April 5th, 2012 marks the 18th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. 18th. 18 is getting closer to 27, which is how old he was when he checked himself into the club of other talented, self-destructive musicians who died at 27. Other members include Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and, most recently, Amy Winehouse.
Like a lot of adolescents, I went through a phase where I listened to a ton of Nirvana, wore Converse All-Stars with imitative pride, learned everything I could about Kurt, etc. And 18 years later, I still see mention of his name in the news with previously unseen pictures/artwork.
But why? Aside from the good music, what is it about Kurt Cobain that earned him the titles of “icon” or “the spokesman of a generation”? Nirvana was only in the spotlight for 3 years. His singing (or screaming) was often rough and garbled. He didn’t have the most impressive guitar playing skills compared to, say, Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t exactly a hunky, ladies man of a rock stair either; he was a relatively short, scrawny, slightly androgynous pretty boy who married Courtney Love, of all people.
He was, however, an accomplished songwriter: he had a knack for writing catchy grunge songs with hint of Beatles-esque sing-along simplicity. And Nirvana’s live, acoustic performance in New York proved that their music could be beautiful and void of rage. Furthermore, he was handsome, soft-spoken, and funny with an anti-establishment attitude that attracted angsty adolescents by the millions. It earned him more accolades than he might have truly wanted.
In some ways, it make sense that we idolize our favorite musicians. Music has a way of reaching people on a deeper, more emotional, and universal level. As a whole, we tend to elevate the people who make music that resonates with us. We put their posters and bumper stickers on our walls and cars; we wear their shirts on our backs. It’s a way we express and identify ourselves. We listen to them while we drive, shower, work around the house, throw a party, etc. Our favorite songs are with us through the important moments in our lives.
In spite of his talents, Cobain was far from being someone anyone should want to emulate. We could chalk it up to him simply being another troubled, young musician who was destroyed by drug addiction. Drugs and music go hand in hand, after all. Cobain claims he started using heroin to self-medicate a painful, undiagnosed stomach condition that doctors couldn’t help.
As a 27 year old, I can now see how incredibly young Cobain was when he became successful, and he experienced a lot in his short life: sold millions of records, toured the world, was photographed and interviewed countless times, did lots of drugs, got married, and became a father. With the chronic pain and excessive drug use, it was too much living for him to handle, and he obviously didn’t get his life together.
In spite of his flaws, many people considered sacrificing themselves and following in Cobain’s footsteps. In general, some research establishes a link between celebrity suicides and copycat suicides; this is known as the Werther effect. Fortunately, the Werther effect did not take place after Kurt’s death, but suicide crisis calls did significantly increase in the Seattle area. Some researchers speculate that the media’s negative portrayal of his death played a role in the lack of copycat suicides.
Copycat suicides illustrate how far the celebrity obsession can go. Even the fact that there were people considering suicide is noteworthy. It shows how objectified Kurt truly was. We’d like to think we knew him and could relate to his pain; it’s pretty easy considering that we have access to his music, journals, interviews, pictures, performances, etc. Enough exposure to any of these fluid “artifacts” can create a synthetic feeling of knowing someone. And it doesn’t hurt that Cobain had a Christ-like look to him.
It appears the right blend of looks, talent, and personality can provide enough raw material for any PR/media professional to create a secular deity. If Kurt could know how his pedestal has grown, he probably wouldn’t approve. He challenged his fans and didn’t like them focusing on Teen Spirit, for example.
It goes without saying that Kurt’s Cobain’s life ended too soon. He had the potential to do anything he wanted. It’s torturous to speculate how his life might have turned out if he was alive today. It’s unfortunate, but there many other nameless people out there who have suffered the way he did, if not more. And this seems to be just the point: we vicariously partake in tragedies that carry an allure of sorts.
For example, it is estimated that 1 million people attended Princess Diana’s funeral, and only 15,000 people attended Mother Theresa’s funeral (which took place shortly thereafter). Diana even got her own version of a song, courtesy of Elton John, and about 2.5 billion people (half the world) watched her funeral on TV. While it’s true Diana was a respectable humanitarian who died young, her work pales in comparison to that of Mother Theresa. The media coverage for Diana overshadowed that of Mother Theresa. Again, if Diana knew this, I don’t think she would approve.
It makes me think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Huxley’s future world, people are required to have their systems flooded with adrenaline once a month. It rations out a simulated experience of the emotions this society censors: fear, rage, love. This ritual is called Violent Passion Surrogate, or VPS for short.
I think Huxley was somewhat of a prophet and that we have VPS today: it’s doled out by the media and entertainment industry. Collectively, we prefer symbols over reality: we are ripe and waiting for emotionally latching onto famous people whom we only feel like we know. If they’re attractive, skilled, and have a life story that could make for a good 90 minute special, then we will shed our tears and care.
As Kurt himself sang, “All the kids will eat it up, if it’s packaged properly.”