A Flame Burning Too Brightly
October 18, 2022 / Rachel Thomas
Kurt Cobain exists as a ghost of the image he crafted for himself.
Grunge. The anti-establishment fuzz of guitar amps and clothing that’s a little too big. Goodwill bins and lumberjack flannels. Affordability in fishnets, CDs, and bargain bin vinyl records. Grunge isn’t just a fashion statement as much as it’s an attitude.
In the late 1980s, grunge was on the rise, and so was one of the most important names that came from it — Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana. He was an outcast who spent his time obsessively playing music and making art in Aberdeen, Washington, a sleepy town with a heavy logging industry. He wore flannels because they were cheap, only $2.99 or so at your local Goodwill. Usually he was found sleeping between homes because he didn’t have one himself. The man was a ghost in his early days because he had nothing going for him. Nothing other than soulful lyrics that spoke to male vulnerability in ways that regular rock artists couldn't.
It wasn't until the ’90s that Nirvana started to take off. Their album Bleach was played in college communities covered in grunge speckles and teen angst; it had its own cult fanbase. The release of Nevermind exemplified grunge as an art to be taken seriously, shooting Kurt and his bandmates to the sky. Nevermind sold 400,000 copies a week at that time, making every band member an instant celebrity. Many who looked into Nirvana believed this sudden mainstream success would eventually lead to their downfall. Their titular grunge image was difficult to tote when they were one of the most popular bands in the world.
Despite this, Kurt enjoyed being in the spotlight. He would watch MTV to check how often they would play Nirvana’s music videos and complain when they weren’t shown enough. During interviews, he would mention that he never wanted fame and that stardom was just an “unfortunate consequence of creative talent”. But secretly, some part of him always enjoyed stardom.
The anti-celebrity image he had garnered for himself was somewhat of a ruse — a meticulously crafted and at times deliberately analyzed ruse where he would think out the ways he would answer different interview questions, repeating himself to hear how he would sound, scribbling orchestrations into journals. He wanted to seem as cool and down-to-earth as possible, so he was. He even went as far as famously burning a set of editorial grunge pieces designed by Marc Jacobs for the Perry Ellis spring 1992 photoshoot because the endorsement was simply off-brand for him. The only thing that Kurt Cobain ever ‘endorsed’ was a pair of converse with the word, ‘endorsement’, scribbled on in black sharpie. He was removed from brands and blacklisted from the Grammys, but this helped his own image. Cobain had to express vehemently that he was against branding. He constantly tried to set himself outside of a corporate box, but in a way almost placed himself in another one.
Grunge has a superficial character that we don’t often talk about. We tend to think of it as an attitude that in concept rejects all authority, fame, and lust for the power a stage might bring. When grunge artists endorse certain brands, we tend to think of them as disingenuous, bowing down to the capitalist elites who made those t-shirts, those Doc Martens, and those Converse high tops. Kurt Cobain was a master of public deception, but it ebbed away at his sense of self until there was little left.
"I don't have the passion anymore, and so remember, it's better to burn out than to fade away"
— Kurt Cobain
When Cobain died in 1994, his image became that of a messiah. The nonstop mourning resulted in Nirvana’s image being sold around. Most people have seen a Nirvana t-shirt available at Urban Outfitters or Target. You can find them everywhere.
Whether or not Kurt Cobain would agree with this – Nirvana's image being used as much as it has – will always be debated.
His personal thoughts and feelings have been appropriated for the publication of books analyzing his every waking thought and action. But now, he is merely a specter who exists outside his death within a realm of speculation surrounding endorsement. His image has become anything but himself. People ask questions like, "Would he work with commercial businesses now?” and “Would he have been okay with Doc Martens using his image?” Whether or not Kurt Cobain would agree, the use of Nirvana's image will always be debated.
Rock stars face investigation after death — the obsession we have with them is on capitalist fringes. We expect tours and merch tables filled with collectible memorabilia and autographs on a near-constant basis. We idolize the brands they wear as a way of feeling closer to these almost untouchable, larger-than-life deities. We want these people as brands rather than as humans. Their identities are for profit, and they have to endorse themselves to a world around them that doesn't see humanity in the eyes of stars. So, these stars burn out when they are forced to burn too brightly.
Kurt Cobain died over 20 years ago, but he’s still remembered as one of the most fashionable and exemplary people within the grunge movement. His death lives on, and he still burns, regardless of his thoughts on fading out in old glory. Our image of him is one of a messiah fighting against a world of injustices and the establishment. Regardless of how true that is, Kurt Cobain will always have that cool grunge flair that he built for himself. ■
By: Rachel Thomas
Graphics by: Vy Truong
Graphics by: Vy Truong