By Neha Maqsood
On the 25th anniversary of his death, Neha Maqsood reflects on Kurt Cobain's influence on both the personal and political.
Lying on the cold, marble floor in Karachi, Pakistan, I attempt to escape the heatwave hitting the city in late July. Sifting through a Spotify curated playlist, ‘Best of the ’70s, '80s and '90s’, I throw some girl power into my moves to Gloria Gaynor's ‘I Will Survive’, groove to Marvin Gaye's ‘Let’s Get It On’ and listen intently to Eagles ‘Hotel California’. Breathless, from all the miserable flailing around, I resign back to the cold, hard floor in an attempt to regulate my breathing. A new song begins on the playlist and I hear the first few seconds of strumming on an acoustic guitar; what happens next is nothing short of a musical reincarnation.
The raspy voice of Kurt Cobain covers David Bowie's iconic, ‘Man Who Sold The World’. Who is this guy and how does he get his voice to sing so raspily? More importantly, why haven’t I heard of him before? I spend the next few weeks in a deep-dive of Cobain's artistic influences, the origins of Nirvana and of course the man himself.
Under Kurt Cobain, Nirvana put out three major record albums, Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero during their short career. However, their influence and artistry continues to outlive generations. Kurt was seen as the voice of a generation, embodying dissatisfaction with the corporate nine-to-five life, consumerist culture and the commercialisation of music. His lyrics gave disillusioned teens and others alike a chance to truly feel their inner frustrations. Although nearly all Nirvana songs penned by Cobain represented de-motivation and a mockery of what the world had come to, ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ probably embodied this message best. The chorus sung in what seems to be Cobain screaming, “Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious”, can be seen as a prediction of what life will become, where all humans are in constant need of entertainment seen through their Instagram scrolling or just the constant, addicting nature of ‘refreshing’, hoping for something new.
Cobain was what we would call a ‘woke’ guy. An outspoken activist on gay rights, he advocated for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. He went as far as attending an interview donning a prominent, yellow ruffle dress, telling the LA Times, ‘Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want. I'm a heterosexual... big deal. But if I was a homosexual, it wouldn't matter either.’ This statement called out the misogyny and machoism so evident amongst the male ‘Rockstar’ persona. Cobain would go on to admit how he used to spray-paint, ‘God is gay’ on cars in Aberdeen, Washington State, his hometown which led to an arrest by the police.
Cobain was also vocal about racism and sexism against women. Inside the In Utero CD case (Nirvana’s last LP), Cobain personally wrote a note for all purchasers: ‘If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.’ The notion of racists, homophobes and misogynists in his audience disturbed Cobain. Moreover, Cobain dismissed the belief that it was women who should be wary of dangerous men in society but felt it was more important to teach young men to be respectful and create a safe environment for women, claiming, ‘The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.’
25 years ago today, the world lost Kurt Cobain. RIP to a true icon 🙏🐐 pic.twitter.com/lgkszobTyo— Genius (@Genius) 5 April 2019
Nirvana were a rare kind in the history of music – a trio which made music solely for the purpose of making good art. Despite having introduced the ‘grunge era’, Cobain was never interested in the band being seen solely as a trend saying, ‘We never meant or tried to be cool, or be a 'buzz' band. It never even entered our minds.’ They stayed true to giving honest performances for their audiences. A prime anti-establishment act was on Top of the Pops in 1991, where the band were advised to sing ‘live’ over a backing track. What resulted was Cobain singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in a monotone, low voice, barely touching his guitar with Dave Grohl waving his drum sticks in the air and Krist Novoselic flipping the bass over his head routinely, clearly emphasising that they were not singing live.
Perhaps what was Nirvana's most iconic performance was when they performed on MTV Unplugged, covering tracks by artists including Bowie and Meat Puppets. Cobain was surrounded by flowers studding the soundstage, giving off the vibe of a funeral. An entirely naked performance, with the electric guitar replaced by an unfamiliar acoustic one, Cobain bared his soul. Whilst performing ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, it seemed Cobain had lost himself in the lyrics, stopping for a brief moment to opened his eyes, before continuing to sing. It was an artist's peak moment.
Nirvana were a band ahead of their time in regard to inclusivity. The band persevered through 5 years of hard work, living on scraps of food in the early days until finally propelling into the void of fame; Cobain was a genius who overflowed with creativity. It’d be interesting to hear what he would have thought of the turn music has taken today, technology-wise, or generally what his views would be on the state of the world today (critical, I’m guessing). Nirvana’s self-made streak and ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude, when no record label took them on, led to a start-up of garage bands, artists and writers like me.
They perpetuated a message to a simple, Pakistani girl lying on a cold, marble floor, that art is art even when no one reads it, hears it or watches it. What you feel and how hard you work at it should suffice. And Goddamit if I don’t carry that message around with me every single day.
Featured Image: Sally/ Flickr
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