King of the Outcast Teens: Kurt Cobain and the Politics of Nirvana

by on January 10, 2014 · 11 comments

in Culture, History, Media, Ocean Beach, Politics

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By Dawson Barrett / Portside

In recognition of the anniversary of the death of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, a host of retrospectives will recognize both the raw potency of Cobain’s songwriting and the tragedy of his heroin use and suicide. They will hide that Nirvana was a band of rebels.

This April marks twenty years since the death of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, one of the most iconic cultural figures of the late 20th century. In recognition of that anniversary, a host of retrospectives will recognize both the raw potency of Cobain’s songwriting and the tragedy of his heroin use and suicide. Echoing the tired, sexist tropes of “John and Yoko” and “Sid and Nancy,” many will also associate Cobain’s downfall with his wife, Courtney Love. These tabloid narratives will overshadow Nirvana’s political and cultural significance. They will hide that Nirvana was a band of rebels.

A year before his death in 1994, Kurt Cobain expressed hope that his generation could reject the “Reaganite bullshit” that was forced upon them during their childhoods. Indeed, from the growing popularity of countercultural music (both “alternative” rock and hip-hop) to the rise of the global justice movement, the 1990s seemed to offer a youth-led counterbalance to the racism, sexism, and homophobia that swept Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush into office a decade earlier. Twenty years later, however, America’s culture wars remain very much alive, and boastful opposition to so-called “political correctness” is used to justify intolerance and oppression in many forms.

In 2012, just a year after the CDC’s findings that 1 in 5 American women had been raped, several Republican candidates used their campaigns to share their views on the subject -ranging from Richard Mourdock’s claim that rape reflected the will of God to attempts by Congressmen Todd Akin and Ron Paul to clarify which instances of sexual violence they believed constituted “legitimate” and “honest” rape. The same year, high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio raped an unconscious 16-year old girl at a party and used social media to share images of the assault. One of the perpetrators’ friends commented online that “the song of the night” was Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”

This past August, Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson and conservative pundit Michelle Malkin described transgender rights as pandering to “political correctness” and “social engineering run amuck.” A week later, 21-year-old transgendered woman Islan Nettles was beaten to death on a New York City street.

Just as popular anti-feminists like Phyllis Schalfly and Jerry Falwell gave legitimacy to sexist and homophobic political positions in the 1970s and `80s, conservative American voices today provide a wide cover for bullying, hate crimes, and other oppressive behaviors. This bigotry and its apologists were precisely what Kurt Cobain stood against.

As a band, Nirvana was less openly political than punk predecessors like the Dead Kennedys or the Clash, and they were decidedly less focused on activism than their friends in Bikini Kill. Even so, in August 1992, Nirvana performed at a benefit concert to fight against Oregon’s anti-gay ballot initiative Measure 9. The following spring, bassist Krist Novoselic coordinated a benefit for Bosnian rape survivors, a concert that also featured L7 and the Breeders.

Sexual assault was a common theme in Nirvana songs, and the topic was apparently close to Cobain’s heart. While promoting the band’s breakthrough album Nevermind in 1991, Cobain called rape “one of the most terrible crimes on Earth,” and lamented that it occurred “every few minutes.” The actual statistic is that a woman is raped every two minutes – in the United States alone. The global figure is much higher (and thus more frequent).

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Cobain also criticized the inherent hypocrisy of solutions rooted in women’s self-defense, offering instead, “What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” Nirvana later performed at a fundraising concert for the investigation into the rape and murder of Mia Zapata, singer of the Seattle band the Gits. After Cobain’s death, a Nirvana track also appeared on a benefit album for Home Alive, a women’s self-defense center established to honor Zapata.

At their core, Nirvana’s politics were largely humanitarian, and for Cobain, they were rooted in a childhood of ostracism and bullying in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. Frequently beat up and labeled a “faggot,” the small-framed Cobain’s revenge came through a can of spray paint, which he reportedly used to tag “HOMOSEX RULES” and “GOD IS GAY” on the pick-up trucks of locals. As Cobain told the LGBT-focused magazine the Advocate in 1992, his close friendships with women and frequent clashes with “redneck jocks” had led him, at times, to question his own sexuality.

But while the trucks of Aberdeen provided a somewhat limited canvas, Nirvana’s success gave Cobain a broader platform for expressing his indignation. In the liner notes to the platinum-selling Incesticide record, a distraught Cobain relays the story of two rapists who sang the band’s song “Polly” while committing their crime. He then pleads with Nirvana’s fans that if they “in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please…leave us the fuck alone! don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Cobain again emphasized this point in a 1992 SPIN cover story, telling the magazine, “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there, and it really bothers me.”

Nirvana’s penchant for wearing women’s clothing (in concerts, photo shoots, and the video for “In Bloom”), as well as the kisses they exchanged on Saturday Night Live, further distanced the band from patriarchal gender and sexuality norms – and from its arena rock contemporaries. Nirvana’s distaste for machismo, racism, and misogyny also led to a public feud with notoriously intolerant hair rockers Guns N’ Roses, who repeatedly threatened to beat them up.
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Nirvana was a punk rock band. Their three-pronged stance against bigotry (racism, sexism, and homophobia) had been well established in the 1980s punk underground by publications like MaximumRocknRoll, bands like Fugazi and MDC, and venues such as 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. But though they dutifully delivered this message to a popular audience, many of Nirvana’s biggest critics were from a punk movement that never forgave them for working with the corporate music industry.

In their few brief years of stardom, Nirvana navigated a difficult terrain, with a hostile punk community on one side, and on the other, an endless series of concert promoters, music journalists, and industry insiders, who hoped to use the band as a means to their next paycheck.

While never completely regretting the decision to sign with a major label, Cobain clearly struggled with the isolation that it created. He resented accusations of “selling out” and pleaded that beyond fame and fortune, signing with DGC Records also ensured that Nirvana albums would be available to young people who had not already found an inroad to punk. As Cobain explained, “In some small towns, Kmart is the only place that kids can buy records.”

Cobain, Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were reluctant rock stars, and in the tradition of early punks the Sex Pistols, they continually stuck their fingers in the entertainment industry’s collective eye. On multiple occasions, the band agreed to play their popular hits on national television broadcasts, only to switch to their most abrasive songs at the last minute. Cobain also famously arrived for a Rolling Stone photo shoot wearing a homemade T-shirt that playfully read, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” To his surprise, the band still made the magazine’s cover.

Nirvana, and Cobain in particular, also attempted to use the band’s fame to focus attention on lesser-known artists like the Vaselines, Daniel Johnston, the Meat Puppets, Flipper, and Jawbreaker by covering their songs, mentioning them in interviews, wearing their T-shirts, and inviting them to join the band on tour. In 1992, the band released a split single with legendary Chicago indie rockers the Jesus Lizard, and before Cobain’s death, the band had been in negotiations to join the national Lollapalooza tour and shape its lineup to their liking. Despite being shunned by the punk underground, Nirvana in many ways served as a welcoming committee, ushering a generation of young outcasts into the rebel community that had been their own refuge years earlier.
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Nirvana23In the twenty years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Dave Grohl has become a rock star in his own right, as the frontman for the Foo Fighters and a sometime member of Queens of the Stone Age. Krist Novoselic has played in a number of musical ensembles, written a book about electoral politics, and directed a film about the band L7. Nirvana as a whole, however, remains frozen in time.

Nirvana was a part of a broad cultural reaction to the conservatism of the 1980s – a moment that included the punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement as well as anthems against police brutality by N.W.A., Ice T, and Public Enemy – but the band’s legacy has been largely limited to the narrow confines of Cobain’s personal life. Even before Cobain’s death, “Kurt and Courtney” was already just another iteration of the sexist narrative about well-loved bands whose helpless male members were corrupted by evil women. And while Courtney Love plays an effective villain, Cobain took great offense to attempts to portray him as a victim. He proudly insisted that their relationship was a 50-50 partnership.

Much of the focus on Kurt Cobain’s contribution to American culture has centered on fetishizing the fact that he shared his final age, 27, with many other prominent artists. A more important lens through which to remember Cobain and his band is a story relayed by his uncle at a public memorial service. As happened often, a neighborhood bully was beating up a young Cobain, knocking him to the ground over and over again. But rather than punching the bully back or cowering in fear, Cobain instead, after each knock down, simply extended his middle finger in defiance.

Kurt Cobain was an entertainer, not an activist, and he took pains to make that distinction clear. His politics were nonetheless straight-forward. Like Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield, Cobain’s frustration and fury were fueled by human empathy. He would have been repulsed by Rush Limbaugh’s “slut-shaming” comments about Sandra Fluke. He would have denounced transphobic attempts to ridicule Private Chelsea Manning. He would have been devastated by the murders of young Islan Nettles and Trayvon Martin, and his heart would have broken over the tormented suicides of Lizzy Seeberg and Tyler Clementi.

In an early draft of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain asked, “Who Will be the King and Queen of the Outcast Teens?” For a brief moment, he himself was the answer. Cobain did not view himself as larger than life, and he openly mocked the suggestion that he might be a spokesperson for his generation. Nirvana nonetheless set a standard for human decency that very few pop stars have lived up to.
Nirvana was a champion for misfits, and Kurt Cobain was the king of the outcasts.

Dawson Barrett completed his PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013. His dissertation explores the impacts of neoliberal policies on American activism since the 1960s. His article “DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of US Punk Collectives” appears in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal American Studies.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Stephanie January 10, 2014 at 11:39 am

Dawson, I enjoyed this article. I remember the moment I found out Kurt had died, I was in the 8th grade, just started wearing cordoroy and when I saw the photo in the Rolling Stone of his body Kurt was wearing the 1 star Converse I had wanted. I remember feeling nauseaus and sad, I loved that band. I too would not have heard their music had they not signed with a more mainstream label as I wasnt yet exposed to the indy punk world and wouuldn’t be for quite some years. I appreciate that you brought up Kurt’s logic behind signing with a corporate label, and the fact that he brought the indy’s with him who he felt could not only benefit from the exposure but be a gateway for people to enter into the underground world of DIY Punk.

“Like Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield, Cobain’s frustration and fury were fueled by human empathy.” Absolutely. Thats a beautiful analogy. I wonder if Kurt like Salinger would have slipped away from the limelight had he not struggled so deeply with his emotions and addiction and slipped away all together. Luckily, like Salinger (who is oddly comparable to Tupac in that he has a library of work set for release post death) Kurt left us with a greater understanding of the sensitivities of the artist, that they arent machines, that they are moved to work because they have no other choice, and most especially that they dont have all the answers and society would benefit by not immortalizing them while on earth so that they too can live a more “normal” life and feel free to just be and create.
Nice work!

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avatar Gail Powell January 10, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Beautiful, touching & perfectly written. Thank you.

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avatar ObJamie January 10, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Great read. I was in 10th grade…Smells Like Teen Spirit was written for me! At least that was what I thought upon FIRST LISTEN. To this day the only “grunge” band that mattered.

Courtney, his wife….had Kurt killed. This is a well-known fact. I was friends with Elden Hoke, aka El Duce the front man of the rape rock band The Mentors. He related a fascinating tale about Courtney Love, in fact he reiterated it in the documentary “Kurt and Courtney” and passed numerous lie detector tests telling the same story he told me. Elden was not a liar, and he had no reason to tell a 20 year old kid in Florida the story except he felt like revealing the truth.

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avatar john eisenhart January 10, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Lived a few blocks away from Kurt in Seattle back in 94….remember the tape and police outside the home. It was a shock. Saw the second to last concert in Jan 94. That band was indeed great. Made you tingle with energy. His death sorta represented the downfall of the alt-rock revolution from there on, although it took a few more years to sink in. The Northwest is notorious for murder, suicide, death. It is a troubled land that spawns a unique perspective but is almost destined to flame out.

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avatar J January 11, 2014 at 10:36 pm

ObJamie- please, enough with the BS conspiracy. Riddle me this: Krist and Dave *hate* Courtney, yet they’ve never subscribed to the looney fringe theories. Why? Because that’s what they are. They’re crap. If they had any legitimacy, they’d be first in line to bring justice about.

The fact is that Mr Cobain was amazingly talented yet terribly depressed, and a heroin junkie at that. He did himself in, and left more than enough evidence in his lyrics that it was coming. It was a very sad end, and you do the man (and his legacy) a disservice by spewing nonsense. Do a little research about depression. Read the lyrics to “Milk It” and much of the rest of In Utero. This was a man who sadly self destructed.

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avatar John Filthy January 14, 2014 at 7:39 am

Kurt’s uncle said he had the desperation, not the courage to be himself. That desperation came through in Nirvana’s music. It was echoing the desperation in many teenagers lives in the 90s. Many songs were a cry for help, sometimes literally like Help Me.

My high school experience was not much different than Kurt’s. Except I’m built more like a thick Krist Novoselic so missed out on some of the beatings I could have otherwise received. Nirvana’s music had a strong message for people of my generation. He died the year I graduated High School.

Music moves in generations. The Beatles are like the sons of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. Nirvana were like the sons of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. The 70s punk nihilism is a tough act to follow. John Lydon would say his music was a bout telling the truth not nihilism though.

I grew up in a very musical family. Music as a way of life, not just entertainment. No music before or since has ever meant as much to me as Nirvana. I struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide back then. It was very hard to watch someone you look up to do himself in. When it happened I burned the letters K U R T into the knuckles of my hand. I can still see them 20 years later. Although I don’t often listen to Nirvana now, I remember all the words and can hear the songs in my head. Nobody who is remembered is truly ‘dead’.

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avatar John January 15, 2014 at 8:49 am

It’s a shame such amazingly admirable ideological beliefs and the desire to champion them had to be so wasted on such a hack performer who so disgustingly threw his life away.
Yeah this may get under the skin of some but outside of a few rare bits of songwriting he was able to crawl into the studio and get on tape in their early years Cobain was just terrible. Even the more tolerable material or shining performances (like the MTV unplugged session) was only accessible if you got in his mindset and skipped showers for a week and drank a few pulls out of that carton of milk sitting in the back of the fridge since before Christmas- and it was April. One blessing of his death was the ability of Dave Grohl, a truly amazing human and musician, to step out from behind his kit and have his career blossom. (I still don’t like much of the Foo Fighter’s stuff but can respect obvious talent)
Which I reiterate Cobain had nary a sliver of and I offer this personal account as absolute proof of:
Back in those days I’d been playing guitar for quite a few years and was in a little garage band with some long time friends and had a lot of influences- Slash, Metallica, Page, etc.
When our 3pc got together and jammed Nirvana songs were the only thing I could pull off and sound like I knew what I was doing.
They had to suck.
BTW my next door neighbor in those days worked for the U-T as a technician servicing their teletype/wire machines, and against company policy smuggled out one of the confidential police artist renderings of the crime scene of his death.
It’s burned in my memory today and sealed my utter contempt. What a waste. How could you do this? How could you leave your family to find that?
Selfish loser.
Hate on me for this post but you all know I’m hardly alone.

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avatar John Filthy January 17, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Comical post. The only ‘early stuff’ was Bleach. It was recorded on a $600 budget and was good enough to get them a record deal with Geffen. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Me, Neil Young, Tori Amos, Flea, etc, etc see the talent. You don’t, poor you.

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avatar JustSayin January 15, 2014 at 11:52 am

John, whatever frustration you are experiencing for having not been a successful musician isnt going to take away the fact that Kurt Cobain was. It sounds like you were influenced by metal but were unable to play it, and out of some negative core belief decided that since you were able to play a certain bands’ songs that means that that band sucks. Odd. Maybe you should take a look at that and share the love you find rather than the hate.

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avatar John January 15, 2014 at 4:09 pm

While your rather cheery demeanor and positive conclusion are certainly admirable and far more appealing than my negative comment, it falls short on substance. It’s silly to think that what a musician is capable (or not capable) of playing himself should define his listening tastes. As for the covers I could play I had no problem with Slash’s pentatonic solos and learned most of Metallica’s standards (save Kirk Hammitt’s relentless wheedle dee noodling) so thinking I “couldn’t play metal” is in error. There was no frustration behind my playing, when I got to the point where I learned to play the instrument and focused on theory instead of merely learning covers I was quite comfortable doing my own thing. Besides I admitted to being a hack, you’re going nowhere trying to belittle my skills to portray Cobain as some genius for it. Enough about me…

As I said, I’m anything but alone in these things I express. Nevermind had a few good tracks but most of their other material was plainly psychotic. Their live performances were the kind of thing we’d rather not put in a time capsule for future generations to see as representing rock and roll- he screamed, smashed his guitars, and even though most of his work was drop D tuned three string barre chords- (you play them with one finger!) they were so full of mistakes you often didn’t recognize the song. In fact he broke so many guitars the record company had a guy whose job was solely to scour the country looking for the remaining left hand Fender Jag-Stangs for him to destroy. As the supply of vintage examples dwindled Fender actually put the guitar back in production-possibly for new owners but also so he’d have more to break.

Remembering how I’d saved for a couple years as a teenager to buy my first electric guitar doing odd jobs and the like that kind of thing is part of what caused contempt for Cobain in myself and others.

Finally stop and have a good chuckle thinking about what you said about “successful musician” and remember that describes Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus… the list goes on.

Share the love is a beautiful thing. I’m a bit of a cynic though and this is how we do that.

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avatar Seth January 16, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Rambling thoughts from an old-school dude… not 60s old school, but one with relatively unassailable punk rock cred who came of age right after punk died the first time. For anyone my age, who had gotten much of their sensibilities from Minor Threat and Black Flag era hardcore, and the myriad of bands you can still get on vinyl from Curtis at Taang! records in Hillcrest that used to be right on the boardwalk in Mission Beach for several years (shameless shout out to another punk OG), we were pretty jaded about anything that came after in that vein. Probably had a lot to do with our 60s-era parents telling us (mostly accurately), that nothing would ever live up to *their* era of rock music. And we were especially jaded about any would-be punk rockers who just seemed to miss the whole point of it all. The default reaction to anything was to call it commercial or derivative or to laugh at people who were taking themselves too seriously or actually trying to sell records or wearing silly makeup or all of the above like Glen Danzig.

I say that to preface here, as I have no need to put Cobain up on a pedestal or call him a cultural icon or any of that just because he was a seminal figure at my musical coming-of-age moment (which he was for many). If anything, my gut was to go the other way and talk about how he was, in his own words, ripping off the Pixies for his best songs, and was an ultra-depressed drug addict who was far from some great musician or innovator or even credible punk rock dude.

But I can’t.

First time I heard the end of that song, which was while catching some random Seattle music festival footage, I jumped out of my chair. Only been a few songs in my life that have given me that kind of Elvis moment where you knew instantly that sh-t had done changed (another example for me would be Straight Outta Compton by NWA, if you know what I mean).

Those moments tend to come right when stuff needs to be shaken up, and he was the perfect messenger for that in that moment, where everything had gone stale and corporate. That’s what real punks do, like they did in the 70s/early 80s, and in that respect, Kurt is definitely in the club. He had Raw Power like Iggy and the Stooges, and was real as Tupac. Whatever else he was or was not, the dude mainlined real, and you could hear it in every note. Came in your ear and went right to your gut. Elaborate explanations like mine are unnecessary because you can just hear it.

In a world of bullsh-t and studio gangsters, there’s just not that many people that are transcendent like that. Paul McCartney could write a song better than Lennon ever could. Dude was prolific and heard melodic symphonies in his head, and effortlessly translated them into 3-4 minute pop songs. But John could cut right to the id, and hit people in spots McCartney could never hope to reach. For all his talents, Paul could never have written Imagine.

I don’t know that people like Cobain, Tupac, Jim Morrison, Janis, Jimi and even Lennon *needed* to die young to preserve that legacy of realness. It would have sucked in a way to see them doing the reunion show at 70 thing like the Stones, or writing schmaltz ballads for movie soundtracks like Aerosmith, so I guess it didn’t hurt. Probably too many words have already been written about the dead rock star club, and certainly too many by me in this post, so I will just wrap it up here and say that Kurt was one of those transcendent ultra-real people who hit home with a lot of people for a reason, and who stays in the collective consciousness for a reason.

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