Monday, 6 April 2015

The iconography of Kurt Cobain

The approximate lapse of time since Kurt Cobain committed suicide is now as old as I am. Though I was only an infant when he died, the strength of his songwriting and Nirvana's music was powerful enough to affect my generation as much as it did his own. There is good reason why Nevermind became one of the best-selling albums of all time after it was predicted by record company bosses to be modestly profitable by merely catering to indie niche like Sonic Youth did. Like punk, and actually unlike most contemporary grunge bands, Nirvana's songs were catchy in adherence to pop sensibilities with a guitar heaviness complimenting this, and with empathic lyrics addressing everyday romance and childhood insecurities appealing in contrast to the turgidity of mainstream 80s and early 90s rock.

Growing up, as my serious interest in music became intense, I was frequently made a mockery of by my peers for being such a voracious Nirvana fan. It seemed that there was a particular stigma associated to Cobain's demise and the emotionally and personally honest songwriting that preceded it. Nirvana was labelled as an "emo" band (more like Weezer, you plebeian dweebs), the fashion sense that reached its apex in the mid 2000s and was banned by authorities in Russia for apparently promoting self-injury. Over the years, including during his heyday, some have even accused Nirvana of promoting and glorying depressive and suicidal tendencies. One Christian fundamentalist on YouTube claims to have had a vision of Cobain burning in hell for encouraging people to "give up on life" in his songs.

When he took his own life, Cobain sadly accomplished the self-fulfilling prophecy imposed upon him by the mass media, in which he was portrayed in the most one-dimensional terms as a celebratory and self-destructive drug addict and depressive whose music was a confirmation of these tendencies, not an artistic expression of his suffering; and not a reaction to the very presumptions and stereotypes imposed upon his public identity. It was this very pressurization that self-evidently contributed to his death. On the contrary to the accusation of his nihilism, he was keen to express in interviews the value of life and the waste of it that drug abuse results in. Like most of us, he was a frail, flawed mammal, who suffered significant trauma in his childhood. And he suffered from mental illness. To a media with a vessel with which to project the anxieties and cruelties of the public consciousness onto their self-engineered spectacle centered on the idol of Kurt Cobain, that was unforgivable. As if, to appropriate the crankery of our bible-bashing friend, he was already condemned to a torment of his own making. As homosexuality was known as the love that dare not speak its name, mental illness appears to be the suffering that dare not speak its name

Cobain was a visual artist who designed the cover art of Nirvana's albums. Biographies describe his intricate and obsessive design of Nirvana's last studio album, In Utero, the front cover of which features an anatomically detailed skinless human figure with angel wings in a pose indicating divinity. The song "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" references the actress who was subjected to brutal psychiatric institutionalization and torturous "therapies" which by all accounts mentally destroyed her; no doubt he would have related to the blaming of the fragile victim by the horde.

The legend of Kurt Cobain portrays him as a bearded Christ-like savior of rock music, a messenger of his generation. In his own time he wryly resented such labels, rejecting the very pedestal he was placed upon. Ironically he can be compared to Christ on the cross: the spears plunged into his body by the public eye, torn open for dissection like his In Utero angel, while being forced to don a crown of thorns ridiculing his distinction.

Like Frances Farmer we should remember Kurt Cobain in awareness of how mental health patients are treated in our societies. In 21 years, stigma still exists, but awareness has increased substantially. Cobain through his transparent empathy and compassion, as expressed in his music, will have undoubtedly contributed to that. We should celebrate him for this, along with his ingenious talent.

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