I’ve been listening to a lot of Nirvana this week. Trying to understand why someone would do such a thing is never easy, and this is no exception. What I can’t accept though, is the attempt to make Kurt Cobain into another John Lennon. He’s not the “voice of our generation”.
Kurt didn’t want to talk about it, but he obviously had an unhappy youth. He grew up in a small logging town east of Seattle, filled with macho guys quick to make fun of anyone who didn’t fit the mold, such as Kurt. I can’t blame him for carrying a grudge, but it’s nothing different than what happened to me, or people I knew in school. Refusing to conform to the norm is never accepted, but Kurt was apparently really stigmatized. He thought if he could make music, all the pain would go away.
It didn’t, of course. His vision of Nirvana was success on the level of Sonic Youth, a major label contract, but not selling enough to be a household name. Instead, Nirvana achieved worldwide acceptance, and Kurt was adored by the people he despised He hated every second of the fame. Sure he had money, but now people wouldn’t leave him alone. He was constantly badgered to help out here, donate money there, and give ’til it hurt.
That coma he went into last month as a result of drugs and alcohol was apparently another suicide attempt, with note. This understandably freaked people out, and he was urged by his wife and band mates to seek treatment. He agreed, but left after a couple of days. I don’t know if we’ll ever know why he took this way out. He had been talking about quitting the band, but that solution just wasn’t good enough. Now it’s revealed that he was having horrible stomach pains, which is why he turned to heroin in the first place.
I personally don’t see it. Suicide is just an easy way out, forcing everyone else to deal with your problems because you just can’t handle it. But I digress.
Make no mistake, I do like Nirvana. I think they’ve made some great music. Soon after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting big I bought Nevermind. I was impressed. After seeing Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Garth Brooks top the charts, it was refreshing to see some angst filled screaming overpower them all. I loved the album, and bought their first album Bleach, a couple of weeks later. A no frills album that sounds like a bunch of demos, it shows a promise that was delivered.
I was never deluded though. As good as Nevermind sounds, the lyrics are no more developed than Bleach. They just sound like a drunk guy spouting off, attempting to be wise, like “it’s okay to eat fish/’cause they haven’t any feelings” from “Something in the Way” or “when I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions” from “Territorial Pissings.” They didn’t get much more intelligent on their last album In Utero. Witness “Like most babies smell like butter/his smell smelled like no other” from “Scentless Apprentice”.
I’m not saying that guy was a bad singer or songwriter. He had some legitimate angst to get rid of, and he managed to communicate that through his songs. How can you listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and not think that this guy is really pissed off? About what though? At the end of the song he sings “a denial.” A denial? Of what? I got the anger, but I didn’t see the message.
I don’t see Kurt Cobain as the voice of my generation. He wrote some good songs, but he wasn’t effective at communicating what he felt, and I think he gave up instead of trying harder. So who is the voice of my generation? I think it’s Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam has only had two albums, but they’re both incredible. Eddie is capable of taking a subject such as abortion, incest, or gun control, and letting us know exactly what he thinks about it, in “Porch”, “Daughter” and “Glorified G.” When he gets personal is when he’s at his best. “Black” just captures the emotions I feel at the end of a relationship perfectly. And when he sings it live, you can see him reliving that feeling. And he can use a song to communicate on different levels, as in “Even Flow” where he tells a story about a homeless man, while showing his rage about the system that causes homelessness.
Eddie manages to channel the angst many of us feel and tell us exactly why he’s angry. I never felt that Kurt was anywhere close to mastering communicating anything more than a general rage. I can’t support the idea that a guy that just screamed is the voice of my generation. I don’t think my generation would just give up like that either. I don’t like a lot of things that are going on in the world, but I can tell you what they are and why I don’t like them – like Eddie can, and like Kurt never could.
[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]