A few years ago a student of mine turned up to class wearing a T-shirt that had Kurt Cobain’s suicide note printed on it. I recognised it straight away - I suspect many people around my age spent a period of their youth examining that document looking for answers that would never come. The student, on the other hand, didn’t actually know what it was she had on; she just thought it was a nice design.
Death is often thought of as our final destination but, in the case of dead celebrities, it can be the starting point of hundreds of new stories as the memory of the person and their image are fought over, given new meanings and put to new uses.
In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of his death this week (5 April), it would be easy to bemoan the ways Cobain seems to have been gradually hollowed out and pressed further and further into a generic form, interchangeable with any number of other dead rock stars.
The way references to the 27 Club are thrown around in the media whenever another young musician dies (even if they aren’t exactly 27) and the way the similarities between the members of this group – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse among others – are emphasised, and their differences downplayed, shows one way in which this interchangeability happens.
We can also see this occurring in some of the strange uses this cardboard cut-out version of Cobain is put to. He turned up recently in an advertisement for beer and has in the past also been spotted in shoe commercials.
In both cases, Cobain is simply one example in a line-up of dead icons – the beer ad also features Elvis and John Lennon, and the shoe ads repurpose Sid Vicious and Joey Ramone to sell their wares.
In this way, Cobain’s name and image can be swapped out for a whole variety of other people in these sorts of contexts without the conveyed meaning changing at all.
It would also be easy to concentrate on how we have recently seen the final steps in the incorporation of Cobain’s band Nirvana into the conventional rock ‘n’ roll canon – and indeed the civic establishment – in a way that once would have been very difficult to imagine.
On 10 April, Nirvana will be officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at the same time as acts such as Hall and Oates and Linda Ronstadt (and, to be fair, harder acts like Kiss as well).
This gesture sees the band completely embraced by the mainstream of rock they once declared themselves against. When Nevermind (1991) knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the US charts it was seen as the symbolic destruction of the old order of music by something new and exciting, but now both acts sit happily in the Hall together.
More recently, we have also seen the towns of Aberdeen (where Cobain was born and grew up – and which he was not complimentary towards) and nearby Hoquiam (where Cobain briefly lived before relocating to Seattle) competing to be the town to represent Nirvana.
On Cobain’s birthday in February this year, Aberdeen had its first Kurt Cobain Day, while on April 10 Hoquiam will mark Nirvana Day. That the anti-social, drug-addicted Cobain can now be used as a marker of civic pride is another example of the many meanings associated with him now that wouldn’t have been considered during his life.
Such events are, of course, not simply markers of pride but are based around the fact there’s money to be made from dead rock stars. Increasingly, entire tourism industries are being built up on the remains of the famous deceased. Aberdeen’s mayor recognised this when he said of Kurt Cobain Day that:
We hope this is just as big as Graceland eventually.
None of this is to say Cobain’s image has been completely coopted by commercial forces. There are still plenty of voices that protest these representations, including fans, music journalists and people who knew Cobain. They point to the knowledge we have about the living, breathing man to argue for ways of remembering him that seem more true to who he was.
Many of the news reports of the events and ads discussed above are critical of the way these representations of Cobain just didn’t get it right.
But attempts like these to push back against “incorrect” representations of Cobain rely on a different set of well-used stories centred around “authenticity” in art. The notion of Cobain as a tortured soul ultimately destroyed by the same commercial forces that are now still using him to make money is in many ways an image as two-dimensional as the figure that is being used to sell beer.
To blithely assume “he wouldn’t have wanted it this way” ignores both the reality of a Cobain who during his life actively pursued his goal of making it in the music industry and the tendency for once anti-commercial artists to change their tune as they age (see Bob Dylan’s recent Super Bowl ad.)
Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Cobain’s bandmates, are both turning up for Nirvana’s induction into the Hall of Fame, and given that they were all part of the anti-establishment ethos of grunge together it’s not crazy to suggest Cobain would have done the same.
The many Kurt Cobains that now circulate serve a purpose for the groups that use them, whether it be to make money, give people a sense of pride in their town, or to maintain an identity as a fan of rebellious music.
Twenty years after Cobain stopped being able to have a say himself there are more ways to think about him – and more arguments about these – than there ever were during his lifetime.
Catherine Strong does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.