What would the legendary grunge rocker be like if he was still alive? And why are we still obsessed with him? Asks Samarth Singhal
If Kurt Cobain were alive, he would have turned 50 today. The 1990s cult icon defined gunge and alternative rock to an entire generation before taking his own life in 1994. Twenty-two years on, his cultural presence is enduring for both, his erstwhile fans and the new generation. But what would Cobain be doing if he were alive?
Since his death, the grunge movement hasn’t been the same, although rock as a genre has continued to evolve dramatically with each decade. Its glorious days as the preferred mainstream genre are long since over, and Nevermind, twenty-six years after its release continues to be one of the masterpieces in history.
Charles.R.Cross, who has written three books on Cobain, including, Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, recently told AFP that, “He (Cobain) remains the most important musician of the last two decades in music, with an album that is still one of the last great rock records.” Cross further says that Cobain’s key contribution lies in being able to help songwriters tackle an emotional range that any other musician seldom has. Take Lithium for example which was a vivid exploration of Cobain’s depression, just like Rape Me. Nirvana biographer, Michael Azerrad stated that the song seemed to deal with Cobain’s distaste of the media’s coverage on his personal life. While Cobain said the song was written long before his troubles with drug addiction became public, he agreed that the song could be viewed in that light. Cobain also stated in a 1993 interview that Rape Me was a song meant to be so blunt that no one could misinterpret its meaning. “His impact on song-writing was that he made it okay for songs to be about painful emotions, angst, depression — even something as awful as rape,” says Cross.
In the late 80s early 90s, mainstream audience started to develop an interest in alternative rock and started listening to Seattle grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana, which became the poster child for the movement. Years on, it continues to influence contemporary bands such as Cage the Elephant, Fall Out Boy, Cloud Nothings and even hip-hop artists such as Jay Z, who quoted Smells Like Teen Spirit in his track Holy Grail featuring Justin Timberlake.
According to an article by AFP, San Cuesta, a French music journalist who has written a book on Nirvana, says the group’s fan base continues to be young. Smells Like Teen Spirit has enjoyed a recent resurgence with almost 500 million views on YouTube “Nirvana’s audience today isn’t the people who listened to the group at the time. It’s young people. It’s funny as some of them weren’t born when Kurt Cobain died 23 years ago.” Cuesta also says that Cobain might be known to his younger fans “more for his look rather than Nirvana’s music.” He says, “Kurt’s poster is in everyone’s bedroom like Che Guevara’s poster used to be, even if people don’t necessarily know much about Che’s political activities or Nirvana’s music.”
It is well known that the 1990s are seeing a resurgence in all ways across the globe. Although it is worth contemplating how Cobain would have reacted to his contemporary image? There are chances that he would’ve hated it, considering that he quoted Neil Young in his suicide note when he wrote, it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Would he be on the internet taking selfies? Would he be reinventing himself? Would he still be doing concerts at 50? Would he be using synthetic sounds? According to what Cuesta told AFP, he wouldn’t have been around and neither would’ve Nirvana. “He said so at the time. His success was weighing heavily on him. He would have pursued a solo career different than what he was doing at the beginning,” said Cuesta.
Maybe the answer to what could’ve been lies in the last recording of Nirvana at MTV Unplugged in New York, where you can see a mellow Cobain on an acoustic guitar, singing not only his songs but also covers of David Bowie classics. He would have definitely gone solo, experimented and maybe written a book or two. Done massive collaborations like the one he did with the legendary beat poet William Burroughs, in which he accompanied the poet on guitar as he recited The Priest They Called Him.