in his pocket, Cobain’s suicide appears especially bizarre. Other musicians had died at the peak of their careers (Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, etc.), but few had assumed the almost messianic (to those who paid any attention to him) position of the down-and-out, heroin-addicted, divorced/remarried, ulcer-ridden product of a depressed and depressing blue collar town (Aberdeen, WA). In the months after Cobain took his life, psychoanalysts, music writers and social critics worked overtime to explain his final act, but their explanations all seem incomplete. As a member of Kurt Cobain’s generation, I am not convinced that any of their explanations provides a motive for his suicide. Certainly he was a sick man, both physically and mentally; certainly the demands of his fame conflicted with his artistic instincts. There seems, however, to be much more to the situation than any of these thumbnail sketches.
One way of unlocking the depth of Cobain’s motives for suicide is to look at his life and death through the dramatistic pentad. Burke’s theory, rooted in the concepts that all rhetoric is action and that all acts are rhetorical, lets us consider Cobain’s band, his music, his style, his scene and his impact as aspects of his motivation. In fact, I would suggest that, given the pentad’s structure, this theory suggests that we look at his suicide in a different way. Applying Burke’s pentad and circumference models to Kurt Cobain’s suicide may help explain the event and its significance in a way that both scholars and students can find useful. For scholars, applying an academic method to a mainstream culture artifact helps us connect with the larger society we work in, as well as with our students. For students, this kind of project shows them that their teachers are human beings as well, and, more importantly, that their experiences are valuable in the academy. Beyond that, both teachers and students can learn more productive ways to be critical of their cultures.
Burke’s system of ratios gives us a way of talking about Cobain’s suicide that goes beyond standard popular press sophistication. I find two ratios especially interesting to look at: scene-agent and scene-agency. Ultimately, I believe, the motives for Cobain’s suicide come down to a question of whether the Seattle/alternative/punk/pop-music/mass culture scene in which he existed subsumed his agency. If so, then we might say that he was no longer an agent when he made music, since what he did was, at least to some degree, unwilling.
As a starting point, I would begin by assigning details of Cobain’s suicide to places on the pentad. The act, clearly, is the suicide itself. He killed himself in his house in Seattle; the house, then, is the most immediate scene; a long look at the notion of circumference will complicate that idea a little later in the paper. Cobain is the actor, although there are conspiracy theorists out there who suggest that his death might be a murder (they argue that he couldn’t possibly have held the rifle and shot it at himself as their key piece of evidence). Purpose is a difficult term. His suicide note, which we’ll look at in some detail, claims that he felt his usefulness had come to an end. He wasn’t creative; he wasn’t satisfying his fans; he wasn’t satisfying himself. Therefore, we might say that his purpose in suicide was to fix what was broken about his life - everything. Agency is another complicated term. For Burke, agency is the power/authority by which the agent commits the act. In the most immediate sense, the agency of Cobain’s suicide is the rifle. This sense, however, doesn’t really help us understand the event. All we know from this sense of agency is that the gun was powerful enough to kill him - not a very revealing insight.
We can make an interesting issue of agency, however, by taking a step back from the scene itself, and looking at the event in different contexts. To explain the usefulness of these different looks, Burke has developed the term "circumference." In keeping with Burke’s unwillingness to define terms clearly, there is no explicit description of the term in his work. The concept seems to be centered around this idea:
The word [circumference] reminds us that, when ‘defining by location,’ one may place the object of one’s definition in contexts of varying scope. And our remarks on the scene-act ratio, for instance, suggest that the choice of circumference for the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself. (Grammar 77)
In other words, any discussion of scenes, acts or other parts of the pentad will be imbedded within a certain circumference. Changing the circumference changes the ratios of pentadic elements, thus affecting our readings by changing our terministic screens.
Our terministic screens provide us ways of reading events; however, they also preclude our reading events in certain ways:
Even if any given terminology is areflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be aselection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as adeflection of reality. (Action 45)
Herein lies my complaint with most attempts at explaining Kurt Cobain’s life and death. Too many writers have not looked through other terministic screens, i.e., not looked outside their circumferences, for motives. To a psychologist, any aberrant act is motivated by aberrant psychology; to a music critic, the fate of any musician is at the whim of a fickle marketplace; to a social critic, the demise of any person is explainable in terms of the collapse of civilization as we know it (I know that not all social critics are so pessimistic, but the ones who chose to write about Kurt Cobain certainly were). The point, to paraphrase the adage, is that when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.
We are doing a disservice to the life and work of Kurt Cobain to write him off as just another psychotic freak who could play a guitar. We are doing a similar disservice to include him in the long list of celebrities who couldn’t handle the pressures of stardom. I think we can begin to get to the heart of the matter by looking at Kurt Cobain from a variety of perspectives: rock star, twenty-something, and perhaps most importantly as the voice of a substantial portion of American youth subculture. For this group of kids and young adults, Cobain may be the most influential figure of the decade.
I want to start my analysis by establishing some personality traits of Cobain-as-agent. Writers who covered the troubled musician during and after his career probably were not surprised by his suicide. After all, some two months earlier, Cobain had been hospitalized in Rome, Italy; he had been discovered in the bathtub of his hotel room, in a coma apparently brought on by mixing heroin, barbiturates and champagne. The popular music press raged with debates over whether he had attempted suicide. The only comment Cobain made came out as soon as he came out of the coma. He looked around at the crowd of press and fans in his hospital room and said, "What am I doing here? Get these fucking tubes out of my nose" (Handy).
After his recovery from the Rome incident, the short remainder of Cobain’s life appeared to be going well. In his last interview, he claimed to have kicked his heroin habit, stopped drinking and cured himself of chronic stomach pains that had troubled him for years. Also, his marriage to Courtney Love, an original "Riot Grrl" and lead screamer for the band Hole, looked to be relatively stable. ("The Riot Grrls" are feminist punk rockers.) The couple had been plagued by drug abuse and purported physical and verbal abuse (going both ways) throughout their two-year marriage, which hit rock bottom when a Seattle social-worker took their daughter Frances Bean away from them, declaring them unfit parents. All of those problems appeared to working themselves out, however. "I’ve never been happier in my life," Cobain claimed (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 37). His own words paint a picture of a man who is in control of his life for the first time in a long time, maybe ever. He seems happy, content, and ready to get on with his business. Ironically, it was during that same interview that he talked about his gun collection (from which the suicide weapon comes) publicly for the first time. He explained that he liked to shoot targets, but could never shoot a human being (39). Sometime after January of 1994, I guess he decided he was no longer a human being.
Such a self-concept would not be surprising coming from the man who penned lyrics like these from Nirvana’s first hit song, 1991’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit":
Load up on guns
And bring your friends
It’s fun to lose
And to pretend
She’s over bored
Oh no, I know
A dirty word
(see Appendix I for complete lyrics)
This stanza, along with the vast majority of Cobain’s lyrics, is packed with negativity. Perhaps Cobain thought "It’s fun to lose" because he had never really experienced winning. The idea that "self-assured" is a "dirty word" is not especially positive either; people with self-confidence are "dirty." I also cannot help but notice the references to guns. The first line is obvious, but "She’s over bored" is a very subtle double entendre. At first, I took the line to mean that "she" is a woman who is simply too bored to be any fun. This characterization of a woman, who is unnamed and may therefore suggest any woman, is no shock given Cobain’s antisocial nature. However, if we insert a hyphen between "over" and "bored," the resulting adjective describes guns that may be too powerful for their casings, possibly exploding in the shooter’s hands.
Along with the negative impressions these lyrics create, there is also an air of passivity that pervades Cobain’s work as well. The starkest example is from the 1993 release "In Utero," which featured the song "Rape Me." Cobain repeatedly screamed the chorus of the song: "Rape me, rape me, rape me again!" Probably the most famous example is the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit":
With the lights out
It’s less dangerous
Here we are now
I feel stupid
Here we are now
In this chorus, Kurt Cobain has provided us with the lines that may have become an anthem for the 1990s: "Here we are now. Entertain us." Cobain, in fact, may very well have encapsulated the feelings of much of so-called Generation X. Cobain did not really seem to think that this small part of a song would become the slacker/grunge/punk mantra; in fact, he wrote it to describe his own feelings about going to parties:
"That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice. A lot of times, when you're standing around with people in a room, it's really boring and uncomfortable. So it was 'Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here'." (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 38)
Of course, part of the reason that these lyrics have become the catch-phrase they have is that they are the most comprehensible in the whole song (I must have heard this song three hundred times, but until I actually read the lyrics, I had no idea what most of the words were).
Cobain-as-agent has said much here about the generation (scene) to which he belongs. The primary message is the sloughing of responsibility, even in so mundane a context. The point is that when he goes to parties, he does not want to take an active role in the situation. He would prefer to have the fun brought to him. If a situation is "boring or uncomfortable," it must be because the host of the party is not working hard enough. In other words, the situation is bad because somebody else made it that way. This forfeiting of agency (he could have been active at parties if he’d wanted to), captured in a simple song lyric, may ultimately reflect the tension Cobain felt in his own life. There is something to be said for the idea that his suicide was the most active role he ever took in anything.
I am not arguing that Cobain was the kind of person who sat and let the world pass him by without comment. Clearly, he wrote songs that angrily described his perception of dark hopelessness. While he may have been crying loudly over the pain and anguish of America’s youth, he did so with an edge that made people listen. Music critic Alexander Star suggests:
Cobain’s music was both more melodic and more abrasive than the grunge norm. He usually eschewed the therapeutic vignettes of the ‘recovery rock’ bands, and vented his spleen directly at the audience . . . . (42)
I do need to clarify two points about Star’s analysis. First, Nirvana essentially established the "grunge norm"; any comparison should be made against them. Second, the "recovery rock" bands to which he refers are socially conscious bands like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, who seek to redeem themselves from what they see as the darkness of the times. Cobain, conversely, did not mince words when it came to expressing his despondency. He had given up hope long ago and did not hide that fact from his audience. In terms of the agent-agency ratio, we might say that Cobain’s agency (music) signifies his loss of agency. He seems to consider himself an unwilling agent.
In addition to his lyrics, Cobain’s music similarly mixes moods. The vast majority of Nirvana songs follow a pattern of moving from hard power-rock riffs to softer, slower melodic sections during verses. The dynamic of the music suggests the same passive-aggressiveness that the lyrics do, i.e., switching back and forth between anger and depression. Music and social critics describe the effect in a variety of ways. Dick Dahl, in theUtne Reader, says:
Like the Replacements, Nirvana describes a world of youthful alienation. Sometimes the music broods, sometimes it swaggers. But it does so in a dark intellectual valley walled off on one end by mindless adolescence and on the other by the empty, spirit-killing world of adulthood. (42-43)
In this passage, Dahl has located Nirvana in a scene that few could hope to live in happily. He has placed Kurt Cobain at the crossroads between his unhappy childhood and his hopeless adulthood, a condition that many young adults claim to find themselves in. A less analytical but nonetheless interesting observation about Nirvana’s sound comes from Chris Mundy ofRolling Stone, who says, "If guitars could talk, Cobain’s would scream, melodically and irreverently, ‘What are you looking at?’" (Mundy 39).
I’ve claimed that Cobain’s work paints bleak pictures; there is also a way to look at them, and his personality in general, that suggests a dark sense of humor. The fact that he would pun on guns in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is one example. This story (I apologize for its length, but the writing is too good to pass up) is another:
Blood is pouring onto the floor of Nirvana’s dressing room. To make matters worse, the source of the bleeding - a fan with a hole in his head where his front tooth used to be - has gone into shock and is convulsing uncontrollably
Only a few minutes earlier he was just one in a stupefied throng of 900 fans in . . . Belgium, fanatically watching the carnage. Nirvana lead singer-guitarist-instigator Kurt Cobain followed a headfirst dive into the crowd by clawing his way back on-stage and systematically spitting on members of the audience . . . Cobain then took violent offense with the drums . . . splintering the kit like firewood. Next stop, a Marshall amp, which Cobain stabbed repeatedly with the neck of his guitar before he and [bassist Chris] Novoselic put the finishing touches on their instruments by smashing them together five times, the final impact shattering the bass and sending hunks of lumber into the crowd, striking the aforementioned fan flush in the face. The show, at this point, was over, Nirvana having done nothing if not put danger back into rock and roll. Cash from chaos . . . Oh, well, whatever, nevermind.
Backstage, Novoselic is kneeling next to the convulsing fan, trying to console him, as paramedics strap him to a chair and wheel him away. [Drummer Dave] Grohl has walked back into the empty hall, found the dislodged tooth, intact, in front of the stage and is making plans to turn it into a piece of jewelry. And Cobain is wandering through the wreckage. "Hey, everybody," he says repeatedly. "Why so glum?" (Mundy 38)
The point of this story is not to show that Kurt Cobain was a comedian; instead, I am suggesting that his personality was one that at times took some kind of dark pleasure in the angst that it, at other times, cried out in pain from. Again, I must resist the temptation to psychoanalyze him. I can, however, say with some degree of comfort that Cobain’s personality was at best unstable. Even he described himself as, "as schizophrenic as a wet cat that’s been beaten" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 36).
The story of the Belgium concert illustrates another important point about Cobain’s personality. At times he was willing to wear the hat of the "punk," the destructive (of both self and property), nihilistic angry young man. His diving into the crowd and smashing instruments was not original. Pete Townshend, guitarist for the Who, had been smashing guitars on stage since 1965. Slam-dancing and crowd-surfing had been popular since the late 1970s, as punks’ badge that they were willing to trust even their bodies to each other while they disclaimed membership in any other social group. Cobain’s adoption of these punk idioms indicates that he was at least sympathetic to certain punk ideologies. In an obituary in theNew Yorker, Alex Ross, one of legion commentators on Cobain’s death, writes, "Cobain was at once irritated and intrigued by the randomness of his new audience. He lashed out at the ‘jock numbskulls, frat boys and metal kids’ who jammed clubs and arenas for his . . . tours. But he liked the idea of bending their minds toward his own punk ideals and left-leaning politics . . . " (104). Cobain was a punk, but he resented the misappropriation of his "punk ideals" by the mainstream youth culture. He seems to have perceived mainstream youth culture as having latched onto something in his music other than its message of pain.
This idea of misappropriation raises a key set of issues in understanding Cobain’s life and death, which we can examine in terms of the scene-agency ratio. While Ross claims that Cobain "liked the idea of bending their minds," Cobain himself disclaims the role as the voice of a generation. In his own words, "'I never wanted to sing . . . . I just wanted to play rhythm guitar -- hide in the back and just play'" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 35). Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, in their analysis of underground rock movementsThe Sex Revolts, suggest:
Commentators described Nirvana's constituency as the 'slacker' generation, twentysomethings who were directionless, incapable of personal or political commitment. Similarly, Cobain talked about feeling 'disgusted with my generation's apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness'. Nirvana's music quakes with the frustration of the slacker who wants to become vertebrate. But . . . Nirvana couldn't shift from dormant to militant because, like most of the American underground, they were sceptical about attempts to politicise rock and marshal it into a movement. (Reynolds and Press 98)
If Reynolds and Press are correct, then perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Cobain was not unwilling to speak to his generation; rather, we might say that he thought he was unable to do so (more to come on that idea). Although this reading provides some interesting food for thought, I’m not convinced that Reynolds and Press are correct; neither is David Fricke in aRolling Stone obituary:
Never mind all the standard-issue babble about Generation X. There was nothing blank about the way Cobain articulated his broken dreams and wrapped up his discontent and, by extension, that of his audience, in roughshod song. When the shit hit the fans, they knew it for what it was -- the plain truth. ("Heart-shaped" 65)
Suffice it to say, nobody can say for certain what Kurt Cobain’s motivations were for writing the songs and assuming the persona that he did. At best, we can see influences competing for his energy: the desire to live a private life and the desire to be a celebrity. At worst, we can see a man whose indecision ultimately cost him his life. This tension between his desire to be a musician and the youth subculture’s desire to label him a messiah may be at the root of his demise.
As this discussion continues, I want to begin paying more attention to the effect of changing circumferences on our reading of an act. Therefore, I begin with a comparatively narrow circumference - the 1990s punk/disaffected youth subculture. Earlier, I pointed out some of the key terms within this circumference: the "Seattle scene" and the "grunge (anti)movement" are two particularly important phrases.
Through this lens, we can say that the "scene" consisted of a number of bands and their fans. The focus was loud, abrasive, self-deprecating music, along the attending fashions and attitudes. Alex Ross, in his aforementioned obituary, explains:
In the deep dusk of the Bush Administration, some segments of the nation’s youth undoubtedly identified with Cobain’s punkish world view, his sympathies and discontents, and yes, the diminished opportunities of an entire generation. Others just got off on the crushing power of the sound. (104)
Ross’ description touches on the mood of many teenagers and young adults in the early 1990s. Because he uses the word "identified" in this passage, here we need to look at another of Burke’s key ideas, the concept of "identification." Again, there is no clear definition of the term inA Rhetoric of Motives, so I will try to construct one to work with. The concept of identification, for Burke, is rooted in the notion of "substance," which indicates that which underlies any two ideas. In other words, two ideas share some of the same substance (are "consubstantial") if they derive from the same principle. Burke suggests that rhetors use consubstantiation, i.e., identification, as rhetorical strategy:
All told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a ‘pure’ form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being. (Rhetoric x)
In general, then, the point is that rhetors seek to identify with their audiences so that the speakers’ messages share certain connections with the ideas of the audience members. But what happens when the identification is unintentional on the part of the speaker? Cobain said he didn’t intend to be a spokesperson (although he also indicates in his suicide note that he feels like he’s failed his fans - his psyche is certainly difficult to untangle).
We know, however, that many of his listeners looked to him for certain messages. In other words, his audience identified with him, perhaps much more than he identified with them. The outpouring of media coverage in the weeks after Cobain’s death provides a wealth of examples; two articles are representative, both in tone and in content. The first is a letter to the editor ofTime, in which the writer claims:
Many think Cobain was selfish and crude, but he spoke to many young people around the world. His extremely personal songs exposed the inner pain each one of us hides. Luckily he shared some of his heartache with us, so we didn’t feel so alone. (Wickerham 8)
Nirvana fan Julie Wickerham believes that the angst of Generation X is so widespread as to be universal. At the same time, in one of the great paradoxes of Generation X, the angst and "heartache" are "extremely personal"; herein lies another source of tension for this generation. The "twentysomethings" feel pain and fear that are very intensely private and personal, but at the same time know that everyone else feels them too. As a result, to people like Julie Wickerham, Kurt Cobain’s greatest contribution to society is that he was willing to externalize and share the pain. Her repeated use of first-person plural pronouns, especially in conjunction with negative emotions, clearly indicates her identification with Cobain’s message.
The second example comes from an obituary in theNew York Times. Music writer Lorraine Ali suggests that the cause of Cobain’s personal pain may arguably have been the cause of his success:
Kurt Cobain was one among a league of kids raised by 60’s parents who shuffled their children from relative to relative in a quest for personal freedom. Courtney Love (Cobain’s widow) of Hole, Bill Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Moby are just a few more. They suffered the fallout of free love, and as adults, they sell millions of albums to peers who can relate to their rootless anger and dysfunction. (C28)
I believe Ali is correct when she connects the success of these musicians to the decay of the traditional American family. Kurt Cobain, Bill Corgan and others are especially articulate when it comes to expressing the pain of family breakups, the loss of goals and what some twentysomethings consider the end of the American Dream. Cobain was a product of a divorced, relatively poor family, and that background, especially as it became more publicized, helped create the identification that drove his career until his death.
The point I’m working towards in this part of the discussion is that Cobain’s audience looked to him for hope/relief/catharsis that he only partially wanted to provide for them. I suspect that, ultimately, he liked the identification that was happening, but he didn’t like the constant demands for more from his fans. In Burkean terms, the scene was asking too much from the agent, and the agent couldn’t or wouldn’t comply; but at the same time, he felt bad about it.
If we widen the circumference beyond Cobain’s music and its audience, and look at Nirvana’s larger cultural impact, the scene becomes even more dominant. The youth subculture’s identification with the grunge anti-movement became manifest in more ways than simply buying Nirvana records. Throughout history, people have shown a tendency to emulate the styles of their heroes. In doing so, they may believe that they are in some way emulating the substance of those heroes as well. Whatever the reason, Nirvana popularized a look that became intimately connected with the meaning that we attach to the band. The image of the "grunge" fan is very different from the traditional "punk" image of the 1970s. Gone is the fear appeal of swastikas tattooed on foreheads, safety pins worn through the nose and ears, and bondage clothing. Instead, beginning from the top of the body, we see hair that is commonly long and unwashed; grungers often strive to look like they have not bathed or taken any time whatsoever to consider their appearance. The goatee is a trademark of the neo-punks also, but only among those who are willing to take the time to shape them. Others do not shave their faces, or their legs, or their underarms, etc. Often their jewelry and clothes come from thrift-stores. The goal is to look destitute, as if to suggest that this position in society is the best they can achieve.
A typical grunge uniform consists of a flannel shirt around the waist and another one worn normally, with a dirty or ratty T-shirt underneath. Legs are kept warm on those cold winter nights and those hot summer days by torn jeans (often black) or fatigue pants. On the feet are old hiking boots, Doc Martens’ or canvas hi-top tennis shoes. Knit ski caps are common. In an article fromBusiness Week in May 1993, Christina Thompson, a graduate student at Columbia University, described her standard daily attire: two flannel shirts, torn Levi’s, a T-shirt and a pendant. The total price of her outfit was $26 (Tilsner 39). The grunge uniform, when constructed and worn successfully, may evoke feelings of pity from those who observe it.
The popularity of the look, causing it to show up in as mainstream a publication asBusiness Week, makes two points. First, the scene had grown large enough to make an impact on the mass culture. The grunge look had moved from being a subcultural badge of identification, into being a style that middle class American might consume, which is the final point of Tilsner’s article. Christina Thompson is a voice of subversion in the article, bemoaning the sale of L.L. Bean flannel shirts to suburban teens who wanted to look poor. Second, this trend feeds the idea of misappropriation. Although my research doesn’t show Cobain addressing the clothing issue directly, I can speculate as to what he thought when he saw kids dressing up to dress down: he would, I think, tell those kids that they were wasting their/their parents’ money trying to look poor. Instead, he might say, they should try their damnedest to avoid being like him.
But they didn’t. They kept buying the clothes, and perhaps more importantly, they kept buying the records. Michael Goldstone, an Artist and Repertoire executive with Epic Records, explains, "I think there’s a subculture that was building, and that ["Teen Spirit"] was the right song to break it open . . . Other bands paved the way for it, and ["Teen Spirit"] was the right song to take it over the top" (Neely, "Nirvana Tops," 16). And take it over the top they did. From the time that "Nevermind" hit its peak in February and March of 1992, however, Kurt Cobain’s position in the scene became tenuous. To some members of the subculture, he was a hero; on the other hand, some members begrudged his success, claiming that he was violating the punk ethic (sometimes known as the DIY, or Do-it-yourself ethic), by working with a major label to promote his band. The clear, professional and obviously expensive production of the record provided these naysayers with their evidence that Cobain had "sold out." Whether Cobain did sell out or not, my point is that, in the immediate wake of his success, the scene was beginning to turn against him.
Cobain himself expressed some of the tension between selfish, nihilistic "punkness" and capitalist, greedy celebrity when asked after a late 1993 concert in Chicago why the band had not played "Smells Like Teen Spirit." He responded, "I don’t even remember the guitar solo on ‘Teen Spirit.’ It would take me five minutes to sit in the catering room and learn the solo. But I’m not interested in that kind of stuff" (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 35). He seems here to have been expressing the punk side of his mentality. He was "not interested" in playing the band’s most famous song, the song that probably drew most of the crowd, simply because those fans might want to hear it. However, later in the same interview, he suggested some willingness to play to the crowd when he claimed, "We have failed in showing the lighter, more dynamic side of our band. The big guitar sound is what the kids want to hear" (40). At this point, I hear him saying that he was willing to sacrifice the artistic integrity of his band for sales. These conflicting positions are emblematic of his professional career, and encapsulate the paradox of his existence. A talented but very private and unstable young man was set up as the conductor of a youth subculture primal scream orchestra (note the passive voice). He wanted the money and the fame, but not the attendant power and responsibility.
In the acts that lead up to his suicide, then, we can see what we might generously call competing purposes. Until April 8, 1994, Cobain seemed willing to give in to the demands of celebrity, i.e., to subordinate his purposes to the scene in which he was located. In one aspect, we might say that he subordinated his agency as well; he had an agenda to pursue as a musician, but was willing to put it aside for the sake of what he thought his audience wanted from him. Something changed, however; the Rome incident may have been a suicide attempt (somebody with as much experience with drugs as Kurt Cobain would know better than to mix alcohol and barbiturates). Whatever the cause of his change of heart, or his quest to regain agency, I submit we can see it culminating in that final day. His suicide note (Appendix II) speaks to this change of heart at length. For example, he wrote:
I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things, for example when we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins. . . The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you, or to me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one hundred percent fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage.
Here was a man looking at a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he felt guilty for having lost his enthusiasm for writing and playing music. He seemingly understood how closely his fans identified themselves with him, and needed him. On the other hand, he felt guilty for continuing this charade, or "playing rock star," when he clearly had lost his energy. He would either lie to his fans or lie to himself. Ultimately, tragically, Cobain saw suicide as his best way out. His note says:
But since the age of 7, I've become hateful towards all humans in
general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along and have empathy. Empathy only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you from the pit of my burning nauseous stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm too much of a neurotic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore, so remember, it's "Better to Burn out, than fade away."
Kurt Cobain’s suicide note paints a clear picture of a man who was tortured by his loss of agency. He didn’t have anything left to say to his fans; he kept trying to talk to them only because he thought they wanted him to. Oddly, the quote at the end of his note ("Better to burn out . . .") is from a Neil Young song describing the demise of the Sex Pistols, one of the canonical punk bands of the 1970s, and a band against which Nirvana was often compared to argue Nirvana’s punkness or lack thereof. If I might speculate for a moment - I want to believe that he ended his life on this note as a way of claiming his place in the punk canon, along with the Sex Pistols.
Cobain’s descent into his final state had a long (relative to the rock and roll world) and storied history. His career in music began as a roadie for the seminal Seattle punk band the Melvins. He played in garage bands that nobody cared about until Nirvana formed in 1986. Up until that point, Cobain was nothing if not a punk kid. With the formation of his first relatively stable band, and especially after the release of their first record, 1989’s "Bleach," the scene began to change. As his music (his agency) began to affect larger audiences, his own intentions as a musician (purpose) became steadily less important. Of course, he acted willingly as he played music that was less and less his own (he could have quit), but his suicide, viewed from within the circumference of the punk/grunge scene, was intended to stop that trend; he tried, paradoxically, to regain control by removing himself.
But what happens to this explanation if we expand the circumference in which we place it? If we look at Cobain’s suicide through the eyes of a record-label executive, or any other pop music businessperson, the picture changes considerably. The gist of the story is the same. Cobain’s personality does not appear any more stable when we take more destabilizing factors, such as money and pressure from his record label (industry giant DGC Records), into account. He still was trapped in the limbo between DIY punk and rock star. But by 1994, the popular music scene had changed considerably, and Cobain’s status as pop icon had diminished. Nirvana’s own record sales, after "Nevermind’s" overwhelming success, were not nearly as impressive. Also, other bands began following in Nirvana’s wake, capitalizing on the inroads Cobain’s work had made into the mainstream.
Several events indicate the shifts that were taking place. To begin with, the sales figures for Nirvana’s next release after "Nevermind," called "Incesticide," were incredibly disappointing. The record was a collection of B-sides and covers, many of which had been recorded before "Nevermind." Most of the band’s new fans were not prepared for the raw punk energy of this record, and it sold fewer than 100,000 copies. David Geffen of DGC records, the label which released both "Nevermind" and "Incesticide," took a beating in the industry for allowing the band to release such unpolished work on the heels of their early success. At the College Music Journal showcase/conference in October of 1993, Geffen indicated that his rationale was to give the band a chance to show its "true colors" to the mainstream music-buying audience. Apparently, the reaction to "Incesticide" was so bad that Geffen tried to assert some control over the band’s next project, 1993’s "In Utero." During the last few months before the record came out, the popular music press published article after article claiming that Cobain and producer Butch Vig were engaging in screaming matches and even fist-fights over the sound of the album. The band tried to fire Vig, but Geffen would not let them. Eventually, Vig and Cobain worked out their differences, and in hisRolling Stone interview from January 1994, Cobain claimed to be satisfied with the product (Fricke, "Kurt Cobain," 37).
Unfortunately for Cobain, the damage had been done; many fans of the band saw such squabbling over the production value of a release as unfit behavior for a punk rocker. We can cast this idea also as a conflict between two powerful scenes to which Cobain belonged: the punk subculture and the pop music mainstream. Although the sales of "Incesticide" were disappointing, the music-buying public still seemed to have latched onto the "punkness" of Nirvana. On the other hand, the industry spokesperson for the band (Geffen), was concerned (and rightly so from his point of view) about record sales.
Their own problems were not the only problems they faced trying to stay at the top. The scene, as it grew, began to support other bands, who would quickly become competition. Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilots, in particular, soon carved out their own niches in the grunge/punk market, and every record they sold was a Nirvana record left on the shelf. A fierce rivalry developed between Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, over who was the "leader of the pack," and between late 1992 and early 1994, Vedder began to emerge. In addition, not only were other grunge bands beginning to find success in mainstream youth culture, but other types of "punk" bands were beginning to make their marks as well. Two bands, Green Day and the Offspring, spearheaded the return of more traditional punk to the scene; both of these bands showed clear influences of the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols - the bands that defined 1970s British and American punk rock. I can understand why Kurt Cobain might not be happy with this new development. This more 70s-styled punk appropriated the angst and discontent of the 1990s from Cobain, and combined it with more melodic songs to create a more listenable misery.
At the same time, these bands began to mix the angst that drove them with a silliness and humor that blunted their edge. For example, Green Day’s first hit record, "Dookie," features a very comic-bookesque cover, depicting "dookie bombs" falling on a mass of people ranging from cavemen to politicians, all running amok in the city of Oakland (the band’s home). The back cover is a blurry photo of a crowd of slam-dancers, with an Ernie (from Sesame Street) puppet being thrust up into the air. It’s hard to take the band very seriously when their first impression is so frivolous. In the last couple of years, this trend has continued, as even grunge bands like the Stone Temple Pilots have developed a pop sensibility that changes their impact radically. For whatever reason (I could do another paper just on this issue), the music scene and the larger scene of our mass culture that supports it has taken a turn away from serious, dark, brooding music.
In simplest terms, then, we can say with some degree that the scene changed significantly over the course of just a few years. Nirvana reached their peak in early 1992, and by April of 1994 Kurt Cobain was dead. Cobain’s band was the first band of the 1990s to bring punk ideology back into the mainstream, but pretty soon their accomplishment outgrew their ability/will to sustain it. As an agent, Cobain saw his power diminished by the adoption of new heroes from the ever-growing scene. The same scene was demanding an energy from him that he decided was finally beyond his agency. At the same time, he was so attached to the scene (it was responsible for the happiest days of his life) that he couldn’t face the idea of leaving it and living.
Almost three years after the death of Kurt Cobain, those of us who follow popular culture and youth subcultures still look at his career and his suicide as representations of the early 1990s’ youth subculture. The mood seems to have improved since 1994 as more and more people in their twenties have begun to reject the "Generation X" label, and very possibly, Cobain’s suicide has something to do with that. Those who were captivated by his songs saw their leader take himself out of the rat race, and the world did not end. Some saw his suicide as a betrayal; he represented a significant slice of America’s youth on the public stage, and chose to give up that position. To some, his suicide was a tragedy; a man with the world in the palm of his hand let it all go because he could not handle the pressures of fame. Whichever way we read the suicide of Kurt Cobain, we should not underestimate his influence on the youth culture of this country; neither should we understate his influence on the mainstream culture of the times. While he was not independently responsible for the changes in youth subcultures that we saw in the early 1990s, he was certainly a major figure. If posterity remembers anything about the popular music culture of this decade, I believe it will be Kurt Cobain and his band.
Ali, Lorraine. "Kurt Cobain Screamed Out Our Angst."New York Times 17 April 1994: H28.
Burke, Kenneth.A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.
---.Language as Symbolic Action. Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1966.
---.A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.
Cobain, Kurt. Suicide Note. 8 April 1994.
Dahl, Dick. "Is It Only Rock 'N' Roll?"Utne Reader May/June 1992: 42-43.
Fricke, David. "Heart-shaped Noise."Rolling Stone 2 June 1994: 63-69.
---. "Kurt Cobain: the Rolling Stone Interview."Rolling Stone 27 January 1994: 34-42.
Green Day.Dookie. Reprise 9 45529-2, 1994.
Handy, Bruce. "Never Mind."Time 18 April 1994: pages unknown
Neely, Kim. "Nirvana Tops the Album Chart."Rolling Stone 20 February 1992: 15-16.
Nirvana.In Utero. DGC 24607, 1993.
---.Nevermind. DGC 24425, 1991.
Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press.The Sex Revolts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Ross, Alex. "Generation Exit."New Yorker 25 April 1994: 102-106.
Star, Alexander. "Teen Spirit."The New Republic 2 May 1994: 42.
Tilsner, Julie. "From Trash Can Straight to Seventh Avenue."Business Week 22 May 1993: 39.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Load up and guns and
Bring your friends
It's fun to lose
And to pretend
She's over bored
And self assured
Oh no, I know
A dirty word
Hello, how low? (several times)
With the lights out it's less dangerous
Here we are now
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now
My libido, yeah
I'm worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
hello, how low? (several times)
And I forget
Just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard
It was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
hello, how low? (several times)
* taken from Nirvana, "Nevermind." DGC Records 24425: 1991.
Kurt Cobain's Suicide Note
This note should be pretty easy to understand. All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 Courses over the years, it's my first introduction to the, shall we say ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has been proven to be very true. I haven't felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things, for example when we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins. It doesn't affect me in the way which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and admiration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you, or to me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one hundred percent fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage. I've tried everything within my power to appreciate it, and I do, God believe me, I do, but it's not enough. I appreciate the fact that I, and we, have affected, and entertained a lot of people. I must be one of the narcissists who only appreciate things when they're alone. I'm too sensitive, I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm. But, what's sad is our child. On our last three tours, I've had a much better appreciation of all the people I've known personally, and as fans of our music. But I still can't get out the frustration, the guilt, and the sympathy I have for everybody. There is good in all of us, and I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little sensitive unappreciative pisces Jesus man. I have it good, very good, and I'm grateful. But since the age of 7, I've become hateful towards all humans in general. Only because it seems so easy for people to get along and have empathy. Empathy only because I love and feel for people too much I guess. Thank you from the pit of my burning nauseas stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm too much of a neurotic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore, so remember, it's "Better to Burn out, than fade away." Peace, love, empathy, Kurt Cobain.