Teen Spirit

Olivia Marshall explores the impact of Kurt Cobain on the 22nd anniversary of his suicide.


When Kurt Cobain took his own life almost twenty-two years ago I wasn’t even born. As I progressed through a childhood sound-tracked by a shallow pool of late 90s/early noughties pop, I was unaware of the tangled mythology that Cobain had left behind. It wasn’t until my early teens, when I finally left behind my numerous boy band hoodies, and plunged into guitar riffs and angsty lyrics, that I was propelled into the torment, beauty and complexity of Cobain’s world.

It is easy to focus on the ever-expanding mysteries surrounding the circumstances and legacy of Cobain’s untimely and tragic death. Questions such as: ‘was it really suicide?’ ‘Was the infamous suicide note a forgery?’ still continue to occupy the minds of fans and conspiracy theorists alike. Along with all these unanswered questions, Cobain left behind a shattered family, a wife without a husband and a daughter without a father. What is arguably the most tragic consequence of his death, however, is its ability to distract from his indisputable musical genius. It is important to remember that it was following Cobain’s death that he was launched into the realm of musical immortality. Ironic, right?

Nirvana released their first album Bleach in 1989, under the independent record label Sub Pop. Although the album did not prove to be a huge commercial success, failing to chart upon its release, it established Nirvana as a band who were not afraid to challenge the mainstream and gave the world outside of the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene, its first taste of the tortured genius hidden behind heavy choruses.

When the band signed for major record label DGC Records, Cobain was thrown into the world of celebrity. He was meant to represent a kind of ‘anti-rockstar’ and it is with the commercial success of Nevermind, that this image was stretched to its limit. It is impossible to discuss the success of Nevermind without referring to the infamous first single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The song became the quintessential grunge anthem, before eventually transcending the grunge scene, and simply becoming the anthem of a generation. Even now, 25 years on from its initial release, the song still manages to epitomize feelings of teenage angst and dissatisfaction. For me, however, it was not this cult phenomenon that made me delve deeper into Nirvana’s back catalogue, it was ‘Polly’. I was fascinated with the track. From the dynamic and emotionally volatile lyrics over a progressive acoustic guitar, to the fascinating and disturbing inspiration behind the lyrics, I was unable to stop replaying the track. Years after my first listen, I am still incapable of only listening to the track once. Above everything, Cobain was a storyteller. He appeared, even during his life, ghostly, an invisible companion capable of transporting whoever was listening into a state of otherworldliness.

Following Nevermind, Nirvana released what was to be there final studio album, In Utero, in 1993. The album was driven by Kurt’s detest of the celebrity that had been thrust upon him against his will. It was an anti-mainstream response to huge mainstream success. The band challenged their own audience with songs such as ‘Rape Me’, an anti-rape song responding to Cobain’s distaste at the media frenzy surrounding him. I still find it difficult to understand why the album did not match the sales figures of Nevermind. Aside from the notable absence of an idealised anthem, such as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the album defined everything that Nirvana stood for and Cobain’s tortured lyrics appeared in their most potent, disturbing beauty. ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is a surreal nightmare that even to this day, still remains ambiguous in its interpretation. The music video for the song focused on how sickness destroys the human body, which undoubtedly made the song and the video all the more poignant following Kurt’s death.

Cobain’s suicide marked his entrance into musical martyrdom. To this day, fans continue to romanticise Cobain’s life and death, clinging to a preserved idealized memory that has manifested itself in many forms over the years. From the 2015 documentary film Montage of Heck, to the announcement of a new exhibition in LA of photographs of Cobain’s personal belongings, it appears that some are still not ready to let his legacy lie. Personally, I do not believe that delving deeper into Kurt’s personal archives will satisfy any longings or appetites; rather, it is closer to grave-robbing than fandom. The answers lie in his music and the tormented lyrics that have now become grunge hymns. Only in them is he truly immortalised. Every time you listen to a Nirvana album, or any post-Nirvana rock band, Cobain is resurrected. Kurt Cobain’s spirit lives on in every music fan. He is my teen spirit.


Olivia Marshall

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