The release of Brett Morgen’s documentary Montage of Heck has inspired new discussions of the legacy of Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana frontman who upended popular music before committing suicide in 1994. Few artists have straddled the line between nonconformity and commercialism like Cobain. Consider the three-album arc of his band’s life: though Nirvana boasted of producing its debut album Bleach for $600, Cobain became a Generation X icon by releasing its follow-up, Nevermind, on a major label, and by having a hit single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that dominated MTV. In a deliberate effort to undermine his rock star image, Cobain enlisted underground producer Steve Albini to record the band’s angrier, noisier third album, In Utero, but he relented when his label asked to remix the singles to make them more radio friendly. “He found himself in a vexed position,” writes Nicholas Rubin in his new essay on Cobain in the American National Biography, “a rock star railing against the rock star trip, attracting acolytes he scorned as part of the sexist and homophobic strain of rock culture he despised.”
Speaking on Cobain’s ambivalence toward success and stardom, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic told GQ magazine in 2011, “Kurt wanted it and he didn’t want it.” But, Novoselic continued, “You could bust Kurt, too. He’d contradict himself and he’d laugh. He knew it.” Indeed, Cobain had a biting sense of humor, an aspect of his personality often overshadowed by his dark lyrics, his heroin addiction, and his grisly death.
This sense of humor inspired Cobain and his bandmates to use corporate appearances that they and their peers would otherwise consider distasteful as platforms for satire and criticism. They played the game, but they bent the rules. In 1991, for instance, Cobain and Novoselic were interviewed on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, the heavy metal show known for big hair bands like Warrant and Trixter, acts that Nirvana’s success would hasten into irrelevance. Cobain wore a ridiculous yellow dress. “It’s Headbangers Ball,” he deadpanned, “so I thought I’d wear a gown.”
Cobain wore his politics once again when Nirvana appeared on the cover Rolling Stone in 1992. The magazine had tried to get an interview with Cobain in 1991, but he initially refused. “We wouldn’t benefit from an interview,” he wrote in a letter, “because the average Rolling Stone reader is a middle-aged ex-hippie turned hippiecrite, who embraces the past as ‘the glory days’ and has a kindler, gentler, more adult approach towards the new liberal conservatism.” While this letter is an incisive critique of dinosaur rock culture and middle-of-the-road political sensibilities, Cobain never sent it. Instead, he agreed to the interview, seemingly betraying his own views. For the cover photo, however, Cobain solidified his anti-authoritarian image by wearing a t-shirt that read “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.”
Perhaps Nirvana’s finest moment of music industry mockery came on 27 November 1991, two months after the release of Nevermind, when the band appeared on the British television institution Top of the Pops. Accustomed to touring with likeminded groups such as Sonic Youth and the Melvins, Nirvana surely felt a little out of place on a show that in 1991 featured the likes of Bryan Adams, Amy Grant, and Right Said Fred. Predictably, the band would perform “Teen Spirit,” which had just debuted on the UK singles chart at number 9, between songs from Diana Ross and Michael Bolton. But they would have to participate in the Top of the Pops tradition of miming their instruments to a prerecorded track. Only Cobain’s vocal would be live.
The resulting spectacle is as hilarious today as it was two decades ago. Novoselic spun his bass around his neck and tossed it in the air (a favorite move of his) as he jumped around the stage. Drummer Dave Grohl, the future Foo Fighter and alt-rock celebrity, alternated between pointing his sticks to the sky and playing the wrong drums. Cobain stood at the front, wearing sunglasses and smiling foolishly, using his left hand to strum his guitar out of rhythm with the song and covering the fretboard with his entire right hand in lieu of playing proper chords. He took full advantage of the live microphone, singing in an overdramatic low register reminiscent of Morrissey and changing the first line of the song from “Load up on guns, bring your friends” to the cheerful “Load up on drugs, kill your friends.” His voice distorted as he swallowed the mic into his mouth. The production soon descended into chaos, with Grohl’s bass drum crashing to the floor as the crowd and the band danced together on stage.
Nirvana was not the first band to pull this stunt — the Stranglers, Public Image Limited, and The Smiths had all put on farcical television performances in the late 70s and early 80s — but, as is often the case when it comes to Nirvana, to focus on originality misses the point: though they may not have done it first, they did it best, and they did it at exactly the right time. Nirvana’s Top of the Pops performance was a microcosm of Cobain’s career and his appeal — catering to the mainstream to blow it apart, repurposing punk rock performance and ideals toward a gigantic new audience of alienated youth who gobbled it all up, even if many of these new fans heard the guitars but missed the message.
Heading image: Memorial to Kurt Cobain in Aberdeen, Washington by MïK Watson. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.